Trip to South Korea with Tawn’s Colleagues

It has been a busy two weeks in Thailand, preventing me from taking time to pull together my report about our trip to Seoul, Korea two weekends ago.  Among other events, our friend Tod returned to Thailand after a decade living in the United States.  Also, last Thursday I had my final examination for the first module of Thai language classes.  Then, Friday the school had the annual Christmas program and party for which I had to prepare some dishes.  This week, our friend Stephanie Chung (from Melbourne) was in town with two of her sisters and their families.  Then yesterday morning, Tawn stubbed his toe on the bedpost and it ended up bruised, purple, and swollen like a plum.

So let’s go back thirteen days and recap the events:

Whatever else I may write about our trip to Seoul, it served as a good example of the differences between Western and Asian cultures.  In my 72 hours on the tour, I found myself face-to-face with situations where my instincts as a solo travelers (read: self-absorbed individualistic Westerner) were in direct contradiction to all that was expected of me by my fellow travelers (read: mostly group-focused Thais).

The setting: Tawn and his colleagues from the Bangkok office Hill & Knowlton were being treated to a long weekend trip, in thanks for their hard work and performance this year.  The destination: Seoul, Republic of Korea.  The travelers: thirty-seven H&K employees, one customer, two spouses (myself included) and two children.


Friday December 9th

Friday was the start of a three-day weekend here in Thailand, with Monday being Constitution Day.  Our original schedule called for a departure at 12:05 am Friday morning (i.e., Thursday evening) but unavailability of seats led to a rescheduling for a Saturday morning departure instead.

With the holiday weekend, everyone was leaving town.  That, combined with the grand opening of the new Siam Paragon shopping mega-complex, had traffic at a complete standstill across the metropolitan area by three in the afternoon.  Our schedule called for the group to meet at the Korean Air check-in counter at Don Muang airport at 9:00 pm, and erring on the side of caution, Tawn insisted we leave no later than 7:30.

Strangely, after catching a taxi just a few minutes after 7:30 we arrived at the airport about 8:10.  It seems that everyone in Bangkok had expected traffic to be so bad that they all left work early, causing early traffic jams that, by the time we left for the airport, had largely cleared up.  Something like the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, when predictions of huge crowds scared so many people away that the traffic was quite manageable.

We weren’t the only ones to have misjudged the traffic: nearly all of Tawn’s colleagues were already queued up in the departure hall by the time we arrived.

The airport was packed and bursting at the seams.  The bulk of Bangkok’s air traffic departs in the evening for long-haul flights to Australia, Europe, and more distant points in Asia.  This underscores the need for the new airport, Suvarnabhumi, to open.  The Prime Minister is saying July 2006, but there are many skeptics.  There was, however, a very nice billboard for the new airport displayed in the lobby of the departure hall.  Picture 1: Chris and Tawn in the departure lounge.

Along with his colleagues Mon and Jo, Tawn and I went to eat dinner at a pub-style restaurant on the third floor.  Jo is a British lady who works with Tawn, while Mon has been Tawn’s friend for years and just recently joined Hill & Knowlton.  We relaxed over a mediocre dinner while the tour company handled all of our checking in – one aspect of traveling with a tour group that is quite enjoyable.  Of course, there’s the discomfort of knowing that someone you’ve just met is running around with your very valuable US passport.  A trashy dessert of a Dairy Queen Blizzard provided enough preservatives to tide me over for the red eye flight.  See, I haven’t really left anything behind in the United States that I can’t find here!

Everyone and their cousin was in line for immigration, so we got an early start to ensure plenty of time for duty free shopping before the flight.  With twenty-some odd immigration officers on duty, we managed to get one who was either new or too thorough and our line moved at literally half the speed of all the others.  One by one, Tawn’s colleagues in the other lines cleared immigration and disappeared behind the opaque glass wall.

Once through, Tawn headed for the stores and I headed to the Thai Airways lounge, to see if I could convince them to let me in using my United Airlines Red Carpet Club reciprocal privileges.  I tried to play dumb when showing my Korean Air boarding pass – they aren’t in the same airline alliance so the lounge privileges don’t extend to flights on them – but the lady at the front counter of the lounge would have none of it.

So while Tawn evaluated how much of a dent he wanted to make in his credit card, I wandered around, taking a few pictures of airplanes.  Sadly, if being nighttime, the results were not very good results.  One thing that is really nice about Bangkok is the wide range of airlines and airplanes that fly there.

Out at the gate area, I met up with Tawn and Mon again.  I think most of Tawn’s colleagues were around, but as I had just met most of them back at the check-in line, I didn’t recognize everyone yet.  Boarding for the flight started a bit late – about 11:45 for a 12:05 departure.  Strangely, the boarding announcements were made only in Korean, with nothing said in Thai or English.  Eventually, we decided to go ahead and board and since our boarding card indicated “group 1” that didn’t seem to be a problem.  Photo 2: Jo and other H&K colleagues board our flight.  The man on the right was recently featured in a local magazine shoot as one of the “eligible hunks of Bangkok”.  Mon keeps fawning over him.

A pair of friendly flight attendants greetings us at the aircraft door and we crossed through the galley to the aisle on the right-hand side of the aircraft and back, back, back to the rear of the plane.  One thing I noticed very quickly is that the economy cabin had very good legroom.  Korean’s web site lists 33-35” for economy, and our row was definitely at least 35” if not more.  It seemed quite spacious.

Photo 3: Tawn “sleeps” on the flight but doesn’t want to miss the duty free shopping. 

During the flight, I dozed on and off.  The people in front of me (the exit row) didn’t recline, thankfully.  I reclined just a little bit – it seemed that my seat had the ability to recline a bit further than on most economy class seats on most airlines, but this may just be my perception.  It was actually a pretty comfortable flight.


Saturday December 10th

Descending through the dark clouds, our plane touched down at Incheon Airport just a few minutes after seven in the morning.  Walking through the terminal doors, our group gathered in the hallway, listening to the instructions of our tour guide:

Through immigration, reclaim baggage, repack and freshen up, through customs, onto the waiting bus.  Leave bags by the bus.

This was the first point where the cultural differences raised their heads.  Was it East vs. West or just tour group vs. backpacker mentality?  Hard to say.  The process of claiming our bags, grabbing jackets and gloves, and heading through customs should have taken, in my estimation, ten minutes – especially since our bags had already arrived on the carousel by the time we cleared immigration.

But it took our group of forty-two people more than an hour.  In fact, the scene of the frantic repacking looked more like a refugee scene from a movie.  How much effort could it take to remove your winter gear from your bags?  The answer, apparently, is a lot.  Photo 4: Frantic repacking, but how empty are the bags?  Photo 5: Jo looks on in amazement.

Let me back up for a moment.  The repacking was only half the equation.  The other half was the amazing amount of baggage that had been brought for a three day, two night trip.  The defense I heard was that it was mostly empty space to accommodate shopping, but looking in these bags as they were being repacked, I didn’t see a lot of empty space!  This grated a bit against my philosophy of generally traveling light.

Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there.  The fist conflict is styles occurred when I decided I really wanted a latte.  Having slept only a bit on the flight and knowing it would be a long day ahead, arming myself with some caffeine seemed a good idea.  Having traveled through Incheon before, I knew there was a coffee shop just outside customs in the arrival level of the main terminal building.  So I proposed to Tawn that we (or just I) go ahead and clear customs, get a latte, and wait for the rest of the group to finish repacking and brushing their teeth and just meet them outside.

Perhaps you see where this is leading.  The idea of leaving the group to go do something on my own was not well received.  While Tawn relented and joined me on my side trip, the need for caffeine being just a hair stronger than his need for keeping up with the expectations of the group, I caught an earful about how that wasn’t what was expected of us.  Point taken.  Latte consumed.  Giddy buzz of caffeine started.  Photo 6: Coffee makes it better.

A good half-hour after finishing our coffee, the rest of the group had made it through customs and headed to the end of the terminal where our bus awaited.  Stepping out of the warm terminal into the sub-freezing temperatures outside was like leaving the airlock of a space station for the vacuum of deep space.  You could hear the gasping as dozens of Thais experienced something they had never felt before except when opening the door of their kitchen freezer.

It was a crisp and clear morning.  After we had settled into our green-fringe curtained bus and selected the seats that would be ours uncontested for the next three days, the driver eased us onto the road.  Passing over cold and muddy tidal lands near the airport, passing across the bridges and causeways to the mainland, passing the outskirts of Seoul and the countless apartment and condo complexes all with their names and numbers writ large on the windowless ends of the buildings.

We drove for two hours, past the point of comfort for my latte-filled bladder, until we arrived at Dae Jang Guem Theme Park in the mountains outside Seoul.  Dae Jang Guem is a very popular television series in Korea that has a following across Asia.  It is based on the true historical character Jang-Guem, a woman who became the master chef in the royal palace during the first half of the 1500s.  She did this despite living in an incredibly male-dominated society.  More information here.  The show is known in English as “Jewel in the Palace” and, as near as I can tell, is equal parts drama and Korean cooking show.  Picture 7: Costumes on the set of Jewel in the Palace.

Dae Jang Guem Theme Park is the set where much of the series was filmed.  It basically looks like a Korean palace and neighboring village and, if I understood the guide correctly, the village was in fact a real village and the locals were used as extras on the film.  It looks quite impressive and there are props and displays throughout the buildings.  But when you look closely, you realize that this palace is in fact a façade – the tiles are made of Styrofoam and the intricate painted details are decals that are starting to peel at the edges.  Picture 8: What looks like a traditional Korean building is actually a movie set with foam roof tiles.  Still pretty, though.

The informational signs are not very useful unless you’re familiar with the show.  One of them read, in effect, “the Kitchen where the well-known flour incident occurred.”  All of the set is outdoors; there are no indoor areas you can go.  So it was cold.  The temperatures were just below freezing which didn’t feel too bad at first.  Over years of traveling up to Canada during the winter, I’ve come to think of freezing as an okay temperature provided you are dressed properly.

Over the next few days it got colder and, in short, I wasn’t dressed properly since most of my cold weather clothes are sitting in Kansas City waiting for my return at Christmas.

Frankly, it seems like most of the people on the tour weren’t familiar with the TV series and I was sensing a bit of “um, that’s nice, can we get back in the bus now?” hovering in the air.  Or perhaps those were just my projections.

It was noon and we hadn’t eaten anything since the meal on the plane last night.  Our lunch was still another hour away, and the snack bar at the theme park was closed for the season.  So we got back in the bus and I got colder, hungrier, and crankier as we drove.  Finally, going on 2:00 pm, we pulled up next to a restaurant at the edge of a large river and piled inside to eat our first cook-it-yourself Korean meal: dakgalbi. This is basically diced chicken that you cook with sliced sweet potatoes and cabbage on a large, flat gas-heated griddle that is placed on the table.  Picture 9: Chris and Tawn fry up some dakgalbi.

Actually, the style of cooking – communal grill/fry/sauté – was repeated throughout our trip although the ingredients varied a bit.  The common theme, aside from good food and the fun of helping prepare it, is that your clothes tend to smell like your food afterwards.

Re-energized by the warmth and the food, the group walked across the parking lot to a pier.  While we waited for the ferry to Nami Island to arrive, we braved smoke and ash to huddle around a split 50-gallon drum filled with burning firewood.

Nami Island, in the middle of the river, is a beautiful sequoia-forested spot that was the setting for the romantic Korean television drama, “Winter Sonata” (Also known as “Winter Love Song” elsewhere in Asia) starring Bae Yong-Jun and Choi Ji-Woo.  (Interesting English-language essay about why the movie resonated so deeply with women throughout Asia; Detailed description of the show.) In addition to its lovely scenery, Nami Island has all sorts of vendors, shops, and attractions that are a melding of state park and Fisherman’s wharf minus the street performers.  We had about 90 minutes and walked around, the larger group dissolving into smaller ones, to see various spots where famous scenes had taken place.

Perhaps the most important was the long path that is lined with these sequoias, the only deciduous redwood tree, that tower 30-40 meters overhead.  This is the spot where the two main characters shared their first kiss, as immortalized by a bronze statue.  So everyone stopped to have his or her picture taken here.  Picture 10: Chris and Tawn on Nami Island.

The sun had sunk behind the surrounding mountains, the wind had picked up, and the temperature was dropping.  In our short time on the island, we drank hot chocolate, ate sweet potatoes that had been wrapped in foil and roasted in the embers of an outdoor fire, and snacked on a grilled pounded rice stick.

Kind of hard to explain, but it is like a churro but made of pounded rice, which gives it a chewy, elastic quality.  It is then grilled over a fire until the outside is crispy.  The taste is unseasoned – just the taste of rice puffs or rice crackers, but hot, warm, and chewy.  Picture 11: roasted rice stick.

After taking the ferry back to the shore, huddled in the warm cabin and trying to figure out why this guy traveling with another group kept looking at Tawn and me and kind of smiling.  Family?  Hostile?  Don’t know and didn’t find out.

Our two-hour drive back to Seoul was a long one.  Traffic was heavy as we entered the city and drove along the wide Hangang River.  Seoul is spread out over both sides of the river and up the slopes of the surrounding hills, spilling over (or through tunnels, more accurately) into the valleys beyond.  As such, there isn’t such a dramatic skyline.  Rather, there are individual buildings that are quite prominent, and the bridges are very nicely lit.

Dinner was at a shabu shabu restaurant – noodles, soup, and pork cooked on a gas burner at your table.  The food was good, but at this point we were too exhausted that even our taste buds were drowsy.

Thankfully, the hotel was only a few blocks away.  We stayed at the Capital, a nice enough tourist class hotel within walking distance of the Itaewon district – touristy spot with bars, shops, and Americana galore.  When we got to our room, we discovered that there were only two single beds.  We swapped rooms with our tour leader, who was rooming solo, in order to get one double bed.

The interior of the rooms can only be described as Louis XIV meets Cinderella’s castle done up in Barbie pink.  It was ostentatious in the fullest sense of the word.  But we were so tired that in just a few minutes we were asleep and our eyes were no longer assaulted by the sight.


Sunday December 11th

Ring, ring… ring, ring.  Wake up call at 6:00 am.  Groan.  We pulled ourselves out of bed.  Still dark outside.  And made it down to the lobby just a few minutes before our 7:00 departure time.

No breakfast at the hotel.  Instead, the bus drove us down by the river, where we ate at one of the large boat restaurants along the shore.  It seems that the tour organizers have worked out deals with various restaurants to set up early morning buffets for their groups.  In exchange, we have to bus our own dishes.  The food was a selection of rice, noodles, rice porridge, miso soup, friend eggs, stir-fried veggies, and of course kimchi, the ubiquitous pickled side dishes that are, simply, ubiquitous.  Interesting site dedicated to kimchi.

This being a Sunday morning, there was little traffic as we headed out for our 90-minute drive up to the Everland Amusement Park.  The temperature was noticeably cooler than the previous morning, and I was starting to miss my winter clothing.  When we disembarked from the busses at Everland, nestled on the top of a mountain, the wind chill must have been about –10 C / + 14 F.  Very cold.

My disposition did not improve with the fresh wintry air.  The group proceeded into the park, which is pretty much a knock off of Disneyland with various themed areas, lots of characters including two that look suspiciously like Minnie and Mickey Mouse, and friendly warmly-dressed staff doing the two-handed wave that is very Korean.  Big smiles everywhere.

The park actually was incredibly clean and very well maintained.  Christmas decorations abounded and everybody was wishing us a “merry Christmas!”

But it was cold.  Very cold.  And as the group headed out, opting to take a ski lift like ride down the hill to another section of the park, I rebelled.  Not giving any due attention to the cultural expectations of traveling with a Thai tour group, I told Tawn that there was no way I was going to get on something that cold.  He could go ahead, but I was going to find somewhere warm to spend the next few hours.

This created cultural clash number two.  Similar to the latte situation, I think Tawn was interested in the idea of going somewhere warm, but walking the opposite direction of the group was really uncomfortable for him.  Needless to say, it put him in an awkward situation and I wasn’t being particularly gracious or charming.

We ended up spending the next hour or more at a 1960s-style American Graffiti themed restaurant, eating French fries, drinking hot chocolate, and thawing out.  Both in the meteorological and emotional senses of the words.  Afterwards, we spend time visiting every shop in the “Main Street” area.

Fortunately, the group had only planned to spend about two hours at the park.  They returned to the main gate area on time and reported about the fun they had had in Safari world, where a bear had been pawing their tram.  For a moment, it occurred to me that I should have sucked it up and gone with the group.  But at this point, my fingers were warm thanks to a pair of knit Everland gloves I had purchased at a gift shop.  So I didn’t feel too bad.

Interestingly, I think most of the Thai members of the tour group were quite cold, too.  They had all purchased various winter wear in Bangkok (can’t explain why it is sold there, as it is totally unnecessary) but it seems that while the clothes look warm, they actually don’t provide any real insulation value.  As the days went by, they layered more and more, painfully sacrificing style for comfort.

We piled back into the bus and drove a short way to a local restaurant that is popular for its bulgogi – marinated pork prepared in a manner similar to lunch the day before.  The room was very smoky, so much so that we had been advised beforehand to leave most of our heavy, odor-absorbing clothes on the bus and bear the freezing weather from bus to restaurant unadorned.  The food was very tasty and we ate copious amounts of it.

It is worth mentioning that our guides, two Thai and two Koreans, were incredibly attentive.  All four of them ran around at each restaurant we ate in, helping the staff keep our drinks full, re-supplying kimchi and the various ingredients for whatever we were grilling.  Then they mysteriously found time to sit down in a corner and eat for themselves.

The restaurant caters to tour groups returning from Everland and the parking lot had a souvenir vendor, selling from a small truck that looked like the catering trucks that you see pulled up outside a construction site.  The selection of ticky-tacky objects was minimal, but our group spent a full hour browsing through them.  At the side of the restaurant I found a small doghouse that had three puppies chained up outside.  Two of them looked like lab/husky mixes, very fluffy but with square snouts.  They were looking for company, so I played with them for a while.  The third dog was a terrier, perhaps a little older, who cowered in the dog house, afraid to come out even when I called him.  Sadly, I suspect he had been abused in the past.  A large dish of frozen rice and table scraps was all they had to eat.

From the restaurant we continued to the Jisan Ski resort, a north-facing slope of a nearby mountain ridge.  Despite the many snow-making machines that were in operations, the quality of snow on the ground seemed pretty natural and powdery.  This stop really pointed out to me that the organization of the tour didn’t actually meet up with the desires of the group.  As Tawn explained it, when presented with the idea of skiing back in the office, the Thais were enthusiastic: they had never seen snow so the idea of skiing sounded great.  But when we actually arrived, only two people – both of them farang (Westerners) – actually skied.

Picture 12: Trying to stay warm while on the road.  Only a few pictures of today because I left my camera behind.

The rest of us played around in the snow for a little bit, with Tawn and I engaging in a snowball fight that some of his colleagues didn’t find as fun.  Then we went to stand around a huge fire ring that was lined with large rocks.  The heat was intense and when I put my gloves out on the rocks, steam rose from them as the snow evaporated.  It wasn’t until a bit later in the cafeteria, when I tried to put the gloves back on, that I discovered that the heat had actually melted the acrylic fabric into a solid, brittle sheet that cracked once my hands were inserted.  Eight dollars for about four hours of use.  But at least I still have my fingers.

The ski resort, which I had been unenthused about going to, turned out to be a fair amount of fun because it created some un-constructed time for us to just hang out, play around, write postcards (which I did), etc.

Afterwards, we drove back to the city, a long and exhausting ride.  Along the way, one of our Korean guides, whom we nicknamed “Tom Yum Goong” because he looks like the Thai actor who starred in this recent film, sang us a few songs in using the in-bus karaoke system.  His singing, aided by the echo effect on the karaoke machine, was quite good.  The lyrics were in Korean, but the girls were screaming and hollering as if he were the fifth member of the Fab Four.  Picture 13: Tom Yum Goong crooning on the tour bus, entertaining us on our drive back to Seoul. 

As with the night before, we stopped at a restaurant for dinner before heading to the hotel.  This evening’s specialty was ginseng chicken soup.  The broth was warm and earthy and the chicken was stuffed with sticky rice.  We were served little shots of ginseng liquor, which may just have been a euphemistic name because it didn’t seem to have any alcohol.  But just the idea was enough to warm us.

If you aren’t familiar with it, ginseng is a root, somewhat like ginger.  It is regarded throughout Asia for its medicinal properties and it is claimed to cure just about anything.

The bus driver made one stop in the Itaewon district, where most of us decided to get out and shop before walking back to the hotel.  My gut instinct was to just go directly to the hotel, but after thinking about it for a few minutes, decided that I had been enough of a turd today that I should spend some time doing something that Tawn would enjoy: shopping.  So we wandered the shops and stalls with Mon.  She came across a shoe shop she absolutely loved, but as fate would have it, none of the styles she wanted were available in her size.

We then stopped by the Starbucks and plopped down our money for a Seoul city mug.  Our coffee mug collection is comprised of Starbucks mugs from around the globe, one of our few concessions to global consumerism.

Some interesting things about Starbucks in Seoul: While lattes and other drinks are comparatively overpriced in Thailand, they still cost less than in the US.  In Seoul, however, a grande latte (About $3.25 in the US) sells for 5800 won – that’s US$5.80.

There is also an interesting recycling program (we actually noticed this at Everland, too) – at the place where you would expect to just find a trash can, there is a drain down which you can pour leftover beverage and ice.  Then you can stack your paper or plastic cups upside-down on a special holder that sits in a stainless steel drip pan.  The cups are all later recycled.

Most interestingly, there is a metal coin box next to this recycling area.  When you turn in your paper or plastic cup for recycling, you can press a button and receive a 50 won coin.  It is on the honor system, the equivalent of receiving a nickel back.  Tawn and Mon were fascinated by it and pressed the button three times before realizing that coins were coming out.  They left the coins for someone else to take when actually returning a cup.

It was Sunday night so the street vendors and shops were closing up by 9:00 and so we walked back to the hotel, a ten-minute and very cold walk.


Monday December 12th

Monday morning’s wake up call was again at 6:00, although we had an extra half-hour to pack and bring our suitcases downstairs.  The suitcases would be transported to the airport by a truck, so we didn’t have to handle them – a nice touch.

Breakfast was at another restaurant, this one in the basement of a shopping center.  There were several other Thai tour groups there, too, leading me to wonder how the tour companies manage to arrange all this.  Then a Chinese tour group came through.

Our guide told us that today was forecast to be the coldest day so far this year in Seoul, with high temperatures not passing –12 C/ 10 F.  That’s not counting the wind chill and with the surrounding mountains, that always seems to be a factor.

On our way to see the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the National Folk Museum, we drove past the president’s office, known as the Blue House.  It is actually white, but has a Korean-style blue-tile roof.  Security in this area was noticeably high.  With North Korea not that far away, and a history of incursions into the South, the country maintains a state of high alert.  Picture 14: Tawn and Mon in front of the National Folk Museum.

The National Folk Museum was an especially nice treat, not the least of all because it was indoors.  But it also has a very good electronic audio guide system that you wear as a pair of headphones.  When you approach a specific display, the audio recording begins automatically.  This allowed us to get a great deal of information, and Tawn and I as well as the other three farang on the trip all made good use of these systems.  Considering they only cost 1,000 wan (US$1.00) to rent, the value was incredible.  They also slowed us down considerably, so the Thais were out of the museum and on their way to the palace by the time we finished.

The museum provided a lot of insight into Korean culture – I had not realized that there were originally three different kingdoms on the Korean peninsula.  Quite a long history and the displays on the making of kimchi were quite impressive.  The funny thing was that the dioramas were about ¼ human scale, but the fake vegetables they used were life-size.  The effect was quite Lilliputian as these child-size Korean ladies used child-size cleavers to cut heads of Napa cabbage that were almost as large as their torsos.  It brought to mind the labels on fruit crates from California in the early 1900s that showed fruits of such bountiful size that a single railroad flat car was needed to carry just one orange.  Picture 15: Tawn in front of one of the pavillions at the Gyeongbokgung Palace.

The museum also brought into light another East/West, group/solo traveler disparity.  The majority of the group (read: Thais) stormed through the museum in a great rush, seeming interested in nothing more than the cursory highlights of Korean folk arts.  The farang in the group were verbally enthused about “finally” (not my word) seeing something on this trip about the Korean culture.  Whether it is fair to draw any conclusions from this or not, I’m not sure.  It probably isn’t, as maybe most tour groups are like this regardless of where they are from.

Picture 16: The main building at the palace.  Leaving the museum, we walked to the incredibly windy and cold grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the primary palace until 1592 when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasions.  It lay in ruins for 300 years and wasn’t rebuilt until the 1860s.  Careful restoration has been ongoing for several years now and the main building and the grounds are fantastic.  I would love to go back and see it in the Spring or Autumn, when I wasn’t so driven to get out of the cold.

We packed a lot in that morning.  After the palace, we stopped by a luxury duty free mall that specialized in only high-end brands.  Tawn was tempted at both Prada and Louis Vuitton but ultimately decided his wallet wasn’t up to it.  We also went to a government-run ginseng store.

As I understand it, the highest grade of ginseng can only be distributed by the government through these specific, tourist-focused outlets.  The building we went to was several stories tall and looked like a high-end jewelry store with brightly-lit display cases. Each story was identical, but was staffed by people fluent in the language of whatever groups were brought to that floor.  In our case, the third story had a native Thai who pitched the miraculous benefits of ginseng to our group, as well as an accompaniment of Korean women who seemed to speak enough Thai and English to ensure each sale went smoothly.

The ginseng was available in powder, tincture, or capsule form.  Despite the form, generally the least you could buy was a 3-month supply and that cost about US$200.  A 6-month supply was US$400.  We were given a small sample of the ginseng powder, dissolved into green tea.  It tasted bitter and earthy and I didn’t notice any immediate improvement in my health.

So after a few minutes, I headed back down to sit in the warmth of the bus.  To my surprise, several members of our tour group returned with large packages, having plunked down a large amount of money.  After I expressed my incredulity over the amount of money that was spent on ginseng, Tawn shot me a look that clearly said, “Hush up and stop criticizing the spending decisions of others.”  Or maybe he said that out loud.  It seems that many of the purchases were for parents back in Thailand who value the consumption of ginseng.

Lunch was pretty late, about 2:00, and was a really tasty dish called osam. (I think – that’s what’s listed in my notes but I can’t find the dish listed in my Lonely Planet guide to confirm.)  It was another grilled pork dish that had copious amounts of a chili sauce that was not incredibly spicy, but was tremendously flavorful.

At lunch we had a birthday cake for Jo and sang her happy birthday.

After lunch we were dropped off in Myeong-dong, a warren of narrow traffic-free streets in the downtown area that serve as a leading fashion center.  With two hours to shop, Tawn and Mon were very happy.  I was patient.  What amazed me was the number of shops that could have been in any other major city across the globe.  Our shopping districts are looking increasingly similar, which is somewhat depressing as it means that our diversity is decreasing.  Picture 17: Tawn and Mon shopping in Myeong-dong.

One thing we found on the way back to the bus was a vendor cooking hodeok – a flat, round bread that is cooked over gas flames in a cast iron device reminiscent of a waffle iron.  Inside the bread is a cinnamon-sugar mixture.  In the freezing temperatures, holding a hodeok in your hands, tearing off warm chunks as you inhale the fragrant/sweet steam, is just a slice of heaven.  We actually went back for seconds.

On the way out to the airport we stopped for last minute duty free shopping at a place that specializes in foodstuffs.  Kind of like a grocery store, only more focused on food you can carry in your suitcase.  Korean-style instant noodles were the product of choice.  Ironically, you can buy these in Thailand for only slightly more than what we paid in Korea.  But they make fun gifts for parents.  So almost everyone added a case of these noodles to their luggage.

We arrived at the airport only about 90 minutes before our flight, another benefit of being on a tour group as one of the guides had already checked us in.  The scene of our arrival repacking was repeated as the lot of us filled up a large expanse of empty lobby to repack, rearrange, and store our winter gear in our bags.  Organizing overfilled suitcases is a specialty of mine, and I was able to assist Mon and another friend, Bun, in getting secured and ready to go.  Picture 18: Tawn and his team of employees at Incheon Airport.

Unlike Bangkok, we found Korean outbound immigration to be quick and efficient, leaving us with a few minutes to shop for two bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau at the duty free store, enjoying the significantly lower prices of wine in Korea than in Thailand.

There was some confusion when we reached the gate.  I went to use the toilet and upon returning didn’t see Tawn at the gate.  Several of his colleagues were still there, but then I saw one of the other farang already boarding the plane and, I thought, gesturing at me that Tawn had already boarded.  So I went ahead and boarded, but Tawn was not yet on the plane.  When he arrived several minutes later, he was understandably concerned, thinking that I had become lost somewhere in the airport.  Picture 19: Tawn’s colleagues enjoying their meal on the Korean Air flight home.

The flight back was uneventful.  Tawn and I had been assigned seats in the last row of one of the sections of the cabin, so our seat recline and legroom were somewhat restricted.  But for a flight of only about five hours, it was fine.  We arrived in Bangkok just before midnight, tired.

All in all, it was a good experience.  Korea is a beautiful country and I’d enjoy going back to see it at a warmer time of year.  The people, while not smiling a lot, are friendly and helpful.

As for the group travel experience, I’m not sure that I’d elect to travel with a tour group in the future.  In fact, as I told Tawn, when Hill & Knowlton take their trip next year, we might both better enjoy the experience if I stay at home.  He’ll be able to spend more time with friends and colleagues, not feeling torn between making me happy and meeting his social expectations.  I’ll be able to forgo feeling like I’m spending time doing things in a way that I don’t enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Trip to South Korea with Tawn’s Colleagues

  1. So much details! It’s like I’m there myself! Awesome. I have heard about those TV-show inspired theme parks and thought them rather cheesy. I would have enjoy the skiing part. Never knew that it’s so much colder in Korea than Japan. Why don’t you show some picture of the pink hotel room?

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