Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Sleepless in Seoul

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There is at least one essential truth of travel in our modern age: red-eye flights suck. It’s always too loud, too uncomfortable, too cold, too crowded, too something to get a good night’s rest. On Malaysia Airlines during the month of Ramadan, this is compounded by the need to eat breakfast before the daily fast starts. No sooner do we finally sink into sleep than BAM! it’s 0430, the lights come on, and there’s a breakfast service of nasi lemak with some weird Western-looking stuff in packages next to it.

On the ground in Incheon, we grab our bags and head out to find the bus to our friend Taejin’s place. He lives about 30km out of Seoul, so we’re expecting a pretty hellish itinerary to get there. Not so; the buses in South Korea are of sterling quality, so we pay 12000 KRW (6 USD) for two tickets and are soon aboard the 5200…

…where I promptly catch up on missed sleep as Valkyrie gazes out the window, watching the hills go by. About an hour later we emerge from the nice, cool bus into the steamy South Korean summer, except by this time we’re used to Malaysia and Vietnam and Cambodia which are all even more sauna-like. Taejin is waiting for us at Ori Station, and we walk with him back to his place for a quick shower and clothes change before grabbing a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant. The kitchen there only makes one dish per day, which is perfect; we’re not in a state to decide anything! In Korea, meals come served with a series of small side dishes: there’s the ubiquitous kimchee, some other pickled vegetables (radish, I think, and some cucumber), and bean sprouts in sesame oil (the sprouts here are MASSIVE). As a bonus, these side dishes are essentially bottomless as long as supply exists. Just finish off the dish, say “Yeogiyo!” to get their attention, and ask for more.

After lunch, we head for Ori Station again, this time to catch the bus into Seoul. It’s still pretty early, enough so that we have time for a few of the Seoul sights. There’s Insadong Street, full of kitschy but cute souvenir stalls – for a midsize sum, you can even get your picture taken in Korean traditional clothing. We head on from there to Changdeokgung Palace, a centuries-old palace complex. The gardens are extensive and beautiful, but can only be visited by guided tour; if you don’t care to listen to the tour, just tag along with any group (regardless of language) and mill about in the back to check things out at your pace.

Sleep deprivation is setting in, but you know what offsets that? Food! More specifically, sugar, which we find in the form of red bean shaved ice and glutinous rice cake toast with ice cream. Yum! We wash it all down with spoonfuls of awesomely-spiced (think cinnamon, not red pepper) red bean soup, complete with delicious water chestnuts.

Finally, we head up into the traditional area proper. There’s a few guesthouses in the area, but mostly it’s all private residences in these ancient houses with beautiful eaves up on a hill overlooking the downtown core. We discuss the logistics of hiking up Nam-san (the South Mountain) to round out the day, but eventually decide against it: it’s not a super-easy hike, the mountain itself is kind of across town, and we’re both exhausted. So back to Bundang it is, except there’s one more stop to be made for dinner at a fantastic seafood restaurant. We get this massive hot pot deal with the largest mussels we’ve ever seen, abalone, and other seaborne delicacies. No surprise that we leave the restaurant stuffed to the eyeballs and more than ready for some good sleep!

In Korea, all men are conscripted into military service, which they must perform for two years. However, the less militarily-inclined can commute this service to a fully paid three-year stint in a Korean-owned company. Companies have to apply for the privilege of allowing Koreans to complete their service in this manner, and the part about Korean ownership is observed strictly; apparently Google applies every year, only to be summarily denied. For this reason, such positions are rare, but it sounds like anyone who can takes the opportunity.

Tomorrow we’re headed back into Seoul for the day. Taejin won’t be able to join us; he’s one of the fortunate few who has managed to take employment in lieu of military service, and although he had today off he still has Friday to go!