July 14-20, 2023
Day 1: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Seoul, South Korea
July 14, 2023
Our day started simply with a bus ride to the weirdest airport of all. Seeing how isolated the airport was had us puzzling at the insane stretch of stores, akin to a shopping mall, you must trudge through before reaching a check in counter. I sincerely hope you are never late for a flight leaving Malaysia, because we walked for nearly 20 minutes, lugging our bags, before the airport/mall turned into an actual airport. We concluded Malaysians must love malls. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve all been extremely nice with facilities nearly on par with Singapore, but it didn’t feel necessary for the location. Malls to Malaysia now are what malls were to the U.S. in the ‘80’s.
When we were on our flight, we noticed the turbulence was exceptionally bumpy. Lawrence is already prone to some anxiety when it comes to flying, but even I was feeling stressed. The unfavorable conditions prevailed throughout the entire 7-hour flight leaving little room for relaxing.
Once we had safely landed it was revealed that Korea was experiencing a huge tropical storm which had caused massive and destructive flooding near Seoul. The tropical storm was one of the worst South Korea had experienced. Several people were dead or missing and large sections of the roads were closed due to flooding or landslides. We flew right through the storm track which would account for the severe turbulence.
We had about an hour’s drive from the airport to our homestay for the evening. There was one caveat, however. We had landed later at night and by the time we made it through border clearance (this was the longest queue yet) it was nearly 2:00 a.m. The metro was closed for the night leaving us with the option of standing in line for a bus or grabbing a cab. The bus seemed like it was going to be packed and had confusing instructions for whether we were supposed to buy a ticket or pay with cash. Taxis, on the other hand, were notoriously expensive and quoted prices well below the metered cost, sucking you in. We chose wrong and went with a cab since it was late, and we wanted the most direct option. I wish we had just taken the bus because the hour-long taxi ride ended up costing about the same amount as our plane ticket.
We arrived at last, well after 3:00 a.m. and eager to get to sleep.
Day 2: Seoul, South Korea
July 15, 2023
We allowed ourselves to sleep in until nearly noon since we had such a late arrival the night prior. We were excited to get out and see the beautiful city of Seoul, starting first with the Myeongdong Market. This market takes the cake! Compared to Saigon, Chiang Mai, or Kuala Lumpur, Seoul’s Myeongdong Market was the most expansive. It sits indoors as a permanent structure and holds everything you could ever need. Clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry, toys, plenty of goods, and most importantly: street food. This market is so famous for street food it is featured on the Netflix show Street Food: Asia. You can sit at one of the many cramped food stalls or grab some goods on the go. One of the best things we tried was the mung bean pancake called Buchimgae. These delicious fried pancakes are made with mung beans and your choice of fillings. They were perfect for Lawrence and I since they were vegetarian and gluten free!
National Museum of Korea
Next, we headed to the National Museum of Korea. This huge museum was free to enter and featured 4 floors worth of exhibits moving throughout Korea’s long and complicated history. Starting with the multiple kingdoms that made up what is now North and South Korea and how they fought, conquered, and reformed. It was interesting to see the similarities to Southeastern Asia, especially where Buddhism was introduced. Each country we had been to seemed to historically adopt Buddhism in almost the same way. The artwork and religious ceremonies changed only slightly. The statues were still all of Buddha, but they likeliness of the religious figure would go to take on the appearance of whichever country he was represented in. In Nepal and India Buddha looked darker, taller, and more ethnically Indian. In Indonesia he was slimmer, shorter, still dark-skinned but lighter than in India. And in Korea Buddha was much paler with a rounder face and large eyes, depicting him to be more Korean.
Slowly the museum moved to more modern times. Throughout history Korea as a whole has not had much peace. Post-World War II they were split in two by opposing political views. They continue to be at war to this day, though much more inactive in actual combat. South Korea still dreams of a reunification with North Korea so they can become one complete country again. We’ll get into even more detail in a few days, stay tuned!
We were lucky the museum was open until 7:00 p.m. because it took us nearly until closing to finish exploring all the exhibits. When we had finished the 4th floor, we were ready for some dinner. We found a street that seemed to have a variety of options and settled into a small bar for some traditional Korean offerings. Lawrence had Korean barbecue chicken, I had tofu kimchi, and we both enjoyed some fresh soju!
Day 3: Seoul, South Korea
July 16, 2023
First up for the day was a to satisfy our need for coffee. What better exotic location than the Ddong Poop Café! This café specializes in coffees with a unique poop-themed ambiance. Do not fear, no poop was used in the making of the beverages. Instead, the décor featured poop-shaped pillows, the waffles came chocolate filled and mimicked the image of a poop emojis, and even the coffees were served in toilet-bowl styled cups! We promise we don’t have hankering for poop-adjacent coffee offerings, it’s just a coincidence between Korea and our poop-coffee in Malaysia!
After exploring the shopping area near the Poop Café, we decided on a vegan restaurant nearby. Vegan restaurants tend to be easier, especially when there is a language barrier, to request allergy-friendly and vegetarian options, so we tend to end up at a lot of them despite neither of us being vegan. We enjoyed a traditional Korean Bibimbap, a dish made of several small plates that are meant to be added together at one’s leisure in one rice-bowl like meal.
Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace
Next, was on to the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace. This giant complex is a complete reconstruction since all the original buildings were destroyed in several fires, most likely during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Since most Korean buildings were constructed out of wood, they were extremely susceptible to catching fire, and it is not unusual for old temples, shrines, and palaces to be mostly recreated works.
Across the street from the palace there are many stores offering costume rentals for the day so you can dress like a Korean royal from the 1400’s. Originally, we had planned to wait to dress up until we visited the Bukchon Historic Village (we’ll get there later) but ended up wishing we would’ve dressed up at the palace instead. There are tons of good picture spots on the expansive palace grounds, plus it was way cooler and less crowded than the village. If you are interested in dressing up our pick would be to do it at the palace for sure!
National Folk Museum of Korea
As you exit the palace, you’ll run right into the National Folk Museum of Korea. While you must pay an entrance fee for the palace the museum is completely free! Its exhibits are very creatively done and feature some fun cultural aspects of modern Korean life. In this interactive museum you’ll find plenty of fun info on fishing culture, holidays, food, and even the typical timeline of a Korean man or woman from birth to marriage to death.
One of the most interesting exhibits from the Folk Museum was a special fortune-telling game they play with babies. On the child’s first birthday objects are set around in a circle depicting what kind of career or interests the child may grow up to pursue. Parents will typically put items symbolizing their ideal careers around the baby like a gavel for a judge or a stethoscope for a doctor. Originally, the items were more vague depicting life paths like a scholar, a monk, or a businessman. Today more lighthearted items showing possible interests rather than just jobs can be added, like a ball for sports or an instrument for the arts. Whichever item the child picks supposedly tells their future.
We ended the night with one last stop at a nearby pub where I tried the classic Korean beverage mixing a light beer and shot of soju. It was pretty good! The soju simply made the beer taste a little smoother, and the beer took the edge out of the soju making it extremely drinkable.
Day 4: Seoul, South Korea
July 17, 2023
Today was Lawrence and I’s third anniversary! The soju had gotten the best of us the night prior, so instead of celebrating we took the day off to recoup. We had booked a nicer, more private hotel outside the city center, and it was plenty worth it for the amazing skyline views!
Eventually, we meandered out of our comfy hotel room and out to the streets in search of some dinner. The nice thing about being on the outskirts of the city is finding the less-touristy, more authentic, food spots. We discovered one of our favorite restaurants in Seoul, a small Korean pancake house. They served the same Buchimgae pancakes found in the Myeongdong Market from a few days ago, only this time perfected and with plenty of fillings to choose from. We were lucky enough to sit next to a nice Korean man who spoke perfect English. He guided us through what we should get and even helped us order when using our translation app proved tricky. We dined on a delicious kimchi filled mung bean pancakes with peppers, onions, radish, and more kimchi to add on top. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!
Day 5: Seoul, South Korea
July 18, 2023
Since we didn’t feel up to doing much yesterday, we decided to celebrate our anniversary one day late. We had a fun and romantic day planned.
Ring Making Class
The first stop was to a ring making class. I collect a different ring from every country I visit, and it’s become a fun hunt finding different styles and colors everywhere we go. Lawrence found this class and thought of the fantastic idea to make each other a ring, doubling as an anniversary present and a Korea ring for my collection. We spent a little over an hour sizing our fingers, designing our rings, and crafting the metal to fit our designs. We had a lot of help from the instructor who, in all honesty, did most of the work. It was amazing to see how quickly the metal was crafted into an infinite loop, our instructor definitely made it look effortless! After a short hour and a half we had custom made anniversary rings.
We stopped for a quick lunch on the way to our next activity. Lawrence had Bibimbap again, but this time a non-vegan version, and I had another kimchi tofu. We had skipped coffee this morning, so we needed to get our caffeine fix. We had another fun themed café in mind, this time completely non-toilet related.
Our café of the day was Kukkune Café, otherwise known as the Raccoon Café! A similar concept to a cat or dog café, Kukkune Café lets you enjoy your coffee and play with some raccoons. We ordered our coffees and watched the raccoons through the glass while drinking at first. One of them was the fattest raccoon I’d ever seen! After we finished our drinks, we were able to go in the play center. There’s a bit of a difference between a kitten and a racoon though. While kittens and puppies are always down to meet a new friend these older racoons preferred to be left alone. They pretty much just kind of laid there, fat and happy, and didn’t seem too pleased when anyone tried to provoke them into moving. Even though they weren’t as playful as we hoped they were still cute and fun to see up close.
After Kukkune Café we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Shoutout to my godfather, Eddy, who generously gifted us some money to spend on a nice dinner! We did just that. We wanted a more upscale place for our anniversary, so Lawrence found a fantastic place that offered vegetarian options for me and gluten-free options for him. I had what was possibly the best gnocchi I’ve ever eaten. I nearly licked the plate clean it was so good! We shared a chocolate dessert and concluded our fun-filled day just like the raccoons: fat and happy.
Day 6: Seoul, South Korea
July 19, 2023
We were down to only 2 full days left in South Korea and there was still so much left to do! We opted for a second jam-packed day to get as much checked off our list as possible.
War Memorial Museum
We started with one of our favorite museums yet: the War Memorial Museum. While the museum also touched on some of the earlier medieval battles as well as Korea’s participation in other overseas wars, it mostly covered the Korean War in which the United States had a large hand in assisting with.
The Korean war is often looked over by history since it came so soon after the second world war. During World War II Korea had been a claimed territory, the north by Russia and the south by the U.S. When the war ended Russia and the U.S., who were in their own cold war, implemented their very different political ideologies upon the two halves of Korea. Subsequently this caused a civil war to break out with the North fighting for a communist Korea and the South fighting for a democratic Korea. The United States is heavily praised in South Korea for sending over the most soldiers to help fight. Eventually the two halves would come to a stalemate in the center of the country and draw a dividing line on the 38th parallel. The war goes on to this day without either North or South Korea coming to an agreement on how to live peacefully. It’s especially sad when you think of the families torn apart by geography. Outside the museum is a memorial of two soldiers embracing on the battlefield. It is a depiction of two brothers, one from North Korea one from South Korea, who are made to fight for their country against their own people and loved ones.
This museum was important to Lawrence especially, since his grandfather fought in the Korean war. He was a member of the elite Chosin Reservoir, a group of Marines who are known for one of the most notorious U.S. survival missions ever. This mission is also the most likely reason the war came to a stalemate. At the time of the Chosin Reservoir movement the South was winning the war and claiming the most land. U.S.’s General MacArthur was told to stay away from the Chinese border as China and Russia were both North Korea allies. If their border was threatened China might join in and attack, greatly outnumbering the South and U.S. Unfortunately, MacArthur disregarded this order, and moved closer to the border provoking the Chinese military to attack. The aid by China resulted in the battlefront lines getting moved far south and the Chosin Reservoir becoming stranded, cut off from all supplies, surrounded by North Korea and China, in -45 degrees Fahrenheit without proper uniforms. Eventually, some of the Marines made it to safety, like Lawrence’s grandfather, and lived to tell the tale. After the unexpected extreme conditions of the Chosin Reservoir soldiers are now given cold weather training to better prepare if similar situations were to arise again.
Something that was especially interesting about this war museum was learning that South Korea had sent in troops to assist the U.S. and South Vietnam in the Vietnam War. South Korea along with soldiers from the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand, all sent to aid southern Vietnam. The nearly four weeks we were in Vietnam we heard countless stories about the evils of the Americans, the tenacity of the northern Vietnamese fighters, and the shady southern Vietnamese war crimes, but never once heard anything about any other countries participating to fight against the north Vietnam. The winners write history. You can’t tell who’s right, just who’s left. It’s crazy to see how similar the Korean War and Vietnamese War are. The opposite teams just won. If America had come through and liberated south Vietnam, they would probably be praised and memorialized in Vietnam the same way they are in South Korea. Even Americans condemned the Vietnam war as a battle its own citizens had no interest in fighting, but how could you blame America having just come off the semi-successful aid of Korea, being praised by the United Nations and South Korean citizens. They had the blueprints for a successful battle right in front of them. Of course, they thought they could come in and be the heroes of the world once again. Why is the Korean War painted as a victorious fight for freedom and the Vietnam War an invasive way of getting involved with things that are not our problem?
We had plenty of food for thought. I’m especially glad we went to this museum before our day trip tomorrow, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Bukchon Historic Village
Our next stop of the day was to Bukchon Historic Village. This area in Seoul is a village frozen in time. All the buildings are constructed in the traditional designs whether they are from hundreds of years ago or brand new. Residence must abide by strict rules when it comes to exterior décor. This is where we originally were planning on dressing up in the traditional Korean costumes. Because the temperature ended up being in the high ‘80’s and the village, we were too hot to put on long sleeves and pants. Plus there wasn’t as much space for unique photos. The village is made up of mostly one main street and was very crowded, unlike the plentiful photo spots at the Palace. Instead, we walked along in our regular clothes and snapped some pictures, admiring the ancient village intertwining with the modern skyline backdrop.
A Seoul must-do is K-Star Road, especially if you’re a K-Pop fan. This street is located in Gangnam, the high-end retail capital of Seoul. The area is popular amongst pop stars for buying designer brands and products. While you may not find an actual K-Pop star, you will see plenty of the cute K-Pop dolls. These are giant teddy bear sculptures with designs and imagery representing different famous K-Pop bands. The road starts with the largest doll, that of Psy popular in the U.S. for his hit “Gangnam Style.” As you stroll you’ll find dozens of other popular bands. I personally am not all that familiar with K-Pop or the genre’s artists, but even I recognized the BTS doll and snapped a pic!
Last on our list for the day was the Starfield Mall. This mall is known for its huge layout, external green space, indoor aquarium, and giant library with walls made up entirely of books. It’s no Mall of America, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’ve got some extra time. The library/bookstore I found particularly awe worthy as the display shelves go all the way up to the high arching glass-roofed ceilings. Here we had some dinner and a gigantic cup of Dippin Dots, which featured 3 different flavors, much to Lawrence’s delight.
Day 7: Seoul, South Korea
July 20, 2023
The Demilitarized Zone, DMZ
Our day today featured probably the single wildest tour we’d ever taken. We got up bright and early to meet our bus and head to the DMZ: the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. When Lawrence first brought this up to me, I honestly thought he was joking. I pictured a no-man’s land, deserted and barren with a dangerous view of North Korea. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The DMZ is so commercialized and tourist-friendly that there’s a literal amusement park outside the ticket entrance. There are several different areas to explore and plenty to learn about along the way.
So, what exactly is the DMZ? To promote peace between North and South Korea the DMZ is a stretch of 4 kilometers, 2 on either side, where war is halted, and, in theory, the country’s citizens can meet cordially. We learned earlier that neither side of Korea wanted to split, but the differing political views forced both countries to a stalemate. In South Korea there is a dream that once more the two halves will be reunified into one great Korea. The split broke apart families, friends, businesses, and relationships of all kinds. Imagine a civil war in the United States where a line is drawn through the middle of the country. Never again are you allowed to visit California if you happen to live in New York. If your parents live in Montana but you go to school in North Carolina, you won’t be allowed to return to your childhood home. If your best friend got a job in New Mexico, but you decided to stay in your hometown in Maine, you will forever be parted.
The DMZ acted as a buffer zone where the two countries citizens could see each other, find their loved ones lost in war, and answer questions of their whereabouts. There is a point that meets directly on the border line, where the leaders of North and South Korea can hold conference amicably without being on the others land officially. The area started out ideally for both sides. Loved ones were able to meet and cross into each other’s countries without recourse. There were even festivals and concerts held in the middle of the DMZ, free for both countries to enjoy. But eventually it was discovered that North Korea was tunneling under the DMZ, apparently with foul intent, to once again wage war on South Korea. A total of 4 tunnels were found as recently as the 90’s. Now crossing the border to and from either side is strictly prohibited. North Korea has crawled deeper into being a hermit country completely cut off from the world, and South Korea as a whole.
The Panmunjeom Village, the village that sits on the dividing line between North and South Korea, was once a place tourists would visit as well. It just so happened that only a few days before our arrival it was closed. The story is still developing, but apparently a U.S. soldier snuck onto a DMZ tour and ran across the border defecting to North Korea. The guide said the U.S. man seemed unhinged and let out a mad laugh before running straight for the hermit country. He had been in airport custody ready to return to the U.S. after spending over a month in a South Korean prison for assault and destruction of a police vehicle, but had managed to sneak away before joining the tour. The last information given was that South Korea officials believed him to be in the custody of North Korean police. It does not look good for our American madman.
Paju-si Majeong-ri Park, Peace Park
Our first stop on the tour was the Paju-si Majeong-ri Park. This is a memorial park featuring several monuments in honor of the South Korean soldiers, lost North Korea soldiers, and overseas countries who helped in the war efforts. There’s even a special monument for the Chosin Reservoir honoring the U.S. Marines and Korean soldiers who fought for the special unit.
There is a symbolic Bridge of No Return representing the citizens that defected to North or South Korea never being able to return to their former country. At the front of the bridge are two cartoon depictions of soldiers dressed in uniform from South Korea and North Korea.
Another interesting exhibit at the Paju-si Majeong-ri Park is an old train that used to cross freely from the south to the north, brining information, and supplies. It is riddled with thousands of bullet holes while some of the train parts are so desecrated, they could hardly be saved. It has been reassembled the best it could be, and a replica model stands beside it to show how it would have looked if not completely destroyed. The train that stands at the memorial park was the last to go between the two countries.
The Third Tunnel
The most interesting stop on our tour of the DMZ was the Third Tunnel discovered by South Korea burrowing under the DMZ from North Korea. This was the third of four that was found throughout the years and one of the reasons communications with North Korea had to be ceased completely. Photos are strictly prohibited here, except for in the museum, Reunification Monument, and DMZ sign out front. To enter the tunnel, you are first issued a very necessary hard hat. You then sit in a small monorail and are slowly lowered through an access tunnel, hundreds of meters down, to the entrance of the North Korean tunnel. It’s like the eeriest theme park attraction you’ll ever ride. When you finally get to the tunnel you are able to walk through at a squat. You can only go in so far, or else be in danger of officially being on the North Korean side of the border.
After the tunnel we headed to the Dora Lookout. This is an observation tower where you can peer through binoculars straight over the DMZ lines and into North Korea. On a clear day you can better make out the statues of Kim Il-Sung and monuments to their leaders. We were able to see the North Korean lookout tower, which was but a small hut compared to our commercialized tourist center. We could also see a nicely kept village, which we were told was actually empty and used only for propaganda. It is supposedly one of the only places you are allowed to visit if ever granted access to a North Korean visa.
As we peered eagerly through the binoculars, we finally caught the strangest glimpse of all: people. It was what made North Korea a real place and not just a dystopian cautionary tale. They were walking along a riverbank and seemed to be gathering at a small house. Real people, really living their real lives. And here we were peering through at them as if they were an exhibit at a museum. Or even worse, like they were the unknowing victims being looked at through a peephole.
Because we know so little about the goings on of North Korea, it removes us a bit from the reality of those who are there without even knowing that they are “stuck.” If you’re familiar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, these people are stuck in the cave, but they do not know of life outside of it. They know only the shadows on the walls and the darkness of the rocks. All North Koreans who sympathize with South Korea have been wiped out. Not just them, but up to eight generations around them including relations by marriage, can be sentenced to death without even being told the reason. How can they miss the sun when they never knew it existed?
South Korea has tried countless times to help North Korea establish themselves. Hoping to build trust and eventually a relationship with the country, they have sent funding to operate factories and power plants. Instead of using it to aid their workers or better the facilities, North Korea put the money into the creation of nuclear weapons. This all but forced the hand of South Korea who warned they would pull funding unless the money was reallocated. It seemed North Korea has no interest or care in playing nice and disregarded the warning. It was around the same time that the multiple tunnels were discovered, and borders had to officially be closed between the two nations. With it seemed to close the possibility of ever reunifying for good, but South Korea remains steadfastly hopeful.
The final stop before our trip back to Seoul was to a village that resided in the middle of the DMZ on the South Korean side. This village provides delicious Korean treats popular in both the north and south. We tried some soybean ice cream, chocolate covered soybeans, and ginseng hard candies. I was a fan of all three, Lawrence only tried the ice cream and gave it a 4/10. Tough crowd.
It had been a long, information packed day. After an early dinner we spent the evening preparing to travel to our next destination in the morning. We needed a solid night’s sleep because the next day we were to go to our very last country in Asia: Japan.