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Trip to Seoul, South Korea

Wednesday August 31 through Wednesday September 7, 2016


A friend who had served as a Marine Officer in the Korean War received a beautiful book from the government of South Korea, showing how the country had grown and thrived, with before and after pictures, and thanking him for his service saving their country. Both the act of the South Korean Government and the book itself were impressive. South Korea went on our "bucket list.

The book contrasts downtown Seoul "before and after." Quote from the book, "The glimpse South Koreans caught of modernization from their Allied soldier supporters propelled this people beyond their former 'hermit kingdom' mentality into a quest for democracy, growth, and success." In 1961 the per-capita annual income in South Korea was US$80, and has now reached $25,000. When adjusted for purchasing power, it is comparable to almost $35,000 in the United States.

Brief History: Archaeologists date distinctly Korean pottery and other artifacts to around 8000 BC, with established government dating back to 2333 BC. This is an old country with a lot of history. Jumping ahead too quickly, in 1910 Japan annexed the Korean Empire. In 1945, after the end of WW2, Korea was made independent of Japan, with the Northern area protected by the Soviets, and the Southern area protected by the United States, divided at the 38th parallel. In 1948 the powers failed to agree on a single government, leading to the modern states of the "Republic of Korea" (South, backed by US and Europe) and "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (North, backed by the USSR and communist China.) With such similar names, guess why people simply say North Korea and South Korea.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South (starting the Korean War), in an attempt to reunify the country under Communist rule, supported by China and the Soviet Union. South Korea, supported by the United Nations, largely the United States, was holding out for a democratic government and capitalism. On July 27, 1953 a cease fire was negotiated, but neither North nor South Korea signed the treaty, so officially they are still at war. Both sides pulled back 2 km from their point of last contact, creating a demilitarized zone (DMZ) only approximately at the 38th parallel. Both sides patrol their half of this zone, a strip a couple miles wide that weaves across the middle of the country.

North Korea has a population about half as large as South Korea, but their armed forces are much larger. Mandatory military service in the North is 10 years and in the South is 2 years or less (giving the North a military force 2-3 times as large).

The leadership of North Korea has been the Kim family (dynasty) since Kim Il-sung was an anti-Japan rebel in the 1930s and the first leader of independent North Korea, followed by his son and grandson. Wikipedia has a great article on the Kim dynasty. South Korea has had democratic elections since 1987, with the first "opposition" leader elected president in 1998.

Getting There - August 31-September 1

American Airlines now has direct flights from Dallas to Seoul, so the trip over was a quick leg to DFW followed by a mere 14:35 on a 777. Seoul Incheon airport is large and modern, but we had trouble finding Global Service ATMs and the recommended "T-Money" transit cards (answer: on the first floor of the 3+ floor airport).

Incheon airport is a long way from town. Taxis are expensive (US$70-110), subject to traffic delays, and not recommended. Airport trains (AREX) have a choice... Express train to Seoul Station (center city) for about US$14 each, cash or credit, run every 40 minutes, takes 45 minutes in "train-style" cars. "All Stop" trains cost less than US$4 cash each, less with a T-Money Card, run every 5-10 minutes, and take about an hour on subway-type cars. The All Stop train is integrated with the subway system (11 stations on this line), including transfers. Express bus (Deluxe about US$15, Standard about US$10), runs about every 20 minutes.

If you see an A or B on a platform or gate, A is Left, B is right.

T-Money, Transit Money. For US$2.50 to $4 you can buy a "T-Money card, to which you add funds (using cash, not credit cards). This proximity card gets you in and out of train and subway stations (discounted fares with free/cheap transfers on trains, subways, and busses), automatically deducting the cost of the trip from the card balance. We finally found the "empty" cards in convenience stores in the airport; apparently they are available (cheaper) in train stations from vending machines. You then add as much money as you want (we did 10,000 Won - US$10 - at a time). You can use the same card for quick purchases at convenience stores and reportedly some vending machines. When you leave, go back to a convenience store which can refund the cash balance from the card for a token handling fee (but they don't buy the cards back). If anyone is going to Korea, I would be glad to loan you our cards!

Real Money: The exchange rate is fairly close to 1,000 Won equals US$1, so it is easy to do a quick conversion. Credit cards are widely accepted EXCEPT for public transit. We accidentally withdrew too much cash (look for a "Global Service" ATM, often with a VISA or Master Card logo). Unlike many countries, the ATMs on the streets generally only work with domestic cards. If you see a group of 5-10 ATMs probably only one of them is a Global Service ATM - if you can't read the signs, look for the one with different color signs. With our excess cash, we paid for many things with cash that could have gone on a credit card.

We enjoy staying in boutique hotels - often not part of a chain, often small. Our SUNBee hotel had about 40 rooms, but exceptional service, good price, and great location (once we found it). Jenny determined we wanted to be in Insa-dong (Insa-neighborhood) for proximity to tourist and cultural attractions (great choice). We later discovered a helpful local Insa-dong map at one of the neighborhood information booths.

The main street through the area is Insadong-gil. Side streets to the West are Insadong 1, 3, 5, 7, 9-gil. Side streets to the East are Insadong 4, 6, 8...14-gil, but most of these numbered "...-gil streets" are too small for routine car traffic. To find our hotel take an alley off the end of Insadong 7-gil. Sort of behind the larger Center Mark hotel, which included a McDonalds where we occasionally went for breakfast. But it is close to 3 different subway stops, lots of native craft shops, restaurants, and museums. (I had to borrow this picture). I would stay there again.

Travel hint: If you are looking for a restaurant found in a guide book or on-line, record the telephone number. You may not recognize the name of the restaurant and may not find it on the street you expect (one we were looking for was in a basement, after you went through another store that was at the street address we were seeking.) But the phone numbers are almost always prominently displayed.

Friday September 2

Just south of Insa-dong is a riverwalk through the city - a once buried stream that was excavated into a tourist attraction. Having lived in San Antonio for years, with a famous riverwalk, we had to do it. Jenny is the one in the dark clothes, waving, near the center of the picture, not the one with the white outfit and long legs at the right.

At the start of the river (mid-city) is a waterfall. To help you find it, it is called Cheonggyecheon. If you have trouble with that name, everyone knows where it is if you just ask for the river through town.

From above the falls, you can see how it winds through the city. Apparently there is under-water lighting and a fountain that we did not get back to see an night.

Not far away is a stature of Yi Sun-sin, a Korean naval commander (1545-1598). For example, when outnumbered by 133 Japanese warships to his 13, he destroyed or impaired 31 of the enemy ships without losing a single ship of his own. He is arguably one of the best naval commanders of all time.

Further up the same street is a statue of King Sejong (1397-1450). His stand on civil liberties and women's rights would be respected today. He was an intellectual, and inventor, and the creator of the Korean alphabet (Hanguel). Why? Chinese writing took years to learn, so the common people could not read or write. The Korean alphabet (24 characters, but combined in mysterious ways) allows people who speak Korean to learn to read and write in 7-10 days.

Thr US embassy is next to the King Sejong statue. The three buses in front are not tourist buses, but police vehicles. The three bus-loads of policemen were well hidden.

Gwanghwamun is the main gate of Gyeongbukgung Palace. Believe me, I had to look up the names.

We happened to be there for the brief (and perhaps frequent for the tourists) changing of the guards.

The palace and grounds were quite impressive, but I bet the Microsoft building was not behind it when the King lived here.

The decorations on the under-side of the roofs were amazing.

Basically the throne room.

One of many other buildings in the complex

They are working to reconstruct well over 100 of the original buildings, that were disassembled to reuse the materials during the 30+ year Japanese occupation.

The presidential residence is a block behind the historic palace. I guess you could call it the white house, currently occupied by the first female president.

This may be dinner for a king (we are touring the palace), but it isn't that unusual. A restaurant normally serves 5-8 shared dishes in the center of a table, before you order anything. Whatever you order is served in the center of the table to be shared. Food is eaten with a long handled spoon (for soups and rice) or with long metal (never wood) chopsticks. We never saw a knife or fork, even in tourist places. Meals often have a variety of vegetables "in the center," with the expectation that you may freely request more of anything you want that was served in the center.

Many young ladies (and a few boyfriends) dress in the traditional Korean outfits. They apparently can be borrowed or rented for a minimal price, so young people enjoy wearing them for a day, taking lots of pictures, especially around historical sites. We literally saw hundreds of young people dressed like this.

DMZ - Saturday September 3

Since there was no treaty ending the Korean War but just a cease fire, the DeMilitarized Zone (DMZ) is still technically a war zone. To visit, you want to take a tour - they will arrange all the entry and exit permits. You must dress well (e.g. no torn jeans - pictures will be used as Northern propaganda on how poor the South is). Beware taking pictures of soldiers as a flash can be interpreted as a gun flash, and the soldiers are directed to return fire. Take your passport, since it will be examined several times by teenage soldiers on your tour bus.

There were two bridges connecting the north and south, one for northbound trains, the other for southbound. Both were bombed out in the Korean war; only one was rebuilt. It was used to repatriate over 12,000 POWs after the cease fire, thus it was renamed the Freedom bridge. Across the Imjin (Rimjin) river is North Korea, patrolled on this side by South Korean soldiers.

There is a small park near the South Korean end of the Freedom bridge. Note the white wall in the background that barricades access to the Freedom bridge. If you look closely you can see the tall wire fence that continues the white wall.

This is as close as you can get to the Freedom bridge. Some families are split between the North and South - I suspect that some of these messages are related to split families.

Throughout the DMZ there are known landmine fields. This must be pretty safe immediately past the fence, since the grass is cut and the trees are less than 50 years old, but I wasn't going to test the theory. The joke is that if you are playing golf anywhere in Korea, and your ball goes into the rough, you don't go looking for it. The other joke is that you only get to look for one ball in the rough.

Well photographed sculpture of trying to bring the two halves of Korea together.

The Gyeongui train line originally opened in 1906 and linked Seoul and Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. With the hostilities, Dorasan station was the northern-most station in South Korea. With the hopes of someday reuniting the sides, it was restored in 2002, but has never served a train to the North, and only occasional tourist trains to the south. If you want to go beyond the lobby (which has gift shops and commemorates political visitors such as President Bush), you have to buy a ticket, which I understand from the Internet is technically for a train North (that never comes). You can wait on the platform for the train, as long as you want, taking pictures, until you give up. We didn't bother.

North Korea has dug tunnels under the DMZ towards Seoul, to support military invasion of the South. Four of the suspected 20+ tunnels have been found; Tunnel 3 is available to tour. You must leave cameras and cell phones in a locker, then go through metal detectors before coming to the entrance to the tunnel, where you take a hard hat. Since my camera was locked up, this picture is "Third Tunnel of Aggression" by Josh Berglund.

No big deal, it seems, until you go around the corner and start down the sloping path taking you 240 feet below the ground (24 stories), then along the 435 meters (1500 feet) of actual tunnel to the concrete barrier at the border. The tunnel is a maximum of 6'5" high, but I can assure you that I didn't find the max place where I could stand up. My hard hat was well battered by the time I got back to the surface. This is NOT a picture of me, but it is the position I was in the entire time in the tunnel and on the very long ramp between the surface and the actual tunnel.

The granite walls were rubbed with coal dust. The North Korean excuse for digging the tunnels was that they were exploring for coal, but any coal miner knows that coal is never found in Granite rocks!

Much of the road to Seoul is along the DMZ, guarded by fences and guard towers.

Back in Seoul it is hard to not be embarrassed by a tacky Texas Western bar.

This is the Roman Catholic Myeongdong cathedral - the first Gothic building in Korea. About 10% of the South Korean population are Catholics, one of the most Catholic countries in Asia.

We took advantage of the Saturday night vigil mass... in Korean

Sunday September 4

We wanted to visit the Korean War museum. It is a history of a divided country, half of which has thrived, and a thanks to all the countries and people who made it possible.

The outdoor exhibits were dramatic, with all the different cultures represented.

The memorial dedicated to the Americans lists participation from 1950 through 1955, with 1,789,000 people provided, 92,134 wounded, and 36,574 killed in action. They say, repeatedly, "No longer the forgotten war."

The battle was hardly even. Note the comparison of the assets of South Korea, on the left, and North Korea, on the right.

Among the many indoor displays were the limo provided to Ilsung Kim, the head of North Korea, just before the war by the Russians. It was captured during the war, and South Korean president Syngman Rhee presented it to the widow of US Commanding General Walker who was killed in the war. The widow traded it for an American car after it broke down in Georgia. It was found many years later and returned to Korea.

The Bulletproof Cadillac Limo provided to the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, by General Dwight Eisenhower.

Sunday Afternoon - National Museum of Korea

The National Museum of Korea is massive, both with a huge modern building and an extensive collection. We didn't spend the multiple days there that some reviews recommended.

All the parts of the throne have special meaning.

This is a 500+ year old distinctly Korean musical instrument. Each of the hanging clay "things" is tuned to a different note, and it is played like a set of chimes.

I can't pass showing some pieces of furniture.

And more furniture.

Traditions with smoking vary around the world... some places (Like English pubs) have dramatically reduced the smoke level over the years. I have never seen outdoor areas (blocks of streets) that were No Smoking zones - this sign was on the sidewalk.

This sign was as you entered from a side street.

Monday September 5

Every city we visit has to include a trip to a market.

There were many foods we did not recognize

and other foods that we recognized but are not common - except in Korea.

Every city has a bus that winks at you - don't they? We saw several different buses painted like this. Great sense of humor.

The previous traditional "palace" was where the King lived. Today we visited Jongmyo, a Confucian shrine dedicated to the perpetuation of memorial services for the deceased kings and queens.

At this shrine we found young men dressed in the traditional garb

And girls in the traditional garb, using their smart phones, as young people do everywhere.

Located between the Shrine and the Palace is a historical area known as Bukchon Village, essentially the "old town" of Seoul. It is an area of about 900 privately owned traditional Korean homes, called hanok.

Many of the Hanok are craft shops and schools. Many are still (also) residences so there are numerous signs pleading for tourists to be quiet in the residential areas.

Some of the hanok still have very elegant traditional features.

Tuesday September 6

Fish Markets have been a goal since Jenny arrived too late to see the action in the Tokyo Fish Market. Seoul has a fancy new one. Basement 2 is frozen warehouse and wastewater treatment. Basement 1 is raw fish storage and processing, and more truck parking. Floor 1 is Retail sales and (half the building) wholesale auction area. Floor 2 are restaurants (bring your fresh fish from downstairs, if you wish), Floor 3 and 4 are car parking. Floor 5 is a Public Garden and event hall. Floor 6 is offices.

Note Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese. Not everyone spoke English, but language was never a problem.

The place was huge. This overview is of just the center aisle, from the center in just one direction. And it was so clean and fresh, there was no fish smell.

Different color overhead signs led to different sections. This was live fish (and mollusks)

This section was fresh (but no longer live) fish

Another section was prepared fish products

And on the 5th floor public garden was this sculpture

We also had a great view of the city from the upper areas.

From the fish market we walked to the waterfront park on the Han river.

A very pleasant and attractive park.

Wednesday September 7

Our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 5:15 pm, so we had some time in the morning. City Hall is several buildings, the main building Architecturally unique 6 story all glass structure, hanging over the old city hall with is now the Metropolitan Library.

On the lowest level was an archeological dig, but you don't need a picture of piles of dirt and stones. Inside the glass front much of the "inner building" was covered with ivy.

Outside city hall is a plaza where they were setting up for a festival or something. We wandered around, and found lots of people who didn't speak English. The building in front of the glass city hall is the old city hall converted to a library.

Between City Hall and our hotel was a temple of unspecified purpose. There was a changing of the guard going on (even though most of the time the open temple was unguarded.)

Also in the area was this architecturally unique building.

Final note

Don't count on using Google Maps or Apple Maps on your smart phone, to "follow the blue dot" and find you way around. Although there was talk of change, currently detailed mapping data may not be taken out of the country, and Google servers are out of the country. (One of the few reminders this is a war zone!) Therefore the only mapping service is a local Korean service, only in the Korean language.


Don't rent a car and expect to drive around easily. The DMZ is a tempting destination, but technically is still a war zone, and has complex procedures, which are best handled by a tour agency. But most of all, what do these traffic directions on the street mean? These are not unusual, other than I felt I could get a picture of these examples without being run over.

Many of the subway stations had cabinets of gas masks. Is this for more concern about fire safety than any other subway system I have been on in the world? Or is it because a sworn enemy is only 20 miles away.

Return Trip: Overall as uneventful as the trip to Seoul. Incheon airport is still a long way from town, and the train is still the preferred mode of transit. At the airport we stopped at a convenience store that refunded the money left on our T-Money transit cards. If anyone is going to Korea, I would be glad to loan you our refillable cards! Then we changed our remaining Korean cash at a money changer.

Thankfully we had access to the Korean Airlines Lounge, as we waited for our American Airlines flight direct to Dallas, especially since it was running a couple hours late. Note the cities on the board - this page was somewhat familiar but over the 5 pages, we had never heard of half of the cities. In Dallas, a quick connection before going on to Austin.

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