A lot of people I know travel to South Korea just to visit the drama series filming sites. With the hallyu craze in full swing, their TV shows have become some of the most watched across Asia and I do know some who have stacks of their DVDs at home. They visit… no, they worship the actual sites where they filmed for some of the well-known Korean TV series.
It’s a shame really, for South Korea offers so much more than that. I started my journey in this country in Seoul – the vibrant capital of this very industrious nation. The government has done quite a bit to spruce up the city’s image and make it more visible in the world stage. The city has become much more cosmopolitan in recent years, and a lot of expats (mostly english teachers) are helping make Seoul a more tourist-friendly place.
Seoul has plenty of beautiful women, with near-symmetrical faces, big eyes, even eyelids and smooth, clear skin. You’d be forgiven to think that it’s in the Korean gene for the consistency is found down from the waitress in the restaurant and the department store salesladies to the white-collared office workers clenching their cellphones in one hand and LV bags in another. However, someone clued me in on the plastic surgery scene in the city. Procedures are very cheap and almost everyone does it – even men! I heard Seoul is becoming a haven for plastic surgery (aside from Bangkok) and that a lot of Japanese come just to have it done.
Aesthetics aside, the city has 5 royal palaces, and I was able to visit the major 3. Most of them look similar to each other, and they pale in comparison with the ones in China or Japan. It’s still worth a visit, as these places often have the changing of the guard ceremony which is quite interesting to watch. Admission to each of these places is also very affordable, at US$5 or below. For those who have time to visit only 1 palace, I would recommend either Gyeongbokgung or Changdeokgung. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be visited only with a guided tour (included with ticket price).
Seoul is also a haven for shoppers as it offers plenty of bargains. The shopping districts are concentrated around Myeongdong (midprice), Gangnam (high end), Namdaemun and Dongdaemun (low-end to mid-priced). I personally prefer the latter for its multistorey shopping malls such as Migliore and Doota. For a more bohemian vibe, Insadong is the place to be with its art galleries and stores selling all sorts of crafts and knick-knacks. Near its end is Tapgol Park, which houses a 500+ year old pagoda. Frequented by seniors, the park is also the site where the Korean constitution was first read aloud.
We stayed at Fraser Place serviced apartments during our time in Seoul. For a much bigger floor space, the price is comparative to hotels in the city. It’s a good area and not far from the city centre. For ultimate convenience however, I would recommend Ibis Myeongdong or some other boutique hotel in the Myeongdong area.
For a megacity, I found Seoul to be mildly charming. Despite being the capital of a relatively developed nation, the city is still very gritty, with frequent traffic jams and occassional smog in the air. Certain districts can also appear too grey or soul-less but this is changing fast. Seoul is often throwing in new surprises so who knows what I’ll find the next time I visit?