Back in February I was in Dublin, Ireland to play a bit of poker. It was a trip that resulted in me losing money but gaining an awesome new Korean friend. That's a net win in my opinion.
Just a couple of weeks later my new friend, Yujin, flew over to Edinburgh visit me for my last weekend in Scotland before moving back to Thailand.
It was a fun opportunity to play tour guide for someone visiting my country for the first time, as well as spend time with someone that I really enjoyed spending time with. I'd been having a fairly miserable Scottish wintertime up until then so it was nice to enjoy my final weekend there.
In the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle I was surrounded by a group of Irish women who were extremely excited to see me and took a bunch of photos and selfies with me. One of them explained they saw me being filmed in Edinburgh the previous day (Ryan Firpo and his crew were shooting my PS Team Online documentary, that you will now never see) so I guess they must have thought I was famous or something.
It was a weird situation but I realised that I'd just found an excellent way to impress a girl. Yujin gasped "Wow, I feel like I'm with a movie star or something.". Of course I just acted smooth, as if it was quite normal. :)
After the weekend it was a sad goodbye as Yujin flew back to Dublin. Her plan was to live there for a further 6 months before returning to Korea to attend university. Irish immigration had different plans for her though. The heartless bastards briefly detained and then deported her. Incredibly, she ended up flying back to Korea at the exact same time as I flew back to Thailand.
Playing online poker for a living gives me a tremendous amount of freedom, and Thailand isn't that far from Korea. Well, it's in the same continent at least, so I decided that I'd just fly over there for a visit.
Direct flights from Bangkok to Seoul were very expensive for the dates that I wanted to travel, but that's one of the situations that I collect airline miles for.
20,000 miles from my United Airlines account plus a mere $21 USD in tax got me a seat on Star Alliance partner Thai Airways.
I hardly ever get truly excited about travelling any more. When you do something often enough it becomes somewhat normal, no matter how exciting it is to begin with. This trip was different though, I could hardly sleep due to the excitement. It as much due to being reunited with someone that I missed as it was visiting somewhere for the first time and having my own awesome tour guide for a week.
The flight from Bangkok to Seoul took 5 and a half hours. Exactly the same time that it took Yujin to travel by road from her home town. Just like a month earlier, we were both travelling at exactly the same time, only this time it was to the same place.
Good quality western style hotels are absurdly expensive in Seoul and crappy ones aren't cheap either, so it was Airbnb to the rescue again. I love that site.
I found a cool loft duplex apartment in the centre of Hong Dae, a very lively party / university area and I paid less than 1/5th the price of a hotel room of equivalent size and standard. Included with the apartment was a portable WiFi device which meant that I had a free and fast internet connection everywhere I went in Seoul. Result!
Seoul is a very modern city with great infrastructure. There are fast and cheap subway trains that run directly from the airport into the city. I wish every city had that.
After riding the Seoul train from the airport it was about time for some Seoul food. We had arrived very late at night and Yujin suggested that we eat at a fried-chicken restaurant, the late night food of choice for young Koreans.
That was when I was introduced to Yangnyeom Tongdak. A plate of boneless fried chicken in a delicious sweet sauce. One of the best things I've tasted in my life.
Yujin had made a list of different Korean foods for me to try during my visit (awesome tour guide!) but I asked her if we could just eat the Yangnyeom Tongdak for every meal. It would probably kill us but at least we'd die happy!
I didn't sleep happy that night though as my bed was rock hard. There may as well have been no bed at all as the floor would be no less comfortable to lie on. Apparently this is completely standard in Korea, they love their hard beds. Next time I travel there I'm taking a memory foam mattress topper with me!
On my first morning in Seoul I was sadly unable to convince Yujin that fried-chicken was an appropriate breakfast meal. Instead we visited a little cafe to eat Gimbap (Korean sushi).
The cafe was tiny with 6 small tables. Menu items were listed on the wall in Korean writing with no pictures. It was the kind of place that would be far too intimidating for me to go to on my own as I wouldn't know what they even sell or how to order or anything. I wouldn't expect the old woman who works there to speak any English either. So I was already feeling the benefit of having a local Korean friend with me.
My first afternoon was spent at Gyeongbokgung, an old royal palace. It was some national holiday so entry was free. I believe that it's usually ridiculously cheap anyway, but free is even better.
What a nice place to walk around in the warm spring weather, a peaceful retreat from the madness of the big city.
We were standing next the doorway in the picture above when a young Swedish guy walked through, while reading his guidebook, and absolutely smacked his head off the wooden beam with a loud KLUNK.
Of course I burst out laughing, because a) I love slapstick comedy and b) I'm an asshole, but then I quickly asked if he was ok and gave him a hug. We talked with him to make sure he wasn't concussed and he seemed like a really nice guy so I really did feel like an asshole for laughing.
I ended up looking like an asshole too when we played dress-up in traditional Korean guard and royal outfits. But it's all good fun, I'm down for anything. :)
I love amusement parks and it's always top of my list of things to do anywhere I visit. Seoul has a massive park called Lotte World and that's where we spent the rest of the first day. Unfortunately with it being a holiday in Korea it was quite busy, with long queues to get on the best rides, but we still had loads of fun.
One part of Lotte World is an indoor area called Magic Island which itself is the largest indoor amusement park in the world. You can, and we did, take a faux hot air balloon ride around it. It was fauxing cool.
I had an awesome first day in Seoul but ending it with some late night awesome food made it even more awesome-er.
Yujin suggested a restaurant called 'Palsaik - Pork of 8 Kinds Taste', a Korean BBQ restaurant which has the speciality of a set of 8 different flavours of pork belly.
At a Korean BBQ the meat is served raw and you just slap it on the grill in front of you until it's cooked to your liking. We also had a soup that we could throw vegetables and seafood into. What a fun and novel (for me at least) way to eat dinner.
There was way too much food for just the two of us but I just see those situations as a challenge. I had to eat about 3/4 of the food myself but we did finish everything. They practically had to roll me out of the restaurant, I couldn't move.
Unfortunately the deep food coma that I was in quickly wore off when I was back in the apartment lying on that damn rock-hard bed.
The following day Yujin took me to visit a 'dog cafe' where her friend works. I was all for sampling the local cuisine, but eating dog, that was just too far. "NO", she said, "The dogs are for playing with, we'll be eating cake!".
Ahhh, well that sounded much better. I'd heard of 'cat cafes' before, where you can enjoy some cute feline company while you sip your coffee, but didn't realise that a dog version of the concept existed.
I really like dogs but have never owned one. I do a pretty bad job of looking after myself, never mind another living creature, so it wouldn't be a good idea. I was very grateful to be able to enjoy the company of some nice doggies that someone else had trained, fed and cleaned up after.
I always find that the best things to do when travelling are things that you can't do back home, and this was one of them. There's just no way the dog cafe concept would be allowed to happen back in the UK because of strict food safety laws. They wouldn't allow animals to be around food. That's a shame as there's plenty of people living in UK cities who have lifestyles that prevent them from owning a pet, and who would love to visit a dog cafe.
Tteokbokki (Rice Cakes)
The next serving of Seoul food that I tried was 'rice cakes'. My idea of a rice cake was an unappetising, dry, circular biscuity type thing but it turns out that Korean rice cakes, called 'Tteok', are very different and a lot more delicious.
The rice cake is at the top right of the picture above. It's made by steaming glutinous rice flour and the result is a sticky, chewy substance. Stir-fried with some spicy sauce it's called 'Tteokbokki'. Delicious junk food that's available at street stalls in Seoul night and day.
The best view in Seoul is from Namsan Tower. It's not the tallest tower in the world but it's built on top of a mountain that overlooks the city so it has the effect of being enormous.
More Yangnyeom Tongdak
Yujin wanted me to try some Korean seafood pancake thing but I was able to convince her that eating the Yangnyeom Tongdak again was a better late-night food option.
Fortunately in Hong Dae there's no shortage of delicious fried-chicken restaurants open, even way past midnight. Back in Scotland your only option would be a chippy or a dirty doner kebab. I'm not saying the fried-chicken is much healthier, but it's a damn lot more delicious that's for sure.
Breakfast the following day was a lot healthier. We ate Bulgogi which is thin strips of marinated prime-cut beef. Again it was an interactive dining experience as we grilled the beef ourselves on a stove that was placed on the table. Perhaps that's why there's no service charge or tipping in Korea, because most of the time you're cooking the food yourself.
The table was about 1ft (30cm) high, and the chairs, well, there were no chairs. I had to sit on the floor with my legs crossed, something I hadn't done since I was 11 years old and in primary school. It was another experience that I definitely wouldn't have had if I wasn't with a local Korean. Much fun and very delicious food.
Full of bulgogi energy, we decided to hike across Bugaksan Mountain along the Seoul Fortress Wall.
Bugaksan Mountain is beside the Blue House where the president of South Korea lives and is heavily guarded with armed soldiers. It was closed to the public in 1968 after some North Koreans tried to cross it in an attempt to assassinate the president of the South and was only reopened to the public in 2007, due to it's historical importance. The Seoul Fortress wall was built way back in 1397. #HistoryLesson
To access the mountain we had to register with our passports and clear a security check. Once we were granted permission to enter the area we had to stick to a set narrow path and were not allowed to take any photos.
I'm pretty terrible at obeying rules though so we did manage to sneak a few photos!
When we reached the peak of the mountain the view from one side was breathtaking but unfortunately it was impossible take a photo. There was a huge military base on that side and we were shadowed closely by soldiers so there was just no way to sneak a pic.
We had covered 3/4 of the route when we got caught in a massive storm. Not exactly shorts and t-shirt weather but fortunately two soldiers invited us into their tiny lookout post for some shelter. They weren't up for any friendly chit-chat though, they take their job very seriously.
Fresh air, exercise, natural beauty, history and armed soldiers - hiking Bugaksan Mountain was a great experience.
We visited a different kind of chicken restaurant for our post-hike energy replenishment. Dak Galbi is pieces of chicken and rice cake in a spicy sauce.
Again there was a cooking station right in the middle of the table but this time we just ticked boxes on a sheet of paper with what we wanted (noodles please!), then a waitress stir-fried it in front of us.
After munching through 3/4 of it we asked for some rice and cheese. The waitress threw it onto the pan, put the heat back up and made us some tasty fried rice.
Eating out in Korea isn't just delicious, it's a lot of fun too.
Yeouido Hangang Park
Fortunately the stormy weather was short lived so we were able to spend the next day basking in sunshine in a huge park in Yeouido beside the Hangang river. There were thousands of people there having picnics (all the fried-chicken restaurants deliver to the park), skating, cycling, jogging, playing baseball and generally just enjoying life. It was nice to see so many happy people.
Bicycles are available to rent at the park and there's a dedicated paved cycle track that goes for miles and miles so that was a fun way to spend some time.
Nice weather, fresh air and exercise. That's what makes me feel good.
We came across a dumpling restaurant that had a long queue outside. It must be good!
Food blogging is very popular in Korea on a site called Naver which is basically like Google but is much more popular than Google in Korea. Apparently this restaurant has had great reviews on some of the most famous food blogs and now is extremely popular.
The Korean bloggers weren't wrong, those dumplings were incredible. They also get this blogger's seal of approval.
Next afternoon I had to say goodbye to Yujin as she had commitments in her home town. It was very sad as we'd just spent 5 days enjoying each other's company. I felt as close to her as I ever have to anyone, but now I didn't know when or if I'd ever see her again. So sad.
I had decided to stay an extra day in Seoul on my own because it was better for flights but that turned out to be a bad idea. I was staying in the same apartment, walking in the same streets and eating in the same restaurants as I had been previously with Yujin, only now she wasn't there. So lonely.
One of the things I found to do on my own was the War Memorial of Korea. A massive, and I mean massive, museum that exhibits and memorialises the military history of Korea.
The best part is actually outside. There's loads of tanks, aircraft and even a massive ship from the Korean war that you can go inside and play around with.
It also reminded me how much I missed Yujin as I had to ask strangers to take my photo for me, with hilarious results. I asked few different random people before someone understood me, then a woman took the blurriest photos ever, to which I politely said "thank you". I had to ask someone else to take the same photos of me, which the original woman saw, lol.
Annyeonghi Gyeseyo (Goodbye) Seoul
My visit to Seoul was easily one of my most favourite trips. I had great company, was immersed in the culture and was constantly having fun and eating delicious local food.
I've tried to imagine what my trip would have been like if I went there alone. I'd have missed out on a hell of a lot that's for sure. So if you have a friend who lives in a country that you've never been to before I suggest that you go visit them, well unless they live in Iraq or somewhere like that.