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It's Seoul good after all

Publication Date : 07-05-2014


And there it was: The Bench. The very spot they shared their first kiss. And there I was, sitting on it.

Not only that, I was grinning like a schoolgirl as I posed with two fingers up for my camera. Except I was no agasshi but an ajumma. That’s “young lady” and “aunty” respectively. In Korean.

Yes, folks, almost two years after that first unhappy visit to K-land, I was baaack!

Readers might recall the column I wrote on June 21, 2012, in which I described my great disappointment in finding the people in Seoul unfriendly, the cabbies scary and the shop assistants rude.

It was nothing like what I had seen in my K-dramas. It was a good lesson not to so foolishly believe everything you see on the telly. Then again, I also felt I hadn’t given Seoul a fair shake as that trip was poorly planned. Actually, there was no planning at all. We practically jumped on the plane and landed on our backsides, figuratively speaking.

So I decided to go back with the same friends from the first jaunt and this time, we turned to the experts for help. We got Apple Vacations to put together an itinerary of two nights on Jeju Island and three in Seoul. We gave them our wish list of places to see and eat. And of course shopping.

And it worked out beautifully. That’s how I landed on that bench on Jeju. This was where Kim Joo-won (played by Hyun Bin) and Gil Ra-im (Ha Ji-won) kissed in the 2010 hit series, Secret Garden.

Finding the locations of a few of my favourite dramas turned out to be really fun.

After a taste of other Jeju charms which included the living Folk Village (complete with a real pig pen), spectacular Cheongjeyeong Falls, the sex-themed Love Land (more hilarious than sexciting) and an unexpectedly good underground shopping mall, we headed for Seoul.

Our tour guide brought us to the café used as the setting for Coffee Prince in Hongdae. This is a relatively old drama dating to 2006 but the fans are still visiting and allowed to take photos (provided you are a customer and, as it turned out, the place serves pretty decent coffee).

Next stop was Bukchok Hanok Village, which is an area in Seoul where lovely traditional houses are maintained as real homes. There are signs asking tourists to keep the noise down but it can’t be easy having nosy strangers streaming past your house and snapping photos daily.

I was delighted that I recognised the area and found the unmarked house which was featured in yet another favourite drama, Personal Taste, starring hottie Lee Min-ho.

Finally, we drove up to Namsan Tower, where the couple from the megahit series, My Love from the Star, placed their love lock with the other thousands at the bottom of the tower.

My buddies and I did the same. Saranghae, BFF.

Food-wise, we got it right as well. We had scrumptious black pork barbecue and delicately ginseng-infused samgyetang, as well as bibimbap, jajamyeon, spicy seafood hot pot, lots of kimchi and yes, we even did the fried chicken and beer thing (fans of My Love from the Star will know what I mean).

That is the power of soft power. By using pop culture, South Korea has conquered the world, which has brought so much respect, love, curiosity and tourist dollars to the country.

Then there is its electronic dominance. My telly, smartphone, tablet, and even my washing machine are from Samsung!

And it happened in less than three decades after South Korea threw off the yoke of military dictatorships that lasted more than 30 years. What helped, according to experts, was the high level of education among its citizens who bloomed once the repression was removed. That’s truly a lesson to be learned here.

Yet, despite all its success and progress, it was unable to prevent a man-made disaster like the sinking of the Sewol ferry that has claimed hundreds of lives, the majority of them teenage students.

The deep sorrow of the people was not really evident to a visitor even though the newspapers and TV stations were full of news of the tragedy.

But as a citizen of a nation which has also suffered a terrible loss with MH370, I felt compelled to visit the memorial for the ferry victims set up outside Seoul City Hall which was within walking distance from my hotel.

I was accompanied by my friend, Yu Khun-ha, a senior journalist from The Korea Herald, to the memorial. There were long queues from morning till night and people wrote messages on long yellow ribbons which were tied to metal frames set up for this purpose. I wrote a condolence message to join the thousands already fluttering in the wind.

That was the only sombre moment during a trip that I will remember as my Seoul redeemed.


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