I arrived in Seoul at around seven in the morning, nursing a relatively mild hangover from an evening at the Wishbeer Home Bar in Bangkok (which was my eighteen-hour layover en route to South Korea). Why did I choose South Korea for my first proper vacation in a year? Well, it honestly wasn’t my first choice. My initial list had Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia and Japan. Considering the costs, the weather, the ease of getting a visa, I wasn’t particularly confident about any of the options. In a moment of serendipity, South Korea presented itself as a viable travel destination by one of the travel vloggers I follow. In a matter of a few days, I got my visa and had my nearly three week itinerary planned out.
So here I was at the Incheon airport in Seoul, visa stamped, sim card loaded, public transit card in place and all set to find my hostel . ( NOTE – It’s really easy to get the sim card up and running, and do not forget to pick up your public transport card at the airport itself. Also, they have buses from the airport that take you to almost all the major destinations in town, use those) For those of you worried about the language barrier, most of the folks at the airport speak English. I was taken aback by this one Korean lady behind the help desk who spoke English with a perfect Australian accent.
I had booked a bed at the Trick Art Guest House in Hongdae. Hongdae, located in Mapo-Gu in Seoul, is an area that’s known for its youthful, underground culture with tonnes of art galleries, quaint cafes, beer bars, shopping, street performers and more, predominantly thanks to the Hongik University that’s located in the area. It also serves as a major hub from where to take the subway to various parts of the city. ( NOTE – the subway is your biggest friendin Seoul when it comes to getting around. A fabulously planned system ensures you get to almost every location in the city, quickly, and at very inexpensive rates. Make sure you get a map, I had a tough time reading the app).
After grabbing a quick nap and shower, I went hunting for a restaurant for lunch. My first experience with food in South Korea was at a posh(ish) neighbourhood restaurant where some sort of television serial shooting was going on. I nearly left, but the staff was all too happy to have a foreigner in their restaurant. Somewhere, on some channel in Korea, you’ll probably see the Happy Panda struggling with his food. The menu given to me was all in Korean, and requesting for an English language menu using Google Translate was of no use. The menu didn’t even have pictures for me to refer to. Fortunately, almost all restaurants in Korea have only a handful of options on their menu. I pointed at one of the five options and waited to be surprised.
What arrived was one of the most intimidating meals that I had ever seen. It was a rather large soup bowl in which, sitting in a bright red broth was a heap of baby octopuses, shrimps, clams and a few other meats I couldn’t quite recognize. While I am not easily intimidated, the sight of a ( yet to be confirmed) dead octopus on my table was a bit intimidating. The meal was a spicy yet hearty noodle soup, with a lot of boiled seafood thrown in. This meal was accompanied by the world-famous kimchi, and a few other pickled veggies on the side. I was also given a rather large pair of scissors which I just sat with in my hand, pondering what to do. It turns out that scissors are given with every meal, to help cut up the meat and kimchi. There could not have been a better introduction to the portions and complexity of meals I would be indulging myself in over the next few weeks.
It took me about forty five minutes of struggling with slimy bits of octopus leg and scissors to complete my meal. Partially jet-lagged and completely full, I made my way back to the hostel to grab some more sleep before hitting the town in the evening. But this was not before I stopped at this quaint chocolate themed café called 17 degrees Celsius ( which is apparently the optimum temperature to keep chocolate). The café sells a wide variety of hand-made chocolates, a hot chocolate where the amount of chocolate you put in can be changed to anywhere from 40% to 80%. Needless to say, I went with the 80% on a subsequent trip. My favourite was the chocolate softee which offered a delightful bitter flavour as opposed to the much sweeter variant available back home.
Those were my first few hours in the city of Seoul. I caught up on a few hours of sleep before hitting the streets. More details on a subsequent blog post.