Time in Seoul was brief.
In case you’re wondering, I did try to book a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA), but especially during busy season in August, you need to book over a week in advance. I spent a lot of time researching the tour companies (you must go with a guide, and a trip to JSA is enough), and Panmunjom Travel Center seems to be the best—specifically, they have something called the DMZ Special Tour with North Korean Defector, so you can directly participate in a Q&A with a refugee. Veltra’s JSA tour was my second choice, but alas no spots available.
1— It apparently is (or was at the time of filming) much more lax when you visit the border from the north coming from Shenyang, China.
2 — American citizens aren’t permitted to take the train into North Korea—only flights via literally the world’s worst airline.
Since my KTX from Seoul to Jeonju (home of bibimbap 😛 ) wasn’t until later in the afternoon, I had the first half of the day to explore nearby Seoul Station, which I hadn’t realized was within walking distance of many other attractions I had missed.
But first: brunch!
With my destination being the Seoul Museum of Art, I found an AMAZING place called Café MAMAS nearby. When food gives you inspiration as this camembert and honey panini did for me, you know it’s good. OK, maybe “inspiration” is stretching it, but I now need to make this heavenly combo myself when I’m home. Camembert is a cheese from Normandy, France, and one that I first heard about when a chef at the Four Seasons in Guangzhou mentioned using it in his salad. There are whole articles about camembert, and I now have a new obsession. Who knew Seoul would be the place to find it?
Anyway, taking my red grape smoothie with me, I walked to the museum, only to find that much of it is undergoing exhibition transition. Still, what I did get to see was free, and I spent a brief period inside its second-floor library to flip through a cool English-language design magazine. I consider myself a huge wannabe design nerd, so it was enviously cool to discover just how amazing the design community can make a magazine (versus the shitty designs of other magazines I won’t name here), and to discover more about the community itself. Truly, it was fascinating.
With still some time left, I followed an alleyway toward Deoksugung Palace (Palace of Virtuous Longevity), where what looked like an afternoon market was taking place, while local office workers walked the other way toward what I assumed was their lunch spot.
I paid the 1,000-won entrance fee (is 90 cents really worth a fee…) and took a stroll around the palace, one of five from the Josean Dynasty. There’s also a museum within the palace, but since that requires paying for yet another ticket and given my limited time, I let it go.
Although I wanted to keep exploring the other direction (wanted that Gwanghwamun Plaza fountain pic), I started making my way back toward Seoul Station to take one stop to Yongsan for the KTX to Jeonju.
At Yongsan, there’s quite a lot to do (duty-free shopping = Chinese tourists) and places to rest, even a movie theater. I took this time as a chance to get my free drink at Starbucks, a Jeju hoji tea latte, before I boarded the uncrowded train, where I sat next to an elderly man who was kind enough to ask if I wanted anything to drink whenever the drink cart came around. It was only after the second time that he realized I wasn’t actually Korean 😛 The number of times I’ve had to clarify I wasn’t Korean on this trip… #wedontalllookthesame
Two hours and a quick taxi drive later, I arrived at Tosarang Guesthouse right outside the famous Jeonju Hanok Village.
Following the style of such traditional homes and likely most accommodations in Jeonju, guests basically sleep on mattresses on the floor, but it’s actually quite comfortable. Tosarang, in particular, is relatively new and of the two sections (squares? siheyuan? you get the idea?), mine was the recently renovated one, and the owner made sure to point out I got the coolest room at the corner (literally cool, because it’s been so hot).
Upon checking in, the owner sat down with me to outline all the best spots to check out (99% food) in the village. His English was quite good, and I later learned that he went to work at a meat factory in Australia before coming back to his hometown, where he got a loan from his father to run this guesthouse.
He asked what Korean food I liked, and when I mentioned Korean BBQ and how I couldn’t really enjoy that on this trip as a party of one, he offered to join me. I should’ve seen that coming 😛 #openinvitation
After a brief rest, he called a taxi and took us to the area of town known for makgeolli, traditional Korean rice liquor that the woman from the cooking class told me was a must in Jeonju, and is served with side dishes that I later read somewhere may come as free with makgeolli. Anyway, he didn’t let me pay for the meal or the taxi rides, so I told myself I would repay him before I left. The place we ate at was 100% local. The side dishes weren’t that spectacular—he kept apologizing for taking me to this place instead of Korean BBQ, sensing that I may have preferred the latter—but I nevertheless enjoyed the experience and really appreciated how kind he was to take me to dinner and then show me around the market that I would explore further the next morning.
I learned that while this wasn’t his first time taking guests out for a meal, this was the first one-on-one dinner. We talked about a range of topics, including how he gets quite a bit of pressure to get married (lol), but don’t worry, he didn’t try suggesting anything. I’d like to think that Koreans aren’t forward like that 😛 Or maybe I’m too naive, but still.
Overarching lesson of this trip: Traveling lets you meet and interact with some of the kindest people.
Up next: MORE FOOD.