04/02/17 – A Flash of Seoul and an Absence of Luggage

This is pretty much what I got out of Seoul with a five-hour tour: a sense that their flag is one of the cooler ones.

The experience of flying to Cambodia two nights ago was quite smooth – getting out of the airport was a little rough. I’m now in Phnom Penh frantically waiting for someone to tell me that my check-in bag actually made it from Seoul – it’s been about a day (there’s only one flight/day from South Korea so that’s all I’ve really got to bank on for getting this poor little duffel back home). The folks at the Phnom Penh Airport have been awesome, though – so much better than in Siem Reap where they tend to smile at you awkwardly and hope that’ll either make a) the problem or b) you go away – and have offered to transport my bag to Siem Reap if they don’t get it back in time. On the plus side, I packed enough to get by (two of everything except I had to buy a pair of shorts yesterday), and the Golden Gate Hotel does daily complimentary laundry – let the cards fall where they may, but I want it known that I’m handling this way better than my last airplane mishap:

None of the planes are moving – NONE OF THE PLANES ARE MOVING!!!! And Natasha is in Shanghai and I didn’t tell her what hotel we were staying at…I should’ve told her. I SHOULD’VE SAID SOMETHNG!! *breathes rapidly into paper bag*

But two days ago I had a pretty fun time (which appears to have cost me) out in Seoul, a city in/and a country I knew very little about beyond: hey, I’ve got a 22-hour layover here, let’s tick South Korea off the list!

But, as I knew nothing about transportation in South Korea, and still don’t, I signed up for an Airport Transit Tour, a nifty way to see a bit of the city you’re stranded in. Seoul isn’t the only city that does this – Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai Pudong, and Chengdu (via the Panda Express) are also airports I’ve heard of that offered this service. And it’s especially effective if your layover is between 8-9 hours – mine, being 22 hours, allowed me to both get a good night’s sleep at a small hotel in Inchon when I got into Seoul at 11pm that night (the airport is actually an hour outside Seoul) and do some sightseeing beginning the next morning. Thus, you create a layovercation out of a layover.

You can find these fine folks at Gate 8 (literally, Door 8 out of Arrivals), but their tour desks on the second floor were closed when I went so don’t count on those.

The Seoul Airport Transit tours are exactly what is advertised: a few hours of seeing a few things and then catching your flight elsewhere. The rules are simple: 1) be on your way to a third destination, 2) be of a nationality who is able to exit the airport in South Korea, and 3) book a tour that isn’t going to make you miss your flight. The government-run initiative advertises one-hour, two-hour, and four-hour tours of Inchon, and a set of four five-hour tours to Seoul. The variation of the tours all depends on what time you get to the ticket booth, so the tour I took with a busload of people went to both Changdeokgung Palace, a 15th century royal residence in Seoul and to Isan Street, a fun souvenir-ish market street in the middle of downtown. For 10 USD (they say free but honestly, you get every penny out of this) you get fed lunch, transport to and from Inchon, admission to the palace, and the assurance that you’ll catch your flight in time by a chaperone who also acts as a tourguide. Below are a few photos from five hours in Seoul:

Changdeokgung Palace’s Throne Room – the palace was built in 1402 and destroyed during the war between Japan and Korea in 1592. There’s another palace in Seoul which is much larger and much more Forbidden City-ish called Gyeongbokgung Palace, but it was destroyed in the war and not rebuilt until 1867, so Changdeokgung Palace was the primary residence of the Korean monarchy of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897 CE).
Whether due to preservation or the brutal red-wash that went into China’s monuments prior to the 2008 Olympic Games, Korean temple roofs > Chinese temple roofs.
Our Aiport Transit Tours tourguide explaining in a heavy Korean accent how floor heating works.
The newer side of the palace – hey, that room is wearing a hat!
Isan Street – I realized that Seoul is better seen with its neon lights.
I was sad…I didn’t get an egg in my bibimbap…I would’ve eaten the egg in the window 😦
Changdeokgung Gatehouse – the structural stability puts Chinese and Japanese ones to shame.

Now, no disrespect to Airport Transit Tours – they are awesome and such a good idea, but in hindsight I don’t really feel like I got to know South Korea. Mind you, I sincerely doubt that would’ve been the case otherwise, this was a good way to do it quickly. But other layovercations have been a bit more fulfilling – I didn’t really get an idea of what was what in Seoul. I will probably, if I pass through on another layovercation, take on Seoul myself for a morning. Ride the bullet train to Gagnam from the airport, do my own exploring on the subway, eat food that wasn’t prescribed by the Government of Korea (the bibimbap was minimal and didn’t have its promised egg), and see more than just the one site. I felt more fulfilled on layovercations that I personally was able to engineer – for example Singapore in 2015 on my way to Cambodia where I spent the entire evening in Gardens by the Bay, or Miami on my way to Bolivia in 2013 where I spent the entire afternoon swimming and hanging out in South Beach on a hot summer’s day.

Plus, shamelessly lying on your back at 10pm at night in a public square taking surreal pictures of the Petronas Towers beats riding a tour bus.

I got back to Inchon Airport at 2:45pm from Seoul (the tour started at 10 but we got back early) and, realizing I had nearly three hours to spare, took a short 1-hour tour to a tiny Buddhist shrine called Yonggungsa Temple in the hills above the airport. The guide was very clear that this temple was nothing special, but being up in the fresh air in snow (South Korea gets as much snow as Southern Ontario every winter) was good enough, and made the cough I’ve had since those hypothermic days in Rongxian seem all the more bearable.

The shrines up here that make up the Yonggungsa Monastry are about 20 years old because progressive fires burned down successive eras of buildings all the way from the 7th century CE onwards, but this gnarled zelkova tree is apparently 1000+ years old.

However, the airport itself is a parade of crazy cultural reenactments and presentations, and turned a meh day into a “hey, that was kind of fun after all!” type of day.

Music and costumes, okay, I’ve seen that before, and I understand why they choose to put it in the gift shop…
Wait, what?! A reenactment of a royal procession…in an airport? Okay, what was in that bibimbap?!
And for all you doll lovers out there…I don’t know anyone who is a doll lover but if anyone comes across this blog who is, you can go to the airport in Seoul and buy traditional Korean dolls which are way less offensive than the Chinese ones in the Hutong.

Now in Phnom Penh and dealing with the delayed/lost bag situation – looks like I’m going to have to redirect my luggage to Siem Reap at this point – there’s a weighing feeling on my shoulders that I should have just flown direct from Shanghai Pudong to Siem Reap like I usually do instead of trying maneuver the Korea layovercation. I wouldn’t have seen South Korea, which would have been something of a shame, but at the same time I keep forgetting how many things with East Asian roofs and tiny markets I saw in that month of China. Then I realize that’s why I’m less excited about that layovercation that I thought I’d be: I’m East Asia’d out.

I don’t care if the walkway is suspended, NO MORE TEMPLES!!!!

So I’m going to stay here in Cambodia for three months and do my PhD research with a smile on my face and my last two surviving shirts on my back. If my beloved duffel bag finds me again, that’s great. If not and it’s been sentenced to somewhere in the bowels of Airport Hell, I have everything important for my survey except for all my clothes.

I have three different adapters for my MacBook charger, one useless down jacket, four notebooks, and two pairs of boxers…FML.

Shit happens – the best thing you can do is roll with it. Cambodia’s hot and humid right now anyway – South Korea was the last of the winter cold for 2017.

Next entry: a hike up the ancient necropolis of Oudong and the first Buddhist Terrace I’ve ever seen outside of Angkor Thom!!!

Andrew Harris

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