A mural of a girl letting a red balloon fly away

How to enjoy Seoul with soul

You know how sometimes bloggers passionately describe how a place has etched in their memory like no other? I used to do that too. And many times it was true. But with Seoul? Oh no, it won’t touch your soul the way many other Southeast Asian countries do. Having said that, I believe that Seoul has potential, but accessing it will largely depend on what kind of traveller you are. If you are like me – a person who enjoys a laid-back atmosphere and genuine connection with a place or its people, albeit temporary, you should steer clear of mainstream bloggers and the advice they spread. Or simply skip their first-timer’s itinerary tips. I mean some of them are useful to get a general idea of what’s available but just because something is available doesn’t mean it will deliver satisfaction. In fact, sadly, in many ways, to me Seoul has just the potential of a box to be ticked rather than that of an unforgettable experience. Therefore, I am in rush to write about my box-ticking ‘adventure’ and things I wish I had known before the trip falls into irreversible oblivion. And that’s all right.

Outdoor exhibition shot from distance from behind fluttering grass
Look through different angles

Some trips are not supposed to make an indelible mark. Some indeed just deliver a temporary escape, a momentary rush from the unknown which soon fades away. But it’s still part of the journey with its learning curve.

Expectations

As mentioned above, Seoul is a city of availability. So many things to do are available that it’ll make your head spin. You as a travelling mortal will have basically a very limited chance of covering it all. You’d need to stay for weeks if you wanted to immerse and even then you’d probably just scratch the surface. But you can definitely enjoy Seoul so it pleases your soul. I have managed to do that, partly. For the less successful experiences – tant pis. If you read me, you know I am a grateful being and consider disappointment a sublime part of the deal. Yin and yang, remember?  If nothing else, just the opportunity to be able to visit Seoul is pretty awesome so yeah, you won’t see Travel Mishmash whining. Let’s get down to it.

Men and women getting off the metro train
The daily grind, don’t fall for it as a tourist

Accommodation

First of all, if you fancy an experience that will at least partially facilitate some connection to the local vibe, don’t make the mistake I did when going to Seoul for the first time. Most of the bloggers will tell you that Myeongdong is probably the best choice for first timers. Wrong. I wish I had thought about it more. The main justification for that is the location. Well, yes. It’s strategic. But that only counts if you want to make the second biggest mistake – run around like a headless chicken to cover it all. Myeongdong is pretty much a bustling shopping area catering to masses. Nothing pleasant to be honest. Therefore, for accommodation I would skip this neighborhood altogether and book a hanok guesthouse.

Go for hanok

I know, some of them are in touristy areas too but once the brainwashed masses leave, they’ll get quiet (such as Bukchon Hanok village) But in broad daylight it won’t be pretty, so I’d probably book even a further area such as Yongsan-gu or Iatewon to secure more stillness to your stay. Bukchon Hanok village gets packed from 9am, so there’s a risk of being annoyed by this. If hanoks are soundproof, it could work but I’ll recommend one more tip for the hanok experience below. In any case, it would be good if it were in an area labelled ‘village‘ as it seems to promise the traditional feel. I am certain that it’s really the choice of accommodation that will set the tone for your Seoul trip, so choose wisely.

Close-up of letters hanging from a mailbox
Morning quietness to be gone soon

Forget what you should do and stick to what you want to do

Skip the main attractions

Most blogs will tell you to visit this and do that (palaces, spas, saunas, hanbok renting, museums, amusement parks, whole-day or three-day passes – an endless list) and urge you not to miss the main landmarks. Oftentimes you will be surrounded by lots of people who have read the same advice. But there are ways around that. For instance, the Namsan tower, which promises an amazing view of the city, can be skipped and replaced by an all-in-one visit to the area of Namsan park and Ihwa Mural village. You get it all there. Views of the city including the tower, local feel, and streets with fun and entertaining murals, plenty of cute cafes with great views, and a 360-degree panorama of the city. It’s an area, like many places in Seoul, that can easily take half a day, but you will feel like you have done something nice. And it’s not packed. It’s a lot of stairs and climbing so I suppose that’s a solid deterrent to masses. You can wander about aimlessly and feel that for a moment you have the city to yourself.

Panorama of Seoul with Namsan tower in the background
I am fine with this view

Cafe scene

On this one I must agree with some of the mainstreamers and say that visiting at least one of two themed cafes should feature in your itinerary. However, the most famous ones will be packed and most people will just go there so they can post their fancy but boring lives on Instagram. I went to Cheongsudang Café in Ikseon-dong and as expected I was surrounded by people eagerly photographing the contents of their trays and immediately hitting ‘post’ to social media. Of course, I, too, took photos because the creations in this cafe certainly deserve it, but I am just saying it won’t be a chamber experience. It’s one of those places where insta-addicts are swallowed in and spit out like on a conveyor belt. Unfortunately, I seem to have a knack for ordering things that are not as visually pleasing as I’d like so I ended up photographing other people’s trays. Nobody seemed to notice😉 I guess I am at least good at smooth operating.

Art coffee and cakes
Post it, post it, post it!

Photogenic for sure, but ultra tasty?

Also, I don’t think that apart from the visual side the products are so tasty. In reviews on Google people swear by the desserts, claiming they were ‘the best they have ever eaten’. Well, I wasn’t so impressed. My cactus tea was sweet like lemonade we used to drink in deep communism and the cake was just okay. But I went early in the morning, so I did enjoy the atmosphere a bit. The ‘jungle’ setting of the cafe is impressive and sipping creme brulee (I ordered this one too) while looking at tiny fish cruising disorderly in a pond carved in the long table in front of you is really cute. In fact, the whole area is worth a visit as it’s packed with similarly unique style cafes, shops and restaurants. Some cafés had such smart design that it felt saddening not to be able to sit in them. Perhaps instead of the most sought one I could have just made a random choice. We live and learn. But, if you are a foodie or a cafe person, this neighborhood could easily take two weeks to explore and you still wouldn’t be done. So yes, definitely thumbs up for Ikseon-dong. I myself went here twice during my trip. Ikseon-dong also houses a hanok village, so could hit two birds with one stone by staying there.

Creme brulee and soufle
Doesn’t look so sophisticated but I am okay with that too.

3D cafe

Another spot I tried was Greem Cafe in Hongdae. Again, an instagramable spot but more laid-back. Since, I couldn’t care less about having a photo of myself taken in a popular cafe, I obviously came here just to experience the atmosphere. It was all right but what I enjoyed most was getting to Hongdae and walking around. Similarly with Ikseon-dong, I returned to Hongdae for a drink. I feel that it could be a good area to stay too since it has this picturesque feel to it.

A couple in a cafe at night
Might be romantic

Takeaway

The best cafe experiences, however, were, as it turns out, rather no name cafes which I discovered as I walked around. Coffee was cheap there, served in large mugs and the shop owners seemed very nice. The best part was though that I wasn’t surrounded by photo- and selfie-hungry people. I bet tea or soju museums could be fun too but sadly the ones I tried were closed because of the public holiday.

Culture

There are a couple things that I truly and massively enjoyed and keep thinking of them until today. One of them was the Nanta show. I almost didn’t make it given the messed up trip to Nami (see below) but luckily it had worked out. Nanta is a famous and immensely popular show and it’s the only thing I would vouch for for any visitor to Seoul. True and raw entertainment, passion and incredible performances on stage. Absolutely worth it. And also the only reason, apart from easier access to the airport, why staying in Myeongdong seemed to make sense as Nanta theater is there.

Stage of a theatre after a show
The ‘aftermath’

Spoilt for choice

In fact, I would say that when it comes to culture Seoul has an incredible lot to offer. Aside from theatre shows and performances, there are dozens of museums. I’ve recently discovered a penchant for visiting museums, especially after a trip to Macau where a museum of modern art was an incredible highlight that I might soon write about so I thought I’d try the same in Seoul. Luckily I didn’t plan it because when checking the dizzying number of museums I got a headache. Instead, I just went with the flow and it paid off. I proved myself wonderfully right that regardless of where you are, going with the flow might be much more rewarding than planning and following advice. Even Seoul, despite being so huge and convoluted at times, needs this approach to be enjoyed thoroughly.

Starfield library in COEX Seoul
It looks magnificent

Inspirational discovery

Just as I was getting bored in Starfield library, another mainstream landmark which, to tell the truth, is totally worth a visit and unbelievably magnificent but impossible to enjoy thoroughly due to the incessant selfie-hungry crowds, I just stepped out and looked for the nearest museum. And that’s how I discovered My Art Museum and one of the most inspiring artists in a long time – Ilya Milstein. His work captivated me for hours. Not only is he an incredibly talented artist but his business acumen impressed me beyond all measure. Once you stepped out of the exposition you were taken to the exhibition shop and honestly I had a hard time not letting my wallet bleed there. This guy has turned his art into products so intelligently that for the entire time in the shop I had two things on my mind. For one I was burning with admiration for the most unimaginable cute creations and I also wished I was like him a little bit.

Glasses with Ilya Milstein's work
Fancy a tape with one of his paintings or a set of cute glasses?

Effortless creativity

So creative and effortless in getting your stuff out there. Of course I can’t draw, but I wish I could turn my passion for writing and photography into something so powerful like him. But I know it’s just a wish. My passions have been rather dormant, although I am pursuing them and taking actions to make them less dormant but I guess true passions, if they are to turn to into something profitable, need loads of sophisticated work. And Ilya Milstein is a master of that. He has been drawing all his life, so no wonder his voice is so powerful today.

Photo of artist Ilya Milstein
Power hides in simplicity

I wish I could get lost in his work again and again and again. I guess I’ll need to follow him like a true fan and see when he plans a visit to Hong Kong or a neighbouring city, as clearly going back to Seoul is not an option at this point.

A visitor to an exhibition taking a photo of a painting
No problem!

A taste of home

Another thing that made my trip truly memorable was finding a pub with Czech beer. I couldn’t believe it. What a highlight. I guess I keep proving myself right. Going off the beaten path and doing it your way is what reaps benefits. One of the most memorable moments, indeed. Hapjeong-dong is a completely tourist-free area -yay!- with a local vibe, unique cafes and unassuming pubs. Another part of the city worth staying in, had I known. Anyways, as I strolled through the picturesque streets lit by the warm golden hour light I stumbled across an A-frame chalkboard sign that screamed ‘Kozel’.

A pint of Kozel on an outside wooden bar
Salivating…

If you’re not Czech you can’t understand what effect this might possibly have on a gal who’s previously worked in a brewery and whose relationship to beer has been drastically shaped in Asia, but if you by any chance are, you totally understand that I simply couldn’t walk past this place without having a couple pints. Kozel, my dear friends, is quite an amazing Czech beer brand that has gained popularity worldwide but still somehow retains this aura of mysteriousness and belongs to the group of quirky, lesser known but damn good beers. I sat down, sipped and had gone to heaven.

Reflection of a pint in a phone screen
I swear this pint teleported me back home!

 

Day tripping and Ideal time of visit

You’ll see that most bloggers also heavily recommend taking a trip to the Gardens of Morning Glory and Nami island. Normally I would attempt to get to such places on my own but given its distance from Seoul and the fact that I travel without data I resigned on that idea and booked with Klook. It wasn’t exactly my first time I booked a trip like this. But hopefully I have had enough lessons, and it would be the last time. I bet it could be quite nice but sadly the timing of my trip was outrageously unlucky. I travelled during the Mid-Autumn festival public holiday and a public holiday in South Korea means masses of people. Especially Nami was so unpleasant. Thousands of people going to the same direction, queues far and wide, traffic and congestion. Things I try to give a wide berth at all costs. Well, at least I saw a bit of the outside Seoul areas, if looking from the bus window counts.

No more tours for me

Luckily the guide showed some presence of mind and arranged an earlier departure for me because there I had the Nanta show booked too and once he told me they would extend the stay in Nami due to the crowds I became quite agitated. Things have worked out, even though I arrived at the Nanta theatre at 7.58pm. So precisely two minutes before the performance. Given the traffic the journey back to Seoul took three hours and I spent the whole time beating myself up for booking the silly trip. A complete waste of time and money but had I missed Nanta on top of that, it would have been a real bummer. If you want to go, make sure you do so outside public holidays or weekend. But I personally feel that generally speaking people on mainstream tours spoil any natural scenery so I really hope this was the last one for me.

An elderly couple sitting under a tree with red foliage
Stealing a minute of calm

Navigation

Mainstream bloggers also seem to claim in unison that Google maps are useless in South Korea, and they eagerly suggest Naver or Kakao map and plenty of other nicely labelled apps. If you speak or read Korean, they will be lovely, indeed. But I don’t and therefore uninstalled them immediately, that is once I realised how useless they were to me. Nonsense after nonsense. One must really be careful nowadays. So many people out there spreading nonsense. To be fair I’ll say that yes, Google is slightly limited. It doesn’t show walking directions, nor car or motorcycle routes. But it does a great job at indicating metro and bus lines that’ll take you wherever you need. And walking? Well, if you’re not completely dumb, and you understand the concept of straight, left and right, you should be fine too. I had a good time with Google maps and wouldn’t change them for anything. But I understand why everyone recommends Korean apps. They have been brainwashed too.

A woman with a hair roller waiting for a metro train
Ignore them and do it your way

Cute but …

Technological advancement is cool for many. Not so much myself. I don’t buy it. I mean yes, of course, I am aware of the multitude of advantages it has. It’s great to be able to do so many things without having to move your ass. I, too, appreciate the convenience. But I also like balance. And Seoul is a good reminder that my needs are valid. I mean it’s super cute that bottle openers talk once the lid jumps off the bottle and you wonder if you are going crazy hearing someone talking while sitting alone still completely sober. Until you realise the bottle opener is loaded with batteries and it just told you ‘Your bottle was open’ or something of that sort. Thanks so much! I do remember giggling at this except that a minute later I was thinking, very deeply I must admit, about the purpose of such thing. I am afraid I am too spiritually minded to be impressed by something like this. Aside from the momentary giggle I was philosophically challenged for quite some time even after finishing my dinner. What is the point? I would keep asking.

Old-fashioned soap dispenser in a public toilet with my colour matching skirt visible in the mirror
Matched against modernity!

The cutest thing I saw, however, was an old-fashioned ‘soap dispenser’ in a public toilet on my way to Namsan park. It totally balanced the modernity and had me giggle even more. It’s not all lost I thought but one must stay vigilant!

A tired exhausted elderly man on a bench
Taking rest from the toil

…at what price

When I first came to Hong Kong I was shocked by how robotic the society was. I have already written about this in my posts, and I still have plenty of unpublished material but visiting Seoul made me appreciate the shyly flaring bits of humanity and originality and character that still somehow simmer under the surface of Hong Kong. It’s being slowly and systematically eliminated so who knows where it’ll lead. But Seoul? It seems as if it’s all been wiped out. Question is if it had ever been there. I think it’s one of the most robotic Asian nations and the conformity and uniformity are extremely prevalent there. It feels like people have no own way of being. It seems as if following and succumbing to outside pressure is the right way to live. While Hongkongers do largely the same and as a teacher, being exposed to this on a daily basis, I had to do some tough mental training for otherwise I wouldn’t be able to survive here, I can’t imagine what living in Seoul must be with the homogeneous society it is so typical of. I guess looking at such developments one can indeed see how focus on technological advancement and economic success destroys societies because quite frankly upon closer observation South Korean society doesn’t seem healthy at all.

A lonely man in the corner of a metro station dimly lit
Isolation

Small observations

One thing I noticed is high numbers of the elderly sitting about parks and public spaces. They seemed as if defeated, abandoned, unaccounted for, unacknowledged, left to their own devices, without any purpose left in their lives. I might be wrong, though my observation skills have rarely failed me. They were on benches, in parks, everywhere. I know that seniors in all countries might just be doing that but in Seoul it felt odd. I can’t explain it but it did. There was a veil of sadness and resignation over them. I guess it’s no coincidence, depression levels in seniors are most elevated in South Korea. In fact, prevalence of mental illness in South Korea is extremely high and so are the suicide rates which are some of the highest not only in Asia but worldwide.

An elderly couple help each lift a bag to the stairs
United we stand, divided we fall

Societal pressure

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some blame covid, but that would be too easy. Covid only exacerbated issues that had been long known. As I said above, I attribute this to technology, focus on success and performance and the constant pressure for advancement in all but ‘human’ areas. In other words, emphasis is placed on external impressions and results and the inner part of existence is completely left out. The pressure to fit in and be the type of citizen you ‘should’ be is strong. It’s a sweet carrot and the poor donkeys are buying it without second thought. And those who don’t often resort to extreme solutions, as mentioned above. I mean we shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening if everyone wants work in Samsung, and look like the completely hideous, emaciated and gender-ambiguous K-pop stars. South Korea has also extremely elevated numbers of people who seek plastic surgery. Of course this concerns mainly women chasing unrealistic beauty standards and unattainable levels of perfection. Let me not even start on expectations in terms of academic success and work, the after-work compulsory boozing culture with your bosses, the dominance of males, unequal pay based on your background and whatnot. So yes, it’s lovely that your bottle opener speaks to you, but I guess my infatuation really stops right there. This is the price. Living like a robot in an artificial world. It’s not some crazy dystopian novel. We are past that. It’s all been written and predicted. Now, it’s become a reality and South Korea is a leader of the trend. One visit is not enough to understand a country. But the trip only reinforced what I had known already.

A man on a motorbike transporting two dogs
Such scenes are rare but important is they still are

Examples from real life

One of my students, a long-term Hong Kong resident who is originally Korean, has confirmed my observations and claimed she is always happy to return to Hong Kong after a visit back home. While this is just a couple strangers talking it can’t be denied that South Korea is a country with considerable societal pressure that quite clearly makes people not only submissive but also quite desperate if they don’t match the general expectations. I guess that’s what most governments want. Some use religion, some the idea of the so-called success and economic progress, some use sick ideologies. Contemporary examples of this are sad reminders of the fact that it is really hard to be yourself and authentic in this mediocrity-driven world but I for one have made this my purpose of life to not give up on this idea. I feel isolated but it’s an isolation by choice. Like I always say, I am still part of the system physically as I, too, need to make a living but mentally and through small actions I rebel every day.

Myself in a mirror in a street
Hiding in the background

I live in my own world, my inner world. That’s the one that counts most.

Be authentic and genuine but …?

Coaches, mentors, and influencers feed the public space with the ‘be yourself’ ‘be authentic’ ‘be genuine’ mantra nonstop. But how? Where are all these transformed people who genuinely follow their heart and inner voice? Where are they? Truth is most of us need to pay bills and focus on survival. Being genuine means constantly questioning the system and sometimes even going against it. But taking too much of a risk ain’t so great if you know what’s at stake. As said above, I have solved my lack of genuine connection and authenticity in the surrounding world by isolation. I should have done it earlier, but I guess it’s a process. Especially here in Hong Kong it was the only possible way for me if I wanted to stay sane and preserve my own peace of mind. And I am sure that like-minded spirits, in need of protection and solace from the incessant buzz of fakeness and artificiality outside, have done the same. That’s why, given most genuine people probably only exist in hiding, we are invisible to the world and so unlikely to bump into each other. Oh, la belle solitude.

Two window cleaners on a high rise building
The higher the climb, the harder the fall?

Solution? Solitude…

Something that I’ve always enjoyed and always somehow geared towards but now it’s become an indispensable way of life. It’s my fuel. I focus on cultivating my body, soul, and mind but I don’t share this with anybody else, at least verbally. Why would I? Of course, my blog is part of this cultivation process so if you happen to read this stop the judgement right there:)

Thank you, Seoul

If nothing else, I must thank Seoul for reinforcing certain ideas in me and showing me what I do not want in life and what doesn’t make me tick. It is a blessing. I have been balancing and thinking what it is that I want beyond the greatest wants such as health and freedom of choice in so many areas. I often think if living elsewhere would have changed some of my current perspectives, but I know that an ideal place doesn’t exist. The freedom is in our minds, hearts and souls and it’s there where we need to keep nurturing them. And so again I must say how grateful I am to have been offered mooring in Hong Kong for it’s shown me so many new ways of looking at life.

——–

Update

Life works in a peculiar way, doesn’t it? I can’t believe that just a couple of days after finishing this article where I largely criticise the omission of human aspect in the South Korean society and the way technological advancement turns whole societies into robotic masses with no soul I come across incredibly disturbing news. South Korea is just launching English tutoring robots to assist students in conversation skills. What the bloody hell! Holy mishmash. You know how I often say that we are doomed? It has officially become an understatement and quite frankly, as a teacher by profession I am having a hard time not to let this gravely disturb my peace of mind. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t come across the article. Well, but since the damage has been already done, and I only wish it’s not some form of payback for my honesty, I thought I might as well just post it here to highlight my point. If I only I knew that there are at least some people who feel like me it would bring some relief.

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