Discover the chilling and iconic de-facto border of the North and South Korea, infused with an eye opening history and politics between both countries. Continue the journey by unraveling the cultural side of Seoul.
Annyong haseoo! Today I’ll take you through the multifaceted cultural, historical, political world of South Korea. Controversial as is and whether or not you’re a fan of history and politics, a visit to the border territory between North and South Korea is defintely an eye-opening experience. I’ll escort you to Panmunjom (officially known as the Joint Security Area JSA), a supposedly neutral zone in times of war where the two sides met. Continue to travel to the DeMilitarized Zone (DMZ), a buffer between the two sides, and explore historic sites including Imjingak Park, the Freedom Bridge and the secretly dug 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. I’ll then take you to the heart of South Korea, Seoul and its pretty cultural-centric kingdom.
This trip excludes flight charges to go to Seoul; souvenirs & personal expenses.
Total damage to the Piggy Bank per person: KRW270,000- KRW300,000 (USD$270-300)
KRW23,000 (USD$22) Dinner
KRW50,000 (USD$50) Accommodation at Guest House
KRW20,000 (USD$20) Dinner
KRW10,000 (USD$10) T-Money & transport around Seoul
South Korea enjoys beautiful four seasons. There is a delightful spring (April to June), a muggy and wet summer (July to August), a colourful autumn (September to November) and a freezing cold, snowy but dry winter (December to March).
HOW TO GET AROUND IN SEOUL?
Seoul has one of the most efficient, world-class transportation system. Comprehensive guide can be found here.
The subway system in Seoul is excellent and well-organised. It is timely, frequent, well-wired throughout the city and the price is affordable. Visible signs of Korean, English and Chinese as well as subway maps are present in each station.
Single-journey passes can be purchased in the subway stations, and require exact fare to your destination plus a 500-won refundable deposit. For multiple journeys, you can reap more value by purchasing a pre-paid transportation card called T-money. You can get this at any subway station or convenience stores and T-card works for all of the public transportation including taxi in Seoul. Tmoney users can also transfer for free between bus and subway lines.
Taxi is a convenient transportation and can be inexpensive if you are travelling in groups. All taxis run on meters and there’s a base fare. The fare goes up 20% between 12am-4am.
Try to avoid traffic hours, it can be brutal during the rush hours. You can simple hail when you see a car with a taxi sign on top of the car on the street. Uber Taxi / Car can also be used in Seoul freely.
One of the best ways to explore Korean suburbs is to walk. So ensure you stay at town centre for optimisation of exploring. Pedestrians paths are clearly marked and pathed, and it is safe to walk around in town.
48 HOURS ITINERARY IN A JIZZ!
0700-1200. JSA & DMZ Tour- Part I
1300-1800. JSA & DMZ Tour- Part II
D A Y O N E
I signed up on a Full-day DeMilitarized (DMZ) + Joint Security Area (JSA) Tour with Cosmojin with the following itinerary:
Pick up – Unification Bridge – Camp Bonifas – JSA – Freedom House- Military Armistice Commission Conference Room – UN Guard Post 3 – Bridge of No Return – Lunch (Bibimbap) – Imjingak Park – Dora Observatory – Dorasan Station – DMZ Theater & Exibition Hall – The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel – Amethyst Center – Drop off at Itaewon
06.00-12.00 – Camp Bonifas, JSA, Freedom House, Bridge of No Return, Imjingak Park
Bubbled with bundle of enthusiasm, along with 8 other strangers in my van, I left chilly Seoul at 0700AM. About 1-2 hours of anticipation, we passed through highway lined with barbed wire, passing between large anti-tank explosive barricades, the property is peppered with landmines that have yet to be cleared, so soldiers stuck to specific areas. As we crossed the Unification Bridge to begin our tour at Camp Bonifas, soldiers boarded our bus to welcome us and to review our passports.
Here we’ll be required to sign a Visitor Declaration, to be reminded that we are entering a hostile area, and that there is a “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” We were greeted by quite handsome, built military American Marines assigned to the United Nations Command. We were chaperoned into a building housing a small auditorium, museum and gift shop. We were instructed to form a line in front of the stairs, no photography is allowed at this stage. The auditorium is eerie, the ambience is dark, at one point I thought it was deliberate to fit the circumstances.
We were ushered to receive a briefing in Ballinger Hall which is essentially a slideshow that provides information on the history of Korean War and the present situation at the DMZ. It also details events that have occurred at the JSA including both military and civilian deaths. After the presentation, we were escorted to finally view the central attraction of JSA, where Freedom House on the South stands facing the North’s’ Panmungak grey building. In between the two buildings is a courtyard with a row of small blue buildings straddling the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL is surrounded by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) under the provisions of the Armistice Agreement signed on July, 1953. The Line runs 155 miles and separates the South and the North, the boundaries of the DMZ are located 2 km apart from the MDL.
“Don’t make abrupt or silly gestures, or interact with the North Korean soldiers in any way. Do not take pictures when soldiers not to take. DO NOT CROSS THE LINE DIVIDING NORTH AND SOUTH KOREA.” With the exception of the last rule, tourists broke almost every rule the soldiers set out for us (haha!) and we are still alive.
One of the bright blue buildings sitting in front of Freedom Hall and right along the Demarcation Line is known as the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) building. It is used primarily for talks between the United Nations Command, North and South Korea. Tourists are permitted to enter the MAC Building, and from here, you can legally cross onto the North Korean side since the room straddles the Military Demarcation Line. The feeling to cross the Demarcation Line and step into North Korea (for a brief moment) is just INTENSE and SURREAL!!! That experience, no matter how touristy, is something I’ll definitely remember for a long time.
Inside the 400 x 800 rectangular blue room, there lies negotiation wooden table, UN flag, along with 3 intimidating ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers standing in a modified TaeKwondo stance with clenched fists. We were told that the soldiers are of black belt and are able to snap our necks the moment we pose threat (eeeek!) I managed to take a selfie with one of them though 😉
We left the room in the same manner, rows of two, and then have to stand in front of the building on the stairs, as posing for a class picture. On the other side, in North Korea, we see a guard, who is nicknamed “Bob” (“because he bobs around”, the soldier joked with us). When we start taking pictures of him, suddenly he hides around the corner, reappearing after a few seconds. If you want to see him, be sure to position yourself closer to the middle of the stairs, as otherwise your view might be obscured by the roof of the conference building.
After the Freedom House visit, the van drove us to rest of the grounds of the JSA, past the Axe Murder site as our first stop. In the past, soldiers from both sides had access to all parts of the JSA. In 1976, there was a gruesome incident in this remote section of the JSA resulting from an altercation over the trimming of a tree. There was a large poplar tree that obstructed the South’s view of the North’s checkpoint. As a result, the UN would regularly prune the leaves of the tree. One day, the North’s solders approached US soldiers during the pruning, and an altercation arose resulting in an attack on the US soldiers with their own axes. Two US soldiers, Captain Arthur Bonifas (named after the Camp) and 1st Lieutenant Mark Barrett, were killed in this incident. After this incident JSA was split into two and free movement of both sides in the area stopped.
Our bus also drove past the infamous Bridge of No Return – this was where North and South Korea prisoner of war exchanges took place so once you cross over, there would be no return – thus the name of the bridge. We were not allowed to disembark but the tour would stop for a short while for us to take photos from within the bus.
12.00-18.00 – Imjingak Park – Dora Observatory – Dorasan Station – DMZ Theater & Exibition Hall – The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
As part of the tour, simple yet hearty bibimbap lunch is provided at Imjingak, which has a beautiful park for us to explore.
Imjingak village had a surprisingly carefree atmosphere, with its prominent bridge sprayed in brightly colored ribbons. This bridge is called the Bridge of Freedom, and it’s where nearly 13,000 prisoners of war were traded at the end of the Korean War. Because the DMZ is so heavily land-mined, and because any bridges existing before the war had long since been destroyed, this bridge was built with the express purpose of trading back prisoners of war. It’s a foot bridge only—prisoners were driven to the bridge, and then they walked across to return to their homes.
The bridge now serves as a place of remembrance for families who are separated—South Koreans tie bright colored ribbons covered in messages to the bridge, messages for their family members in the North, or in memorial of family members who died in the North. Koreans place a lot of importance on returning to your birthplace to honor your ancestors for certain Korean holidays, and so for those who were born in the North, Bridge of Freedom is the next best thing. Near the bridge you can also spot a train car destroyed during the war—not particularly special in any way other than it shows the destruction of war.
Once we are done with lunch, the next sight is the Dora Observatory. First the group will be brought up to the auditorium where they will hear a quick history and the area you can see from the Dora Observatory. No photography is allowed in the auditorium – i think it is because of the terrain model showing different locations in the area.
At the Dora observatory point, you will be able to see North Korea up close using the binoculars for 500 KRW per minute (I didn’t do it since it was too foggy by the time the afternoon came). To guide you on what you are seeing, there is a huge landscape map at the top of the observatory to tell you where and what you could see from here. Some of the sights we see include the two tall flagposts indicating the North Korea Kijongdong and South Korea Daesongdong towns. South Korea put up a 98.4m high flag pole in it’s DMZ town of Daeseongdong, obstensibly as part of the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The North Koreans quickly retaliated with their 160m tall flag pole.
We were told about the propaganda fake village in the North called Kijongdong (Peace Village). Nice painted houses are visible on the other side, but the lights go on all at once in the evening, and supposedly only the ground keepers live there. It is quite the opposite on the South side, where farmers actively farm the land. An audible feature of the region is the sound of the propaganda loudspeakers that North Korea has pointed south extolling the virtues of their country. Of course, South Korea has retaliated with their own mega-speakers, with news reports and K-Pop giving the North a soundbite of southern living.
Approximately 155 families have been granted special permits to live and work inside this area. There are strict rules though, such as daily 11pm curfew, you can’t walk anywhere else than the landmine cleared areas, you are always guarded a soldier and you must live here at least 8 months a year. They are also not allowed to talk to any North Koreans and only those who had ancestors living here are allowed to stay. Due to the risks and inconveniences, South Korean government grants these workers certain benefits. One of these perks is receiving tax free status. Therefore, the GDP of people living here is the highest in Korea. Amongst other things they farm Red Korean Ginseng which is an expensive and globally in demand product.
DMZ, 4km wide strip, has been largely undisturbed land since the truce was signed, a fertile paradise for wildlife. Some say that even tigers live here, and those are extinct in the rest of Korea. Dozens of endangered bird species nest here.
The next stop on the tour is Dorasan Rail Station, newly built station with slick architecture complete with security entrance checkpoints and a large waiting room for nonexistent travelers. The goal was to connect Dorasan, South Korea to the rest of the world through Pyongyang, North Korea. From North Korea, trains can theoretically travel to China, Russia and the rest of Europe. A few years ago, it was used primarily to ship goods to an industrial zone in North Korea, and the finished products would be shipped back to South Korea. For now, Dorasan Station is idle, though signs pointing to Pyongyang line empty tracks is visible, it is just a dream – and one can only imagine the hustle and bustle that may arise if the peninsula were someday able to mend its combative divide.
Being a tourist, of course I had to obtain a commemorative DMZ stamp/chop on a piece of paper (as proof that I have stepped my foot in North Kore, even for a few mins!) but remember DO NOT do this on your passport please, or you will be banned in some countries!
Our final stop the tour is the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel was constructed by the North Koreans to infiltrate Seoul and carry out sabotage missions and move a lot of soldiers and tanks to Seoul in the event of an invasion. It is rumored that there are 17 of these tunnels that all lead to Seoul but only four have been found. To this day, the South Korean military are still looking for them.
Multiple burr holes were drilled, filled with water and then the South waited. When explosions occurred underground, water went up, so they discovered the tunnels. Some have been found by accident. North Korea declines any allegations that tunnels are theirs, but they have been dug out in a way that all water collecting underground flows to the North. Also, the ceiling is black – some say it was covered with coal dust on purpose to mask it as coal mine, others say it blackened because of an explosion. The dark, humid channel, said to be able to hold over 30,000 soldiers, reeks of stale air, and echoes of hard hats hitting the rocky ceiling ring out. The trenches provide a glimpse into the gloomy reality of the desperation of the North.
After the quick presentation and historical video on the tunnel, I grabbed the compulsory helmet and made a steep climb 73 meters below ground to reach the tunnel. About 2 meters high and 2 wide at its average height, it can get even shorter and narrower, so if you are feeling claustrophobic, huge in size, and low fitness – this can be quite of challenge! No photography is allowed – you have to leave all your belongings at a locker (complimentary) outside the Tunnel.
Even though this tour is ran and led by American soldiers from the UN, I felt the overall tour is heavily biased towards South Korean’s . The propaganda vibe is strong especially the patriotism from South Koreans part, and to some point I wonder whether if the tour is conducted on the other side (North Korea), it will similarly be heavily negated on South Koreans part?
Our final stop before departing back to Seoul was at the Amethyst Center, a typical tourist trap rug shop, perfume, jewellery, and ginseng shop. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long stop, and at the end, we were dropped off in Itaewon and ready to fill my tummy with another scrumptious Korean dinner.
18.00-24.00 – Myeongdong
After such an intense day, you can unwind the day with a great street food couple with a new wardrobe makeover or perhaps some norebang (karaoke)! Myeongdong is one of South Korea’s most well-known entertainment district featuring street food carts along the alleys and major shopping malls. The dense grid of streets found in this bustling neighbourhood are continuously packed with people at all hours of the day looking to enjoy some of the best shopping, street food, and nightlife in all of Korea.
You can find just about anything related to clothes and the latest fashion trends. Many of the fashion items found in the area are geared towards youth. These individuals mainly include petite female Japanese tourists and Korean students who flock to the area each night looking for the hottest new fashion trends and beauty items. You may even score freebies from those SPG (Sales Promotion Girl) offering you cosmetic samples…
Some of my MUST eat street-food favourites are:
- Hotteok – Korean-style sweet pancake, with a brown sugar, honey, cinnamon and chopped peanuts mixture as filling.
- Ddeokbokki– Korean spicy rice cakes, characterised by a thick, fiery red sauce, these chewy pillows of rice are not for the faint of heart.
- Soondae – Korean blood sausage mixed with sticky rice or glass noodles and then steamed or boiled. Additional ingredients include innards and gochujang.
D A Y T W O
06.00-12.00 – Changdeokgung Palace & Secret Garden
Day two is all about acquainting yourself with the cultured and grandness of Seoul’s palaces and villages. Being there in November, I simply cannot waste the breath-taking multi-coloured leaves and nature during this period, making it a perfect season to visit the palace infamous for its verdant and expansive garden.
Changdeokgung Palace was the second royal villa built following the construction of Gyeongbukgung Palace in 1405. It was the principal palace for many kings of the Joseon Dynasty, and is the most well-preserved of the five remaining royal Joseon palaces. The palace grounds are comprised of a public palace area, a royal family residence building, and the secret rear garden. Known as a place of rest for the kings, the rear garden boasts a gigantic tree that is over 300 years old, a small pond and a pavilion. Though it has been treasured by Koreans for centuries, Changdeokgung Palace was recognised as a World Cultural Heritage site by the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Committee in December 1997.
Injeongjeon is the throne hall of Changdeokgung and considered a National Treasure. Translated as “the Hall of Benevolent Government”, it is the epitome of power in the whole palace, where major state affairs are held including coronation of new kings. My most admired architecture is the intricacy of details in the rooftops and the blend of blue, green, white colours. It is so cultured that “Japsang” or small figurines of human and animals are featured in the details, which is said to prevent bad spirits from coming into the palace.
Nakseonjae Hall is a one-storey structure built in ikgong style (bird wing-shaped eaves placed on top of the pillars) with a hip tiled and gable roof. It was said to be built by King Heonjeong, the 24th king of Joseon for his beloved concubine in 1846. The hall also serves as King Heonjong’s study, or sarangchae. The interior is decorated with colorful lattice work but It’s interesting to see that these buildings are colorless, as opposed to the other halls which are full of color.
We had to walk quite a bit to reach the entrance of the Secret Garden. There are a number of tour organised in different languages, so best to book online to avoid missing a spot. The garden was once called the Forbidden Garden because access was only given to the royal family, even high government officials weren’t allowed to enter the garden without permission from the King.
Formally called Huwon, the garden nestle away behind the palace and make up about 60% of the Changdeokgung palace. Its sprawling grounds is an exemplary example of the type of classical garden design to be found during its time, as well as South Korea’s only royal garden that was erected at the rear of the palace.
The highlight of the garden is the two storey Juhamnu Pavilion, which was used by as a library and for reading by the king. The pavilion is located on a small, peaceful square lily pond.
The secret garden is most magnificently landscaped with a lovely terraces planted with lawns, flowering trees, flowers, a lotus pool and pavilions set against a wooded background. There are over 60,000 specimens of various species of trees and plants in the garden, including walnut, white oak, zelkova, plum, maple, chestnut, hornbeam, yew, gingko, and pine. From that point onward, it will be a nature walk towards the many pavilions and ponds scattered inside Huwon. The autumn colours just danced crazily in front of your eyes, it’s just magical and no pictures can capture the beauty of the garden that is in front of my eyes. Simply stunning, romantic, and beautiful.
The design of the garden flows naturally with the surrounding nature. The exquisite design is adapted to the topography, geography, and ridges of Mt. Bugaksan. Artificial landscaping is minimal and left untouched to human hands as much as possible.
Changdeokgung Palace & Huwon (Secret Garden)
Huwon’s Tour (Duration: 90 min) – English: 11:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30
* Admission to Huwon is limited to 100 people per session.
12.00-18.00 – Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok is located on a small hill just north of the Seoul city center. Literally “north village”, Bukchon consists of more than 700 traditional Korean houses, or hanoks, crammed into narrow streets and alleyways. Meander through the village, composed of narrow urban alleys and small tea houses representative of traditional Korean culture. Despite being a popular tourist attraction, the area is also inhabited by local residents. Due to its proximity of being mere blocks from the palaces lived by kings and royal families, it is no surprise that the hanok neighborhoods of Bukchon held one of the most prestigious and well-established residential area comparable to Gangnam, Garosu-gil, and/or other expensive suburbs.
Traditional Korean architecture within Bukchon Haneok Village complex is indeed unique to witness in the middle of cosmopolitan Seoul. The winding alleys are lined by tiled roofs and stone walls that retain the design and impression Korea must have had upon visiting diplomats and traders in previous eras. These houses are beautiful and mesh perfectly to its nearby cultured palaces.
Taking an advantage of this setting, I can’t resist to be girly and dress myself in Hanbok, a traditional Korea costume. I simply rent them at KRW 8000 at one of the shop located near Bukchon-ro 12 gil.
18.00-24.00 – Cheonggyecheon Stream
Cheonggyecheon Stream is an 8.4 kilometer waterway and public space that runs from west to east through the heart of downtown Seoul. During the Joseon Dynasty (1400 era), the stream was known as Gaecheon, meaning open stream. The stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular cultural arts venue, and passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Hangang (River), with many attractions along its length.
Upon the time that we visited, there was illumination light and laser displays across the bridge and it is soooooooo romantic and lively. Such a relaxing way to stroll alongside the bridge and river to end your day..
WHAT TO EAT?
If you’re looking for an authentic Korean breakfast in Seoul or a hangover cure, Mugyodong Bugeokukjib is the place to be. Get the famous beef and pollock (fish) soup for KRW 7,000. Perfect for winter time, but make sure you get there early as queue will start to build up past 10am.
As part of the JSA + DMZ Tour, one option is to opt for bibimbap – which is simply rice mixed with vegetables, meat, an egg, and chili pepper paste (gojuchang). It is the ultimate bowl meal with plenty of colour, flavour, and texture to keep your taste buds happy and your stomach full.
Myeongdong Kyoja does not offer a wide variety of items on its menu, but its simplicity cannot be resisted… Just 4 main dishes are enough to fulfil your appetite: [Choppped Noodles (Kalguksu) 칼국수, Bibimguksu 비빔국수, Dumplings (Mandu) 만두 and Soybean Noodles (Kongguksu) 콩국수]. These dishes are accompanied by unlimited kimchi side dishes too!
Another soupy breakfast for typical hungover Koreans, Haejangguk is a regional-specific stew, with Seoul variant comes with soybean-based stew loaded with many kinds of vegetables, meat, and congealed ox blood. For KRW 6,000 at Songgane Kamjatang, you can tantalise your tastebud with a big bowl of savoury haejangguk.
Don’t miss eating comfort food of Samgyetang (Black Chicken Ginseng Stew) KRW 22,000 and Seafood Spring Onion Pancake at Tosokchon. A whole chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice; it sits in a bowl of milky broth that is also filled with garlic, dates and ginseng shreds. The chicken is so tender that the flesh falls off the bone with just a tug. We also love the traditional seating style on wooden floors and eating on old-school wooden tables.
Pleasantly impressed with the generous portion of juicy lobster meat with delicious seasonings at Lobster Bar. The skinny fries were also crispy, light and delicious and although the coleslaw looks plain and boring, it has a nice vinegary kick to it which goes nicely with the sandwiches and rolls. An excellent quality meal and well worth the price of KRW 19,000 per platter.
WHERE TO STAY?
Mini Hotel DALKOM Dongdaemun places you in the heart of Seoul, close to popular sights like Dongdaemun Market, Gyeongbok Palace, and Changgyeonggung Palace. The guest house caters comprehensive service include in-room free WiFi, free high-speed Internet, and LED TVs. Digital TV, first-run movies, and coffee/tea makers are featured in all rooms. Refrigerators, free bottled water, and hair dryers are also available.
RANI’S TRAVEL TIPS:
- Book your tour early, whether it’d be for the JSA, DMZ, or the palace, 2 weeks in advance. You may be able to score discounts as well. If you’re really on budget, pick JSA tour instead.
- Go during autumn, the colours of the palace’s sceneries are out of this world!
~until the next Korea trip!