East Asia is a region that has always piqued my interest. Apart from Hong Kong, Seoul is about the only other city that I’ve ever been to thus far. Hubby and I have been to Seoul twice so far – the first time in 2014 and once again this year, both occasions were in conjunction with hubby attending the TCTAP Cardiovascular Summit that was held at COEX Seoul. Interestingly, this summit is always held in the spring of April when the temperature ranges between 12-18°C. This climate is actually quite pleasant to walk outside without wearing thick winter clothes.
Obviously, the regional geopolitics this year has evolved so much from three years ago when we first visited Seoul. As you might already know, there was a great sense of insecurity and expectation of an impending war in early April amidst the escalating provocation by North Korea. We had at many times been drawn into the dilemma of cancelling or proceeding with our trip in late April. The decision to eventually proceed would have been life-changing had the war broken out. Thank God for His protective hands with no untoward incidents throughout our trip.
Nowadays, with several airlines plying the route between Kuala Lumpur and Seoul, it’s rather convenient and affordable for travellers. This time around, we took advantage of AirAsia’s premium flatbed which came up to RM2707 per person inclusive of taxes and travel insurance. Quite reasonable, isn’t it? That was what I thought too!
The premium flatbed is somewhat similar to a business class of a full-service airline. For a fraction of the price of a business class airfare, the size and comfort of the seats are almost comparable. Among its many privileges, the one that captivated me the most was a complimentary access to AirAsia Premium Red Lounge. Unfortunately, this is currently only available at KLIA2. I certainly hope AirAsia will establish it in as many airports as possible in the near future. You can read more about its privileges here.
The journey to Seoul took us approximately six and a half hours. The timing we chose was awesome – departing Kuala Lumpur at 8:00am and arriving in Seoul at 3:20pm. It was just perfect for check-in by the time we arrived at the hotel.
Company trips are always fantastic as far as accommodation is concerned. As long as it’s taken care of, the biggest headache is instantly gone. Our four-night stay in a standard double room at the Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas amounted to ₩1,415,700 (RM5401) inclusive all taxes. It was definitely expensive but this is the price to pay for staying in Gangnam district, which is one of the most affluent districts in Seoul. Having said that, this hotel was chosen because of its proximity to hubby’s summit venue – 10-minute walk.
Incheon International Airport is located about 55km away from our hotel. The most convenient way to get into the city is via the Airport Railway Express (AREX), which goes directly to Seoul Station (non-stop) or stops at 10 stations before terminating at Seoul Station (all-stop). To get to our hotel, we alighted at Hongik University and boarded the Seoul Metropolitan Subway (Line 2) to Samseong. The train ticket was only ₩6,500 (RM24) per person. The Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas appeared right in front of us as we exited Samseong metro station and its strategic location made it so convenient for us to travel around the city.
In fact, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway is arguably the world’s most extensive metro system. With close to 300 stations within its network, you can get almost anywhere within the city. All you need is just to purchase a T-money or Cashbee transportation card, which you can use for travelling in the subway, bus and taxi. Both cards work very much like the Malaysian Touch ‘n Go.
Sightseeing In Seoul
Rest assured that Seoul is reasonably safe to walk around even if you’re alone. As such, when hubby was busy with his summit, I had no qualms about checking out the city on my own. All I required to begin my adventure was a comprehensive map of Seoul. Thanks to the subway, all places of interest in the city were literally within my reach. What could be more gratifying than exploring Seoul in spring?
When it comes to shopping in Seoul, there’s really no point blogging about premium shopping as stores for that are aplenty. Like myself, I’m sure most people are looking for a bargain. High on the list would be Namdaemun Market, which is quite similar to the night market in Malaysia. The number of stalls and shops here are endless. This is also where you get to practise and sharpen your bargaining skills.
Other popular markets are Myeongdong Market, Dongdaemun Market and Pyeonghwa Market. In fact, most of them sell pretty much the same items but on a smaller scale compared to Namdaemun Market.
Also, if you’re looking specifically for Korean-made electrical appliances, crockery or facial masks, I’d suggest checking out the Korean hypermarket, Lotte Mart. Prices of items sold here are very reasonable.
When in Seoul, you shouldn’t miss giving Korean cuisine a try – kimchi almost always being the indispensable element. Having said that, I must admit that Korean food is an acquired taste that not many people would eventually learn to appreciate. If you’re adventurous and don’t mind street food, I’d recommend trying tteok-bokki or cylinder-shaped rice cakes, which are readily available in most street corners. They are usually taken with spicy sauce or less commonly, soy sauce.
Pojangmacha (covered wagons) are pop-up tent restaurants that you frequently see in Korean movies. They are prevalent in Seoul and we had an interesting experience dining in one at Namdaemun Market. Fortunate for us, the hawkers could converse in Mandarin and they also had food menus, which made life so much simpler when ordering. What’s more important was that they open late at night, when most other restaurants would already have closed.
What about proper restaurants? I can’t give you specifics, but there are plenty around and equally good. One thing they serve and you definitely must try is kimchi-jjigae. It’s the traditional kimchi stew (possibly the most-loved of all the stews in Korean cuisine), which is served with rice or noodles. As usual, side dishes are provided.
Gogi-gui (barbecue) is another popular Korean cuisine, whereby you get to savour a variety of roast meat – chicken, pork and beef. One particular restaurant in Myeongdong that we chanced upon and found to be superbly tasty was Yoogane Chicken Galbi (유가네닭갈비). However, the only meat served here is chicken. Interestingly, it also opened its first branch in 1 Utama (Malaysia) last year.
Dakgangjeong (crispy fried chicken) is extremely popular in South Korea, if you’re familiar with 4Fingers Crispy Chicken (Mid Valley Megamall KL) and Chir Chir Fusion Chicken Factory (Pavilion KL). Mad Fry Chicken (매드후라이치킨삼성점), arguably the best fried chicken in Gangnam is the most mouth-watering I’ve tasted so far and would highly recommend it. It provides you a selection of flavours to choose from, namely spicy, honey, soy, etc.
It never crossed my mind that Christianity is the dominant religion in South Korea, until the sight of churches became more prominent. Only then did I dig deeper to understand that Christianity was first introduced in the Korean peninsula as early as the Joseon period. What’s more interesting is that the largest church in the world by membership is in Seoul – Yoido Full Gospel Church.
The most unusual thing you’ll notice when you’re in a subway station is the presence of “Relief Goods Storage”, which contains food, gas masks and other emergency equipment. The reason is because all underground stations are designed to function as bomb shelters in the event of an attack by North Korea. This threat has been ongoing since the ceasefire in 1953, but it seems more imminent lately.
Despite the external insecurity, South Korea is actually very safe domestically. The spectacle of people flaunting their designer collection without much concern for their surroundings is commonplace. Honestly, Seoul gave me the feeling of absolute security and it was for this reason that I dared walk alone when hubby was at his summit. Besides that, the level of cleanliness in Seoul is commendable and comparable to that of Singapore or Tokyo – literally sterile.
Back to the subway stations, you might also notice that the walls and glasses have been overlaid with pictures of groceries akin to the supermarket. These are virtual stores with QR codes where you can scan and make your orders, while waiting for the train. I suppose the goods will then arrive at your doorstep when you reach home. What an innovative idea of maximizing space. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
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