Day 7: Last day in Korea

Day 7 was our last day in South Korea.

We woke up in the morning and immediately started packing. We wanted to get all of our packing done straight away as we wanted to be done by the time of our 2pm check out of the AirBnB. We both brought an extra duffel packed inside our suitcase, and we both had to use them’ we bought enough extra things to take back. Our flight left at 6 and we wanted to be at the airport about 3 hours before the flight left, so accounting for an hour to take the A’REX train that would mean that a check-out of 2pm was just about right.

It took us (mostly me) a while to pack, so by the time we were done we didn’t really have time to do much that was far from the AirBnB. Instead, we decided that we’d walk around Hongdae more and explore the areas we hadn’t seen. We also figured we’d just get street food to eat.

We walked and shopped a bit, and then went for street food. There was a vendor selling the egg bread that we had before, but also with cheese; it was pretty good. The vendor next to that one was selling hoddeok, but it was by far the worst hoddeok we had on the whole trip; the outside was crispy like a cracker and there was almost no filling on the inside. It was at this point that I realized my sunglasses had fallen out of my pocket; this is pretty much the only bad thing that happened on the whole vacation.

Knockoff LEGO sets
Egg bread with cheese

We went back to our AirBnB, took out the trash, and headed to the airport on the A’REX train. The train was in the same station as the subway we’ve been taking everywhere, so it was right next to the AirBnB. It was a pretty easy (and cheap!) way to get to the airport.

Once we got there, we checked in and went through security. This was the most sensitive metal detector I’ve ever seen; it went off for both coins in one pocket and a metallic wrapper (trash) in my other pocket.

We then went to the duty-free shops; Grace had wanted to get some things for her mother there and ended up saving a few hundred dollars over the cost of the same things in Seattle; she got extra discounts for having an eligible credit card and signing up for the loyalty program there. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Lotteria (burger chain as part of the Lotte department store) and got on the plane.

Burger from Lotteria

Like the flight to Seoul, this flight was also not full. However, we weren’t as lucky as we were on the last flight; no empty seat next to us this time. They again served two meals; a dinner about an hour after takeoff and a breakfast about two hours before landing. The dinner I had was some strange dish with couscous, peppers, and a tomato sauce; about the only good thing was the beer and I was pretty happy that we had grabbed burgers at Lotteria. Grace had a bibimbap with dried roots that she liked better than I liked my dinner. For breakfast, I had a quiche that was much more acceptable than the dinner; Grace had a porridge.

Korean beer
Weird dinner thing
Breakfast quiche

Like the flight to Seoul, this flight also avoided North Korean airspace. However, it did it differently and we flew over Japan instead of China. I’m curious to know why the different flight paths were chosen but I’m not sure how to find out.

Flight path returning to Seattle

When we arrived in Seattle, we went through Immigration and Customs. At Immigration, the border patrol agent was a bit curt and didn’t seem to like my answer as to where we were going. However, we eventually got through and headed home.

This vacation in South Korea was so great and I only wish it had been longer.

Day 5: New glasses, Gwangjang market, Dongdaemun market, and Chi-mek

The big news of today is that Park Geun-Hye, the South Korean President, was impeached. We had received a warning from the US State Department about protests and possible violence, and family and friends at home sent us some messages expressing concern. However, we stayed safe and were far enough away from the government center of Seoul that we didn’t even see anything except a somewhat-increased military presence in the city.

In the morning, we went to the main shopping area of Hongdae to look at new glasses. Grace had researched prior to the trip and found a number of people who had good experiences getting prescription glasses cheaply in South Korea and we decided that it would be good to try; my current glasses were a fairly old prescription (about 5 years) since I wear contacts all the time, and it was about time to get new glasses anyway. We had brought our prescriptions from recent eye exams in Seattle, so we didn’t even need to have an exam done. We ended up getting a few pair of glasses for an average cost of about $50 (frames + lenses); mine were slightly more expensive because my vision is fairly bad. We looked in the store for frames that would be nice, but I had a hard time; I think my face is a different size and shape than is typical in South Korea. However, the woman who was in the store was able to find frames that I ended up liking reasonably well. The glasses were ready quickly (they made them while we waited; took about 10 minutes) and they seem to have come out well, though they do have a fair bit more distortion around the edges than glasses I’ve had made in the US. Regardless, it’s pretty hard to beat $50 for prescription glasses.

Once we got our glasses sorted, we went to Gwangjang market for some food. Gwangjang market is known for various styles of Korean pancakes, with mung bean pancakes being the most prevalent that we saw. We grabbed some pancakes and Grace also had some knife-cut noodles that she really liked.

Food vendors at Gwangjang market

Mung bean pancakes

After finishing at Gwangjang, we walked to the nearby Cheonggyecheon stream. After a nice walk down the stream, we headed back to our AirBnB to rest.

Cheonggyecheon stream

In the evening, we went out for Korean fried chicken and beer (called chi-mek: chicken and mekju) in Hongdae. We went to a fairly tourist-friendly place, but the food was pretty good anyway. The beer tasted pretty similar to American-style lagers, which are not my favorite, but still paired pretty well with the fried chicken.

Korean fried chicken
Winner, winner, chicken dinner!


After dinner, we left for Dongdaemun market. We went to the wholesale street tents that focused on fashion items like clothing and accessories; much of it counterfeit. It was interesting to look at the goods and see if we could spot differences between what was being sold there and the genuine version. We were able to identify a few differences, but didn’t take any pictures as it wasn’t exactly easy to do inconspicuously. We got there around 10pm and left just after midnight, catching one of the last trains back to Hongdae.

Vendor tents at Dongdaemun market

Day 4: Namdaemun Market, N Seoul Tower, and department stores

We woke up pretty late today and didn’t really get moving until almost noon. At least we were well-rested!

Once we finally got going, we left for Namdaemun Market. Namdaemun Market is a really big, really old market that was filled with tourists and vendors hawking their wares. We walked around for a while so Grace could see if anything caught her eye and so we could get a sense of what street food was available. Grace ultimately bought a few things, but I didn’t really buy anything other than food. We then got some dumplings, donuts, and hoddeok as well as a sweet potato latte to drink.

Namdaemun Market

When we finished at Namdaemun Market, we left for the N Seoul Tower, a large radio tower on the top of Namasan Mountain. Because it was at the top of a mountain, we took the Namasan cable car up to the top. Apparently there’s a tradition of leaving love locks at N Seoul Tower, so along with the great views of the city we saw a lot of locks on the fences and sculptures. There was also a performance group at the top of the mountain performing, so we saw some demonstration of traditional Korean martial arts.

View from Namsan cable car

Love locks with N Seoul Tower in the background
Love locks at N Seoul Tower

Seoul, as seen from Namasan Mountain

We then walked down the mountain instead of taking the cable car. It was pretty, but also fairly long. By the time we got to the bottom we were fairly tired and decided to scrap the rest of our plan for the day and head somewhere closer to our AirBnB so we wouldn’t have far to travel.

We ended up walking to two department stores to look at the food options: Shinsegae and Lotte. We ended up in the Lotte food court; Grace got a spicy sujebi dish and I got bibimbap. We also got some fried dumplings from a different stall in the store. After dinner, we went to one of the bakeries and got some baked goods.

Bibimbap from Lotte Food Court

We then headed back to the AirBnB to rest for a bit before venturing out again. Once we decided to head out, we went to walk around the Hongdae area and look for stores to buy glasses. We came across a few street performance groups that were “dance busking”; they looked like college students.

That ended our night. Tomorrow is Day 5!

Day 3: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Bukchon Hanok Village, and Insadong

Today we woke up a bit later than the prior day, since we didn’t actually need to be anywhere at any particular time. Our agenda for the day included a morning focused on Korean history and an afternoon/evening of exploring Korean neighborhoods and shopping.

We left our AirBnB in Hongdae in the morning via subway and made our way to City Hall Station; from there we walked to Gyeongbokgung Palace. This palace was destroyed and rebuilt a few times, so it’s not exactly original but it is quite beautiful. We wandered around the palace grounds for a while taking pictures, and then made our way to the National Folk Museum of Korea, which is located on the grounds of the palace.

Statue of King Sejong the Great
Statue of King Sejong the Great, from the walk between City Hall Station and Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace outer gate
One outer gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace

Palace guard in traditional dress
Palace guard in traditional dress

Ornate interior gate at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace throne room exterior

Gyeongbokgung Palace throne room interior

When we finished at the museum, we made our way walking to Bukchon Hanok village, a residential area with traditional Korean architecture. Bukchon Hanok village was clearly a residential area with people living there, as there were a number of signs admonishing tourists to be quiet. After leaving, we stopped to grab some Hoddeok to eat along the way to our next stop. We also saw some protests outside that seemed to be related to the controversy with Park Geun-Hye.

Hanoks at Bukchon


Protestors protesting
Park Geun-Hye protest

We then walked to Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. It looked like there must be some festival coming up, as many decorations were already in place and people were actively hanging more decorations (the internet claims that Magha Puja Day is March 12 of this year, but I don’t know enough about Buddhism).

Decorations being hung at Jogyesa

Decorations at Jogyesa

At this point it was about 1:30pm, so we made our way to Gyejeol Bapsang (a Korean buffet) for lunch in Insadong. Grace had had Gyejeol Bapsang on a previous trip to Korea and really liked it, so that was a must-do on our itinerary. I thought the food was pretty good, though I mostly had various preparations of Chicken. Even though I was not trying to eat spicy food, it eventually caught up with me and my mouth was on fire. We left Gyejeol Bapsang quite full and proceeded to walk through Insadong to look at all the shops.

Gyejeol Bapsang

Toilet cafe in Insadong

Shops at Insadong

We made our way back to the AirBnB to rest a bit, and then went to Myeongdong for dinner consisting of street food and for more shopping. I had a pizza-cone thing (cheese and tomato sauce inside a dough cone; pretty good, if difficult to eat because the cheese was so stringy), an egg-bread thing, a hoddeok, and split a croissant taiyaki and spiral potato with Grace. Grace had a skewer of odeng (fish cake) and a bowl of jajangmyeon. We found a currency exchange place that Grace used on a previous trip and exchanged some cash (so I finally had cash of my own) and went into a bunch of skincare stores.

Pizza cone street food

Egg bread
Egg bread

Croissant taiyaki – we got the Nutella-filled variety

After that we came home and went to sleep, ready for Day 4!

Day 2: Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone

The big highlight of today is our tour to Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone.

We woke up at 6:00 AM after about 8 hours of sleep (we had finally gone to bed around 0:00 PM the night before) and got ready to head out by 7:30. We went back to the subway station and caught Seoul Subway Line 2 to City Hall Station and then walked to the nearby Koreana Hotel from which our tour departed. When we checked in, we got to try on some of the uniform elements of the ROK Army guards which made for a pretty goofy picture.

Sam looking goofy
Sam looking goofy

We took a bus for about an hour to reach our first checkpoint and enter the Civilian Control Area (CCA) that lies immediately south of the south side of the DMZ. At the checkpoint, a soldier boarded the bus to check everyone’s passports. We then drove to the second checkpoint, at the entrance to Camp Bonifas, where our passports were checked a second time and all the names were checked against a passenger manifest. They gave us clip-on badges to identify us as guests of the United Nations and we went inside for a briefing on the history of the DMZ and what to expect on the tour. We then drove to the Freedom House (main building on the South side of the border) inside Panmunjom (truce village/Joint Security Area) and walked into conference building T-2. This allowed us to cross into North Korean territory while still being safely inside a UN-controlled building; all the blue buildings are controlled by the UN Command, while the gray buildings are controlled by the Korean People’s Army (North Korea)/Chinese People’s Volunteers (China). Bisecting the buildings directly on the border is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which marks the official border between the two countries as set forth in the armistice agreement. Inside building T-2, a conference table is in the middle and the microphones in the middle of the table mark the MDL; outside the buildings, a concrete slab marks the MDL. Unfortunately, pictures inside the CCA, DMZ, and Panmunjom are extremely limited; most places have prohibited photography and the only pictures we were permitted to take were very constrained in terms of angles. The only places we could take pictures inside Panmunjom were directly at the border and angled toward North Korea, so I have no pictures of the Freedom House, the UNC observation posts, or any of the military fortifications (physical barricades and barriers) that exist in all of these areas. (I surmise that this is to reduce the amount of information that can be leaked unintentionally; details about physical fortifications can give insight into how to overcome them and details about the number/type of cameras or number/size/arrangement of antennas can expose observational capability.)

Building T-2, centered, at Panmunjom. Buildings T-1, T-2, and T-3 are visible in the picture as blue buildings in the foreground. In the background is North Korea's large building at Panmunjom.
Building T-2, centered

Military Demarcation Line (MDL) as seen from the inside of Building T-2. The shot is taken from the North Korean side of the MDL; South Korea is on the left side of the picture and North Korea is on the right.
Military Demarcation Line (MDL) as seen from the inside of Building T-2. The shot is taken from the North Korean side of the MDL; South Korea is on the left side of the picture and North Korea is on the right.

Soldiers from both sides patrol Panmunjom, but I only saw two North Korean soldiers out today. According to the US Infantryman who was guarding us, the North Korean soldiers really only come face-to-face with the ROK/UNC soldiers during high-level meetings or other VIP-type scenarios. However, he assured us that they were watching us from their main building and their nearby observation post.

North Korea's Panmungak building, visible in the background behind Buildings T-2 and T-3.
North Korea’s Panmungak building, visible in the background behind Buildings T-2 and T-3.

North Korean observation building, set behind the MDL
North Korean observation building, set behind the MDL

After spending only a few minutes at Panmunjom, we departed and went back to the visitor center in Camp Bonifas so we could visit the gift shop and head toward Imjingak park to look at monuments to the war.

Freedom bridge, on the left. It's now a train bridge, but was originally a pedestrian bridge.
Freedom bridge, on the left. It’s now a train bridge, but was originally a pedestrian bridge.

Flags and ribbons hoping for peace

Ribbons hoping for peace

We then left for lunch at a local restaurant. They served beef bulgogi, and it was decidedly not the best bulgogi that I’ve had. Neither Grace nor I finished it.

Bulgogi and banchan at the restaurant near the DMZ
Bulgogi and banchan at the restaurant near the DMZ

Following lunch, we left to visit a tunnel dug by North Korea into the DMZ. This was, again, another area where photography was unfortunately restricted. However, our tour guide was careful to point out all the evidence* of the tunnel being dug by North Korea instead of South Korea; apparently this is a topic of contention between the two countries. We took a mine train (with seats that look to have been ripped out of the rear of a car) deep under a mountain through an extremely narrow tunnel; people needed to crouch and hunch over to avoid heads and shoulders hitting the rock. At the bottom, we walked through the tunnel as discovered by South Korea a few hundred meters to a concrete barrier that was constructed to block the tunnel. I think we were all thankful for the hardhats we wore; Grace and I both hit our heads a few times on the low ceiling. We then rode back up and visited a museum showing more about the tunnel and the DMZ in general

(* I do not feel qualified to judge whether or not the supplied evidence does indicate the provided conclusion. Prior to taking this tour, I did not doubt that the tunnels were dug by North Korea, however the insistence on the three particular pieces of evidence seemed odd to me.)

Model of Panmunjom at the museum near the third tunnel
Model of Panmunjom at the museum near the third tunnel

Our next stop of the tour was the top of the mountain at Dora Observatory. From here, we could see both Tae sung dong village (South Korean village inside the DMZ) and a North Korean propaganda village. We could see both gigantic flagpoles (South Korea’s is 100m tall, North Korea’s is 160m tall) and hear the propaganda being broadcast via loudspeaker from North Korean territory.

Our final stop on the tour before heading home was Dorasan Station, a train station within the CCA that serves as the last station before North Korea. Trains used to run to the Kaesong Industrial Region prior to increased tension between the countries; now it’s just the terminus of trains in South Korea. A piece of the Berlin Wall was donated to Dorasan Station and stands as a monument to strife created by building walls between people; the Berlin Wall stood for 41 years and the separation between two Koreas has endured for 71 years so far.

Empty platform at Dorasan station
Empty platform at Dorasan station

Chunk of the Berlin Wall, donated to Dorasan station
Chunk of the Berlin Wall, donated to Dorasan station

On our way back to Seoul, we got to ask questions of a North Korean defector who had been on the tour with us. She told us of her escape and her struggle, and of her family that is still in North Korea without any means of contact. It’s really crazy to hear what a different world it is inside the hermit kingdom.

One of the overarching themes of the day was reunification. I didn’t realize before coming here (and especially before taking this tour) how much some people really hope for the end of the North Korean regime and for civilians to be reabsorbed into society. The extent to which families have been divided by this conflict is pretty immense. However, my opinion on this hasn’t really changed; I don’t see a path to reunification while the Kim regime stands and I believe it’s going to be an extremely long and difficult process if it ever does come to pass.

Grace and I went back to our AirBnB to rest after a long day. By the time we started feeling better, it was already getting late for dinner. We debated where to go and settled on trying to go somewhere close. Looking online, we thought that a Mr. Pizza (South Korean pizza chain) was nearby, but we couldn’t find it when we walked to the address we found. We then found another address, and it wasn’t there either. We ended up at Pizza Hut, which was a much nicer sit-down restaurant than I’ve seen in the US, though the food was fairly similar to pizza in the US. Along the way, we discovered a Kakao Friends store that Grace wanted to visit, so we went there on the way back.

Pizzas from Pizza Hut in Seoul
Pizza Hut in Seoul

"Ryan" Kakao character
“Ryan” Kakao character

Today, we discovered that Google Maps works really poorly in Seoul; according to an old friend who now lives here, this is because the South Korean government restricts the information that can be seen to try and reduce the risk of attack on the city. I’m hoping that we have better luck with it tomorrow; it’s really inconvenient as a tourist to not be able to have good directions on your phone.

Day 1: Arrival in Seoul

As we were getting close to Korea, I noticed that the flight path was deviating from what the seat-back map had predicted. Instead, it looked like we veered to head toward Beijing. As we got closer it became clear that we were just steering clear of North Korea’s airspace.

KE020 flight path avoids North Korean airspace
KE020 flight path avoids North Korean airspace

We landed at Incheon at about 5:45pm local time. We managed to get off the plane fairly quickly, grab the first shuttle to the main terminal, and get through both immigration and customs in pretty much record time. We then found the place to pick up our wifi hotspot for the week, and went down to the train.

We thought that we needed to take the A’REX Express train and bought tickets for that. After we got on, we realized that he Express train skipped the station we needed to go to for our AirBnB. We rode all the way to Seoul Station, got off, bought new tickets for the regular A’REX and finally made our way to Hongik University Station in Hongdae. After wandering around for a few minutes, we found the AirBnB building, grabbed our key, and made our way to it.

We went out a bit more to grab some supplies (bottled water and something for breakfast), then came back to unpack, shower, and sleep.

The shower is a bit different from what I’m used to; the floor is pretty much level with the rest of the bathroom so water gets everywhere and you need to wear sandals inside. Aside from that it was a pretty normal shower though.

It’s very late now (by Seattle time), so I think we’ll turn in and get some sleep before our tour tomorrow morning.

Day 0: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

It’s Day 0 of my next international jaunt, this time to Seoul, South Korea! I’m super excited to go on another vacation and visit a country I’ve never been to (and a new continent, depending on whether you categorize Israel as part of Asia or not). This time, I’ll be traveling with my girlfriend Grace and doing a mostly fluid trip; we’ve planned our own trip this time instead of going as part of an organized tour. All we really have concretely planned are our flights, our lodging, and a tour of the demilitarized zone with North Korea.

This is going to be a week of new experiences for me. I haven’t spent much time in a where I don’t speak the language, and this time it’s going to be a language that doesn’t even share an alphabet with a language I know; at least Grace can translate. I’m also still a novice to Korean cuisine, so I expect to try new things and hopefully have a great time.

We’re staying in an apartment in Hongdae, a neighborhood in Seoul near Hongik University.

We arrived at SeaTac around 11 AM and checked in at Korean Air. They had some restriction on purchase such that they needed to “verify” the credit card used to purchase the tickets, so we checked in at the desk. We had talked about switching seats to have an aisle, but the only available aisle seat adjoining a middle seat was farther back in the plane than we wanted to sit. We kept our windows + middle seat assignments (Grace gets the better seat).

Departing on an international flight from SeaTac is a bit different from other airports I’ve used when leaving the country; there’s no separate international terminal, so it’s very much like getting on a domestic flight.

Once it was time to board, we got on the plane. It turned out that there were some empty seats, so the gentleman who was sitting next to me moved over to the middle of the row and we both got an empty seat next to us. This was super lucky and convenient because it meant that I could stretch out more and that neither Grace nor I would need to bother a stranger if we needed to use the restroom.

I ordered vegetarian meals for both flights. This flight, we got served two meals and a snack of brownies in the middle. The first meal for me was a vegetable pasta with tomato sauce, peas, and carrots accompanied by a salad with tofu and a roll. Grace’s first meal was bibimbap with beef. My second meal was rice with mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots accompanied by a salad and a roll; I skipped the broccoli. Grace’s second meal was a shrimp pasta.

Sam’s first meal on the flight: vegetable pasta.
Korean Budweiser
Grace’s first meal on the flight: beef bibimbap
Sam’s second meal: rice with veggies
Grace’s second meal: shrimp pasta

On the flight, I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I thought was really good. I also watched La La Land for the second time and decided that I liked the music better this time around. Grace watched Manchester by the Sea, Jackie, and La La Land.