Gyeongbokgung and Cheonggyecheon – Touching the Soul of Asia: Day 1 in Seoul

Korea does not appear that big in the world map, both physically and metaphorically. It is wealthy and progressive, but its two larger neighbors – China and Japan – often steal the show, for one reason or another. However, like the bigger two, Korea has a rich history itself, and its current state as a major economy gives it an interesting contrast of the old and new , of tradition and modernity. We know it for the Hanbok, their traditional dress, as well as for K-pop, the recent craze which has gone far beyond it’s borders. It is the land of great kings, as well as of Gu Jun Pyo.

The country’s capital, Seoul, calls itself “the Soul of Asia”, no doubt a play of words with the city’s name, but more than that, it really is a thoroughly modern city with a traditional soul.

THE ARRIVAL.

We arrived Seoul on a cool autumn morning, and went through passport control and customs in a breeze, in their spacious and attractive airport. Incheon International Airport, where most international flights land, is quite far from the city itself – around an hour away more or less, depending on traffic – but it is serviced by a good number of airport buses. The bus fare from the airport to our hotel at Itaewon cost 15,000 KRW (Korean Won) one way, or around 15 USD (US Dollars). Not exactly cheap, but the bus is spacious and comfortable, and you can regain some of the lost sleep on the way to the city.

GYEONGBOKGUNG.

Our first stop of the day was for a little bit of history. Although commonly referred to as “Gyeongbokgung Palace”, the term is already a redundancy. “Gyeongbokgung” by itself already means “Gyeongbok Palace”, and it is the largest and grandest of the Imperial Palaces of Seoul.

The palace was first built in the 1300’s, at the start of the Joseon Dynasty, and was subsequently expanded, destroyed and rebuilt several times as Seoul (and the rest of Korea) went through several successions and occupation. The sprawling palace complex occupies a large block on Seoul’s historic Jongno-gu district. Protected by a  series of walls and several gates, Gyeongbokgung’s layout has similarities with Beijing‘s Forbidden City, although the grandeur and pomp of the Korean palace doesn’t seem to rival that of it’s more imposing Chinese counterpart. Compared to the Forbidden City’s red walls and flat landscape though, Gyeongbokgung seems more “pretty” and photogenic, especially when viewed with the Bugaksan mountain in background.

They also hold an hourly reenactment of the Changing of the Guards at Gwanghwamun, the palace’s main gate. Though it is a good spectacle for tourists, military buffs might get disappointed. The whole show does not have have the snappy execution of a military ceremonial guard, and it feels like it was done by actors rather than active soldiers (and it probably was).

CHEONGGYECHEON

We retired back to the hotel after the tour of Gyeongbokgung, and took a couple of hours to catch up on sleep. It was already early in the evening by the time we got out for dinner, and a perfect time to watch Seoul all lit up.

Cheonggyecheon Stream, as it’s commonly called, is another redundancy. The name itself already means “Cheonggye Stream”, and this small body of water has an almost miraculous history. Pictures of this stream from the early 1900’s show a sorry sight of shanties on stilts, built over the water. You could mistake if for something like the Baseco compound in Manila’s Tondo district. In the later half of the last century, parts of the stream was covered with concrete and an elevated highway was built over it, a fate similar to many of Manila’s “esteros”. In the early 2000’s though, the city of Seoul decided to tear down the highway, rehabilitate the stream, and turn it into a long and narrow park in the middle of the city. The effort was successful, and now the stream has become one of the city’s most attractive landmarks, a narrow stretch of serenity in a city bustling with activity.

THE HOTEL.

We stayed at the IP Boutique Hotel in Itaewon. The place is not near the palaces of Jongno-gu and the business district of Jung-gu, or the shopping centers of Dongdaemun and Myeongdong, but the Itaewon station of Seoul Metro’s Line 6 is just a five minute walk away. A simple transfer from Line 6 to another line will already take you to most of the interesting spots in the city, which can be reached within half an hour or less, including metro line transfers, and will cost no more than 900 Won, the minimum fare in the city’s subway system.

The hotel itself is a bit “unique”. In typical “boutique hotel” fashion, the IP Boutique looks quirky from the exterior all the way to the details in the room, but it does so without feeling tacky. You get the feeling that is not your ordinary hotel the moment you see it from the street. With a colorful facade, the hotel can easily grab the eye of passers-by, and the eccentric look continues into the lobby, where you can find outlandish decors, like old jars, a cross-shaped bench and some swings. Unlike a real boutique hotel though, the IP Boutique does not have the small-time “mom and pop” inn feel, but rather, it functions like a full fledged four-star one.

The IP Boutique hotel has a unique, colorful facade that’s hard to miss.
The fancy hotel lobby of IP Boutique
Another look at the lobby.
The hotel’s in-house restaurant called Cafe Amiga.
The lobby is filled with decors like these jars that cover an entire wall.
This fancy chair feels more in place at Alice’s wonderland, than in Seoul.

Our room was thoroughly modern as well, punctuated by a large image of an apple in the wall next to the headboard. Apart from the attractive design, the room had interesting and useful features like bedside reading lights similar to those you would find on airline business class seats, centralized lighting control, an automated toilet bowl plus a bath tub with rain shower. The highlight of the room though had to be the enclosed balcony, giving the guest a birds-eye view of the city. Not bad for less than 150 USD a night.

The fancy headboard on our room.

The interesting looking faucet and sink.

Our room’s balcony. Pororo is not included in the package.
The evening view, from the balcony

* We visited Seoul last September 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5

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