We have just returned from a week in Korea! Bill was invited to give two talks at a workshop (Children’s Health and Environment in East Asia and the Pacific Region) in Seoul and another talk at a university in Gwangju (which is in southern South Korea). About the only thing we didn’t enjoy was the 70° drop in temperature! When we packed for our stay in Bangkok, coats and mittens were not on the “things to take” list. And, although I managed to find some thermal under layers, Bangkok’s boutiques have slim pickin’s when it comes to winter wear. (I’m sure my friends back home are not feeling too sympathetic as they have been dealing with a pretty brutal and lengthy winter, while I’ve been sweating it out in Bangkok.)
Anyway, I’m going to try to write a quick summary of our time there while it is fresh in my mind (we just flew back to Bangkok yesterday), and then post some random pics at the end.
We spent four days in Seoul and only two and a half in Gwangju (the 5th largest city), making it a bit of a whirlwind trip. My overall take on the Korean culture is that it is very fast paced, punctual, modern (with full respect of its history), and technologically efficient (I loved the heated floors, warm toilet seats, and call buttons at restaurant tables). In addition, the cities were incredibly clean (even the tiles in the tunnels sparkled). Having traveled there with no ideas or expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Korea and its friendly people.
Our hotel was nicely situated near the university where Bill’s meeting was being held and about a mile away from 2 of the 5 grand palaces of Seoul – the Changdeokgung and the Gyeonbokgung (I’m so glad this is a blog and not a radio show because I cannot pronounce any of these names). Each palace consists of several buildings that accommodated the king’s throne as well as his living quarters, a hall for the queen and the ladies who waited on her, the residence of the crown prince, kitchens, meeting rooms, and on and on. The palaces are like small cities, covering over 100 square acres!
Both palaces were built in the 1300-1500s and were ornately decorated, especially on the ceilings and eaves. Lots of flowers and animal figures, representing happiness, strength, and eternity were incorporated throughout the artwork. And dragons and other mythical creatures were perched on the rooftops to protect the palace grounds. Of course the dragons were no match for the Japanese who destroyed a number of palace buildings in the late 1500s and then again, after the palace was rebuilt, during their occupation in the early 1900s. In fact, at Gyeonbokgung (the main royal palace), about 90% of the buildings were demolished. A new project to restore the palace began in 1990, which is why the whole place looks really nice right now and definitely worth a visit!
A story that fascinated me the most involved the king’s chronicler, the man responsible for the truthful and accurate reporting of the king’s every day actions and deeds. The king was not allowed to manipulate or erase any of the chronicler’s recordings, even if the incidents were embarrassing, like when one king fell from his horse during a hunt. And so, it was said, that the great kings feared no one except their own chroniclers! Hmmm…
Some palace visitors, young and old, were dressed in traditional Korean outfits. We learned that several shops rented out the hanbok costumes for folks who really wanted to fit into the palace scene. I found it amusing to see young women wearing long fancy dresses with tennis shoes and men donning brightly colored robes and stovepipe-like hats. The costumed visitors enriched our visit by bringing an in-your-face perspective of what the palace grounds may have looked like a very long time ago.
As we exited, we were treated to the changing of the guards, who wore traditional warrior outfits (not rented!) and who carried some scary looking weapons.
Situated in between the two palaces is the Bukchon Hanok Village, known for the preservation of its traditional 600-year-old homes. Exploring on my own, I walked through many alleys and streets admiring the tiled roofs and stoned walls that give the village a fairy-tale feel; I had to remind myself that they were actual homes. Posted signs requested that visitors keep their voices down and respect the homeowners’ privacy while still enjoying the quaint houses. And, again, some people were still walking around in their hanbok outfits, further enhancing the traditional atmosphere.
I made my way through the village and popped in and out of various little shops. At one point, I arrived at what I thought was another palace surrounded by a tall wall. I headed for the entrance but was stopped by a uniformed man who told me I was in a secure area and needed to leave! I was apparently trying to visit the Prime Minister at his residence! Who knew?? I decided it was time to find my way back to the hotel, even though I’m quite sure the PM would have enjoyed meeting me!
One morning, we woke up to SNOW!! My cloth Skechers and I laid low for awhile, just venturing out for food! I could see the snow-covered palace from my hotel window.
By evening, a lot of the snow had melted and I was able to meet Bill and his colleagues for a fabulous dinner. The highlight was when the waitress brought scissors to the table so that the grilled squid could be cut into strips – way easier than cutting it with a knife! And it was absolutely delicious!
After dinner, some of us continued the fun and the feast at a traditional Korean bar at the back end of an alley. We went to have a drink, but naturally more food was ordered, including a kimchi pancake. On top of that, the owner wanted to treat Bill and me to some special food that wasn’t even on the menu! We weren’t about to decline her offerings! We were stuffed and frozen at the end of the night, but thoroughly touched by the Korean hospitality.
We were only able to tour around the downtown area briefly, taking in the main government square along with a few protesting groups. We also enjoyed a really cool (and thankfully heated) underground museum with kid activities, historical panels, and cafes, and then wandered right into a very busy street market in the Insadong art district. I feel like we made the most of our short time.
In Gwangju, we stayed in the International Housing Hall on the campus of the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technolgy (GIST). All of the Korean and international students who are admitted here receive a completely free education as well as a bicycle to use for transportation! And everything they need is right on campus, from coffee shops and gyms to churches and rental cars. And there is a pretty park with nice exercise equipment along the track that circles around a pond. Naturally, restaurants and karaoke bars are a short walk away.
Bill’s friend, Dr. Kim, took us to two of those restaurants. In the first, we sat on the floor in the traditional manner and were served by the one and only waitress, who also lifted a few bowls of rice wine with us. The Korean spinach, cabbage, and radishes are quite different from ours – I will have to look for them at H-Mart when we return. Fresh seaweed and chili bean paste is my new go-to snack!
We also were encouraged to try ammonia fish, which was not a favorite. It seriously smelled like ammonia, which was bad enough even when masked with a little kimchi, but then the texture was quite tough and difficult to chew. I like to try new things, but this was one and done! There was not enough of the tasty homemade rice wine that could convince me otherwise.
By the end of the evening, we were closing down the restaurant with the waitress and the chef/owner, who was quickly downing a few shots of the local soju (similar to vodka) after her long night of cooking. We became fast friends, thanks to Kim’s translating skills, and she sent us home with two bottles of her homemade chili bean paste!
We were joined the second night by two GIST students, Ann from Thailand and Cary from Malaysia. Ann’s mother was also visiting, and rounded out our group of six. The meal, however, could have fed 6 more as well, as the dishes just kept coming! Kim explained that the government actually told restaurants to cut back on the traditional side dishes, to avoid food waste, but tradition won out and diners are still offered a variety of kimchi, spinach, seaweed, fish, cabbage, noodle, rice, lettuce, and carrot dishes before the main entrees arrive! Oh, there’s also soup! My taste buds said more, but my stomach finally surrendered.
On our last morning, Kim drove us into the mountains to visit a 1400-year-old working Buddhist temple, called Baegyangsa Temple, one of Korea’s National Scenic Sites. Although it was a drizzly morning, we were able to walk quietly through the temple grounds and even into the main temple hall that houses the Buddha.
The decorative buildings were similar in style to the palaces we had toured, including the tiled roofs. Bill was happy to donate 10,000 Korean Won ($10) so that he could personalize one of the roof tiles! We really appreciated the chance to wrap up our stay with a visit to this very special, peaceful place. All in all, a great ending to a great trip, despite the wintry weather!
As promised, here are some odd-and-end photos, just because I want to include them! I mean, how often will I get to Korea??! Enjoy!