My Yellow Suitcase

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Arrival in South Korea: My First Impressions of SEOUL

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!

AT THE AIRPORT: Incheon_Airport_Train_Terminal,_Korea

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.  

IMG_20150529_113750Immigration Counter

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.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: IMG_20150529_121946

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

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.

Picture1

Ticket for all stop train and express train – so much difference!

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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.

subway 1 Inside SMRT

331_Chungmuro_Station_3

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

Subway (photo credit:  English.arex.or.kr)

SAMSUNG ELECTRONICS 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.

ACCOMMODATION:

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. room

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 🙂 street

Chungmuro street

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.

food

Jajangmyeon, banchan and dumplings

SAM_7613

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 

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44 comments on “Arrival in South Korea: My First Impressions of SEOUL

  1. Sabine
    August 18, 2015

    Interesting how people experience their first arrival in a country 🙂
    About the food, Korean is one of my favourite, so you’ll love it during your stay there!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 18, 2015

      Hi Sabine! Yeah, it was a great cultural ‘ice breaker’ 🙂 and you are right about Korean food. In fact, I cant get enough of the Korean street foods. Its delicious, cheap and its everywhere!

      Like

  2. Jenni / Globe Called Home
    August 18, 2015

    Ah, rushing to the immigration queue… this is what I always do when I get out of the plane in USA. Here the queues can be several hours, so even a few passed people help!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 18, 2015

      Hi Jenni!
      Queuing at the immigration is indeed a test of patience 🙂
      But seriously, the consequences is more than just loss of someone’s time – missed connections and business meetings, additional charges for a waiting car service to name a few.

      Like

  3. Anna
    August 18, 2015

    I’ve never been to S. Korea but the airport looks really good. It’s a nice first impression! The food looks really interesting too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 18, 2015

      Thanks Anna….. Korean food is very unique and super healthy 🙂

      Like

  4. California Globetrotter
    August 18, 2015

    Wow! Everything looks so futuristic! Hope to make it here one day!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. whileimyoungandskinny
    August 18, 2015

    I think you always remember your introduction to a new place! Seoul looks so different than I imagined. Would definitely be happy to sleep in that hotel!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 18, 2015

      So true. That hotel is really cool 🙂

      Like

  6. karla
    August 18, 2015

    I love Korean food. I remember even their mild was still very spicy for a lot of people good thing I enjoy spicy food. When we got to Korea, it was a late flight, we got there at wee hours of the night and yet there were still a lot of people. Airport queues . In Thailand, its worse. So I normally run the moment I step out of the plane 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 18, 2015

      Yeah, I tried one of their spicy kimchi soup and my mouth was on fire! But it’s worth the try 🙂

      Like

  7. Janna
    August 18, 2015

    I can’t say that I’ve ever had Korean food before but it looks really good in your photos. I might just have to hunt down a restaurant at home to try and get some what of an authentic experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sara
    August 18, 2015

    Seems like a great experience! I like your pics 🙂 Which camera do you use?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 18, 2015

      Hi Sara, thanks! I used samsung S5 🙂

      Like

      • Sara
        August 18, 2015

        The pictures have amazing quality 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ynah.CA
        August 18, 2015

        It has a phase detecting system and high dynamic range function similar to what’s being used in digital SLRs, which makes it easy to take good photos. Love the results too 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. GirlUnspotted
    August 19, 2015

    This makes me even more excited! Planning a South Korea trip to catch the Cherry Blossoms next spring just in time for me and my husband’s 2-year wedding anniversary. That’s pretty romantic, righT? Haha. What do you think would be a good budget (without the plane ticket and accommodations) to aim for?

    http://girlunspotted.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 19, 2015

      Happy anniversary in advance! I am sure you will love it….. The most romantic place is the N Seoul Tower, aside from the magnificent view, you will also find the locks of love just like the one in Paris! Bring your own padlock so you dont have to buy it there 🙂

      Like

      • GirlUnspotted
        August 19, 2015

        Thank you!! I will definitely keep that lock of love in mind. Didn’t know it existed there as well!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 19, 2015

      Roughly around 800USD for a week of stay, depending on the type of accommodation you are going to have.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. TheBohoChica
    August 19, 2015

    Seoul is one city I’m really curious about and hope to make it to soon enough. Thanks for sharing your first impressions!

    Like

    • Ynah.CA
      August 19, 2015

      You’re welcome! Seoul is a great city to explore, hope you make it 🙂 🙂 🙂 Happy travels!

      Like

  11. We had the same experience queuing for the immigration when we arrived! I think we waited for almost two hours… 😦 Fortunately, we enjoyed everything else about South Korea– especially Nami Island and Everland Park! And of course, shopping at Myeongdong!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 21, 2015

      Hi Ninay, must have been peak season when you came. But Iam glad you had fun despite wasting two hours queuing for the immigration. Positive vibes 🙂 🙂 🙂

      Like

  12. Alexis
    August 21, 2015

    One of my big regrets from my time living in Japan was not making it up to Korea. I’m glad you are enjoying your time there and sampling all of the yummy food!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 22, 2015

      Thank you Alexis. I am pretty sure there will come a time, you will be able to visit Korea 🙂 Stay positive and happy travels!

      Like

  13. Grietje from Travel Gretl
    August 23, 2015

    Quite an adventure it sounds like! Makes me curious to the city and country too actually 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 23, 2015

      It was quite an adventure, but its all worth it. Seoul is a great city to explore! Hope you’ll have a chance to visit 🙂

      Like

  14. Simone Lye
    August 23, 2015

    Seoul looks great and everything looks so shiny & clean!! Your hotel looks beautiful too!
    Simone x | The Aussie Flashpacker

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 24, 2015

      Indeed Simone, and aside from being beautiful, the people who works in that hotel are very friendly too!

      Like

  15. Connie Reed
    August 23, 2015

    It can be intimidating trying to navigate your way through a city’s transportation system when you aren’t familiar with the local language, but you managed just fine. I love the use of technology in your hotel, even down to notifying housekeeping when to clean the room.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 24, 2015

      Hi Connie! Good thing Koreans are quite friendly, they are always willing to help 🙂

      Like

  16. Stacey Marlene Valle Macias
    August 23, 2015

    I went to Seoul, South Korea for the first time last summer, and I fell completely in love! In fact, I went back there recently again this summer and couldn’t get enough of it. Now, I really miss it there! My first impression of Seoul was great, I love the vibe it gave when I went to Hongdae on my first night. I love the nightlife, generous people, food, everything.

    You’ll be in awe how generous they are! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 24, 2015

      I agree Stacey! Seoul is such a great city to explore.

      Like

  17. faegirl
    August 24, 2015

    A lot of people have been talking about going to South Korea lately! So far, everyone has been very happy with it. I really appreciate it when another country takes people like me into account and have English everywhere…but then it reminds me how horrible a job we do here in America for our international people. Either way, it makes my life a lot easier 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 24, 2015

      Citezens of Korea are so nationalistic, they patronize their own. And i think thats what brings them to where they are now – the economy is really booming. Aside from the language barrier everything else is good. South Korea is a great place to see, and I am pretty sure you will like it too 🙂

      Like

  18. Nic Hilditch-Short
    August 25, 2015

    Sounds like a full on experience. I just love arriving in a new place and allowing myself to just take in the strangeness and the alien environment, I just love that feeling. It’s great that you managed to capture those feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah.CA
      August 26, 2015

      Yes Nic, that was such an adventure. Let say an added spice to my Seoul experience 🙂 🙂 🙂

      Like

  19. jena
    November 3, 2015

    Hi. Nice blog =) we are planning to go to korea in march 2016. I just want to ask, what’s the name of the hotel? It looks very cozy and clean =) thanks =)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ynah CA
      November 5, 2015

      Hi Jena, thank you for reading my blog! Its Vella Suite Hotel located at Chungmuro street and just walking distance from Myeondong. You can check on their amenities at http://www.vellasuitehotel.com

      Have a great travel!

      Like

  20. Sheila Rohn
    August 26, 2016

    Hello there! I am just a 20 yr old student here who plans on traveling alone to korea soon. How much (php) do u think should I earn for my trip allowance, I mean just for the expenses in korea excluding the airfare 🙂 thanks!

    Like

    • Ynah CA
      September 5, 2016

      Hi Sheila, will depend on your (1) activities (2) duration of stay. I suggest prepare at least 30K

      Like

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