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Korea | The Perfect Intro To Asia

Our first stop on our year-long Asian odyssey set the bar pretty high for the rest of the trip. Beginning with a great flight on Asiana Airlines from Honolulu, the ease and efficiency of travel in South Korea was readily apparent. Seoul’s metro got us all over town sans hassle and bikes were available everywhere (Yeouido’s trails were super fun!). They even had trampolines among the abundant pedestrian bridges for the kids. Our Airbnb in Myeong-dong was not only quiet and tucked away in a local neighborhood, but also super close to tons of activities. On our first day we were able to stroll right out of the door onto the trails on Namsan Mountain Park, soaking up the perfect spring weather among several well-maintained car-free trails.

One of the trails led us to Namson Hanok Village, which seemed a bit like it was built for tourist eyes – but a cool intro to Korean traditional architecture nonetheless. Another trail system took us up a never-ending set of stairs to the upper reaches of Namsan Mountain for incredible views of sunset and the massive city below. We wound up taking the cable car all the way to the summit another day, where Andy was amazed by the cotton candy making robot!

Much like with Namsan, the Bukchon Hanok Village also felt more like a theme park than a waltz through traditional neighborhoods. Loads of tourists were waiting in impromptu lines for the perfect Instagram spots to somewhat free up, and Andy found his new toy truck set to be a tad more entertaining 🙂 We much preferred our outings that day to Children’s Grand Park (with no shortage of playgrounds and rides) and the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountains (with a colorful light and water show after dark). It was at Banpo that we had our most intimate interactions with locals, again owing to our gregarious kiddo. He taught some other kids how to play “throw the peanut can at the water bottle”, giving all the parents a good laugh.

While no match for the culinary variety of Southeast Asia, Seoul did have plenty of tasty food markets. The scallion pancakes and dumplings from the stalls around Gwangjang Market were amongst our favorite bites in Korea.

The timing of our trip to Seoul was quite fortunate, with preparations for Buddha’s birthday kicking into high gear. Nowhere was this more apparent that around Jogyesa Temple, with white and colorful lanterns being strung up everywhere. One of the devotees motioned for Andy to come over to a floral fountain display while we were wandering around, asking him to pour water onto a relic (for good luck perhaps?). It was pretty special seeing the care and determination he took into making sure he did it right, one of the many experiences that opened up to us in Korea by having a cute gringo toddler along for the ride. It seemed like every Korean grandma wanted to play with him!

Gwanghwamun Square was also decked out with lit up installations for the festivities, which looked super cool among the skyscraper backdrop of central Seoul. The decorations spanned all the way from the Cheonggycheon canal area (full of young couples on awkward first dates!) to Gyeonbokgung Palace – where we were lucky enough to score tickets for nighttime entry! Apparently this only happens twice a year and is packed full of folks (tourists and locals alike) dressed up in traditional Korean rental outfits. We all had a blast wandering the alleyways of this massive complex at night.

Although the palaces and traditional tourist sights we packed in lived up to expectations, it was the unexpected and futuristic surprises of Seoul that left the more lasting impressions. The Gyeonbokgung metro station had one of the biggest highlights of the trip – a free interactive light exhibit with hardly any visitors. Some rooms had touch-sensitive LED walls that would change displays as you moved your hand across (including a space backdrop that opened up to a lively jungle wherever we touched). So cool! The Children’s Science Center was also very hands on, where the adults had probably at least as much fun as Andy did.

Seoul’s otherworldly theme continued at the Dongdaemon Design Center, which looked like a UFO from outside. Luckily we found a random door leading inside, where even more unexpected surprises awaited. Long white tunnels and dark LED-display breezeways led us to an exhibition hall dedicated to a character named Bellygom (a cartoon?).

Having been exposed to K-pop superstar Psy’s “Gangnam Style” that played on repeat everywhere in 2012, we felt obligated to pay tribute to K-Star Road and the statute they built in his honor. The statute even plays his hit song when you stand by it, which must drive the locals insane.

Although the tours to the JSA part of the DMZ were currently suspended (owing to a recent flare up in tensions with North Korea), we were still able to get some insight into the Korean War at the well-done Memorial. As an added bonus, there’s plenty of tanks and planes set aside for kids to climb on – Andy loved “shooting the bad guys”. I was also able to find a welcome break from the omnipresent bland Asian lagers at a place called Chillhops, right around the corner from the Memorial in the Itaewon neighborhood. Their DDH oat cream IPA was both creative and quite impressive. The brewery was even a hit for Andy, who proceeded to eat most of a jar of Parmesan cheese while we were distracted! Euljiro Brewing‘s offerings were also deliciously hoppy and more than welcome.

Perhaps the most quirky thing we encountered in Seoul was the Poop Cafe, which served lattes in toilet shaped glasses in a restaurant full of fecal decor. Let’s just say our 4-year old had plenty of laughs at this one! The Color Pool Museum was also a hit, giving us ample opportunity to be goofballs and make fun of influencers – planting the seed for an Instagram page dedicated to such down the road. Whatever activities await us on the rest of our Asia tour, if they’re half as fun as Seoul we’re in for a great adventure!

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