A week in Korea Pt 1: Sleep deprivation luggage mistakes, tour VIP treatment and tourist-ing on national holidays
The first and most important takeaway of this week-long whirlwind of a Korea trip is this: do not travel on four hours of sleep because you were attending Law Ball the night before and realised, at 12PM, that you had vastly underestimated the amount of stuff you still had to pack. Because you will end up taking the wrong suitcase (that, to be fair, looked absolutely identical to mine, from brand to weight), and end up running around Incheon airport with your poor but impressively calm tour guide looking for the right people to contact.
The upside is this: if you must lose a bag anywhere, lose it in South Korea, because, in typical efficiency, the suitcase was waiting for me the next afternoon at the hotel.
I was absolutely right in saying that life has a funny way of tying me to East Asia, but I am certainly not complaining. This time, a very generous opportunity by the Korean Australian Community Support organisation, along with the Korea Foundation, sent me to South Korea once more with eight other media students (#kacsmedia)
I've never been one for tours - it's always struck me as a cursory glance of a place; an exercise in efficiently ticking off checkboxes and cliches in 30 minutes, before shuffling back into the air-conditioned comfort of a cushy bus seat, where the main challenge is to stay awake instead of navigate the city. There was no coach waiting for us at the hotel lobby every morning on this tour, despite the packed itinerary. And while standing in a crowded tour bus for an hour up Namsan tower in 28C heat, with a 2KG camera hung around my neck like an albatross definitely redefined 'tired' for me, it actually helped me to avoid being a 'lazy' traveller. Being treated as 'VIPs' at so many places - from hotels, news agencies to Parliament buildings - was more than enough 'laziness' for me, though I could definitely get used to our beautiful Koreana hotel rooms (with a sign to welcome us and buffet breakfasts), and having a wonderful trio of 24/7 guides/translators who could worry about the right stops to get off and where to go next, in my place. The latter was definitely the most surreal part.
If my last trip to Seoul was an exercise in immersing ourselves in contemporary culture, this trip was a chance to break the bubble of my personal interests and fill in gaps of knowledge, especially because we were often taken to places outside of central Seoul where we were staying. More importantly, it was a rare opportunity to gain access to areas of South Korean industry, politics and media that I didn't have as a private traveller. And though this trip was rescheduled from its intended date in July due to MERS, we happened to catch the best travel season for Seoul. Unfortunately right in the middle of uni semester; protip - do not bring all your readings hoping you'll be able to get stuff done. You won't.
KOREAN FOLK VILLAGE
Our first stop was to the Korean Folk Village, a gigantic complex in the outskirts of Seoul that is part open-air museum, part 'display' farm, part movie set for a slew of k-dramas, including Dae Jang Geum, Moon Embracing the Sun and Rooftop Prince, and part actual theme park, complete with the creepiest knock-off PikachuI've ever seen. This was an example of Korea's penchant for translating their fierce pride for their culture into a well-presented site, designed to educate and amuse not only domestic, but international visitors, all rolled up in a mix of bright, warm sunlight, bright and distinctively Korean colours, dappled early-autumn greenery and the energy of the mass of people moving through the dirt-and-sand streets. And yet - constant pockets of calm: a halmoni dozing on a bamboo mat under the tree, a family in a pavillion cracking peanuts with their shoes lined up on the steps, dogs exploring on a loose leash.
As we were in the holiday season, many visitors were decked out in their traditional chuseok gear, aka. street photography and people-watching gold. I particularly loved seeing how teenage visitors had adapted the hanbok, either through wearing clothes designed with a hanbok influence or incorporating 'modern' shoes and accessories. World, please take note of how how Korean families have upgraded primitive strollers into deluxe carts, now with extra legroom. Is this the right time (is it ever the right time??) to wish I were a Korean toddler?
I'm just going to let the photos speak for themselves. Traditional Korean architecture is wonderfully textural and striking with its bold patterns and colours, and a delight to photograph.
Our second day in Seoul involved hopping in and out of the Seoul City Tour Bus - for 12,000W, you have unlimited access to the bus that loops through major tourist suburbs in Seoul, though with the distinct disadvantage that the bus will have filled to the brim by the 5th stop. First stop was to the War Memorial of Korea. After decades of tumultuous political upheaval, it's heartening to see the importance and esteem with which cultural and historical sites in Seoul are regarded, which is immediately apparent when you note the sheer size of both this memorial and the National Museum, which we visited afterwards. The high ceilings and vast spaces give them a certain quality of grandeur and solemnity that seems appropriate. Unfortunately, here's where the tight schedule came in to bite us - we were given an hour to quickly duck in and out of the multimedia-heavy exhibitions at both sites, which was not nearly enough time. You could easily spend half a day each in the War Memorial Museum and the National Museum and its detailed, well presented array of exhibits.
I have to mention again just how much Korea goes out of its way to cater to tourists and make their trip so easy - there are guides everywhere in English, Japanese and Chinese, and practically all the Tourism Board approved websites have an English version. Australia, take notes.
Honestly, the waves of tourists were just as interesting as the tower itself, a veritable mishmash of languages (but mostly Chinese, let's be real. Eavesdropping was very amusing). A public holiday was definitely not the best time to visit if you actually wanted to go up to the tower, but being at the base was enough to let you take in all the love locks, hearts and 'love benches' designed for pairs, and the couples gazing lovingly into each other's eyes and/or into their selfie-stick camera lenses. The urge to break out into a certain Beyonce song was strong here.
We finished off a long day of walking and standing with a visit to Changdeokgung Palace, which is deceptively small and bare at the front but expands into a gigantic garden complex out back. Korean palaces share many architectural and decorative similarities with China, to the point where I was reminded very vividly of the Forbidden City and even the Lama Temple. At this point, the exhaustion was getting to me so we just wandered around the central part of the palace because of course the famous 'Secret Garden' was closed that day. Go figure.
It was also at this point I realised I had way too many photos of small Korean children on my camera.