A Different, Flavorful, and Newly Affordable Taste of Asia: Korea

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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.

SEOUL SEARCHING

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.

If that seems remarkably low, it is. But though one 1999 survey claimed a tourist's eating costs in Seoul rank among the world's highest, away from the Western restaurants and expense-account places there are many eateries where you can fill up for next to nothing, including some good ones in Myongdong. Myongdong Kyoja serves up just four dishes-dumpling soup and three kinds of noodles (bean, spicy, and beef-and-chicken) - but each is a filling treat for just $3.75. At the end of an alleyway between Burger King and Citibank, check out the joint with the fish tank out front: Myongdong Chigae is the famous originator of budae chigae ("boiling soup"), prepared in a big gas-heated platter right on your table. It's just $4.15 for the basic veggie-and-noodle version; each extra ingredient (including -- believe it or not -- frankfurters and Spam) adds $1.65 to $2.10, but even the fully loaded model costing $8.25 easily feeds four.

Up the road and around the corner, look for the sign showing a big goofy guy clutching what appears to be a giant rutabaga. He's a North Korean defector whose clean, modern restaurant Morangak specializes in Pyongyang-style nagmun (cold noodles), either spicy or in beef broth with fruit slivers, for $4.15. But if you really want ample, head for the alleyway off Insa-dong where Sok Jung lays out a scrumptious banquet: 10 to 24 dishes served traditional-style on a low table, with floor cushions as seating. Lunch starts at $8.25 per person and dinner at $16.50.

CAPTIVATING KYONGJU

Not to be confused with other similarly named places like Kwangju, this eastern city is a national treasure well worth at least an overnighter from Seoul. Yes, it's now got high-rises, a commercialized downtown, and a resort district at Pomun Lake jammed with hotels and an amusement park. But Kyongju is also home to two of Asia's most magnificent ancient monuments, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The eighth-century seated Buddha at Sokkuram Grotto ($4.15) is awe-inspiring, as is the nearby sixth-century Pulguksa temple ($2.50), where you can (discreetly) watch real Buddhist monks and nuns going about their devotions. Other must-sees include huge mounds housing royal tombs, the Kyongju National Museum with its 11-foot-tall "Divine Bell," and compounds where residents have added a fridge here and a TV there to a lifestyle otherwise little changed in centuries. You can see it all on a bus tour ($37 with a local outfit, including lunch, or $150 overnight from Seoul, including meals and hotel), or rent a car for $42 per day.

A good lodging choice downtown is the salmon-colored yogwan Shilla Jang, where a double runs $21 a night. If you're feeling adventurous, blow an additional $8.25 on an ondul, a traditional Korean-style room where you have to take off your shoes to walk on the floor (covered with thick paper, oiled and varnished) and your bed is a futon on the same; practically every hotel in the country offers ondul rooms, but caveat dormitor: make sure your back is up to the experience. Most Kyongju hotels are out at Pomun Lake, a $6.75 taxi ride from downtown or 35¢ to 60¢ by public bus. The Pomun Grace has modern, pleasant, and comfy doubles with baths and amenities for $29 (plus all meals served for $5 to $8.30 each), but right up the road at the Swiss Rosen, $40 will buy you something similar in a much snazzier designer hotel. No, there's nothing particularly Swiss about the place (they just liked the name), but it's a beaut for the bucks.

Eating in Kyongju is generally even cheaper than supping in Seoul. For lunch, head downtown to Chang-u-dong, have a big $2.10 plate of mandu (fried dumplings), and maybe add another -- also $2.10 -- of kimpap, similar to our California roll. Around the corner from the Shilla Jang and three blocks down, it's a clean, modern chain lunchroom sporting a big blue-and-white sign next to a men's shop called Mayfair. (Not uncommon for Korea, there's no street address -- try taking a cab; because most Korean taxis have cell phones, they can call for directions.)

Save room for dinner at Won Pung, an atmospheric traditional-style restaurant near the royal tombs, where for $7.50 your table is loaded up in the kitchen and plopped down in front of you, groaning with 20 different delicacies; if your gluttony knows no bounds, order yet more grub from the English menu (roast pork, boiled octopus, roast ox tripe for $8.30 each).

The Koreans like to think of this 42-by-24-mile isle (also referred to as Cheju-do) as their very own Hawaii. Well, the palm trees are imported, but they do have several things in common: impressive scenery, volcanic origins, a balmy clime (Cheju's average year-round temperature is 60 degrees), and an ancient, separate language and cultural tradition. Or to compare with Japan, if Seoul is the Tokyo of Korea and imperial Kyongju the Kyoto, then Cheju's not unlike Okinawa. It's a vacation and honeymoon getaway mostly for Koreans and Japanese, but one that hasn't yet been paved over.

Apart from loads of natural beauty (lovely waterfalls, lava formations including the world's longest lava tube, South Korea's highest peak), there's plenty of evidence of the Mongol-influenced local culture to explore. Burial mounds encircled by walls of lava rocks dot the hillsides. Mysterious harubang -- ancient humanoid statues -- pop up over the place (originals, copies, and images on everything from buses to harubang-shaped phone booths). Groups of distinctive, white-garbed women divers plumb the coasts for sea critters. Old-style mud-and-thatch houses can still be seen right in the main towns; the rest are in the touristy but still lived-in village of Songup and the Colonial Williamsburg-style Cheju Folk Village (for an entry fee of 83¢, a great visit). And don't forget the botanical, from one of Asia's largest gardens to the Punjae Artpia ($4.15), an impressive one-of-a-kind park filled with 2,000 bonsai trees. You can rent a car for $48 a day (the roads are quite good); take a daylong tourist association bus tour for $27; or even book a package from Seoul (a typical two-nighter might cost around $170, including air, hotel, and daily breakfast).

Naturally, there's no shortage of hotels and restaurants, and the exchange rate translates into great bang for your buck even at top-end spots. But budget options are pretty good, too, especially in the capital, Cheju-Shi. The blue-and-white, three-year-old City Hotel is a stylish choice where a double goes for $28 and a suite for $50. Just down the hill, the also newish Hotel Cheju Core offers comparable rooms and amenities (plus a slightly better location closer to downtown) for $33 per double.

An hour's drive across the island's width lies the somewhat smaller and quieter city of Sogwipo, whose biggest advantage is that it's near a number of tourist attractions. There's an outlying zone of upscale hotels, but it's cheaper and more convenient to stay right in town. Two worthwhile choices are the Napoli (where doubles with private baths and the usual amenities run $30, and meals $5.80 apiece) and the Lions Hotel, which charges $51.50 per double thanks to its hilltop view over the harbor and the romantic Chonjiyon waterfall (rates drop by 20 percent on weekdays, though, and non-sea-view rooms go for just $43). Heading inland down the street from the Lions, do stop and sample an island specialty: bubbling toenjang tchigae (soybean-paste stew, with vegetables plus local clams, mussels, and prawns) for $4.15 at a simple eatery called Jin Ju. The cook's peppery $3.25 kimchi tchigae (cabbage stew) is also a treat. Or get a taxi ($1.10 within town) to take you to the local culinary landmark Gin Go Gae, where the Korean classic kalbi (barbecued beef) sizzles on a brazier right at your table and is served with an array of side dishes; you wrap the cooked beef in a lettuce leaf with some savory condiments, and dig in. As Korean meals go, it's a bit of a splurge at $10 per person -- but well worth it.

Seoul for sale

As profiled in our first "World's Best Bargain Shopping" article in the Summer 1999 issue, the quality of Korea's manufacturing and the strength of the U.S. dollar make for some incredible Seoul savings, especially leather and clothing for both sexes. Check out hip Myong-dong and the Nam Dae Mun street markets; for top-quality custom-made duds (how about $225 for an entire men's suit?), look up the better tailors in the Itaewon shopping/entertainment district.

Korea counseling

All calls to South Korea need to be preceded by 011-82, then the area code minus the initial zero. There's a 13-hour time difference from the U.S. East Coast, 10 hours from the West Coast. For general information, contact the Korean National Tourism Organization (with branches in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York): 800/868-7567; knto.or.kr. In Seoul, 10 Da-dong, Chung-gu; 02/757-0086, fax 02/777-0102.

Getting there

Six airlines have service from the U.S., including nonstops on KAL (800/438-5000; koreanair.com) and Asiana (800/227-4262; asiana.co.kr); others include United and Northwest. Current consolidator and online fares can be as low as $700 from the East Coast, $500 from the West. A small number of packages are available, such as Asiana/Asian Holidays' "Shopper's Heaven" tour: air plus two nights in a top Seoul hotel for $699 from the West Coast (800/871-9700).

Getting around

Intercity ground transport is reasonably priced. The trip from Seoul to Kyongju, for example, takes about four to four-and-a-half hours, with one-way bus fares starting at $11 and train at $17.50. The one-hour flight to the nearest airport, at Pusan (an hour's drive from Kyongju), costs $39 each way. Flying is the only practical way to get to Cheju Island from Seoul; it also takes an hour and costs about $51 one-way. Vouchers for the Korea Rail Pass can be purchased in the U.S, through American Tour Consulting (703/256-8944 or 800/535-7552); a three-day pass good for travel on any train in the country costs $40.

Lodging leads

Korea Hotel Reservations Center (in U.S., 800/251-4848, fax 914/426-7338; khrc.com). Korean Youth Hostel Association (02/725-3031, fax 02/725-3113). LABO homestay programs (02/817-4625; fax 02/813-7047; labostay.or.kr). Korea Budget Inns Reservation Center (02/757-0086; fax 02/777-0102; knto.or.kr), Korea Lodging Reservation Center (ktell.com)

Seoul hotels (area code 02)

Hamilton Hotel (119-25 Itaewon-Dong, Yong San-Ku. 794-0171; fax 795-0457). Han Hung Jang Yogwan (99 Kwanhoon-Dong, Jongro-Ku. 734-4265) Kwan Hoon Jang Yogwan (95 Kwanhoon-Dong, Jongro-Ku. 732-1682). Metro Hotel (199-33, Eulchi-Ro, 2-Ka, Choong-Ku. 752-1112; fax 757-4411). Hotel Savoy (23-1, 1-Ka, Chumgmu-Ro, Choong-Ku. 776-2641; fax 755-7669; savoy.co.kr).

Seoul restaurants

Morangak (corner of Chungmuro and Fashion Streets, Myongdong. 777-2343). Myongdong Kyoja (25 Myongdong 2-ga. 776-5348). Myongdong Chigae (off Myongdong 2-ga. 752-6800). Sok Jung (193-1 Insa-dong, Chongnogu. 734-0916).

Kyongju hotels (area code 0561)

Bomun Shillajang (243-5 Hwangoh-dong, downtown. 749-6622). Swiss Rosen Hotel (242-19 Shinpyong-dong, Pomun Lake. 748-4848; fax 748-0094). Pomun Grace Hotel (242-14 Shinpyong-dong, Pomun Lake. 745-0404; fax 745-0409).

Kyongjur restaurants

Chang-u-dong (89 Nodong-dong, downtown. 772-2692). Won Pung (Hwangnam-dong, near downtown. 772-8630).

Cheju hotels (area code 064)

Hotel Cheju Core (304-13 Yon-dong, Cheju-Shi. 744-6600; fax 747-7001). City Hotel (306-13 Yon-dong, Cheju-Shi. 749-1851; fax 744-8945). Lions Hotel (803 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo. 762-4141; fax 733-3617). Hotel Napoli (587-3 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo. 733-4701; fax 733-4802).

Cheju restaurants

Gin Go Gae (319-23 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo (opposite Hotel Top. 733-5089). Jin Ju (313-10 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo. 762-5158).

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