In September we had cause to travel to Seoul in South Korea for a series of meetings, and below is an account of this trip.
The flight to Seoul, South Korea is easy to navigate with 7 hours from Melbourne to Singapore, then a 2 hours transit and 6 hours from Singapore to Seoul, an overnight flight so on arrival we were refreshed as we had enjoyed a semi-decent sleep on this flight. Seoul Incheon Airport is like Singapore Changi Airport, in that it is very clean and efficient and within 20 minutes we had alighted from the aircraft, cleared customs, had collected our baggage and met our private driver, and were enroute to the office for the afternoon of business. It was 6.00 pm before the commerce of the day was complete so our driver provided the transfer to our hotel for the evening at our leisure.
Whilst staying in Seoul on this trip we chose to stay at the T-Mark Myeongdong. A 4-star property the T-Mark is a very popular hotel chain in South Korea and the location of this hotel is perfect for people wanting to stay in an upmarket, interesting area of Seoul, such as Myeongdong. After completing check-in and changing into some comfortable clothes it was time to check out the local and surrounding area. Myeongdong is a great area to base yourself if in Seoul for a few nights as every evening there is a night market for people to stroll through and enjoy. This market has not only a wide selection of local Korean street food but also a range of retail clothes and electronics shops that sell from the street. Visitors can easily spend several hours walking the streets and enjoying the sights and sounds of the market, which we did before finding a local bar for a couple of quiet cheeky drinks before laying our heads down for the evening.
The next morning, we were picked up and transferred to the office for a day of meetings before being returned to the hotel for the evening at leisure.
The following day was committed to traveling to Busan in the south of the peninsula for the day so it was an early rise for the morning, and thankfully the T-Mark Myeongdong is only a short taxi ride to Seoul Train Station, where we boarded the Korean Train Express ( KTX ) to Busan. The KTX is a wonderful train system and like other train services in North-East Asia, they are very clean, punctual and fast with a top speed of around 310km. The accuracy of the timetable is a real advantage to the train system as when the timetable says it departs at 1.23 pm, it does depart at 1.23 pm. Our morning train departed at 8.00 am so we made sure we had plenty of time and sure enough, 8.00 am came and we departed as scheduled. The journey to Busan on the KTX is most enjoyable and whilst the train stops on a few occasions at approx 10.30 am we arrived at Busan Train station. Waiting for us was our driver who provided the private vehicle transfer to our hotel, The Commodore Hotel Busan for our 1-night stay.
As the Commodore Hotel granted us early room access, we were soon back in the car and it was time to sample some of South Korea’s best seafood, so we headed to the Jagalchi Seafood Market. Now for anyone who loves seafood, if you come to Busan you must visit this market. It is several stories high, set on harbor providing wonderful water views, and there is a range of eating options. On the top floor is a 5-star dining experience offering the best seafood from around the area. The restaurant and staff are great and it’s a very pleasant way to dine however, you will pay for it. At the other end of the scale, on the ground floor you can walk around, pick a particular fish, or combination of, sit on plastic chairs and tables, drink cold beer from jam glasses and also enjoy some wonderful seafood, for only a couple of dollars. We have dined in both locations, both have their advantages, and both offer some wonderful seafood options for such inclined. As we did, we recommend clients to visit the market for 2 hours. Enjoy the sights and smells and do enjoy the dining experience. As it was the early afternoon, we decided to visit Haeundae Beach for a cold beer and walk. This beach is one of the most popular in Busan during the summer season and its easy to see why. Located on the cities fringes, this beach is wide, the sand is deep, and the water is inviting. During the summer months of June, July & August this beach becomes very busy indeed however, on this day in September, there was plenty of space to move and spend a few hours. If you have an hour or two spare, we highly recommend a visit to the beach. As it was the late afternoon and the day was starting to turn into evening we decided on an easy night and returned to the hotel. Nearby are several local restaurants and bars so dinner tonight and a few cheeky glasses of beer were the evening before returning to the room and enjoying a good night’s sleep.
The following morning we woke early, enjoyed breakfast at our hotel and then set out on our days’ sightseeing. The first visit today and long on our list was to visit the UN Memorial Cemetery, dedicated to the brave men and women who fought in the Korean War from 1950 – 1953 A deeply moving and humble experience, we suggest this a definite visit for when staying in Busan. On arrival you will be taken into a complex to watch an information video before you wander around the ground. The complex is immaculacy well-manicured and broken down into geographical country area’s and is home to 2,289 Military graves and 11 graves of nonmilitary personal. Set over 135,000 square meters you will not queue to enter into information halls nor be bothered by other visitors as you admire and reflect the graves of the brave men and women’s final resting place.
Our next destination was to Busan Tower. Similar to the Sydney tower in shape, The Busan Tower does provide spectacular views over Busan and the nighttime view having seen it before writing this is breathtaking. Open 365 days per year from 11.00 am till 8.00 pm and standing 120 meters tall, visitors are sure to enjoy the sweeping views of the city and harbor. With a small café located on level 5, this is the perfect way for people to get their bearings of Busan and enjoy the panoramic views.
After this it was time to return to Busan Train station for the return KTX journey back to Seoul. Our departure time was 4.00 pm and sure enough, the train did depart at 4.00 pm. The return journey was very pleasant and as the sun was setting, the view out of the window nearing Seoul was stunning. Around 6.30 pm we safety arrived in Seoul and caught a taxi to our hotel, staying again at the T-Mark Myeongdong, and this time, with a quiet drink at the bar it was going to be an early night as we had not long before received word, Panmunjeom would be open the following morning!
If you are staying in Seoul, you should allocate 1 day to a visit to Panmunjeom and the DMZ. Please note, even if you have pre-booked the day to the complex, it can change without notice and we have seen it change on the hour so please be prepared for plans to change. The day before at 8.00 pm we received a call to advise we are the second group to enter the complex and to be at the meeting place at 8.00 am for an 8.15 am departure, and we cannot say this clearly enough, please be on time as if you are late, the bus will depart without you. Knowing the consequences of missing the bus we had arranged a taxi to take us to the meeting place in the morning, arriving 7.50 am just in case there were any issues with the journey. After checking in we boarded the bus for the 70-minute journey north to Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area (JSA). Panmunjeom is fascinating to us as it’s the area the Armistice for the Korean War was signed. Many people are unaware, technically the war continues however, the armistice has placed this thankfully into a state of semi-permanent cease-fire.
The drive from Seoul to Panmunjeom is rather interesting and you travel through some very beautiful country. Approx 2 kilometers from the Joint Security Area ( JSA ) complex your bus stops and a US Lieutenant will board the bus and give you a quick briefing on the protocol for when you arrive, they are along the lines of you must exit the bus and stand in a single file, you are not allowed to photograph down the hill to the soldier’s barracks, you are not allowed to raise your voice, yell out or be disrespectful. You are then led by military escorts into the Freedom House, walk upstairs into a theatre where you will watch a short movie and listen to a briefing on the area from the Military. It is also in this theatre everyone must sign a waiver, which you admit to being in a hostile area, and there are potential threats to your safety and in the case of injury or death, there is no responsibility held by either. After the briefing, you are escorted outside to the steps of the Freedom house which faces the North Korean border, and you will see armed North Korean soldiers staring back at you. The Lieutenants will have ordered the group to remain fairly silent, there is to be no obscene gesturing, no verbal engagement with the North Korean’s, and all visitors will have to remain fairly still whilst on the steps. On a prior visit, I have seen first-hand a visitor to the complex from a northern hemisphere country do the wrong thing and receive one of the ferocious verbal dressing down from a South Korean soldier I have witnessed in my life, so please do as the authorities ask! Standing on the steps you can also view the JSA Conference rooms which you will be able to visit for a few minutes, whilst at the same time visit the raised concrete border in-between the conference rooms. The visit to the complex will last for approx 90 mins and it is fascinating to listen to the current soldiers and some of the histories however, it is our strong recommendation at all times please be respectful and adhere to their social policies.
Departing the JSA we enjoyed the short ride to Dora Observatory. Located atop Mount Dora, like many other tourists we peered through the binoculars into North Korea and the propaganda village before proceeding to the Dorasan Train Station. This is a rather interesting experience as this station is a fully functioning station for the moment the North and South are reunified and will provide the link between the two. It was here many years ago I received a North Korean stamp in my passport, still something I am fond of to this day. Our afternoon continued with a visit to the 3rd infiltration tunnel, there are a 4 built underground passing between the North and South, and visitors are allowed to walk down the tunnel along with a hardhat! Continuing late afternoon to Imjingak Park to view another area of the DMZ, this was our final destination of the day where we spent 90 minutes before we departed to Seoul.
As we write this blog, it should be noted we have enjoyed 3 different DMZ full day tours and will return for another visit next time we are in South Korea as every time, we learn something new, and there are so many different tour operators, some are better than others as you can imagine. Upon returning to Seoul we enjoyed a quick shower, packed, checked out of our hotel and greeted our driver who provided the private vehicle transfer to Incheon International Airport for our returning flight to Australia. South Korea was a country that was of significant interest for us before we created the business and after several years and times returning to this beautiful country and has never disappointed and South Korea is a wonderful alternative destination to experience before many of the other more well-known and traveled Asian destinations. If you are looking for a different experience, different culture, different cuisine, different topography, and the most beautiful hospitality, you must give South Korea serious consideration.