Discovering Seoul Affordable, Rewarding and Easy
By Marian Goldberg
I have visited East Asia many times, but I had never been to Korea. I wasn’t sure what to expect exactly. Was it going to be like Japan or China or MASH? Since I would be traveling alone, my biggest concern was safety, cleanliness, the ease of getting around, the cost of getting around, and if would I be able to have a rewarding and enriching cultural experience on my own. I discovered this and more …
Plenty of English Spoken
Wherever I went, someone, even little children, tried to speak to me in English. Street, highway, and attraction signs were in both Korean and Roman letters. English-language tours of palaces and museums and English descriptive brochures and labels at museums and attractions were widespread. Even the subways offered announcements in both Korean and English.
Easy Access and Seoul Sources
The Korea Tourist Organization (KTO) sponsors a helpful 24-hour toll-free telephone service that can provide valuable travel information or translation assistance. If your taxi driver doesn’t speak enough English, if you need help with a restaurant menu, if you are lost on the street or if you simply have a travel question, you can dial 1330 from your cell or hotel phone, and be immediately connected to an English speaking information officer.
One additional point that I found out when writing this article is that this service is even accessible when dialed from abroad! From the United States, dial 011-82-2-1330. Of course the local U.S.-based offices (see end of article for contacts) are also excellent resources to consult with prior to departure.
Additionally, as of February 2008, there is also a brand new tourism organization for the city of Seoul, and in September 2008, the Seoul Tourism Organization hired its first International Marketing Director for the Americas and Europe. Maureen O’Crowley (E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former travel agent and travel journalist from Los Angeles, who grew up in Seoul as a child and has a love and passion for the city.
Visit www.seoulwelcome.com/index_eng.html and http://english.visitseoul.net/visit2007en/
Cell Phone Rentals
Having a cell phone with English-language prompts and instructions when you are traveling – especially on business or independently – provides an extra level of comfort and security. In Korea, the cell phones, which can be picked up and returned at the airport upon arrival and before departure, are very inexpensive to rent, with inexpensive outgoing call rates and free incoming calls. The standard daily rental phone fee is KW 3,000 or about $3, but if you register for the phone online in advance through the KTO website at: www.visitkorea.or.kr/ena/RE/RE_EN_1_2_4_1.jsp, you will not only receive your phone number by e-mail in advance -- so you can tell everyone before you leave -- you will also receive an additional KW 1,000 off the daily rental fee. I rented my phone for six days, made and received a fair number of calls, and paid less than $30.
Efficient Ground Transportation
With experience in New York and Tokyo, I was more than a little nervous when I learned that my accommodations, although five-star, were not located in the center of Seoul. My first hotel, the Grand Hyatt, perched atop Mt. Namsan, in an area coveted by foreign diplomats with gorgeous panoramic city views, was 15-20 minutes from downtown (depending upon traffic).
My second hotel, the Grand InterContinental, in the trendy Jamsil district south of the Han River and connected to the modern COEX Entertainment complex (including an Imax Cinema, the Kimchi Museum, Seoul’s largest Aquarium with 40,000 sea creatures in 90 tanks, and numerous shops and restaurants) was half-an hour drive to the city center. However, despite this, I learned that a taxi from the Grand Hyatt to City Hall costs less than $6, and a taxi from the InterContinental to the Presidential Blue House -- for a must-do drive-by --was less than $15. The latter distance in New York would have cost me $40 plus tip, but tipping isn’t even expected in Korea. Additionally, the taxis were clean; the drivers wore white gloves, and most were friendly and excited to practice their English.
Hop-on-Hop-off Bus Tour …
Despite the affordability of taxis – especially if two or more people are traveling together -- I wanted to familiarize myself with Seoul’s neighborhoods and get a good overview of all the attractions and their locations individually and relative to each other.
Fortunately, the Grand Hyatt was a stop on both the Downtown and Night Routes of the Seoul City Tour Bus (www.seoulcitybus.com/eng/index.htm). The “Downtown” hop-on-hop-off Single Decker motor coach (KW 10,000 or about $7.50 per adult day pass) departs every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the new Double Decker bus (with free internet access onboard; KW1200 or about 90 cents for adult round-trip) departs every hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Both offer a two-hour tour of the major attractions on the north side of the Han River.
The “Night Tour” departs once a day at 8 p.m. It’s a 1.5-hour tour proceeding south from City Hall passed the Namdaemum Market (a 10-acre all night wholesale market with over 1,000 above ground shops and stall venders flanked by several nearby retail department stores and an extensive underground shopping arcade) and the Myeong-dong mid-to-high priced shopping district (9th most expensive street in the world in terms of floor space rents) back and forth several times across the Han River and then returning after encircling the Namsan Botanical Garden and the North Seoul Tower (KW 10,000 per adult for a Double Decker Bus or KW 5,000 for a Single Decker Bus). Both Day and Night buses operate Tuesday through Sunday year-round, plus Monday from July 4-August 15 and on Monday holidays. Each seat is equipped with a personal audio headset in a choice of languages including English (just push the “English” button), and the commentary proceeds automatically as the bus approaches the next site/stop. In addition, a genial, multi-lingual young woman is available to collect tickets and answer additional passenger questions.
The subways were very easy to navigate because not only are the stop announcements all made in English (in addition to Korean), but each stop is named, numbered and color coded! For example, the Grand InterContinental was located by the Samseong Subway Stop, which is #219 on the Number 2/Green Line. The “2” Corresponds to Subway Line #2 and the “19” means you count 19 stops from the first stop on the line. All this can be matched to an English subway map, which is obtainable from the Korea Tourism Organization before departure or at their extensive downtown travel information center (40 Cheonggyecheonno, Jung-gu), at “I” Information booths at the airport and throughout the city (including at the COEX complex), or from any hotel concierge. Most subway ticket clerks speak enough English, but there is always another subway passenger who will come forward to assist.
The cost of the ticket from Samseong Station to Downtown Seoul (a 45-minute ride) was just KW 1,200 (about 89 cents). Quite ironically, when riding the subway, I actually ran into someone I had met two days before on a bus tour.
I was impressed with how clean the city was – not a speck of trash on the streets or in the subway and very low air pollution. Although bottled water is prevalent everywhere from hotel rooms to vending machines, the tap water is perfectly safe to drink. I didn’t see any homeless people, although I did see several people walking around with surgical masks on their faces. Having traveled to Japan, I knew this meant they had a cold and didn’t want anyone near them to catch it. I also had the good fortune to enjoy the Korean spas at my hotels. As in Japan, one showers first before entering the 105.8˚F natural spring Jacuzzi bath, so the water stays clean for everyone. I didn’t have a chance to indulge in the indigenous ginseng-based spa treatments, but I was told they were extremely popular with foreigners.
It was an extremely cold December afternoon when I took the Seoul City Bus Tour, and for the first half-hour, I was the only guest on the bus. Consequently, I chatted extensively with the young woman site announcer, and since it was the last Downtown tour of the day, I invited her to join me for coffee after the tour. To my surprise she spontaneously agreed! We ended up at an affordable Korean tavern-style restaurant called Jung To Jip (“jongto” meaning “owners” and “jip” meaning “house”; address: Jungno-ku, Insadong 130; call 02 723-9046). We enjoyed a delicious traditional grilled fish fillet, “Atka Mackerel” (KW 8,000 ora bout $6 for a decent-sized platter) with a side order of “DoTori Mook,” an acorn-based Jello served with sesame leaves in a red pepper sauce (KW 4,000 or $3).
We washed it down with “Makgoli,” a fermented rice wine served to each table in a large bowl (KW 4,000 or about $3 for the table’s bowl) and consumed individually in smaller rice-size bowls. The dinner was one of the highlights of my trip to Seoul.
Three Little Words: Explore, Explore, Explore
Once I got my bearings straight I was able to walk and taxi around the city on my own.
I took guided walking tours of two of the six restored palaces; explored traditional neighborhoods, such as Insadong (www.lifeinkorea.com/travel2/9) -- famous for it’s cultural goods and souvenirs; checked out the city’s traditional Hanok Villages -- some with houses almost 600 years old, and I traversed the grounds of the historic Bongeunsa Buddhist Temple (www.bongeun.org), just steps away from the Grand InterContinental hotel. Although reconstructed several times over history, the temple was originally built in 794. I was also surprised to learn that 23% of the Korean population consider themselves practicing Buddhists.
In just a few days I was enriched and rewarded by the Korea’s deep-rooted culture reflected in its history, cuisine, language, religion and the warmness of people – and this was just in the capital of Seoul, a city of 10.5 million inhabitants (the population of the entire country hovers around 49 million). The culture of the countryside provides even more wonderful tales to tell.
Resources and Contacts
When planning my trip, in addition to KNTO, I contacted Asia Pacific Travel Ltd. (800-262-6420; www.southkorea1on1.com), whose President, Walter Keats has been organizing groups to South Korea and now also North Korea) since 1972.
The Korean Tourism Organization operates a 24-hour call center in English at the Incheon International Airport and downtown for visitors in Korea: call 822-1330.
The Korea National Tourism Organization operates three offices in the U.S.: Los Angeles, 323-634-0280; E-mail email@example.com; Chicago, 312-981-1717; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; and New York, 201-585-0909; E-mail ny@knto america.com, or call 800-TOUR-KOREA (800-868-7567); or visit www.tour2korea.com