Seoul, South Korea

[ 0 ] November 2, 2012 |

Who knew Seoul, South Korea was the most Western place in the East. We arrived and quickly found it to be an incredibly comfortable, well-developed, cosmopolitan city. Maneuvering all around the city was a breeze. We took some taxis but primarily utilized the extensive and amazing underground subway system. Koreans line up in an orderly way to wait for and board the trains- quite a contrast to the rest of the world. Above ground there are wide roads with clear lanes, clean air-conditioned cars and very minimal honking. The city is developed with an abundance of high-end coffee shops, numerous quality indoor grocery stores, large scale shopping, and a multitude of international restaurants. It was a very very easy place to visit.

Seoul, South Korea

We found Koreans to be in general some of the most gracious people we have met. Service was always exceptional and cordial. People were fair and didn’t target tourist to take advantage. Multiple complete strangers stopped on the street to help us find our way when they noticed our travel book in hand. Friends saying goodbye to each other would have what looked like a bow war on the street each wanting to be the last to bow to the other out of respect.

We rented a small studio apartment in the Gangham district of Seoul. When we arrived we had yet to hear the now famous “Gangham Style” song- but while we were in town the song became a phenomenon and we quickly realized we were staying in the coolest neighborhood in the world, for the moment at least. Gangham is known as being a very dynamic, affluent and influential area of town. True to the song’s playful lyrics we witnessed some of the clichés in action.

Koreans work intensely long hours, which creates a culture of work hard/play hard.  There is little time for “cheap” indulgence. If Koreans aren’t working, they want luxury experiences in their off time. This partially explains why $10 cups of coffee are common and why Wal-Mart wasn’t very successful in this market. We managed to fall in love with our own indulgent juice cafe while temporarily living the Gangham life. Another anomaly in this part of the world is the public acceptance of plastic surgery. Giant signage and good marketing plasters the exteriors of many out-patient surgery centers in main areas of town. On the weekend relaxing at a café it wasn’t uncommon to see numerous post-surgery Koreans out around town with masks and bandages on their faces. Apparently eyelids and noses are the top sellers.

Hurom Juice Cafe

Willing to try anything at least once, we first tasted the Korean food scene on the Korean Airlines flight over. With almost every meal in Korea we were given a side serving of kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented dish made of vegetables and spices- typically cabbage, red chili and beef stock. It is commonly made in large clay pots that sit outside or on rooftops and the contents never go bad. Surprisingly we really liked it!


Another national specialty is gogigui or Korean barbecue.  Customarily the meat is cooked on the table in a built in gas or charcoal fire. Thin slices of meat are served along with small side dishes. We were given several types of leaves to use as wraps for the meat.  With flat metal chopsticks as the only individual utensils in Korea, a pair of large kitchen scissors and small tongs were commonly found on most tables to section the meat and vegetables. At this restaurant we sat on the floor with low tables.

Korean Barbecue

We visited one of the grandest and most famous royal palaces in Korea, Gyeongbokgung. This walled palace complex is a combination of built structures, gardens, and pavilions.  During the Japanese occupation of Korea much of the palace was destroyed. The Korean government has placed this palace in a program to eventually rebuild it to its original grandeur along with other special buildings in South Korea.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Pat at the Palace

Tiny Koreans on a Fieldtrip

Pots for Making Soy Sauce

the Palace Backdrop

Water Pavilion

Adjacent to the Palace is the National Folk Museum. This museum houses displays explaining historical traditional life in Korea.

National Folk Museum of Korea

Traditional Korean Home

Traditional Shoes

Water Wheel

Our last night in South Korea we decided to try a Jjimjilbang, or traditional Korean bathhouse. We went to the 24-hour Dragon Hills Spa. This 7-story large spa includes hot tubs, showers, saunas, massages, scrubs, sleeping rooms, pools, a restaurant, a small cinema and lots of lounge areas.  When you arrive you are given an electronic key wristband for your locker and a set of pajama-like shorts and shirt and a small (washcloth sized) towel.  Men enter the men’s locker room and women go to the women’s side. First thing you are expected to strip down to nothing, store your belongings and new pajamas in the locker and walk to the shower floor. I must admit this was the most intimidating part. I knew I’d have to be naked- but walking around down stairs and around the building looking for the shower butt nude was plain awkward. Perhaps if I read Korean I would have known a bit more of what to do. After a good cleansing public shower you are free to use the facilities as you wish.

Dragon Hills Korean Spa

Pat and I wanted to check in with each other, so after our showers, we met on the co-ed floor with pajamas on to try out all of the saunas together. There were multiple scents and temperatures each with their own theme. Pyramids, Igloo, etc. One wood-burning sauna made us smell exactly like we were being baked in a pizza oven. My favorite was the salt sauna. After extensive sweating we decided to go explore the gender-segregated floors and to meet up later. At this point we had decided to embrace the nudity factor and enjoy the experience. Back in the women’s locker area- I dropped my pajamas off and strutted along with lots of other women of all sizes, shapes and ages to the hot tubs. There were close to 20 different hot tubs each with different things happening. The temperatures varied from warm to extremely hot. Five tubs were medicated in some way- herbal, relaxing, age defying, stress relieving, etc. – bags of things like ginseng were dangling in the water releasing their essence into the pool.  Some of the tubs had jets and bubbles, some were shaped like individual bathtubs and most were large group sized pools. After testing the majority of the tubs, I showered again, threw on my clothes and met Pat at the exit. He had similarly enjoyed the hot tubs on the men’s side. I decided a Korean spa is something I’d happily do again with strangers, but with people I know- no thanks.

Dragon Hills Spa, Seoul, South Korea



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Category: Alison's Blog, Blog, Destinations, Featured Posts, South Korea

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