Archive for the ‘Korea’ Category

Since we were only to stay in Jeju for two days, we knew we had to make the most out of it. The day before, we had the hostel contact a driver for us to drive us around Jeju Island for eight hours, listing down all the places we wanted to go to and map out an itinerary for us. We woke up around 8AM and got ready since the driver will be picking us up by 9AM. We skipped breakfast and instead bought some snacks and sandwiches on the nearest convenience store and just ate along the way.

Our first stop was the Jeju Stone Park. An ecological and cultural park that displays the history of stone culture pivotal to the history and culture of Jeju Island, the Jeju Stone Park covers a wide variety of exhibitions in a large area. Befitting the unique natural landscape on Jeju Island, the park is situated nearby oreum small volcanic cones scattered throughout the island. Visitors can arrive at the entrance of the park by walking along what looks like fortress walls on a gentle hill. Our driver was able to convince the girl from the ticketing counter to let us enter for free since we were there for about 45 minutes only, which actually lasted for about an hour and fifteen minutes.

Had a great time doing some quick photo-ops and the fact that there were not a lot of visitors during that time, we did enjoy walking around the place and taking snapshots of just about every stone sculpture we passed by. From sculpture of the Grandmother Seolmundae and the Five Hundred Generals, there were also traditional local hatched-roof houses amidst the forest. Overall, surrounded by beautiful nature, the park offers the unique culture and history of Jeju Island.

Our next stop was the Manjanggul Lava Tube. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Manjanggul Cave is one of the finest lava tunnels in the world, and is a designated natural monument. A lava tunnel is formed when the lava that was deep in the ground spouts from the peak and flows to the surface. Manjanggul Cave has a variety of interesting structures inside including 70cm lava stalagmites and the lava tube tunnels. It is regarded as having significant scientific and heritage value, owing to its excellent condition of preservation despite its age of formation. It was pretty dark, slippery and cold inside the cave, and I think they needed to place more lighting there. I was kinda frustrated with the shots I had since it was so dark and due to the lack of lighting, didn’t get to take as much beautiful photos that I wanted.

We had lunch afterwards in one of the restaurants along the way and enjoyed my favorite bibimbap. We then went ahead to visit the Seongeup Folk Village. Located at the foot of Mt. Halla on Jeju Island, Seongeup Folk Village is a small town that holds a vast amount of culture. The Seongeup Folk Village shows the unique culture of Jeju Island: the black lava rock walls, the straight but curvy alleys to block the wind, and the stone grandfather statues known as the Harubang, which have become a prime feature of the landscape.

Our next stop was one of the highlights of the day, visiting the Seongsan Ilchubong Peak. Located near the eastern town of Songsan-ri, the Seongsan Ilchubong Peak is the easternmost tip of Jeju Island. This area is the first to greet each day’s new sun, thus earning the name of “Sunrise Peak.”

Definitely one of my favorite spots in Jeju, the Seongsan Ilchubong is the famous round almost-island you’ll see pictures of everywhere in Jeju. A 180m high tuff volcano, it was one of the toughest climbs of my life, but reaching the top of the peak after about thirty minutes and about 600 steps later was all worth it. There are numerous hydromagmatic volcanoes similar to the Seongsan Ilchubong, but there are no other known hydromagmatic volcanoes with a well-preserved tuff cone and diverse internal structures along a sea cliff. Because of these scientific values and remarkable scenery, Seongsan Ilchubong Tuff Cone was able to be designated as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site and it is worth preserving permanently as a natural heritage of humankind.

On our way to our next stop, which was the Cheonjeyeon Falls, we were able to pass by the beautiful Saeyeon Bridge, the bridge that connect Seogwipo Harbor and Saesom Bird Island. I would’ve loved to stay there and take in the beautiful scenery but we were on a time-crunch. We also passed by Yakcheonsa Temple, one of Korea’s Buddhist temples and reminiscent of that of Buddhist temples of the early Joseon Dynasty. And since I’ve had enough of temples already all my life, a quick photo-op was enough for me and then we were on our way to Cheonjeyeon Falls.

We got a little confused communicating with our driver since there were actually three popular waterfalls in Korea, and two of them were called Cheonjeyeon and Cheonjiyeon. Yes, the only difference is one letter. One is with an I and the other one is with an E. We just asked him where was the nearest one and Cheonjeyeon was nearby, so we went there instead.

A three-tier waterfall, Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls is one of the most popular tourist attactions in Jeju Island. Known as the “Pond of the Emperor of Heaven”, Cheonjeyeon Falls consists of 3 parts. The water from the first waterfall becomes the second and third waterfalls and flows into the sea.

We were on a really tight time crunch at this point since it would take about an hour or so to get back to our hostel in Jeju City and we had to catch a flight back to Gimpo. So after circling around the Cheonjeyeon area, we went back to our driver and convinced him to take us to one last stop, which was the Jusangjeolli Cliff. He was a bit hesitant at first since we actually exceeded already the hours we bought for the trip but he was kind enough to bring us to Jusangjeolli and told us we had about an hour to roam around the place and take some pictures.

The Jusangjeolli Cliffs refer to the set of blackish, rock pillars piled up along the coast and is a designated cultural monument of Jeju Island. The Jusangjeolli was formed when the lava from Mt. Hallasan erupted into the sea of Jungmun. Its 20 m cliff makes it a popular spot for high tide, sea angling. The waves of the high tides crashing into the side of the cliff provide a breathtaking view of the ocean surrounding the pillars. Most commonly expressed as vertical columnar jointing, the formations are created via sudden cooling of lava that shrinks in mass. The sight of waves crashing against the columns is both serene and beautiful.

After about an hour later, we headed back to our car and had the driver take us back to Jeju City to pack all of our stuff and head back to the airport. The driver was kind enough to wait for us while we sprinted our way to our room and packed all our stuff like crazy. We arrived about 45 minutes before our flight leaves for Gimpo. Since the AREX closes around midnight, we were just in time when we took the subway from Gimpo to Incheon for another hour and stayed there at the Incheon International Airport for our flight back to Manila scheduled at 6AM later that day.

Truly one of the best vacations I’ve ever had, and definitely the best country I have been to so far, I definitely fell in love with Korea. I wish we could’ve stayed there longer. From the food to the friendliest and most helpful people I have ever met while on a trip, this is one of the places I know I’d be coming back over and over again. There are still a lot of places to go to and visit and I just know I’m going to be back here again sooner than later.

Hearing a lot of stories about Jeju Island made me curious about it, and after seeing it online, I knew I had to go there. We never did plan to visit Jeju when we booked this trip to Korea, but after some planning, we decided that we should really squeeze it in. It’s Day 6 of our Korea trip and we woke up really early to catch our 11AM flight to Jeju Island. I had some trouble booking tickets online via Jeju Air since they only accept Korean credit cards, so we ended up with Eastarjet instead. We dragged our luggages down the streets of Hongdae to the subway station, to finally arrive on Gimpo International Airport, about an hour later, to catch our flight to Jeju Island.

Once we have finally landed in Jeju International Airport about an hour later, we took a bunch of brochures and guides, took a taxi outside, showed the taxi driver the address to our hostel in Jeju City, HKJeju Hostel, which we had one of the Korean counter girls from the Gimpo Airport translate and write in Hangul (which was a really good idea, by the way, since he cannot read or understand any English), and after about 10 minutes, finally arrived on our hostel. Check-in was scheduled for 2PM, so we decided to leave our stuff and have lunch since we were very hungry, so we decided to eat on one of the nearby restaurants just a couple of blocks from the hostel.

We headed back to the hostel around 2PM, and after cleaning up, decided to visit one of the most controversial theme parks in Korea, which was the infamous Loveland. Located on the road between Jeju City and Seogwipo, Loveland is Jeju’s most eccentric and internationally infamous attraction and almost a reason in itself to visit Jeju. Jeju Loveland is an outdoor sculpture park which opened in 2004 on Jeju Island in South Korea. The park is focused on a theme of sex, running sex education films, and featuring 140 sculptures representing humans in various sexual positions. It also has other elements such as large phallus statues, stone labia, and hands-on exhibits such as a “masturbation-cycle.” The park’s website describes the location as “a place where love oriented art and eroticism meet.”

This bizarre sex-themed sculpture park was created by graduates of Seoul’s Hongik University. Almost each and every statue and sculpture there is generally shocking and absolutely artistically pornographic (if you wanna call it that way) and it makes for some interesting holiday snaps that you won’t want to show your parents. Well, I had to, I took a pic of each and every one of them. It also has a sex shop, a souvenir shop and a restaurant filled with sex painting and portraits everywhere. What is up with Jeju and their obsession with phallic symbols?

We were there for the entire afternoon, taking pictures and snapshopts of every sculpture and just enjoying the fact that a theme park like that actually existed. Once we have covered the entire place, we decided to head back to the hostel to get some rest. We had dinner later that night and decided to taste one of the island specialties, the black pork, which was seriously delicious.

We then just walked around the area, did a bunch of photo-ops and headed to the Dongmun Market Place. Open since 1945, Dongmun is the best place to go for a taste of the local foodstuffs, like black pork, tangerines, hairtail fish, and abalone. Located at the crossroads of several olle walking trails and next to the lively Tap-dong district, it’s a great place to explore. Audrey was trying to find some kimchi to bring back home and the people were very helpful. Even though some of the stores were already closed, one of the storeowners actually called this lady, who I think was the only one selling kimchi there and told her that we wanted to buy some kimchi. I ended up buying a bunch of the popular local Jeju Orange chocolates, which was one of the island’s specialties.

Walking around Jeju City at night was a great experience. It had the artistic vibe similar to Seoul, but definitely more peaceful and more quiet. Just like Seoul, the place never ran out of photo-worthy shots and is definitely a sweet paradise of its own. We retreated back to our hostel around 10PM to prepare us for a really long day around Jeju the next day.

For our last day in Seoul, we have booked ourselves a tour to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Panmunjeom. I have always been curious and intrigued about the DMZ ever since I first saw it being featured on National Geographic. Known to be as the “Dangerous Divide” between the two Koreas, the Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel.

Our hostel recommended that we contact Cosmojin Tours to make reservations for the DMZ and Panmunjeom Tour at least a week before our desired tour date. The tours are only available from Tuesday to Friday and since we will be leaving for Jeju Island on Thursday, our only options were either Tuesday or Wednesday. We originally booked for a Tuesday tour but they informed us that there is a military training scheduled for that date, so we settled for Wednesday. We were glad that they did not require any advance payments from us, just our names and passport numbers. They also offered free pick-up from our hostel, which made it even more better.

A week before our Korea trip, I got myself a haircut. Yeah, after three years, I finally decided to chop a big chunk of my hair off. Only for the DMZ. They have a lot of strict guidelines and instructions on the site and the line “no shaggy or unkempt hair” scared me. There is also a dress code, and nobody under 11 years old is allowed on the DMZ. What really got me curious though was the list of nationalities that are not allowed to visit the Panmunjeom area (not sure if they are allowed to visit the DMZ though). This included Koreans and a bunch of other Asian countries. I think only Japan, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines were not listed there on the restricted nationalities that could not enter the Panmunjeom area. I think the fact that the Philippines sent about 7,000 soldies to aid South Korea during the Korean War was the main reason why Filipinos are very much welcome to visit this place. We woke up really early for this since we are being picked up at 7AM. The driver then dropped us off at the Lotte Hotel to meet up with the other tourists that are taking this tour. We settled our payment with the Cosmojin representative and in about an hour, we were on our way to Panmunjeom and to the Joint Security Area.

It took us about an hour and a half to arrive at the Panmunjeom Area. We were transferred from one bus to another, making sure that all seating arrangements assigned to us are followed. A passport check was performed when we reached the Unification Bridge, then we went ahead to Camp Bonifas. Home to the United Nations Command Security Battalion – Joint Security Area, whose primary mission was to monitor and enforce the Armistice Agreement of 1953 between North and South Korea, Camp Bonifas is where the security escorts conduct the UN Command DMZ Orientation Program tours of the JSA and surrounding areas. After receiving a detailed briefing at the JSA visitor’s center and after signing a waiver that states that the United Nations Command are not to be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act and the possibikity of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action (whew), we then went ahead with the tour to visit the Joint Security Area.

Before entering the Freedom House, we were assigned to form two lines and to have a partner with us. Probably the most exciting and stressful part of this tour, we went ahead inside the Freedom House and just outside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), came face to face with North Korea. We were instructed to form two horizontal lines, facing North Korea, making sure that the one in front of us is shorter. We are only allowed to take photos of the person in front of us, with their backs to North Korea, and never the other way around. You can really feel the tension at this point. Our guide then announced that we can now go inside the MAC building. It’s this small blue mini-conference room a few steps from the Freedom House. The Military Armistice Commission has held secretary’s meetings, joint duty officer’s meetings, and general meetings for observation of the Armistice Agreement since its signing. Joint duty officer meetings can be called by either side. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) of the Joint Security Area runs through the middle of Panmunjeom and even the meeting buildings. The line of microphone wires on the table of the conference room traces the path of the MDL. We were then reminded not to touch anything that belongs to the North, from their microphones to their flags. I will never, ever dare touch anything by the North Koreans! Haha!

Our guide then told us that we can go ahead and have our pictures taken with the South Korean soldiers standing on the North Korean side of the room. My eyes suddenly lit up and I was the first one to stand beside that soldier and had my picture taken, right there in North Korean soil. It took about a minute when our guide suddenly raised her voice and said, “Everybody get back to South Korea now!” Seriously, we were scrambling like crazy. We then went out of the MAC building, back to the Freedom House and back to our tour bus. We were dropped off at a souvenir shop and I went ahead and bought a couple of books about the Korean War. Yes, I was very, very interested about all this. I normally do not care about history stuff, but I was really curious about how this all happened.

We were scheduled to do the DMZ Tour next, so we had lunch in this restaurant in Imjingak Park. More than half of those who joined us for the Panmunjeom Tour are not taking the DMZ Tour, so there were like just 6 of us left that’ll spend the rest of the day in the area. After lunch, there was a new tour guide that joined us and he took us to this mini-museum and gave us a brief overview about the history behind the DMZ. And yes, I was paying really hard attention to every word he was saying. We then had a quick film viewing, more like snapshots about the Korean War and how the DMZ came about, and it was truly a learning experience.

We then went ahead to visit the Third Tunnel Of Aggression. The largest tunnel of the four underground tunnels dug under the DMZ by North Korea, the 3rd Tunnel is so large that an army of 30,000 fully-armed North Korean soldiers and their vehicles and weapons can pass through the tunnel in an hour. Upon discovery of the third tunnel, the United Nations Command accused North Korea of threatening the 1953 armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean War.

Its description as a “tunnel of aggression” was given by the South, who considered it an act of aggression on the part of the North. Initially, North Korea denied building the tunnel. However, observed drill marks for dynamite in the walls point towards South Korea and the tunnel is inclined so that water drains back towards the northern side of the DMZ, and thus out of the way of continued excavation. We were instructed to leave our cameras on the lockers provided just outside the tunnel, but, well, since we won’t be coming back here again, guess who forgot to leave his camera behind? Hehehe! It was pretty cold down there and you can easily run out of breath from the long walk all the way to the blocked entrance from North Korea’s side.

After returning back to the tunnel entrance, we then went ahead to the Dora Observatory. Located on the South Korean side of the 38th parallel, the Dora Observatory is situated on top of Mount Dora, and looks across the Demilitarized Zone. It is the part of South Korea closest to the North. Visitors can catch a rare glimpse of the reclusive North Korean state through binoculars from the 500-person capacity observatory. They will be able to see the North Korean propaganda village situated in the DMZ, a remnant of the old prosperity of the North, and can see as far as the city of Kaesong. A photo line is also designated there if you would like to take pictures of North Korea, but you won’t be allowed to take any pictures once you have crossed it. A South Korean soldier had me delete some of the photos I took outside the photo line and I just pretended and acted that I did. I mean, it was just a bunch of bushes and trees anyway. Even with me using the binoculars, seriously, it was all just bushes and trees. I was hoping I’d get to see a North Korean farmer working or something.

We then went ahead to our last stop of the tour, which was the Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a railroad station situated on the Gyeonguiseon Line, which once connected North and South Korea and has now been restored. However, on December 1, 2008, the North Korean government closed the border crossing, after accusing South Korea of a confrontational policy. This coincided with the South Korean legislative election, 2008, and a change to a more conservative government. Plans to begin regular passenger service across the Imjin River to North Korea have yet to be finalized. However, a tourist visit in January 2010 showed clearly that the station was completely shut to all train travel, and that the station was only open for tourists. We were there for about fifteen minutes, took some photos with the ROK soldiers and went back to our bus that’ll take us all the way back to Seoul.

We were dropped off at Itaewon and we decided to just roam around the area and visit Domdaemun. Domdaemun is another shopping district in Seoul, much better than Myeongdong since it’s a larger area and there are malls open 24 hours. I find it weird though that some of the mall’s opening hours are from 10PM to 5AM. We spent the rest of the night hanging around Domdaemun, watching the locals dragging their huge shopping bags and did some last minute shopping ourselves since it’s our last day here in Seoul and we are off to Jeju Island the next day.

Wandering Around Nami Island

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Korea, Lakwatsa, Seoul

We dedicated the entire day of our third day in Seoul to explore Nami Island. I have been researching hard on trying to find ways to get there and most of the other blogs I’ve read are either outdated or does not give any clear instructions on how to go there. Aside from the fact that we had to go through so many stops on the subway, we were actually confused whether or not it would require a separate ticket to go to the Gapyeong Station, the last station we have to drop out of to get to Nami Island. Good thing we can use our T-Money cards, but we only found out about it once we arrived at one of the subway stops at the Mangu Station.

It took us about a couple of hours via subway to arrive at the Gapyeong Station, seriously, we were so confused with all the train transfers and trying to figure out where to go. Once we have finally arrived at the Gapyeong Station, we took a map from the tourist information center just outside the station, took a taxi nearby to drive us to the ferry station. After about four minutes, we were in the ferry terminal. We then bought our tickets to Nami Island. We were somewhat tempted to try the zip line to Nami Island but it was raining so we scratched that idea off and took the ferry instead.

Namiseom Island was formed as a result of the construction of the Cheongpyeong Dam. It is a half-moon shaped island whose name originated from General Nami, who died at the age of 28 after being falsely accused of treason during the reign of King Sejo, the seventh king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. Nami Island is 63 km away from Seoul in the direction of Chuncheon, and is famous for its beautiful tree lined roads.

Nami Island is an oasis for culture and leisure in peaceful harmony with humanity and nature. Seriously, saying that this place is beautiful is an understatement. Though it was raining a little bit, that did not stop me from taking crazy photo-ops here and there. It was certainly a photographer’s paradise. After that 5-minute ferry ride, we were greeted with a forest of verdant trees holding up the sky and open grassy areas where we saw a number of animals from ostriches, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, peacocks and a whole lot more. A special feature of Nami Island is that there are no telephone poles. This is because all electric wires were built underground to keep the natural feeling of the landscape.

Serving as the location for the internationally known TV series, Winter Sonata, made Nami Island one of the most popular places to go to in Korea. My favorite thing about this island are the beautiful sequoia trees reaching up to the sky, specifically the ones in the Metasequoia Lane. There are a whole lof of stuff that can be seen in this beautiful tiny island. From traditional wooden houses, ponds, farm buildings, wooden totems, paintings, it goes on and on. I envy the Koreans. All these beautiful places that they can visit any time they want just to unwind and relax makes me wanna live in this country instead!

There’s just too many things to see in this island that I am actually at a loss for words right now. The place is an absolute dream and my camera’s three batteries all drained themselves from too much use that I ended up with about 400 photos! After circling the entire island, we decided to return back to the ferry terminal and then head back to the Gapyeong Station and return to our hostel. Good thing the rain was not that strong during our stay in Nami Island and it actually stopped after an hour once we arrived. The bad news was that it rained really hard once we arrived back in Seoul.

After having dinner in one of the local Korean restaurants near our hostel, we decided to go to the Banpo Bridge. Because it was raining so hard, we got a little confused with the maps and we were having trouble figuring out where we were that we decided to return back to the Hongdae area instead. It was Audrey’s birthday, by the way, and she wanted to eat at the Hello Kitty Cafe. We were actually about to give up since we can’t seem to find it around Hongdae, when all of a sudden we saw that familiar pink and white design and finally found what we were looking for. Seriously, it was the Hello Kitty Cafe. Everything here is all about Hello Kitty. From the pink couches, pink uniforms of the waiters and waitresses, down to the Hello Kitty stuff inside the washroom. After an hour, we decided to walk back to our hostel and rest. It’s our last day in Seoul the next day and we have a scheduled tour for the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and Panmunjeum area, one of the highlights of this trip.

Some More Seoul Searching…

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Korea, Lakwatsa, Seoul

We decided to really plan out our itinerary for our third day in Seoul, meaning, we should never get lost. There are a lot of places that we needed to visit so we made sure we covered as much area as possible for that day. We started by visiting the Bukchon Hanok Village first. A Korean traditional village composed of lots of alleys and is preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment, the Bukchon Hanok Village

Bukchon Hanok Village is a Korean traditional village with a long history located between Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace and Jongmyo Royal Shrine. The traditional village is composed of lots of alleys and is preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment. Now it is used as a traditional culture center and hanok restaurant, allowing visitors to experience the atmosphere of the Joseon Dynasty. Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, the Bukchon Hanok Village is home to around 900 hanoks, Seoul’s largest concentration of these traditional Korean homes. It is also famous as the residential quarter of high-ranking government officials and royal families.

Walking around the village was a wonderful experience since you would get to see the beautiful patterned walls and tiled roofs of the hanoks, which was a delightful contrast with the modern city nearby. Many of these hanoks actually operate as cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses, providing an opportunity to experience, learn and immerse in Korean traditional culture. The red-uniformed guides were also there, so we asked a map from them and they suggested a route for us to take that would bring us back to the nearest subway station afterwards.

Our next stop was Insadong. One of my favorite spots in Seoul, Insadong Street represents the focal point of Korean traditional culture and crafts. There were a number of stores scattered in the area selling stuff from traditional Korean to modern clothing, pottery and crafts. The area is also an art district, where you can see a number of painters, craftsmen and art lovers hanging around and continue to set up shop along the narrow alleys.

My favorite area in the bouyant Insadong neighborhood was the Ssamziegil, marked as the “Special Insadong within Insadong”, the Sszamziegil is a unique area filled with stores, shops, art galleries and restaurants and is designed in such a way by connecting its alleys in the form of a spiral-like stairway, perfect for hanging out and shopping for cute little good finds and knick-knacks. What I love about Korea is the way the stores and shops are situated, not only along the road and the streets, some are located even through the narrowest of alleys, and in locations that you wouldn’t think of passing by. It’s definitely one surprise after another, and I just love how they never ran out of places to explore here and there.

After having lunch, we decided to go to the Gwanghwamun Square. Having my picture taken with the statue of King Sejong the Great was one of my goals during that visit. I don’t know why, I just loved the way the statue looked online that I had to go there. Harmonizing with the beautiful scenery of the Gyeongbokgung Palace and Bukaksan Mountain, the Gwanghwamun Square was just recently opened in 2009, after receiving a major face-lift. Originally about 16 lanes of traffic, the Gwanghwamun Square is now a 20,000 square meter public plaza. My favorite part of the square was the pop-jet fountains. Located right in front of the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, the water jets made me feel like a crazy kid all over again. With the water jets shooting as high as 20 meters up the sky, I had a lot of fun jumping around and ended up playing with a number of kids there. Good thing I was just wearing my shorts and sandals, I had no problems with me getting wet.

The coolest thing also happened to me here in Gwanghwamun. While I was busy jumping around and playing with the water jets, a Korean girl carrying a video camera approached me and asked if she can interview me for a documentary (I was actually having problems understanding her since she didn’t speak English that well and I had water on my ears). I excitedly agreed for her to interview and videotape me, and she was asking me stuff about travelling and how do I prepare myself every time I go on a trip. Lady, you sure did get the right person for this! Haha! Audrey was busy taping me from her digicam as well and the interview lasted for about three minutes and I felt like a crazy geek talking in front of a video camera in the middle of Seoul wearing my weird glasses. I had to wear something like the locals do, so there you go!

After that fun interview, we decided to look for Cheonggyecheon Stream. Existing only as a neglected watercourse hidden by an overpass, the Cheonggyecheon Stream was restored in 2005 and was transformed into a haven of natural beauty. Running through the center of northern Seoul and the Han River, the Cheonggyecheon Stream is a beautifully landscaped oasis flowing past footbridges, mini-waterfalls and a variety of artworks where locals and tourists flock to dangle their feet in the cold water and relax from the urban hubbub that surrounds the area.

One of my favorite spots in Seoul (it seems like every spot is my favorite spot here), the Cheonggyecheon Stream is one of the perfect places to unwind and do some major photo-ops. More than twenty bridges (yeah, it’s a pretty long stroll along the steam), crosses the Changgyecheon. The place is so beautiful that we also decided to return back here a couple of days later at night to watch the laser light shows.

Normally when we roam around the city, we always try to find the time to get back to our hotel to freshen up and rest a little. But since we didn’t have enough time, we decided to just continue on and go to our next destination, which was the Namsan Park. Mt. Namsan is a symbolic mountain located at the center of Seoul, also is home to the iconic N Seoul Tower, which offers panoramic views of the metropolis. We took the cable car to the top after walking quite a walk from the Myeongdong shopping area. The tower has become a hot date spot with the railings around it festooned with locks incribed with lovers’ names. It was really cool to see the locals hanging their named padlocks on the tower fence as a symbol of their love for each other (wonder what they’re gonna do with it when they break up? LOL). The park was also used as the filming location of the popular drama series, Lovers In Paris.

The N Seoul Tower is a communication and observation tower and one of the popular sites in Seoul. The tower features a gift shop and restaurants and a number of observation decks. We also visited the Teddy Bear Museum, which exhibits and chronicles the history of Seoul from past to present through the use of teddy bears. Teddy bears are posed in scenes recreating historic events as well as various aspects of Seoul life. After the museum tour, we then went up the N Seoul Tower Observatory, perched upon the highest point of Mt. Namsan, which gave us the chance to take in a panoramic view of the city of Seoul at night.

We took the cable car back to Myeongdong, and the lines were crazy. They can only place a number of people on the cable car and there was only one cable car there. We were so tired from all the roaming that we did that we went back to our hostel all worn out but was glad we were able to cover all those places in one day. We had dedicated the entire next day for our Nami Island trip, which was again, another one of my favorite places in Korea.

I had actually outlined our itinerary for our second day in Seoul, but we got a little confused with the subway that we ended up in a mix of other places instead. We were planning to visit Bukchon Hanok Village but ended up in a place called Lotte Town. There was a mall and a department store there, just beside the 5-star Lotte Hotel, so we ended up just walking around and we ended up in Star Avenue, where we saw a bunch of pictures and posters of various Korean pop stars and actors, which I had no idea who they were (I think I recognized the group Super Junior). We then decided to go visit the Myeongdong shopping district, which was just around the area.

Myeongdong is one of Seoul’s main shopping districts featuring mid-to-high priced retail stores and international brand outlets. We were there around 10AM, so not a lot of people were there yet. It actually kinda reminded me of Wangfujing in Beijing, but this one has a bunch of shopping centers and departments stores in the area and the place is actually bigger. I ended up buying my must-buy souvenirs, which were the ref magnets and the I ♥ Korea T-shirts that I was very happy about. One thing I love about Seoul is that there are tourists guides available on almost every area. If you need help with directions, just approach these guys wearing a red uniform t-shirt and black pants, and they’d be glad to help you out. You wouldn’t miss them since they’re all wearing this red cowboy hat all the time and they speak really good English as well.

We decided to head back to the hostel to leave our shopping bags and after having lunch, we went searching for our next stop, which was the Trick Eye Museum. Located inside Santorini Seoul, a multipurpose cultural complex that also includes a gallery, a performance hall, a shop and a cafe, the Trick Eye Musem features paintings that are extremely realistic and seem as if they are in 3D. By posing next to the painting in a certain way, you can take a picture and look like you’re part of the painting.

The paintings inside this interactive museum creates these optical illusions that will surely entertain everyone visiting the place. My favorites were the ones where I was being showered by money (duh), me being an angel, and having my body cut into half. We had so much fun in this place that we ended up posing next to each and every painting and art piece inside the museum. We were here for like four hours! And mind you, it was really, really tough trying to pose over and over again, trying to get the perfect shot that would satisfy us, especially since the painting were so cool and looks so real. Now I know what those actual models felt like! Haha!

After all the crazy photo-ops we did inside the museum, we decided to go to another place, but we were not sure where yet. It was already 5PM and it started to rain, so we ended up inside KFC until the rain stopped. Since most of the tourist spots are already closed that time, we decided to go to the COEX Mall to do some shopping. An underground mall located in the Gangnam-gu area of Seoul, the COEX Mall is Asia’s largest underground shopping mall. There were a lot of other attractions inside the mall but we were not in the mood then since we just wanted to walk around and shop.

At around 9PM, we decided to hit back to Myeongdong to do some more shopping and I was able to grab some great finds here. Night shopping is way better than shopping during the day, since you’d end up haggling big time and these vendors will just give in considering the day’s about to end and they need to do some quick sale before packing up. The subway stops operating around midnight, so we decided to return back to the hostel after having a quick dinner in Mini-Stop.

Starting my Seoul Searching

Posted: September 29, 2012 in Korea, Lakwatsa, Seoul

With all the stress involved in preparing for this dream destination (more like all the stress I have placed upon myself), being in Korea is definitely one of the happiest moments of my life. It’s not easy going through the process of the visa application, especially the waiting part, but it was all worth it. I know I am always excited before going to a trip, but this one tops them all. The stress was further heightened when a couple of days before our scheduled flight, a super typhoon called Bolaven had hit Seoul, causing flights to be cancelled in and out of Korea. Good thing the odds were in our favor and it was gone a day before our trip.

We arrived around 6:30AM at the Incheon International Airport, rated as the best airport worldwide and decided to stay there for a while, have breakfast, took a bunch of pamphlets, maps and brochures and tried to figure out how to get to our hotel in Seoul. We took the AREX, the railway line that connects Seoul with its two international airports, Gimpo and Incheon, and after dragging our luggages from one exit to another, finally arrived at our destination station, which was the Hongik University Station. We made reservations at the Kimchi Hongdae Hostel, which was located about five minutes from the subway station. What I loved about this hostel is that they have this video guide available on their website, which really shows you the directions on how to get to the hotel. I had downloaded the video to my iPod and was literally playing it while walking down the streets of Seoul, dragging my huge luggages, while trying to find the landmarks on the video. Since check-in was scheduled for 2PM, we decided to leave our stuff and explore the city. Good thing we were able to catch some sleep on that 4-hour long flight, so we were not that tired yet.

With my subway map and Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to visit the palaces first. There are 5 Grand Palaces in Korea, but we decided to just visit two of them, Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung. Originally built in 1405 as a secondary palace, Changdeokgung became a principal palace when Gyeongbokgung was destroyed during the Japanese invasion. Not as majestic as the Forbidden City in China, we decided to leave for the next palace after taking a bunch of pictures. Comparisons with the Chinese temples and palaces can never be avoided and yeah, it’s not as good as those that can be found in Beijing. We skipped the Secret Garden though, since we cannot enter without a guide and we had to wait for a number of visitors to arrive before entering. It’s said to be the highlight of the compound, but since we are in a time-crunch, or maybe because I am just bored in seeing all these temples and architectures, that we decided to go to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which I was actually more excited about, especially the part where we can finally see the soldiers in their Joseon-era uniforms and see the changing of the guards ceremonies.

Gyeokbokgung Palace, which actually means “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” was the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty, until it was nearly destroyed by the Japanese government in the early 20th century. Prior to that, it also got burned down by the Japanese and lay in ruins for nearly 300 years. Weird coz with all the things this place has been through, it actually ended up as the exact opposite of it’s name. Work on restoring the complex to its former glory will take decades more and as of 2009, roughly 40 percent of the original number of palace buildings still stand or are reconstructed. And just like one palace to another, they all looked the same to me. We stayed for another hour here since we were waiting for the changing of the guards ceremonies, which happens every hour in front of the main gate of the palace.

After watching the changing of the guards, we decided to return back to the hostel to check in, took a bath and freshened ourselves up and decided to grab a late lunch in one of the Korean restaurants just a few blocks from the hostel. It was a heavy meal, a really heavy one, and after all those walking, we were so tired that we decided to return back to the hostel and get some sleep at around 5PM. I normally don’t tire easily but since we have an entire week here in Korea, we decided that we needed to recharge and explore more of the city the day after instead.

Obtaining a Korean visa is definitely one of the most stressful visa applications I have ever done. Yes, the document requirements may not be as strict as the Chinese visa or even the US visa, but what really stressed me out is the waiting game. Unlike the Chinese and US visa, that the consuls would let you know right then and there if you are denied or approved, for the Korean visa, you would need to wait for a week in order for you to find out the status of your application. That heart-pounding feeling of lining up again, waiting for your turn to claim your passport and scanning every page to look for that visa sticker you desperately wanted is one of the most stressful moments in my life, I seriously wanted to puke from the mix of suspense, excitement and tension.

I have heard a lot of horror stories of a number of people being denied of the Korean visa, without them knowing exactly why. Please note that the embassy will not tell you the very reason for the denial. They will probably give you this statement: “Purpose of going to Korea not established”, or something similar to that if you get denied. I’ve been doing a lot of research about this, trying to make sure that I have all the necessary documents needed and tried to make my application as foolproof as possible.

The Korean visa is valid only for 3 months from the date of issuance. Though it is not required to buy any plane tickets yet prior to your application, I had to take advantage of the piso fare sale from Cebu Pacific earlier this January to book for this flight scheduled for September (together with the one I got for our China vacation as well). I paid a total of P4,000 for a roundtrip ticket, from Manila to Incheon.

I applied with my friend, Audrey, just thirty days before our scheduled flight date. We arrived at the Korean embassy at around 6:30AM and it was raining a bit that time. Must be the reason why there are only about 5 people lining up already when we arrived. At around 8AM, the guard handed us a gate pass, left our ID, wrote our names on the log sheet, entered the office and took a number from the reception table and waited for the window counters to open. Lodging of applications starts at exactly 9AM and ends at 11AM. Since Audrey already has a US visa, she was assigned to Window 3, which was for frequent travelers. Frequent travelers actually means applicants with visas from OECD member countries like USA, Japan, Australia, Canada and the UK, among others. If it’s already your third time to apply for a Korean visa, you will also line up here. Visa processing for those in Window 3 takes only 3 business days, while those in Window 1, where I was assigned to, takes one week.

As I have mentioned earlier, the Korean embassy is not that strict in terms of the documents needed for the application, compared to the Chinese visa. Just make sure you have no discrepancies with your documents especially with your TIN ID and your company’s TIN ID as well. Here’s what I have submitted :

1) Passport + photocopy of the first page of the passport (last page with emergency contact not needed)
2) Application form, just one page, used the A4 paper size, with a 2 X 2 picture (this should be pasted, not stapled)
3) Original Bank Certificate (showed money for P90,000). No need for the receipt. I actually did not withdraw any of this until my visa was approved.
4) Employment certificate (with complete company address and phone numbers, stating how long I have been with the company and the salary that I earn).
5) Latest Income Tax Return

NOTES :

1) I actually forgot to submit my old passport which showed my travel stamps last year. Got a little worried that they might look for the Hong Kong and Singapore stamps and it’s not there on my new passport.
2) Submitted my plane tickets and hotel reservation confirmation, but the consul just returned it back to me.

After reviewing all my docs in less than 30 seconds, yes, it was that quick, the consul handed me a claim stub with the scheduled passport pickup for next week. Releasing time is only from 2PM to 4PM during weekdays. Audrey got her visa three days later, which also added to the waiting game stress for me. It took an entire week of stress and being in limbo until I returned back to the embassy the week after to claim my passport and see that visa sticker attached to one of its pages. Seriously, I was that worried. At that point when I saw the visa sticker, I was the happiest person in the world. I have been following a number of other blogs and read through some forums and hearing stories of other people being asked to return and submit additional documents like their payslips, credit card bill statements, electric bills and their barangay clearance. That also got me a little worried so I have all of that prepared and I brought them with me to the embassy when I claimed my passport. Good thing the consul did not ask me for any of that anymore. I was approved for a single-entry visa valid within three months of issuance, and to stay in Korea for a maximum of 59 days. The Korean visa is free of charge if you don’t plan to extend it after 59 days.

Here are some additional tips that might be helpful if you plan to apply for a Korean visa:

1) Tenure is important. I have been working with my current company for almost 7 years already. I’ve heard stories of other people, despite having a hefty bank account, that are still being denied. Most likely reason was that they transferred to a new company and have been there for just a few months, then they went ahead and applied for the visa. My advice if you have transferred to a new company is for your HR to stipulate on your employment certificate that you are being allowed to take a vacation during your intended travel dates.
2) No work, no visa. That actually came from the consul’s mouth. They are pretty strict about this since most of the people applying for a tourist visa do have the intention of working there and ignoring the proper process of applying for a working visa. This does not apply to those running a business. As long as you process your income tax correctly, you’re not gonna encounter issues like this.
3) Prepare additional documents as a back-up. These may not have been listed as a requirement, but just in case, prepare your plane tickets, hotel reservation confirmation, credit card bill statements, payslips, electric bills, barangay clearance, birth certificate, etc. They even asked for a college diploma from one applicant the last time.
4) PRAY. Seriously. Need I say more?

So that’s it. Pretty simple. But I warn you, it’s seriously stressful. Especially the one week waiting part of it. But it’s
definitely all worth it. All for the love of Seoul and Jeju Island. Now I’m off to prepare for our itinerary for our week-long trip to Korea!