The flight from Indonesia to Seoul was uneventful after Indonesia immigration confirmed that I was allowed to leave the country despite having an empty emergency password without any stamp showing when I entered the country. Garuda airlines lounge sucked and their business seats were not really lay flat, but they sucked more in waking us up every hour or so with useless announcements when we only had 6H of sleep on that short red eye.
The first two days of our South Korea trip (sunday-monday) would be in Seoul before taking a bus tour of southern South Korea on tuesday.
After landing in Seoul, we took the KTX express to Seoul and a cab to Bukchonmaru Hanok Guesthouse, our homestay. This was my first chance to find out that Korean taxi drivers seem totally unable to drive to a clear point on a map with streets in Korean, unless they have an exact address they can enter in their GPS. Our driver did very badly when I had a clear google map showing him where to go, and he ended up calling our homestay to ask for directions... (I'm only mentioning this now because this experience was repeated multiple times later).
pretty futuristic looking airport with maglev train, sadly not going in our direction.
KTX express train, 300kph
Seoul Station, downtown
We arrived at our homestay around 11:30, a bit later than expected. So we dropped our luggage, got our keys and headed to Changedeokgung Palace to pick up last minute tickets for the secret garden tour. We then had a quick lunch and headed to Changedeokgung Palace for our tour. To be honest, the secret is actually that you can sign up for that tour in any language, and ditch the tour and walk on your own once you've gone through the entrance (just in case your language isn't available anymore).
Also, I should note that because it was the lantern festival weekend for Buddha's birthday, many people were wearing costumes:
Next, we went to Gyeongbokgung Palace:
they had michoko birds running around :)
We had a quick peek at the folk village museum that was right there too:
Next, we went towards Jogyesa, a nearby buddhist temple that was celebrating Buddha's birthday with the 2nd day of lantern festival:
Had some quick roasted pig over a hot stone before going back to see the festival at night. Very pretty with all the lit lanterns:
It was then time for some sleep in our traditional guest house. The next morning the owner served us breakfast and they allowed us to wear some traditional costumes they had:
We then walked around the traditional village houses around the one we stayed at:
We took a quick cab back to Gyeongbokgung Palace to see the changing of the guards, and they also had another station where they let us wear traditional clothes:
From there, we went to Gangnam to have lunch at google, a good place to get a few pictures from high up, and then got a Gangnam style picture by the subway station of the same name :)
We then finished the sightseeing day by going to Bongeunsa, a nice temple nearby, also with lanterns for Buddha's birthday:
We then had another complicated cab ride to a restaurant where I had the exact address and name on my phone, but the driver was unable to drive there because he couldn't punch it in his GPS :-/ I mean how hard is it really to drive to a point on a map that he could just scroll to on his GPS and select? The cab ride too more than twice as long as it should have, and we arrived quite late for our dinner with Doer Ahn and his wife, who nicely agreed to have a dinner/chat with us in a nice BBQ restaurant (sadly Jennifer had food poisoning from an unknown prior source, maybe even Indonesia, and wasn't really able to enjoy the food).
It was great to be able to chat with them and learn more about Korea and Koreans, thanks to both for spending the time to eat with us:
It was then time to go back to our room, and pack our luggage for the early-ish 4 day East Korea bus tour the following morning.
Our second day in Seoul was Monday where all the museums are closed, so it was a good time to go visit the office, as well as to meet Soonson, a fellow coworker and long time Linux enthusiast, for lunch.
The office is located in Gangnam district, famous due to Psy's video, and that literally means "south of river", which it sure was. It took us almost 45mn to get there by taxi (and a bit longer by subway) from the temple quarter in north Seoul.
As always, nice litte office with great people and decors:
foosball is taken seriously in South Korea, great :)
While going around Seoul on a Monday, as all the museums were closed, we were in Gangnam (south of river) after visiting the Google office, and I noticed that there was an aquarium nearby, so I thought we'd go visit it. By the time we found it deep inside a shopping mall, my expectations were way down. I expected a crappy little aquarium and figured we'd had just been robbed of $22 each for the entrance fee.
Turns out, I was very wrong, and happy to be so. Not only was it of a very decent size (all underground in a mall), but it had a fair amount of fish we had not seen before, making the visit actually interesting instead of "yet another aquarium". Thankfully the number of screaming kids was also very low on a monday afternoon :)
this guy has breathing gills on the outside (endangered)
They had a big shark that ate one of their other sharks in their tank. They probably didn't feed it enough :)
it still looks fat :)
they also had random land animals like these cute chipmunks, which they called squirrels
I really expected not much, especially after seeing the first small tanks, but it was much better than expected. Good use of 1.5h or so.
South Korea has a lot to see outside of Seoul, but I had too many planning on my hands, so I through them in the air and instead of reading the entire guidebook and try to decide which areas are worth trying to go to, and worrying about transportation, which would have been non trivial in the rural areas (I could have driven the many km, but I wasn't really keen on it, I hate driving distances for hours), I cheated and booked an eastern korea tour with hanatours.
This was a bit of a gamble as Jennifer and I like "being our own chat (cat)" as she says, meaning we like flexibility and going where we want when we want. That's obviously impossible with a packaged tour, but I figured in this case it would make sense for 4 days. Turned out that while we did indeed lose flexibility, it was about as good as it could have been, considering. The bus was a luxury coach with nice seats and power (so I could work on my laptop and do trip planning/picture processing during the 1-4H drives between locations).
While I'm sure we could have seen more on our own, it would have taken considerable effort, not counting dealing with the car, parking, hotels, restaurants, which was all done for us here. I'm not sure what we missed by being in the bus, but it felt like they picked a decent list of things to see, and while the days were a bit shorter than they would have been for us due to other more pampered people in the bus who don't want long days and aren't as active as us, I think it worked out well enough.
We had a nice bus, quite comfortable and with powwer for our laptops during the longish rides between locations:
The first day we had a 4H drive to the South towards Jinju to see an old fortress that was used to fight Japanese invasions (even if they lost in the end):
the general who successfully defended the city until he died
Next, we went to Busan, the 2nd biggest city in South Korea. It's known for ports, marine trade, beaches, and big buildings. They also have the APEC house, used for Asia trade agreement talks.
buildings where you can open windows, nice (and unusual)
We had dinner at Shinsegae, the biggest department store in the world:
they had a very nice collection of French wines, some priced up to $4000
We ate those puffer fish, poor things
the roof had a viewing area/dinosaur park for kids
At night, I went to see the nearby night market and took some random pictures:
the poor baby octopus didn't know that they could escape
I'm not sure I'd want to eat this
The next morning we went from Busan to Ulsan to visit Ulgi Park, a seaside park with exercising machines and a big dragon slide:
almost there :)
Jennifer wanted to ride this
almost the right height :)
The biggest car manufacturing plant in the world (Kia) was there with lots of cars ready to ship on boats:
Then, a lunch stop, before heading to Gyeongju, starting with Bulguksa temple:
nice guardian statues, they reminded me of the similar ones in Nara
We got to learn about the Silla Kingdom, they reigned in the area between around years 58BC to 935AD and had a very good civilization going on there. Interestingly they burried their kings under big hills made out of stones (now seen as inverted craters filled with grass):
location of tombs
the tombs now look like big mounds
one was escavated to show what it looks inside
early game of go
what things used to look like
the oldest bell in Korea, dating 771
We finished by spending the night in the city, eating at a nice buffet restaurant:
The 3rd day, after a nice buffet breakfast at the Hilton, we went to the historic village of Korea at Hahoe:
Next, we went to Wonju's Hanji Museum, where we learned how they make paper the old fashioned way, and we got to build a little box with their colored paper:
Dinner, was a nice BBQ restaurant, where we had to take off our shoes again:
And we arrived at Alpensia for our night, the future site of the 2018 winter olympics:
ski jump ramps
tame bunnies running around our hotel
The next morning, we went to Jumunjin Fish Market. It was definitely interesting to see, but we were a bit heartbroken to see all those poor octopuses that had been caught and were on their way to dinner plates. If you wonder why I care more about octopuses and cuttlefish, it's because having seen them on several dives, they are highly intelligent and communicative. Think of it as eating a house cat, except an animal that is actually much smarter than a house cat. Just what they're able to do with color patterns on their body, and even change their body shape and texture, is quite impressive. That's why I care more about them than let's say a crab or lobster or run of the mill fish, none of which are smart.
Anyway, some pictures:
black octopus, as big as the ones we found in the ocean on our own
a big one trying to escape
lots of red crab
Next, we drove to the Seoraksan National Park and hiked down a nice trail:
fish heads, fish heads, happy merry fish heads...
last big lunch, way too much food again
And after that, we headed back to Seoul, to be dropped at Lotte Hotel. From there, we did a quick tour of Seoul on our own before the end of the day.
As for Hanatours who organized and sold us this package, I think they did a very decent job to try and please everyone considering the range of customers from pampered and not willing to walk/see much, to super active like us. Jason, our guide, also did a very good job. All in all, it was a good choice to go that route instead of doing all the work to try and organize that ourselves, not counting transportation, harder in those towns.
As soon as we arrived in Seoul after our 4 day Eastern South Korea tour, we arrived at the drop off hotel at 17:00, so I figured we had enough time to go visit Namsangol traditional village by Namsan park and tower and spend the evening by the tower so that we could catch sunset there:
view from namsan tower
happy bird was scooping off flying ants as they popped from the hole
After visiting the village, we took a shuttle bus to Namsan Tower (from reading beforehand, it's faster than taking the overcrowded cable car):
one of the 3 busses that drives to the top
love lock trees
the new lotte tower that is being built
viewing platform on top floor was basic, but worked, outside of dirty windows
Namsangol traditional village
After coming back down from Namsan tower, we went through Namdaemun Market, which was shutting down:
The next morning, we went to the South Korea National Museum, which was both big and excellent. It went from prehistoric times to all dynasties in Korea (hopefully they had fewer than the Chinese or it would have taken even longer :) ). It was nice to learn about the Silla dynasty again (it lasted almost 1000 years), and see some of the sights we had just seen, along with others we hand't seen yet:
We probably spent a bit too long in the first museum and only arrived in the War Museum by 14:00 or so. It's also a very big museum and sadly we had to leave by 17:15 for our flight to Jeju that evening. In 3h15, we just had enough time to see the floors on the Korean War and Vietnam War (which South Korea helped with in return for all the help they got from other countries during their war):
As far as the Korean War goes South Korea definitely has the moral high ground here. They got attacked by North Korea, North Korea abducted 100,000 of their citizens to help their side, more recently they attacked South Korea in a few ways like sinking a patrol ship, or killing soldiers that were cutting a tree that was blocking the view at the DMZ, and things of that nature. I did see a little bit of propaganda for South Korea here and there, but honestly nothing that shocked me or that I disagreed with
While Jennifer argued with me that China would likely not have gotten involved in the Korean war, escalating it much further, if the UN had not tried to retake all of Korea past the 38th parallel once North Korea had invaded virtually all of South Korea, I have to side with South Korea and the UN: North Korea had shown to be dangerous and more generally this was the best time to try and reunite both sides of the country. It's very sad that it failed because North Korea is that much more of a danger with a list wackos running the country.
Sadly, instead of re-unifying both countries, the Korean war lasted 3 years, caused 1.5 million injuries or deaths, and 200,000 million people missing. Financial losses at the time were 1.8 to 3 billion dollars (of then money).
South Korea was invaded as far as this corner until the UN and US got involved
Thankfully Seoul was taken back quickly
France was one of the many countries that helped out
some army recruits were visiting
They had a nice collection of planes, tanks, and more, some from North Korea:
and a replica of the boat that was recently shot and sunk by North Koreans
it got shot pretty bad
The war museum had plenty to see, we missed an entire floor due to lack of time, but did quite enjoy the 3.15H we spent there. Too bad we had to run out to the Gimpo airport to fly to Jeju
Ok, we ended up going to the museum the last day to finish it up, and spent another 3H there (a bit over 6H total) to finish it up:
I then spent time at the bottom floor showing the evolution of war in Korean history, including what Japan did:
in the naval battle of Jinpo, Korea had managed to build cannons that could fit and work inside their superior boats, and use them to defeat an army of Japanese raiders that greatly outnumbered them (1380). Sadly the Japanese only came back more numerous and stronger later
We were glad to have time to go back to this museum, it's definitely worth 5 to 6 hours, or even more. It was quite well done, much to learn there.
in Flying, Southkorea2016, Trips
while visiting Jeju Island in South Korea, I noticed a pamphlet talking about some air and space museum. Initially I shrugged it off, because seriously, how good could it be on a Hawaii style island. But I was wrong, while it's not one of the best I've seen (and to be fair, I've likely seen the best ones in the world at this point), it was much better than average and definitely much better than what I expected. It was a very pleasant surprise.
One hall was a bit of recruitment for the local airforce, showing how they'd like their future air defenses to look like (although it was kind of shown as if it were their current capabilities):
shooting balastic missiles with a bit laser from an AWACS like plane, nice but we're not quite there yet ;)
The museum had a nice section explaining how flight works, and they had this nice demo of drag, showing how the middle widget rotated longer thanks to the pointy bits that reduce drag:
The top floor was about space and had multiple theater show, albeit all in Korean. The 5D 360 degree screen one was still fun to watch (but content was kid oriented):
Otherwise, while it wasn't a a huge collection of planes, they had a decent one, especially considering the location:
in Sciencemuseums, Southkorea2016, Trips
So when we flew to Jeju Island, supposed to be South Korea's Hawaii for honeymooners, and nature enthusiasts who hike around the island, or to the Island's 2000m-ish peak, I had not exactly plannned to stumbled on a computer history museum, let along a good one...
I was impressed with artifacts they had,
original apple 1
the original CGA graphics card was huge
they actually designed and built an original Apple 1 replica
and had it signed by Woz
impressive what we could 'draw' with just a few colored pixels back in the day
nice collection of gaming portable computers
very nice mouse prototype
I remember those mice, cleaning the rollers and the ball
I almost forgot when we switched to optical mice, they are actually pretty impressive
more computers on the wall
my old Amstrad CPC 464 was there
I totally forgot about that Amstrad Pen Pad
they even had google glass
very nice arduino collection
During that time, Jennifer went to study arcade games :)
All in all, a very nice and fairly complete computer museum in a very unexpected place. Glad I got the chance to visit it.
Jeju Island is South Korea's Hawaii, a nice little volcanic island. It's so popular that there are over 100 flights per day between just Seoul and Jeju. Sometimes they literally have flights every 5mn. The amazing part is that we arrived too early for our flight due to my not knowing how long it would take to get there via cab during rush hour, and our incoming flight was known to have issues already. The counter lady actually put us on a flight leaving 20mn from the time we checked in at the outside counter. We got through the airport and to the plane in 17mn and the plane took off on time, amazing.
I typically rent a crappy rental car to remind myself that my own cars are pretty nice :) although in this case the thing didn't even have room for our luggage and they were fully booked and unable to swap us for a better one at the airport :( On the plus side, I think South Korea is about as safe as Japan, so we didn't have to worry too much about someone breaking into the car and stealing our luggage:
we spent the first night by the beach a bit west of Jeju:
This was because I was planning on doing a loop going west, but I then found out about the Nexon Computer Museum. I definitely wanted to check it out, so we went back east to check it out, but started with Loveland, which opened 1H earlier:
mixed messages :)
We then checked out the mysterious road bit next door where your car rolls downhill while it looks that you're going uphill :)
Next, we went to Nexon Computer Museum which was well worth the alteration to my plans (going the next day on our loop back was not possible as it was closed on mondays).
Sadly, at this point I should have rechecked the weather forecast and noticed that the rain on monday had shifted to be later sunday. This messed up the rest of our day as I explain below. In hindsight, I should have continued the loop east and done more museums sunday. Usually I plan better than that but messed up this time :(
So after Nexon, I resumed my original planned loop of turning West, even though it was already just past noon by then. Weather was still ok at the beginning:
Jeju is known for black pigs
Found a nice temple on the way
Next, we went to Manjanggul Lava Tube, it was quite big, long, and impressive. Sadly, it was devoid of life (bats, spiders, or other). I think so many people go by that they go to hide in non public portions of the tube:
By then, we started going to the west coast, and weather started turning south. It didn't pour rain, but visibility got bad quickly. This really sucked because we were supposed to climb to Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called Sunrise Peak. You hike up to the top of a volcano for great views. Seeing the weather, I didn't want to bother because I knew we'd see nothing. Jennifer wanted to try anyway, so we went up, and saw nothing :(
we also missed that, too bad
to worse :(
this is what it was supposed to look like
I do feel crappy about this because if I had swapped both days, and done the loop in reverse, we'd have gotten to the Jeju Folk Village in time for performances, and seen the great view after the storm had passed.
Next on the road was Jeju Folk Village. By the time we arrived, we missed their last performance, but had enough time to visit the village:
Jennifer went to jail :)
By then, fog was to the ground, so we drove further towards our room and got nice BBQ dinner:
The next morning, we went to see some waterfalls and saw a portion of the Jeju walking trail (a 7 day or so hike around the island):
Next, we went to Jusangjeollidae, a nice hexagonal lava rock formation:
We then parked at Yeomiji Botanical Garden and first walked to Cheonjeyeon Falls nearby, across a nice bridge:
After spending some time at the falls, we went back to the botanical gardens, which were pretty good actually:
the top level had an observatory
Next, we went to the Jeju Peace Museum, it's not great or flashy, but gives a good history of the Japanese occupation of Jeju Island and how they started digging tunnels like at Iwo Jima, waiting for the Americans to come attack, and fight them off until the last of them is dead. While it's not super impressive, you can visit a pretty pristine tunnel they dug:
Last, but not least, we went to the Jeju Air and Space Museum, which was definitely a nice surprise, even if not as much of a must go in my opinion as the Nexon Computer Museum:
Jennifer is happy, she got to see a small horse on the way back to the airport :)
Totally randomly, we were walking around Myeong-Dong station in Seoul, and I happened to notice a cat café in the corner of my eye. I made note of it, and went back after dinner to go check it out, out of curiosity.
Jennifer opted out because she didn't have any anti allergy drugs. I didn't expect too much, often cats in cafés are not very friendly because they tend not to like seeing lots of different people, but some of the ones I saw actually were very nice, it was a pleasant surprise:
lion chat knows he got abused, poor thing
even this one, not happy with its collar :)
this one, still not looking happy, but that could be the breed
another unhappy lion chat
this fancy one didn't seem as pissed off
this one had a beautiful coat
this little kitty was beautiful and playful. I was even allowed to pick it up
this cat was super nice, it came and licked me, and then climbed on my back. Quite rare for a cat café
So, most people hopefully know that (sadly) north and south Korea are technically still at war and just have a long lasting cease-fire that north korea has nonetheless violated a view times already. For good measure they've also dug some long tunnels under the border between the 2 countries (aka DMZ), and at least 4 have been found, but more are expected to exist.
The surprising thing is that you can easily visit the South Korean side of the DMZ, but even more surprising, you can visit the JSA on most days. The Joint Security Area is a shared piece of land between North and South Korea where both can meet, and it was also used in the past to exchange prisoners of war (kind of amusingly so, a lot of north korean POW asked not to be sent back to North Korea, which made North Korea kind of upset and delayed the cease fire back in the day).
We did a tour that started with the DMZ, which includes seeing the 3rd tunnel the north koreans were planning on using to invade one day, a (too quick) tour of the observation point where you can look at north korea through binoculars, but sadly you aren't allowed to use cameras from the place where you could actually get decent pictures, which was most disappointing. Whatever few shots I took were quickly stopped. Apparently it's not like the South Koreans really care, but they have a deal with the North Koreans to not allow those pictures:
entrance to the DMZ area and passport check
entrance to 3rd tunnel
it's really just a long tunnel that gets low enough in places that it's quite uncomfortable if you're my height (1m77)
mock tunnel entrance for pictures
apparently there are still real mines left in there
the DMZ is the no man's land area between the 2 yellow lines, with the border in red in the middle
you're allowed to take selfies, but not to take pictures without yourself in that area
Last, but not least, they took us to a train station (Dorasan) that was supposed to unify south and north korea by allowing trains from south korea to transit through north korea to china, Russia, and Europe. Sadly, after the deal was made and the station built, both the north and south korean leaders died of old age and the north korean one was replaced by the crazy kid currently running the country, who then promptly denied train passage through north korea. So they now have this nice pristine totally unused train station, even with customs, that's just gathering dust. Pretty sad, really...
never ever used customs room
The tour was over for most people by then, but we had signed up for the JSA portion of the tour too. To be honest, I'm not sure how worth it the DMZ only tour is. You get to walk in an uncomfortable tunnel for a while, you then go to an observatory where you are not allowed to take the pictures you'd like to take, and then you see a train station that sadly was never used for its intended purpose. The JSA (Joint Security Area) part of the tour takes you further in to the actual border of North and South Korea, where they meet on occasion, and where they have exchanged prisoners in the past.
To get there, you become a guest of the United Nations, get on a UN bus with a US Army escort, and you get to see the freedom house, as well as the conference room that's right on the line between the 2 countries and where you can technically step on north korean soil for a few minutes. How cool or important to do, that is, it's for each to decide, but Jennifer did remark that it's a lot of bussing around and safety checks for the time spent there. Also, you're not supposed to take pictures in most places there, although a few were ok. Interestingly they allowed us to photograph North Korea from there, but asked us not to photograph South Korea behind us:
the south korean soldiers stand there all day with their fists clenched starting at the opponent (a single poor north korean guy with no so good looking clothes) on the other side
I actually feel sorry for the guy, he looks more scared than mean
I assume they are short on staff but are watching back nonetheless :)
the joint conference room
to be honest, I'm not sure the South Koreans who stay there many hours without moving at all, are having a great time either
at least, those 2 were wax statues, the other ones looked like statues, but were not :-/
So, that's that for the DMZ+JSA. Is it worth doing? I'm not certain, I guess each should decide. I should add however, that having been to the excellent War Museum in Seoul, we already knew all the details about the conflict and current situation, so that's not something we learned from the DMZ tour, but for someone who doesn't know, it would be more interesting.
By this time, we had mostly seen the major sights in Seoul, and while we had seen some Folk Villages before, everything I read heartily recommended going to Suwon, a town about 90mn south of Seoul, to see both the Korean Folk Village, and the Suwon/Hwaseong Fortress, so we did :)
Getting there was half the adventure. Taking the subway with google transit navigation that was mostly not translated in roman characters, was an adventure in itself, and then we had to connect to a bus, which also was an adventure, but we made it and arrived at the folk village around 10:35. My guidebook wrongly said that the performance started at 11:00 when in fact they do start at 10:30, but by rushing across the village, we were able to catch the end of the first one, some pretty fancy dancing in nice costumes (we subsequently watched the second showing at 14:00 to see the full show). The rest of the village is quite big, and there is definitely a lot to see:
After the first 3 performances, we went to see the re-enactment of a traditional korean wedding. I kind of felt bad for the poor girl who had to be married twice a day, every day :)
on the plus side, she get carried away by 4 men after each performance :)
A few random pictures of the rest of the village:
demonstration of how people were punished back then :)
that's a lot of kimchi!
interesting sculptures :)
After finishing the village, we took a cab to the fortress (by bus, it would have taken too long, and cabs are pretty cheap, it wasn't even $20). We started with the museum for a quick overview of what we were going to see, and explained how the lord at the time treated his workers well and got a good fortress out of it ;)
this is the magic map I really wish we had had sooner, my guide book didn't do a good job telling us where to go, but this map did
Next, we went to Haenggung Palace for a quite tour before catching the last trolley that goes around the city walls and that left at 17:10:
We then hurried to the tram to catch the last one and get a ride around part of the fortress walls. We arrived just in time to try some archery (we both kind of sucked) and then walk part of the fortress walls back (kind of cool actually). After a dinner in Suwon we got back to Seoul for some rest (90mn to get home from Suwon station, thankfully a direct shot to our hotel):
downtown by the train station was a bit of a contrast :)
After coming back from the DMZ and before going to Suwon, we had a few hours in Seoul, so we went to the 3D black art museum, hard to find, but pretty nice and nice twist on top of a regular trick art museum:
The part where it got interesting was the 2nd floor when they turn the lights off and the black art comes out:
Next, after wandering the streets to look around and try and find a Din Tai Fung that had moved and became unfindable, we had a quick dinner and went to see the Nanta Cooking Show. While it was entertaining, I have to admit that when you've seen Blue Man Group at its peak, more than 10 years ago, Nanta Cooking Show falls short. It's not bad, but it could be better.
just like Japan, they're wearing clothes with other languages they don't really understand :)
they tried to emulate the blue man group in some ways, but it just wasn't as good
Our last day, we went back to the War Museum to spend another 3H there, and then headed to Dongdaemun, the eastern gate, and then walked by Cheonggyecheon stream, Dongdaemun Market, and Gwangjang Market, on the way back to our hotel:
Seoul has a very small piece of the city wall left
And just like that, it wsa time to get back to Incheon Airport to fly back home. Turns out cabs are so cheap that it was much simpler to just take a cab back to the airport, despite the 1H+ ride, it was not even $50. I had to convince Korean Airlines that it was ok to let me board the plane on an emergency passport and without my green card, they called US imigration who verified a few things and gave them a green light.
The KAL 1st lounge was a bit underwhelming, choices were limited and turns out they were exactly the same as the business lounge that just had a few more people. Not a big deal, just good to note. The 1st class section of the plane didn't rival Singapore Airlines, but it still was very nice (the food and alcohol options were limited though, just like the lounge).
food options were quite limited
nice idea, your seat has its own space where you can put your carry ons
Jennifer was far across the aisle with lots of empty space in the middle, but they later moved her because her entertainment system didn't work
a visitor came to hide my screen :)
seats weren't quite wide enough for 2 like singapore airlines, but that wasn't a big deal ;)
the business section seemed decent too
both the video screen and the control screen were running android
because you are interested in our first world problems :) I have to report that sadly the Osetra Caviar wasn't that tasty, but I'll still give KAL points for trying :)
Thanks go to David Hotz from Cranky Concierge for getting us the 1st class award seats with miles, like on our Singapore flight.
1 day for the DMZ and 1 day for Suwon (both day trips)
Turns out it was exactly the right amount of time. Ok, we could have used a 3rd day in Jeju, but I felt that for Seoul we had seen all the highlights, so close enough :)
What I learned about Korean History
So now comes the part of what I learned and what I think of South Korea in general. First, I'll say that I was generally impressed. Keeping in mind that South Korea had to recover from years of Japanese occupation and then the Korea war just 60 years ago, it's doing extremely well today (not unlike Singapore which also had an impressive growth despite little land and few resources). The country is of course very modern, public transport is good, food was good, the only issue is that too much piping needs to be replaced to be entirely safe and as a result, tap water is generally not considered super safe to drink (the water sources are fine, but the old piping in many buildings is not).
While I knew about Korean war, I did not in details because the Asian side of WWII and its downfall for Korea, isn't really taught in France. The war museum in Seoul does a very good job giving a blow by blow of what happened. For one, I didn't know that North Korea had taken over almost all of Korea before the UN stepped in to help and retook almost all of Korea almost all the way to the Chinese border, until they got pushed back by the Chinese to almost where the original line was around the 38th parallel. Sad that they weren't able to retake all of Korea from the communists and that all those lives were lost when in the end things ended more or less where they had started.
To this day, North and South Korea are still technically at war, and only have a cease fire that according to the South Korean side, North Korea has violated a few times already (from what I read, they are correct). Obviously, I did get to learn history from the South Korean side, and while I found that they twisted things just a bit to entice the population to join their military and defend the country from the north koreans, I can't really blame them for doing so.
I also learned that the US still has a few army bases on standby there as a show of force against the North Koreans and China, should they get wrong ideas.
In turn, South Korea is very thankful of the help they got from other nations to defend themselves from the communists, and they do a very good job crediting the countries that helped them having repaid with their own help in later conflicts where the UN got involved. This may be part of the reason that they allow tourists to visit the DMZ and JSA, so that they can learn more about the situation.
Now, it's hard to talk about Korean History without talking about Japan. While it was very interesting to learn about the different dynasties they had and the unification from the Silla dynasty that lasted almost 1000 years, I'd say that Koreans were probably not warriors at heart like the Japanese, and while they were able to push the Japanese back a few times (including the battle of Jinpo where they had superior boats with canons and sunk all the boats of a superior Japanese raiding party), ultimately the Japanese came back until they won. Considering Japan wanted to expand, Korea was obviously the first target on the way, so this was inevitable. 2009: Lost Memories gives an interesting twist on history where Japan didn't lose the 2nd world war and wher eKorea was part of Japan with only a few people still resisting them and trying to bring back Korean culture and history. Reading up on this, Japan has thankfully apologized for its actions to Korea (and other countries) a few times, including June 23, 1996: Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said in a press conference: "Hashimoto mentioned the aspects of Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula such as the forced Japanization of Korean people's name and commented "It is beyond imagination how this injured the hearts of Korean people" Hashimoto also touched on the issue of Korean comfort women and said "Nothing injured the honor and dignity of women more than this and I would like to extend words of deep remorse and the heartfelt apology" (Joint press conference at summit meeting with President Kim Young Sam in South Korea)
Interestingly the same page also states As of 2010, 24% of South Koreans still feel that Japan has never apologized for its colonial rule, while another 58% believe Japan has not apologized sufficiently. One thing I'd be interested in learning more is whether Japan teaches to its own citizens some of its troubled history, and I'm not sure how much they do. When I went to the peace museum in Osaka, I didn't find a single sentence along the lines of "yes, we got bombed to hell, but we kind of had done things to trigger that".
On a related note, South Koreans don't seem to dislike Japanese people (which I was thinking they might considering the repeated invasions of Korea by Japan), but they all told me they do dislike the Japanese government. One also told me he found while travelling in Japan that Japanese people are quite ignorant of their own history and what their country has done, unlike let's say Germany. That's indeed regrettable. We all need to embrace our own histories and faults, so that we can vouch not to repeat them.
Getting around in South Korea
While people working at train stations, airports and hotels all spoke enough English to get around, the general population doesn't speak English too much, just like Japan (except that I speak some Japanese and failed to learn much Korean despite trying before the trip).
Dealing with taxis was however much harder than I anticipated (and I've used taxis in Japan). First, I need to state that taxis are quite cheap, typically $2.50 for short hops, so it makes more sense to take a door to door taxi than bother with the subway when you're trying to save time (and the subway is good, just like in Singapore, or Taipei). The problem is that korean taxi drivers seem to be unable to drive anywhere unless they can enter your destination in their GPS and follow the magic magenta line. One driver was unable to even get us to the War Museum because he couldn't find a way to enter it in his GPS (we had the name and address already written on a piece of paper by our hotel). This is about as bad as a Parisian taxi driver telling me he can't get us to the eiffel tower because after entering the phone number, his GPS can't find it.
Now, they have very fancy GPSes, I was impressed, but damn, they lost all ability to drive without one, or if I gave them a clear point on my phone on a map, they could see where it was, but they were unable to route to a point on the map without an address or phone number (sadly the address on my phone was korean written in English, which they couldn't read):
because getting the rental car GPS to work was hard, I had 2 of my own with openstreetmaps in Jeju :)
So sorry, but I have to say it: South Korean taxi drivers are with few exceptions, the most clueless I have ever seen. Sure, there is a language barrier, but out of about 15 cabs, most of them were unable to drive to a clear point shown on a map with street names they can read in Korean. They can see the street, they can see where it is on a map they can zoom in and out, but if they cannot enter a location that their GPS understands, they tell you they cannot drive there. To their defense, Korean street addresses are not super simple, so sometimes their GPS cannot process one. Sometimes they try a phone number for the business, which may or may not work, but if none of that works, then they seem unable to drive. At the end I gave up with a few and just gave them the directions by telling them to drive straight or turn left/right until we got to where we needed.
South Koreans are said to be aggressive drivers. I did find that they indeed tend to run red lights, which is bad, but for the rest, it was nothing that scared me. Driving in Jeju was totally a non event, except for the very many speed cameras everywhere trying to nail us with very slow speed limits :( (I did learn to drive in Paris, so I'm used to worse than what we saw in Korea).
However, one thing to note is that Google Maps sadly is not allowed to give driving directions in Korea, but OSMand with openstreetmaps on android did the job. But while we're on the topic, while transit directions (subways/busses) work on google maps, most station names are not translated in English at this moment, so reading the station names was tough (I reported the bug to my coworkers at Google, and they are working on fixing this thankfully).
Another low light is that they require a useless international drivers license to let you even rent a car. I say useless because there is no korean on it, they have to read the English. By then I might as well be using my US one to start with. My drivers license lasts 10 years and this scam international one needs to be replaced every year, what a waste of time. I'm making special mention of this though because after making one, it got stolen with my passport and wallet, so without the help of a nice coworker in the US who went to AAA, made me a new international drivers license and fedexed it to Korea, I wouldn't even have been able to drive in Jeju. Now to be fair, Japan has the same exact problem, but at least the international license had Japanese on it, but no Korean.
Food in South Korea
We ate quite well almost every day, but neither Jennifer who grew up with chopsticks, nor me, were bit fans of their metal chopsticks with very small and slippery tips (not the best way to grab stuff, the Chinese or Japanese chopsticks are easier to use).
We knew and like kimchi, and what's not to love about korean BBQ?
I'll give a thumbs down to all the octopus eating though. As a diver, I love octopus, they are super smart and interesting creatures. I've seen some act up for me, making colors and shapes, and even "taste" my arm by touching me with their suckers. I wish they were treated more like dolphins, even if they aren't mammals. Then, when you get to the topic of eating live baby octopus, I just find that both unnecessary and barbaric (never mind that with the amounts I've seen in tanks around South Korea, they are going to empty what's left of the ocean soon):
So, I'm a carnivore, not an animals activist, but eating that much octopus, especially live baby ones, really doesn't seem necessary. Now to be fair, Korea isn't nearly as much a threat of what's left of ocean life, as China, or even Japan that hasn't really given up on killing whales yet, and seems to be intent on finding the last big tunas left in the ocean, even if they go extinct.
The food in street markets was a bit more questionable at times, it felt a bit more like Taiwan where it was a bit of Russian roulette ;) Even Jennifer who felt comfortable in Taiwan, was a bit more worried in South Korea street markets :)
(but to be fair, the US sells deep fried sticks of butter, except I guess you at least know what you're getting)
Interestingly, South Korea is the only place in the world so far where I've seen multiple elevators that weren't synchronized. By that I mean that they each that their own button and would come separately. Each button would only call one elevator. If you were in a hurry, you could push all 3 buttons and take the first, but that's also a bit a-social since it needlessly ties up 2 other elevators you aren't going to use.
The Internet super fast everywhere, it's quite embarrassing for the US how bad the internet we have compared to South Korea.
Korean Airlines was second best airline we flew after Singapore Airlines :)
We getting around Seoul with just English worked well enough as long as you could either figure out transit navigation from google maps, or manage to get a taxi driver to go where you were trying to go. For the rest of Korea, I chickened out (also due to lack of time), but I figured getting around might have been a bit more "interesting", but because we used a bus tour, we didn't have to worry about it, it all worked out.
South Koreans were all very nice, welcoming, and helpful.
The architecture and temples were quite nice, but I have to say that I was a bit more impressed with some of the ones I saw in Japan (sorry). Sadly, I think once you've been to Nikko and Kyoto, it's hard to impressed by temples again. But Nikko is way over the top.
To be fair, some of Korea's national treasures were destroyed during the Japanese occupations, but it was great to be able to see at least the Silla Dynasty's tombs, as very big mounds of stones now covered with grass. They don't quite rival egyptian tombs, but they're still very impressive to see.
We however quite enjoyed the visit of Korean Folk Villages, and seeing the colorful clothing from the different eras, that Korea has had. They're very distinct from Japan's and definitely worth seeing too.
So yes, we had a great time in South Korea, I actually feel we learned a lot from that trip, and I'm very happy we had the time to do it.