Seoul & the K-dols

Wednesday, 12 July 2023

Once I’d left Australia my first stop on my recent travels was Seoul in South Korea. I’ve been to South Korea several times over the years including the trip north to the DMZ between South and North Korea. I’ve also done the DMZ visit travelling south from Pyongyang in North Korea where I was ushered into the small building which straddles the actual line and walked around the table in the centre of the room, also straddling the line, so technically I’ve been to South Korea from North Korea as well.

This time I started my Seoul visit in the well known (thanks to YouTube hero Psy) Gangnam district, staying in the trendy Voco Seoul Gangnam hotel. My US$174 a night room was definitely on the compact side of tiny, but everything worked, the beer in the fridge was free and there was a restaurant and laundry, what’s not to like?

◄ I started my Seoul travels from Gangnam’s Apgujeong Rodeo Station near K-Star Rd dotted with GangnamDols, brightly painted ‘dols’ dedicated to the ‘idols’ in Korea’s hugely popular K-Pop bands. Now I couldn’t tell SHINee from FT Island, 4minute, Super Junior, miss A or EXO, they all had ‘dols,’ but I certainly know about Gangnam Style.



So off to the Coex shopping centre fronted by a monument of the hands of Psy, real name Park Jae-sang, whose Gangnam Style horse dance step probably makes him the world’s biggest one-hit wonder.  ►



Inside you’ll find the Starfield COEX Library which is indeed a library, not a bookshop, and you’d need a very high ladder to pick a book off the top of one of the towering bookshelves. Supposedly it’s all very high tech and multi-lingual. COEX also features a Pan Pan Am shop dedicated to that long defunct, but still iconic airline. ▼

▲ Behind COEX is the Bong-Eun-Sa Temple with its impressive temple gateway guardians and the 23metre high Mireuk Daebul statue of the bodhisattva Maitreya. Plus countless smaller Buddhist images.

▲ and countless colourful paper lanterns.

▲ Gangnam is south of the Han or Hangang River, but most of the city’s older attractions are north of the river including the recently unearthed Cheonggyecheon Stream. The river had disappeared beneath urban development including a 1968 freeway until, despite much local controversy, the freeway was demolished and in 2005 the stream resurfaced. Today it’s a very popular 10km east-west walking route through central Seoul and a worldwide symbol for the possibilities of bringing nature back into cities.

▲ There was certainly more nature in the Biwon Secret Garden in the Changdeokgung Palace, regular English-language tours take you through the garden.

▲ It’s not far from the Gyeongbokgung Palace where visitors can enter free if they’re wearing traditional Korean clothing. Posing in front of Geunjeongjeon, the king’s throne room, this group clearly took advantage of the offer although very few ‘traditional outfits’ extended all the way to ground level. Or perhaps Nike and Adidas are regarded as traditional footwear these days?

▲ Also in the palace grounds I drop in to the National Folk Museum where the LP guide accurately recommends the technicoloured funeral bier which ‘looks like a fantasy Noah’s Ark.’ This 1856 bier, carried to the burial on long poles on the bier-bearers’ shoulders, features figures of humans and animals including the 12 zodiac creatures.

▲ The National Museum of Korea features a stunning building, but also stunning collections of ceramics.

▲ Or head to the War Memorial of Korea, a museum with plenty of reminders of the Korean War including this Russian Mig-15, used by the North Korean air force during the war. The air force still seemed to have a lot of Mig-15 when I visited the country in 2002, 50 years after the war.

◄ The museum also features this turtle ship, a scaled-down replica of the ships used in the war with Japan in 1592-1598.

Next stop Busan at the southern tip of South Korea, from where I take a ferry to Japan.