After the Korean War, Seoul, South Korea probably wouldn’t have been listed as an ideal destination for summer travelers. U.S. occupation, the burdens of a civil war that cost nearly 375,000 Korean civilian lives (to say nothing of the 138,000 Korean soldiers who perished), and persistent food shortages amidst the wreckage of conflict did not make for a prime vacation spot. “Most of Seoul lay in ruins,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Malcolm W. Browne remembered in his 1993 memoir, Muddy Boots and Red Socks. “The poverty was ubiquitous and obtrusive, and there was a constant danger of losing a wallet or camera to thieves.” Decades of military rule followed as did the eventual transformation to a more democratic government in the 1980s and 1990s (it’s obviously much more complicated than this but hey we’re traveling here; plus you can always check out our bibliography/overview and Russell Burge’s piece on student politics for more info!). Today, Seoul residents and South Koreans more generally wrestle with the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, so to describe the city’s inhabitants as resilient seems to be underselling their collective courage in the face of very real geopolitical struggle.
Particularly, over the past decade and a half, South Korea has emerged as an economic and cultural power not only in Asia but the world. K-Pop produces chewy, delicious pop songs sung around the world. PSY’s “Gangnam Style” obliterated the pop charts in the most unpredictable of ways. (Who knew a Korean rapper dancing like a pony and mocking the city’s more fashionable citizens could capture the world’s imagination?) Stephen Colbert made frequent references to the Korean pop star Rain on his now defunct Comedy Central Show; Korean soap operas captivate Asia, and if one asks my younger sister, parts of America as well. (A thumbnail encapsulation of a typical plot usually consists of a young girl torn between loving a “bad boy” and a more wholesome rival, while at some point an older Korean lady screams at her for something – I’m simplifying here, maybe even making things up). Rising incomes and changing beauty standards – shaped by factors too complex to discuss here – have made Seoul an East Asian hot spot for plastic surgery.
Not long ago (though in today’s media environment it feels like decades), the New York Times focused on the South Korean capital in its “36 Hours” travel column, highlighting, among other aspects of the city, the Cheonggyecheon Stream: a “ribbon of water” that has flowed through the city for centuries, but had become polluted and covered by a highway. Approximately ten years ago, city officials decided to reclaim the park through urban renewal projects and it now stands as a testament to these efforts as Koreans and tourists take in its pleasures for miles. Los Angeles might take note considering its own efforts with the L.A. River. Sitting just below street level, it even escapes the sounds of the bustling city such that “you can hear birds chirping in the trees,” writes the Times. Note however, when it rains heavily the stream is closed for fear of flooding.
Like many East Asian and Southeast Asian cities, Seoul has existed for centuries. The layering of old and new is not as pronounced as in places like Bangkok, but it’s there. One can hike along the old fortressed walls of the city or visit the various gates that once controlled entrance into Seoul. They are all embedded in the modern landscape. Still, the city feels ultra modern. At night , the buildings are sometimes lit up with cartoon characters. The subway goes pretty much everywhere and unlike in Washington D.C. or New York the trains arrive often and remain largely spotless.
The airport could not be more 21st century – it even includes a hotel for layovers and countless food options. Traveling in Asia, one wonders just what Asians might think of American airports like say, LaGuardia. The word “third world” comes to mind, but I digress.
Food in Seoul is, unsurprisingly, delicious. While Korean food is spicy, it’s not nearly as spicy as Thai cuisine, which might literally burn a hole in your stomach. Obviously, Korean BBQ can be had throughout the metropolis, though keep in mind it tends to be pricier than many other food options. Bibimbap, for example, is cheaper and ubiquitous. Seoul offers exactly what one would expect of it. You have food markets like Gwangjang market, where every iteration of street meat and beyond lay at your greedy little fingertips.
Then again, the American presence casts a cultural influence as well. Coffee shops abound, which according to one guide can be largely attributed to American G.I.’s who helped popularize the beverage. Italian food, pizza, numerous other western cuisines, and even beer and fried chicken (a tradition known as chi-maek) can be found all over the city. As in the U.S., craft beer now enjoys a burgeoning following; make no mistake, Koreans dig beer.
A Bit of the Old
More than a few palaces populate Seoul. The peninsula’s long history and the various dynasties that ruled over it have resulted in a great deal of historic architecture. Arguably the grandest example of Seoul’s palaces is Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of the Josean Dynasty’s five “Grand Palaces.” As with nearly every destination in Seoul, it is easily accessible via subway. Admittedly, the palace has gone through various incarnations including abandonment, destruction (Imperial Japan did not view it kindly), and reconstruction (it’s been gradually rebuilt over the past two decades). The palace grounds include the National Museum of the Korean Palace and the National Folk Museum.
Numerous shrines also dot the city. The Jongmyo Royal Shrine, which consists of several buildings and houses the “spiritual tablets” of the Joseon Dynasty Kings and their “Queen Consorts,” serves as just one affordably priced and attractive example. The English-language tour only takes an hour.
Like anywhere else, you discover the quirkier aspects of the city as you travel around its neighborhoods.
One need not be hemmed in by the city. About twenty miles south of Seoul, Suwon provides a pleasant day trip. You can take a train from main station in Seoul and be there in forty minutes. In addition to being the spiritual home of Samsung, Suwon offers a glimpse into its growth over time. Visitors can hike the walls of its Hwaseong fortresses to get views of the city and a sense of how much Suwon has grown.
One can also check out the life of the nation’s yeoman farmers and artisans in its Korean Folk Village (technically located in Yongin about a thirty minute cab ride from the Suwon train station) which recreates village living and culture from earlier eras.
While wandering around and checking out traditional Korean animal husbandry might be of great interest to some readers, the best part of the village is its daily performances. Some touch on more modern themes like Korean hip hop, but we caught a more traditional rendition that combined Korean village life, a 1970s vibe, and Dr. Seuss (check out the pretty amazing headdress donned by everyone in the video, but especially the leader; one wonders if Seuss didn’t crib from Korea in his work). In terms of swing, I’m amazed it hasn’t been co-opted by an entrepreneurial rap artist.
For the more daring, or really anyone willing to embark on a 10 hour round trip car ride to the South, you can explore earlier South Korean dynasties before the peninsula’s unification, such as that of the Silla Kingdom, at the Gyeongju National Museum and nearby Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, and Cheonmachong (heavenly horse tomb, which can be accessed via Tumuli Park). We required a guide for this. The ten hour round trip from Seoul left plenty of time for shooting the breeze, which unfortunately for us involved being subjected to (admittedly reasonable) questions regarding the 2016 presidential election campaign that was just heating up. Our guide, a retired bank executive, asked simply: “What’s up with the whole Donald Trump thing?” and “Why does everyone in America have a gun?” Fair questions with hard answers; in light of recent events perhaps even more difficult to answer now. I’ll leave broader discussions of such things to the readers.
Back to Square One
If you have more time to spare, I’d recommend an urban hike. We stayed in Namdaemun, at a hotel named Frasier Place (highly recommended, book early for a discount and make sure you reserve the larger rooms; you get a lot more space for a few more bucks, plus laundry machines). The hotel is only a 10 to 15 minute walk from the starting point of a ninety minute hike (give or take) up Namsan Mountain (north of Itaewon and the Han River). At it’s peak you’ll find the N.Seoul Tower, a city landmark, along with a small complex of restaurants and shops catering to hikers and tourist groups. Koreans take their hiking seriously, along the way you’ll see plenty of men and women decked out in spiffy hiking gear.
Get Your Military History On
“At dawn a few days later we sailed into Inchoon Harbor in Central Korea, and my enchantment with Asia began,” wrote the aforementioned Malcolm Browne in 1993, reminiscing about his pre-journalism days as a G.I. during the Korean War. Browne had been drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and like many others came to love Korea and the wider Asian world as a result. While the Korean War has faded in U.S. memory, as Vietnam sucks up much the air in terms of post- WWII military historical memory, for South Korea its legacy persists as a defining moment; the peninsula remains divided between North and South with the Demilitarized Zone as the symbol of this division.
Regrettably, due to my own stupidity, we failed to visit the DMZ, which according to all accounts is an absolutely fascinating trip for numerous reasons (it’s one of the few remaining symbols of the Cold War and, allegedly, the DMZ serves as home to an ecological system found nowhere else in the world). Granted, I have not made the trip but I would highly recommend any visitor to do so. Be sure to book a couple weeks in advance. I failed to do so and missed a prime opportunity, my one regret from the trip.
That being said, the monumental War Memorial of Korea in Seoul certainly offers a crash course in the history of the war. Its a fairly massive endeavor. Outside, one can take a tour of the various aircraft utilized in the conflict along with several monuments built to honor those who fought and died. Inside, there is no shortage of information on the war. The memorial employs a great deal of multimedia, including films and video game that are reenactments of famous battles
You’ve Got Seoul
After five days in the capital, we left for Southeast Asia; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand to be more precise. Seoul shares more in common with cities like Tokyo and perhaps Hong Kong than say Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, evidence of the startling diversity in Asia that too often gets collapsed by American conceptions of the continent that focus squarely on China and Japan.
The day we left, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union (#Brexit). As we waited for a shuttle to the train station to catch the express to the airport our driver spoke excitedly with a hospitality worker at our hotel and it went something like this: “Korean, Korean, Korean, “Brexit” …” a disbelieving shake of the head and a bemused/confused look shared between them.
Korea might have once been dubbed the “hermit kingdom” trapped between two colossal neighbors, but today it’s a country on the rise exerting itself culturally and economically while many western powers, like the U.K. and, judging current events, U.S. look to retreat from the global stage. If South Korea has become the cultural soul of Asia, Seoul is its modern beating heart.