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Even though I have been often interacting with Korean students in my teaching career, it was still a very alienating and strange experience to suddenly find myself in a city where I couldn’t make any sense of the street signs and spoken language. Unlike in India, in Korea, hardly anybody speaks English, not when you need it the most, anyway.
Prior to this trip, the only word I knew in Korean was “hello” (annyeonghaseyo); I couldn’t even say “thank you” (kamsa hamnida) or “goodbye” (annyeonghi gaseyo). Though I hate to think that first impressions are everything, I will say that they are usually good indicators of where our interests most genuinely lie. So here it is, follow me as I share with you the best sights and my impressions from my recent trip!
Snapshot of the airport (photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)
After almost four hour flight from Manila, we arrived at Seoul Incheon Airport without any dramas. As I disembarked I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and unique architectural design of the airport complex. It is full of light, eye-catching forms, and ultra-modern. It immediately struck me as one of the best airports I’ve ever been to, even more, impressive than Changi in Singapore. Couple days later, I’ve learned that the Seoul airport has been rated by Airports Council International as the Word’s best airport for nine consecutive years (2005-13), and now I can see why.
I walked past the travellator wondering why people are rushing as though to catch the last train or a bus. Soon it became clear to me that everybody was trying to secure their place in a long queue to the immigration. I fall in line just like the others. The queue was quite long and I had to wait half an hour for my turn. There was a group of Filipinos that I had a chat with while waiting. It always feels good to see your countrymen in a foreign land, somehow it gives you a feeling of not being alone. Each has their own story to tell – a reason for being there.
One story that amazed me the most was the story of an old lady in her mid-sixties. She was carrying a lot of documents, bags here and there – she saw me looking, she smiled and said “is this needed? “It’s my first time… I don’t know what to do”, showing me the documents she had in her hand. I responded: “Just the passport and the immigration paper”. Then, I asked her if she came here for vacation and she told me that her daughter, only 18 years old, had married a Korean man she met in the Philippines (in a group of Korean men looking for a wife). She just gave birth and invited her to pay a visit and stay with her in Jeju Island. Sounded so sweet, but at the back of my mind, I knew why she was here – to be a nanny to her grandchild. I know there’s nothing wrong about that. Just that seeing her alone going through all the hassle makes me wonder…. But what hit me the most is the idea of getting married as young as 18 and, to top it all off, in a settlement like that in exchange for a hopefully better future. I don’t blame them, but in a way, I feel sad about it.
I bid the old lady goodbye and got my passport stamped. I went straight to the declaration (custom) area fill up the form, and that was it! I was finally out – my feet firmly on Korean soil and my thoughts still revolving around the fate of the old Filipina lady and her daughter.
Ticket vending machine
I headed to the train station, which is located at the center of the airport. I have learned that the fastest way to get downtown is by the Express Train on the AREX Line. The nonstop ride from Incheon International Airport Station to downtown Seoul Station is just 43 minutes at 8,000 won per ticket. A similar way to access Seoul from the airport, though not as fast and direct as the Express is the All Stop Train, which services Seoul and the surrounding areas. The ticket cost is 4,250 won, a lot cheaper and a better option if you are not in a hurry. Fares are based on single-use, transportation cards. Additional 500 won deposit is charged for the card that can be reimbursed upon returning the card via a card return machine located inside subway stations.
Ticketing gate, AREX Incheon International Airport station (Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)
So there I was with my AREX single fare card at the 2 platforms and wasn’t sure which train to take. I went to the other side of the platform and get on the train – to be sure I am on the right track, I asked two Korean students if it’s the “express” train going to Seoul – and guess what? It’s not! Turns out that the right one is on the other side where I originally came from. I hurriedly went out and down again because the train is coming in five minutes. Luckily I was able to make it on time. The Express train came and I hopped in.
While I was musing over the surrounding an inspector lady came to check my ticket. To my surprise, she told me that I had a ticket for the ‘all stop train’ and not the express. I must have pressed the wrong button at the ticketing machine and was unaware of it until the lady pointed it out to me. Good thing she was nice and very accommodating. She just asked me to pay the difference for the upgrade without any penalty and the problem was solved.
Ticket for all stop train and express train – so much difference!
Inside the express train going to Seoul
After reaching Seoul station I needed to transfer line to get to where my hotel is located. When you change from AREX to SMRT (subway), there’s a card reader and you need to tap your card. I was a bit unsure, whether I should tap or not. While confused looking at a map, a Korean guy came to me and asked me where I want to go. He speaks little English but looks very friendly. My fear was, that since the AREX card was a single fare card from Incheon to Seoul and not an SMRT card for the Seoul subway, I thought I can’t just use it for the latter. But he read the instruction written on the card (in Korean) and told me, its fine. So I trusted him, tapped the card and it worked. He smiled and waved goodbye. I had to go up with the escalator and there I was, a bit lost again. But this time, I trusted my gut instinct and took a train at line 4 then exited at Chungmuro station.
At chungmuro station
The train travel in Seoul is very efficient and pretty cheap. One-way adult fares usually cost about $1 USD for a single ride (depending on the exchange rate that day). Buying the right ticket and navigating through the vast network of train platform gates can be confusing for a first time user but once you get the hang of it, you will love using it. Each train line is color-coded and numbered, but most things are written in Korean. Sure, there are announcements in English and the names of the stations are also written in Latin letters, but sometimes things just don’t run well. Like when they say: You may exit on the right, but actually the door opens on the left. Happened many times – quite confusing.
Subway (photo credit: English.arex.or.kr)
I recommend getting a T-Money Card in any convenience store, load it up then you’re equipped to go and explore the city. You can use this to pay for fares on the subway, buses, trains, taxis, and some convenience stores.
I stayed in one of the hotel located in the heart of Seoul Golden Triangle. It’s just several steps away from Myeongdong, Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and Chungmuro Movie Town. It is also close to Daehan Cinema and N Seoul tower.
Cozy room of the hotel
The hotel is clean and very technologically advanced. There’s a touchscreen phone that controls all of the lights, the thermostat, and gives information about the hotel and surrounding areas. These buttons illuminate lights on the outside of the door so the maids can see when rooms need to be cleaned. Not that they actually have to walk down the hall to see, they have a computer in their room that has a map of all the rooms that are occupied and which ones are ready to be cleaned and which ones are not to be disturb. The elevators are slow but also cool. The toilets can be heated, and can squirt you in many different patterns. I have not been adventurous enough to try it, though 🙂
After taking a quick breather, I decided to venture out and explore the neighborhood. I still hadn’t eaten lunch, so food was my priority. While wandering the streets, I have noticed that everyone is very stylish but in a similar way. From makeup to clothing, to hairstyles, the men are always in suit and tie, looks like they walked out of a fashion show. Another interesting thing is that I didn’t see any obese/fat Korean around.
Really need to refuel myself. I’ve decided to check out a Korean restaurant that I had passed earlier on whilst attempting to find a money changer. I was amazed about the chef showing his skills in making noodles from the scratch. The wall around the kitchen is made of glass, so anyone eating could see what is happening inside. It’s like an exhibition room, I like the idea, it actually adds to the uniqueness of the restaurant. I checked on the menu, but there were no handy photos to show me how a dish looks like, so I had to play the guessing game. I’ve randomly selected a dish from the menu and tried to work out the correct term for iced tea and noodle soup. I looked around to see what everybody is eating and I saw sea foods with a bright red sauce on a hot plate in the center of the table next to mine. It looked so appetizing so I told the waiter that I want one of those as well. He looked at it and said, “No, too spicy for you”. I wanted to battle it out, but too hungry to do so. I just uttered “really?” What can you suggest then?” He pointed to the menu saying: “this is good for you”. Alright then, let me give it a try. After a few minutes, the food was served.
Jajangmyeon, banchan and dumplings
I just had Jajangmyeon – Korea’s favorite hand-pulled noodles in black sauce. It’s filling and hearty like a bowl of spaghetti, but with an Asian flair. It’s one of those dishes that you can get whenever you need a quick meal. It actually tastes better than it looks and it is surprisingly cheap, typically cost around 4-6,000 won at most places. Another interesting thing about this dish is that it’s so famous they even have a holiday for it called “Black Day’ (April 14th). It’s an amusing concept where singles go out to eat jajangmyeon because they are depressed. Sounds like a great opportunity for some speed dating 🙂
Korean style meals are so much different than Filipino meals. In Korea, most meals have many side dishes and large dishes set in the middle for everyone to share. As such the dishes are served in portions for two or more people – incredible value for money….but if you are traveling alone, you have to plan your meals carefully to prevent wasting food. And yes each meal is always served with kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish made with cabbage. I still haven’t gotten used to the taste, but I am pretty sure I will in time.
Well, that’s about it. Even though my first day in Seoul was punctuated with some annoyances and confusions, it was a great cultural ‘icebreaker’ making the following days much more comfortable.
I want to know your first impressions of Seoul too, write your thoughts as comment below 🙂
You may also want to check my blog on: N Seoul Tower and Namsan Park, Gyeongbukgong and Changdeokgung Palace, Hanok Village, My First Impressions of Seoul,Budget Travel in Seoul , Korean BBQ Experience, 15 Must try Street Food in Seoul, 15 Must try food in Seoul, Places to Visit in Seoul, Lotte World