The author Jim Paredes with (from top left) Isabel de Leon, RG Orense of Cebu Pacific, (bottom left) Irene Perez, Josh (son of Isabel), Viveca Singson of Cebu Pacific, Gianna Maniego, and Gerard Ramos
I am an avid traveler and I almost never say no to any offer to go abroad. So it was with a resounding “yes” that I accepted my editor Millet Mananquil’s offer to go on a fam tour with other journalists hosted by Cebu Pacific Air.
I have seen many Koreans here and abroad but have not met or even spoken to a lot of them. I know little about Korea, a place I associate mainly with war (thanks to the Korean War in 1953 and the war-like ways of North Korea) and telenovelas — topics I have never been too crazy about.
I had joked to other writers on this trip that we would probably feel at home in Seoul because, just like in the Philippines, there are Koreans everywhere!
We arrived at around 10:45 p.m. aboard a smooth, seamless Cebu Pacific flight from Cebu and proceeded to the Somerset Hotel in downtown Seoul. I immediately settled into my comfortable and quite elegant semi-suite and caught some sleep for the hectic activities scheduled in the next three days.
On our first morning in Seoul, we headed for some cultural sights around the city, specifically Bukchon Hanok Village, an old part of Seoul where the houses and establishments have remained largely unchanged amid the amazing modernity of the rest of the city. The quaint doors, the homes with clay floors covered with paper and fireplaces underneath that keep the houses warm, the distinctly Korean roof designs and architecture were simply delightful. I must say that the strangeness of everything quickly won me over.
We stopped for some green tea at a tiny house called the Gahoe Museum where we were made to choose our own designs on paper with markings for prosperity, wealth, etc. to take home.
A few steps down the road was Choong Ang High School where the famous telenovela Winter Sonata was filmed. To my surprise, the other journalists in the group went gaga in the store selling souvenirs of the young superstars. I had heard my companions mention that they liked telenovelas but I had no idea that they adored them.
Lunch followed at the N Seoul Tower, which has a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire city. Then it was on to the Teddy Bear museum on the first level, which had tableaus of old and new Korea portrayed by a population of teddy bears. There is something about the Korean and Japanese cultures that seem to encourage cuteness. Anime, the manga style of drawing, childishly cute actors and actresses, and now these teddy bears, seem to validate this.
Our guide told us that we would be watching a stage show in the early evening that would “revi-talize” us. She had a hard time describing it except to say that she was sure we would enjoy it. She was absolutely right. Nanta, a non-verbal stage performance, is one of the most amazing productions I have ever seen. Its characters are four chefs and a restaurant manager who cook, fool around in the kitchen, do magic, deliver visual comedy while drumming fantastic rhythms on pots, pans, cans, plastic drums, glasses and other noisemakers. To say we were totally delighted and entertained is an understatement. I have never seen anything even remotely like it. I dare say this experience alone makes it worth going all the way to Seoul.
That show, for me, was a highlight of the trip.
The show was followed by a traditional Korean dinner at the Yi Gung located at the foot of a mountain. Still high from the day’s activities, none of us was ready to slow down just yet so we headed straight for the night market for some serious shopping. Some big stores remain open till 5 a.m. so there is no excuse not to shop when you visit Seoul.
Our trip, delightful as it was, was played out against the sad backdrop of the untimely death by suicide of ex President Roh Moo Hyun, a figure well-loved by common Koreans, and the menacing and provocative nuclear tests done by North Korea, perhaps to insult its southern neighbor in its moment of grief. There were soldiers and riot policemen everywhere in Seoul guarding the thousands of mourners, ready to respond to any provocation.
While riding our van around the city, I spent some time talking to Ms. Choi, our very able tour guide, about Korean history, politics, the annexation of Korea by Japan, the possibility of unification between North and South Korea, and how she felt about the tragic twist that split her country into two. Our exchanges made me reflect on the consequences of a war that happened over half a century ago and left the North angry, paranoid and poor, and the South infinitely richer, more generous and open.
On the second day, we went to Dae Jang Geum Theme Park, the epicenter of the Koreanovela craze. This was where the world famous Jewel in the Palace series was filmed. Before I went to Korea, I had no idea what the series was about, nor was I remotely interested in telenovelas. But during the hour-long drive, I had the opportunity to watch part of the abridged version of this monumentally successful TV drama. To my great surprise, I was riveted by the story. The preview left me literally begging for more. We had pictures taken on the set in costume and that was great fun.
Before we arrived in Korea, I told everyone in the group that I was not really interested in shopping. My family and friends whom I have traveled with can attest to this. But to my great surprise, I caught myself entering many shops and buying stuff at Itaewon, the night markets and other places, and actually relishing an activity I normally find to be a chore. In fact, I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed shopping in Korea as much as the sightseeing.
The last cultural activity we had was a visit to the Changdeok Palace and the Secret Garden. This is a massive complex of houses, halls, offices, gardens spread out in a 110-acre open space known as the second residence of King Taejong, a noteworthy ruler who lived many centuries ago. The Secret Garden with its large lotus pond, centuries old trees and forest has been named a World Heritage site by the United Nations.
I was truly impressed by all these trappings of power, but I couldn’t help but be curious and compare how rulers and powerful people of previous ages lived compared to those in our time. They may have enjoyed the luxuries of what a charmed life could offer back then, but these are certainly no match to the modern comforts we take for granted today such as cars, anesthetics, pain killers and modern surgery.
On our last night, we had a delicious dinner at the fabulous Hyatt Hotel and got an eyeful of its luxurious rooms and facilities. A must place to stay next time, I thought to myself. We ended the night with two hours of fun and rides at Lotte World, an indoor-outdoor entertainment complex which is Seoul’s answer to Disneyland. It was quite a surprise to see the Music Myx band, a Filipino group that plays there nightly to the screaming of their 14-year-old fans.
Every voyage is meant to expand us even a little, and I don’t mean just weight-wise. I totally surprised myself that I could actually get into discussing Korean War politics, watch telenovelas and enjoy them and even go shopping as much as I did. Up to the last minute, I was looking for knickknacks to spend my remaining won on, chatting with our guide about the rallies around the city, and trying to memorize the names of the Korean actors and actresses I had seen on video.
We flew in to Manila at 11:45 p.m., exhausted but happy to have been invited and lavishly feted by the people of Cebu Pacific Air.
On my first day back from Korea, I looked out my window and thought I heard Koreans talking in the streets. It was the first time I took notice of my Korean neighbors. And I recalled what Dagobert Runes, a travel writer, wrote: “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
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Cebu Pacific Air flies to Incheon, Korea from Manila daily at 3:55 p.m. and arrives at 8:45 p.m. It flies from Incheon back to Manila at 9:35 p.m. daily and arrives at 12:30 a.m. It also flies from Cebu to Pusan Thursdays and Sundays at 2:45 p.m., and arrives at 8 p.m., Pusan to Cebu Thursdays and Sundays at 8:45 p.m. and arrives 11:59 p.m.