babyspinach“How was South Korea?”, everyone wants to know. I’ve just returned from a familiarization trip there, courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organization–or the KTO as they actually call themselves. It’s not your usual “fantasy” destination overseas, but where else can you visit one country divided into two, with a fascinating 5,000 year-old culture.

Before our arrival, I had some misled pre-conceptions. I had heard that Koreans were pushy…almost rude people, and that Seoul is a big, crowded, polluted city where nobody speaks English and that they eat “weird” food including dog. I had read that I should bring toilet paper and handy wipes, and that many of the toilets were “traditional” (hole in ground). I was wrong.

Arriving into the large, modern airport at Incheon, about one hour from Seoul, we found a friendly people who greeted us warmly and tried to communicate with us in other ways when we couldn’t understand each other. For our benefit, signs almost everywhere were both in Korean and English. It was a beautiful, crisp fall day with clear sunny skies–I saw no pollution in the skies or water for the four days we were there. As we drove to the city, the surrounding countryside was awash in color as the trees were bright in red and gold foliage. A bit jet-lagged on our Tuesday arrival, we were to have time at our hotel (Fraser Suites) to relax and wash up. It was not to be so, as the hotel was sold out the previous night–which we found continuously sold-out properties throughout our stay at our hotel site visits (compare this to the US where hotels are begging for business). We enjoyed a breakfast buffet with both western and Korean foods, including my first chance to try kimchi. It was like eating steamed cabbage with spicy red sauce, though now I understand there are many types of kimchi.

After breakfast, I hurried to change and wash up. With an indoor pool, jacuzzi, fitness center and sauna, this luxurious hotel had it all. As I changed in the bathroom, I couldn’t help but notice the toilet. This toilet was like the Mercedes Benz version with a built-in bidet, dryer, water temperature controller, seat warmer and massager. I wanted to stay and play but needed to do a hotel site inspection. We found that the rooms were large suites, ranging from studios to 2-bedrooms, complete with kitchen, washer/dryer, heated floors, state-of-the-art flat screen TVs and techie aspects like video viewing of who is there when somebody rings your door bell. It had that high-tech toilet, and fast, high-speed Internet capability for my laptop computer too. But best to see what the “tranquility room”, which held three reclining chairs that would massage you from head to calf while you lay there and watched a movie on the big screen TV–heaven! We were assigned our own 1-bedroom suites with two bathrooms for our 3-night stay.

Our tour around Seoul was fairly well-organized and fully-guided, starting off with a visit to one of the two main palaces in the city complete with a secret garden–sized more like Central Park. It was a nice introduction to the cultural past, before touring the rest of the city including the restored Cheongaaecheon Stream and shopping in Itaewon. That night we enjoyed a dinner with a KTO official in a former traditional home called Min’s Club in the district of Insadong.

The next morning, we headed off to a cultural Folk Village outside Seoul to learn about Korea’s past. With another traditional meal at lunch, we were getting to try dishes like bulgogi, which is a beef dish cooked in the center of the table that you can make “tacos” out of lettuce, other vegetables and condiments shared family-style around the table. After lunch, we were taken to a museum to see some famous ceramics that Korea is known for as well as have the opportunity to make our own. We had a great time until we found out that we would not be able to take our artistic creations home as it takes two months for them to dry, and they would be crushed in our suitcases otherwise.

After a site inspection at the Millennium Hilton*, we were able to gamble in the attached Seven Luck Casino where I won $10,000 won playing roulette (Koreans are forbidden from entering their own casinos in Seoul). I know that sounds like a lot, but that’s only about $8 US. Dinner was at another traditional restaurant sitting on the floor where we tried delicacies like jellyfish, before heading off to see a performance of “Nanta”, which is a live, mostly non-verbal comedy involving chefs in a kitchen (lots of smashing and thrashing of food). *If you go to Hyatt and book at this hotel, Traveling Mom will receive a referral fee.

Our third day involved shopping at a Supermall called the Coex with a lot of familiar stores, however the stores were not yet open the entire time we were there. The Coex is home to the Kimchi Museusm, an aquarium, and attached is the Intercontinental Hotel which we also inspected improptu since the the stores were all closed. We all agreed that as much as we enjoyed staying in our spacious suites, the Intercontinental would be a recommended place to stay due to the central location as part of the mall. We also inspected the 6-star Park Hyatt and 4-star Ibis Gangnam before enjoying lunch and an afternoon visit to the National Museum, with lots of Korean archaeology and artificacts on display. One of the highlights of this trip, was when we next visited the Namdaemun Market and then the Myungdong, allowing us time on our own to negotiate bargains, sample local foods, and experience foot massages (Japanese technique).

Our fourth and final day in Korea was spent touring the DMZ (de-militarized zone) where we boarded local buses after showing our Passports and drove around a small area along the heavily-guarded, 158-mile long, 2-mile wide border that separates North and South Korea. A Canadian-born escort from the local KTO, who had spent some time living in North Korea, gave us a fascinating historical background of the war and current conditions in North Korea before our arrival at the border. Once there, we toured Imjingak Park, walked the full length of the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel on the South Korea side (one of four tunnels that have been discovered that the North Koreans have dug), posed with South Korean guards at the Dora Observatory and Train Station (which someday they hope to open someday through North Korea and across the continent after unification), and saw many memorials to the war held from 1950-1953, including some dedicated to the US forces. Our final lunch was spent at a nearby restaurant trying more traditional foods such as eel and backbone of the eel, which could be seen swimming around in their tank before hitting the cooking station on our table. We then toured the office of the KTO, and had our names written in Korean, loaded up with Korean Tourism literature (in English to better woo our clients), and headed off to the airport for our 13-hour flight back to Los Angeles. Thank goodness that I never did see anybody eating dog….