A Different, Flavorful, and Newly Affordable Taste of Asia: Korea
Just another loud, bustling afternoon in Seoul's hip downtown shopping district of Myong-dong. Gigglesome schoolgirls yak on designer cell phones as they stroll arm-in-arm down crowded lanes lined with clothes shops (goodness, so much black this season) and eateries -- both Western fast-food and local. One store blasts Korean-language hip-hop out onto the street, while down the block a Christian evangelist tries to compete by bellowing his spiel interspersed with slurred, off-key snatches of "Auld Lang Syne." Another guy's selling a boxful of adorable fuzzy pups (for pets, not lunch). Amid all this sensory overload, suddenly a blotch of red and green zigs and zags through the throng: a woman in a traditional silk hanbok, Korea's answer to the kimono or the sari. Who knows what the deal is there? A bride late for her wedding picture? A gonged-out refugee from a folkloric troupe? No matter -- it's like glimpsing the ancient soul of the nation flitting silently through the noisy modern megalopolis.
Modern and mega certainly do describe this capital of 11 million -- yet unexpectedly dotting the glass, steel, and concrete sprawl are lovely tucked-away pockets of the "land of the morning calm," the Korea that was: palaces and gardens and marvelously atmospheric old neighborhoods. And beyond Seoul other gems await. Topping the list are Kyongju, the old imperial capital with a millennium's worth of awesome antiquities, and Cheju Island, a semitropical offshore haven with its own singular culture and feel. For a very different kind of history -- the Cold War -- there's nothing else in the world like the DMZ, where U.S. and South Korean troops still tensely guard against the still real menace of Stalinist North Korea (you can't go on your own; day tours from Seoul start at $35).
Many of the relatively few Americans who visit do so as a stopover on the way to "bigger fish" like China and Japan. But this particular minnow still manages to pack enough to see and experience to fill at least a couple of weeks. Its cuisine and culture are fascinating -- uniquely Korean forms whose flavor lies somewhere between Japanese and Chinese. The same could be said for its geography -- half of a peninsula hanging down from Manchuria -- and prices that, thanks to the Asian economic crisis that started in the summer of 1997, range from refreshingly affordable to downright amazing for Americans. The U.S. greenback just recently bought more than 1,110 won (everywhere abbreviated as W) compared to 890 in May 1997, which though not as high as a year ago still means a major boost in Yank buy power. Whether shopping for an extraordinary bargain in custom-tailored clothing, enjoying a deluxe hotel for less than $100 a night, or gorging on a 20-course dinner for under $12, this is the time to experience another, truly one-of-a-kind side of Asia.
The capital of it all is a souped-up mix of past, present, and future. But just as you think you're about to drown in canyons of steel, you stumble into oases like the gargantuan palace complex Kyongbukkun (entry fee W700, or 62¢), reminiscent of Peking's Forbidden City, or the smaller, even more gorgeous Changdokkung ($1.82). Then, too, there are low-slung old quarters like Insa-dong, with its teahouses, crafts shops, and antiques stores, graced with sweeping pagoda-style tile roofs. Explore on your own using the very navigable subway system (35¢-75¢), or grab a bus tour (as little as $18 for three hours).
Traditional culture's also very much alive and kicking; don't miss one of the spectacular (sometimes downright acrobatic) performances of ancient court and folk music; ticket prices range from $16.50 for the superb Chongdong Theater to just $4.15 at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. Jock-watchers might appreciate an exciting bout of traditional wrestling or a battle between the Samsung Lions and the Haitai Tigers for $4.15 (baseball is a passion here as in Japan). Then of course there's that great American (and Korean) sport, shopping -- and Seoul boasts some world-class options at bargain-basement prices.
In choosing a base of operations for all this, you'll find a plentiful supply of budget-friendly lodgings. The Hamilton Hotel, a brick box on the foreigner-popular shopping and entertainment avenue of Itaewon, offers amenities including a pool and its own mall for a reasonable $99. Over in Myongdong, doubles with private bath at the Savoy start at $58 nightly, and nearby the Metro offers much the same for $50.
If you're really looking to stretch that won, consider a yogwan (sometimes translated as "inn," sometimes as "motel"). Comparable to the European pension, they range from disgusting fleabags run by shady characters to simple but well-maintained family establishments. The Korean National Tourism Organization can provide a list of budget inns, but two winners in the charming old Insa-dong area are clean, right off the main street, and offer a night in a double room with bath, A/C, phone, and TV for $21. The Han Hung Jang is run by friendly Shin Kyu Park and her son and (English-speaking) daughter-in-law, while several doors down Kyong Guk Kim operates the Kwan Hoon Jang with his wife and son -- and they'll also feed you for about $3 a meal.