Annyeong! Let’s all go to Korea!

My friends and I occasionally talk about the places we want to visit. Japan is a dream. Most of us agree that a Europe tour would be amazing. Backpacking in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is another option. We wanted to go somewhere we haven’t been to—preferably somewhere with a different climate, and one that doesn’t require a visa or impose stiff requirements. In early 2012, we decided to go to Seoul, South Korea. We agreed on the dates (October 24-30, autumn season) and waited for a seat sale.

One early morning in March, I read a text message from a friend saying that Cebu Pacific was offering ₱1 flights to all international destinations. So I grabbed my laptop and checked if the discounted airfare applied to our chosen dates. And while the return flight wasn’t on sale, I still decided to book seats. Our round trip ticket to Korea cost around PHP6000 which wasn’t so bad. But we didn’t celebrate fully because we still had to secure our visas.

Getting a Korean visa is easy as long as you submit all the requirements. There’s no need to set an appointment and no interviews either. And for Filipinos, visa application is free if you don’t intend to stay for more than two months. You can submit your application at the Korean Embassy from 9-11 am. They’ll ask you to come back after a week. And if there are no issues with your requirements, you’ll get your visa on that day too. I actually had to go back twice because they asked me to submit supporting documents. I was so stressed! But everything worked out.

We were psyched(!!!) when we saw the visa stamped on our passports. We were finally going to Korea for sure. We even intended to have a Korean appreciation/orientation day where we’ll watch Oldboy and talk about Korean culture and all that shit. But it didn’t happen because people got busy before the trip and we couldn’t match our schedules. So a few of us just noted the places we wanted to visit and made a very loose itinerary. For those concerned about budget, we allotted PHP40,000 for our seven-day trip. It was definitely more than enough. I spent PHP30,000 on food, accommodation, transportation, and all the entrance tickets and still had 10,000 left for shopping. First thing you need to do when you arrive in Korea is to get a transportation card at the airport. I suggest T-money because it has the least limitations and you can use it in convenience stores too.

Stepping out of the airport that night was the best (cold) feeling ever. There was a shuttle from Incheon International Airport to our hotel. We thought at first that the fare from the airport to Seongbuk was KRW1000 (PHP40) which was absolutely cheap because the airport was around 40km away from our hotel. We realized later on that the KRW1000 was the amount left in our T-money and that the fare was actually KRW14000. We stayed at Holiday Inn Seongbuk at a highly discounted price. (Thanks, Matt!) Still giddy, we walked around the neighborhood. We ate at Lotteria which is their version of McDonald’s/KFC combined. We saw a convenience store still open and I bought banana milk because of course.

On our second day, which was the official start of our tour, we had a problem with communication. I brought two phones, one is a Globe prepaid line and the other one was a Smart postpaid line. I had to request roaming services for my Globe prepaid. The Globe subscribers said that their lines were set to auto-roaming, but none of them could get a signal. Due to delayed visa application, one of my friends, Daivey, had to stay in a hostel in downtown Seoul. Before we went our own ways the night before, we agreed to meet at the Korea University train station at around 9am. That morning, Daivey wasn’t there. I texted her but she didn’t reply. Apparently, there was a 30 to 45-minute delay in receiving the messages. We learned that the easiest way around this is to send a text message to someone in the Philippines and have that person forward the message to Daivey. We eventually found each other at Lotte World.

Lotte World was fun. The two rides that made my day were the Gyro Drop and the Bungee Drop. Riding the Gyro Drop was a personal success. I was about to chicken out but my friends pushed me to do it and I’m so happy they did. Some of them rode the Gyro Swing too but I’ve had my fill of adventure that day so I begged off. Whatever you do, DO NOT RIDE THE SWING TREE. It’s like Enchanted Kingdom’s Flying Fiesta but THE WORST. We ended our day eating some amaze grilled chicken skewers (dakkochi) and sipping on fish cake soup (eomuk guk) from a paper cup in the streets of Apgujeong. It was so fucking good in that cold night.

The next day we went to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Our schedule was more synchronized this time with Daivey going to our hotel and all of us leaving together. Things were going great until one of us (Hesed) got left behind when we had to transfer lines at Dongdaemun station. Hesed’s one of those people who just goes with the flow. His mindset is, “I’ll just follow you wherever.”  So we were running down the stairs to catch the train and he was just behind us. The doors closed. We felt exhilarated in our little adventure and then someone asked, “Is everyone here?” And then we saw Hesed waving from the platform. We were worried because he had no idea where we were going AND we had to transfer again to a different line after two stations. Ruther and Isaac went back to claim Hesed at Jongno o-ga station which was the next station from Dongdaemun.

That’s Hesed on the left. And that’s me with the guys who found his lost soul.

We all made it to Gyeongbokgung. Our original plan was to visit at least two palaces but Gyeongbokgung was so vast and picturesque that we stayed there for the entire day.We walked, talked, took lots of photos, and basked in the fact we’re in this beautiful place in this perfect weather. We never participate in guided tours. We just made our own stories about Gyeongbokgung. Sometimes we’ll hear something interesting from the tour guides and we’ll relay it to the group. So we really didn’t learn much about the history of Gyeongbokgung. But that’s what Google and Wikipedia is for, guys.

We had grilled pig intestines for dinner. They were so good. After dinner, we went to N Seoul Tower. We had an inkling that Korea is a place for lovers because of all the couples we saw at Lotte World wearing matching shirts. But N Seoul Tower takes it to a higher level, literally and figuratively. There were dried grass formed to make a heart shape, seats made for two, trees made of padlocks symbolizing a wish or promise to your sweetheart, and tiles with love messages. As the night wore on, the number of couples canoodling increased. And I guess PDA is encouraged in N Seoul Tower because we saw benches in between the trees with little to no lighting. Have at it, lovers.

Everyone was tired from walking all day. We knew we had to walk 5 to 7 minutes more from the train station to our hotel so someone suggested that we take a bus instead. They said they saw some buses stopping near Holiday Inn. I wanted to just walk because we weren’t sure of the bus routes. But some of the guys wanted to push it and I was too tired to argue. Lo and behold, we rode the wrong bus. Or maybe it was the right bus but going the opposite direction. The driver then asked us to alight, trying his best to explain why in his limited English. All we understood was that we had to get out of the bus. Luckily, he let us off a bus station near a university. I was in no mood to ask for directions so I just sulked. We were able to ride a bus that dropped us to a different train station so we still ended up walking.

Read the next part of our trip to Seoul.

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