Consider this a very #latepost.
It’s only now that I’ve finally come around to writing about my 10-day trip to South Korea after weeks and weeks of putting it off. I’ve been in a state of stagnation ever since I came back to the welcome of Manila’s scorching summer heat, terribly missing Seoul and its cool spring weather.
To ease my withdrawal symptoms, I resumed losing sleep (in a good kind of way) over my favorite K-dramas, always half-wishing that watching them will soon become a paid occupation.
But I had to do something about the more than 1,000 photos of my trip in my phone and the warm memories of springtime in the Land of the Morning Calm. They are too precious to be just hoarded away in a smartphone that will become obsolete in the next few years and to be gathering dust in my distracted mind.
So here it is, my narrative of my South Korean trip, which I will slice into two because my trip literally had two parts: the first five days as a Philippine delegate of the World Journalists Conference (WJC) and the other half as myself—a K-drama obssessed wife and mom. LOL.
PART 1: The WORLD JOURNALISTS CONFERENCE
Glimpse of Namsan
I arrived in Seoul on a chilly evening on April 2, dragging my very big pink luggage to President Hotel, which surprisingly was just a minute walk away from the Korean Air limousine bus stop at Lotte Hotel along Eulji-ro. Delegates had been previously informed by organizers that it was a five-minute walk to the hotel. Good thing it was rather closer than expected because my body was still adjusting to the cold weather.
The first two nights at President Hotel was rather uncomfortable because I was assigned to a smoking room and smoke from elsewhere was drifting to my room. The only consolation I had was the quiet view of Namsan Tower from my hotel room window.
Last prolonged sit-down
The greater part of Day 1 was spent at the Korea Press Center, where Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Ahn Chong-ghee spoke during a special session about the country’s key foreign policy challenges, the aggressive escalation of North Korea’s nuclear development in particular.
There, he called for the support of the international community in working towards the North’s denuclearization. “North Korea’s actions are not simply an imminent threat to Korea or this region. They present a very real danger to the entire globe,” Ahn told journalists.
Here is the complete news story I wrote for my paper on the topic: South Korean exec calls for support vs North Korea’s nuclear weapons
This session was actually the last sit-down of the conference. The next four days we found ourselves in the bus, traveling from one city to another, exploring and experiencing the country’s culture and beauty.
Donning the Hanbok
The highlight of Day 1 was actually this: we got to try the hanbok at the K-style Hub, a one-stop info shop operated by the Korea Tourism Organization.
The hub houses everything that any info-hungry tourist need, catering to a wide range of interests from Hallyu, beauty and medical tourism to hansik or traditional Korean food. There’s a virtual reality facility here called the K-star Zone that allows you to rub elbows with and even steal a kiss from your favorite K-pop stars. Cooking classes are also held here for tourists who want to gain more in-depth knowledge about Korean food.
For the hungry tummy, there’s a small cafe in the building that serves hot and cold beverages and pastries.
This wasn’t my first time visiting and listening to stories behind this ancient and the most majestic of the five grand palaces in Seoul. But I found myself paying close attention to our tour guide, Sharon, because, like what I’ve mentioned earlier, I was seeing Seoul with fresh eyes.
We took a 3-hour bus ride to Gangneung and later to Pyeongchang—yes, the two venues of the 2018 Winter Olympics. The upcoming Games in February 2018 will make South Korea the first nation to hold all four mega sports events—the Asian Games, Seoul Olympics and the Fifa World Cup in the last three decades.
Journalists were given a tour of and briefing on the Gangneung Ice Arena, where figure skating events will be staged.
Last traces of winter
The last traces of winter welcomed us when we arrived at Alpensia Ski Resort, the so-called “Alps of Asia,” in Pyeongchang, nestled in the mountainous province of Gangwon. Patches of snow still laced streams and covered portions of the slopes of the vast ski center.
At a briefing, Lee Hee-beom, chief of the organizing committee of the Winter Olympics, gave us journalists an overview of its preparations for the Games. The Winter Olympics “will be different. We will focus on culture, host various cultural activities and promote tourism,” said Lee.
The world will witness both Hallyu and the Korean traditional culture and experience the country’s ITC, one of the best in the world, he added. “The Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics will demonstrate the power of sports to make the world a better place.”
After staying warm and cozy overnight at the Alpensia Intercontinental Hotel, we made our way to Suwon in Gyeonggi province, a three-hour drive from Pyeongchang.
It was raining the whole day so the trip to Mr. Toilet House, which was erected by Shim Jae-duck to mark the birth of the World Toilet Association, was done in haste. While initially it seemed bizarre to have such an organization, it’s a fitting and noble initiative since many poor households in developing countries still don’t have access to a toilet, which is a basic right.
Part of Day 3’s itinerary also included the ancient Suwon Hwaseong Fortress. But this was all what I managed to photograph—a portion of the fortress—from the bus. It was still raining and the nippy air outside was too much for me. My spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, as they say.
Train to Busan: No zombies, just journalists
Of course, to get to Busan, we took the fastest mode of transportation, the KTX train from Suwon Station. But unlike in the Korean film, “Train to Busan,” the ride was pretty much breezy without the horrifying zombies lunging for human brains. Haha.
It was also raining in Busan when we arrived at noon that we missed the spectacular view of the open sea from the large picture windows of Mok Jang Won, a restaurant more than half a century old famous for its high quality kalbi (grilled ribs).
The rain also limited our movement when we visited the UN Memorial Cemetery, a sprawling 14-ha land dedicated to soldiers from 16 countries killed during the Korean War. This leg of the Busan tour was the most poignant for me. I represented the Philippines in the floral offering to pay tribute to these soldiers.
The Philippines sent 7,420 Filipino troops to the war. Of this number, 116 were killed and 313 were wounded. The only UN cemetery in the world holds 2,300 graves.
Touring Busan, Gangnam style
What better way to get a first impression of this bustling port city in the southern part of Korea than by yachting? At about past 3 p.m., the weather finally became kinder and spared us from missing this part of the trip.
Starting from Yong-Ho Harbor, we sailed through rough seas to get a view of Busan’s tourist spots– the Centum City and the Nurimaru APEC House and an up-close look of the Gwangan Bridge—also known as the Diamond Bridge because it glitters at night like a diamond necklace, thanks to its LED lighting system.
Busan actually reminds me of the very first K-drama I watched, “Haeundae Lovers,” the bait that lured me down the rabbit hole. LOL
View from the open-top double-decker bus
On the last leg of the conference, the sun was up and we saw a brighter, perkier Busan from an open-top double-decker bus, which snaked through the city’s busy streets to the train station. This time, we were rushing because a delegate decided to show up about 15 minutes later than the 7:30 a.m. call time. (I really despise people who have no respect for other’s time.)
But anyway, the bus ride offered a different kind of thrill especially with the crisp cold early morning spring air biting at my face. On my end, Busan was the culmination of the week-long conference. I headed straight to Seoul for the second wind of my South Korea trip–this time with my husband and 3-year-old daughter while the rest of the group got off at Gwangmyeong Station, the stop before Seoul Station, for the final leg, which is Incheon.
One for the books
All in all, it was a pleasant and memorable adventure for someone who has chosen to put her career on backseat. It was nice meeting and mingling again with colleagues from various parts of the world. It was like getting back a bit of my old self. In my younger, unattached days, I used to take on work-related travel eagerly. But when I had my daughter, I started declining trips assigned by my editors. This is actually my first work-related travel abroad ever since I gave birth in 2013. So this is really one for the books.
As for the second part of my trip, it deserves a separate narrative because traveling with the family, especially with a toddler, always offers a special kind of adventure.