Korea’s got Seoul

Korea’s got Seoul

One thing I’ve learned over the course of my travels thus far is that there are two primary ways in which a destination can really earn a prominent place in your heart. The first and most obvious mechanism by which a city or country has an opportunity to truly capture you is by being inherently great in itself – things like food, culture, art, history, and local attitudes are obvious ingredients that make or break this potential for greatness.

There’s another path to excellence, though, and that’s more a game of chance: some places are just really awesome because of the incredible people you’re lucky enough to meet and spend time with.  To find yourself somewhere that’s particularly excellent in either of these ways is a good stroke of luck, but to accomplish both is a recipe for something special – something resonant – something powerful and provocative. Seoul, South Korea is just such a place.

Seoul is red hot right now, enjoying a resplendent moment in the sun brighter than the neon streets of Myeongdong. No longer resigned to hover in the shadow of neighboring Tokyo, a massive explosion in global appreciation for Korean food and pop culture exports has thrust this megacity into a prominent global limelight. In this regard, the swagger and style with which Seoulites live and breathe broadcasts an ‘I told you so’ attitude; there’s a chip on their collective fashion-forward shoulders, and they’re all to ready to show the world why their city is one of the most exciting anywhere. It’s Seoul versus everybody, and let me tell you – they stack up pretty well. Let’s count the ways.
Korean food is mind-bogglingly good, and the capital city is one of the world’s great food cities. Staple dishes like bibimbap and DIY style Korean barbecue are becoming internationally ubiquitous for good reason, but beyond those chief edible exports is a rich cornucopia of flavor. Street food is abundant, portions are more than a little ambitious, and meals come with banchan: basically a slew of free pregame appetizer tapas, Korean style.
A few favorite dishes included dakgalbi (spicy chicken stirfry), buchimgae (various pan-fried savory ‘pancakes’), grilled samgyeopsal (pork belly), and the ever-popular chi-maek, meaning simply ‘chicken and beer’. Koreans go nuts for this, and 24-hour delivery services will bring you beer and fried chicken ANYWHERE in the city. (‘I’m in X park under the tree by the fountain’ is a perfectly reasonable ‘address’ to give, and you’re gonna get your ice cold beer and piping hot chicken delivered REAL quick). When I enjoyed chi-maek, it was hot in an even more literal sense. 
Technologically speaking, Seoul is perched on the bleeding edge. Their internet speeds are world-best. Architecture and cavernous shopping malls absolutely drip in neon and LEDs. Public transit is fast, efficient, and trains sing a nice little song  as they pull into each station. This is the epicenter of the smartphone capital of the world, boasts one of the world’s greatest airports, and is mercilessly obsessed with advancement.
The young population isn’t just next level tech-savvy, they’re also blisteringly fashion-forward – often pushing the envelope and trying new things. And boy oh boy, do the young and sexy people of Seoul like to party. Those in the know have been saying it for a while now: host a drinking Olympics and you might be surprised to see the likes of Ireland or Germany challenged by the darkhorse party animals in South Korea.
Somehow failed to take a photo of Seoul's nighttime street scene, so I borrowed this one from the internet
Drinking culture here is uniquely animalistic: because Seoulites work incredibly hard, they hold nothing back when it comes to letting loose. A night out in this town might begin outside a convenience store like the ever-popular GS25, where one can purchase and consume an iconic green bottle of soju – a slightly sweet rice liquor that’s evocative of the lovechild of vodka and sake, clocks in around 20-25% alcohol, and costs approximately the same as water. And oh, by the way, it’s the world’s number one selling liquor by volume, and unless you’re particularly into Korean food, I bet that comes as a big surprise. It wouldn’t if you’ve seen how they pound it here.
Also popular is makgeolli, a milky-white sweet/sour carbonated concoction that’s incredibly unique and gaining a lot of cultural steam after recently returning into vogue, having played second fiddle to soju for some time.

At any rate – No matter your weapon of choice, you might start outside the glowing facade of a GS25, or you might start pounding drinks at a popular BBQ restaurant nearby, but one thing’s for sure: this is the first of many rounds, or ‘chas‘ as locals call them: different stages of the evening, all of which are permeated by the aforementioned libations.

Rounds 2 and 3 likely transpire at a local bar, and round 4 for young locals will inevitably take place in a packed club, many of which literally do not close, or at least stay open until the sun is well risen once again. And make no mistake, folks here take full advantage of these hours – the city is PACKED and buzzing at 5 AM on weekday nights. Seoulites DO NOT SLEEP

Since you have all this time to kill, given the never-ending energy on tap, you’re inevitably going to find yourself spending a subsequent late night cha in a private karaoke room – this is practically Korea’s primary national pastime, and it’s an absolute blast with a fun group. Revelers will notoriously order drinks and allow them to sit untouched, already completely obliterated by their prior rounds and too caught up happily singing their favorite K-pop songs to really care.
On one absolutely hilarious night out with about a dozen of my closest new backpacker friends, well under soju’s seductive influence, I found myself belting out off-tune Seal songs and sharing the stage with a passing Korean dressed at Ronald McDonald (for reasons entirely unbeknownst to me) who requested a quick cameo spot in our private room to belt out some Jason Mraz, which his friend was live-streaming to a formidable audience on a Korean social media site. Would that be remotely believable if I didn’t have photos?
The nightlife topic is a fair enough segue to mention that I stayed in Hongdae – perhaps the city’s youngest and most lively neighborhood, full of university students, artists, and club rats. Speaking of my home base, I want to take a moment to shout out my absolutely incredible hostel, Zzzip Guesthouse — perhaps my favorite home of the year thus far, thanks in no small part to its unwaveringly kind and hospitable proprietors, Brian and Jina. These two Seoul locals and their children live here, and have dedicated their lives to creating an awesome backpacker haven and bending over absolutely backwards to help make their guests’ experiences great. Their place is fairly small, with about 40 beds and a super homey feel, great social environment, and hundreds of polaroids of prior guests lining the ceiling (including mine now!). About 20% of their guests are return visitors, which is a pretty incredible figure, and it’s where I met a massive roster of awesome travelers with whom I shared my time in this great city.
Before I’d even settled into the hostel, I made my first new friend at Thanks Nature Cafe, one of Seoul’s many mind-bogglingly cute animal cafes – this one the home of two resident sheep. 
I met David here by chance over a coffee and a sheep petting sesh (as one does), and was surprised to learn that he’d just arrived and would be staying at the same hostel. He was in from California, and as an airline employee he was killing a few days after a free flight across the pond. 
 
We’d later visit a Meerkat cafe, home also to foxes, wallabies, and a raccoon – and while I didn’t make it to the cafes known for exotic birds, dogs, cats, or (multiple) raccoons, it’s important that I tell you they exist.
While David was the first cool new friend I made here, he was far from the last – there were the hilarious Canadian brothers Nick and Andy, British BFFs Ajai and Sonya, token rowdy Aussie Candice, and a few other rotating cast members with whom to share many a hilarious evening. I’ve met a lot of people this year, but these guys were real legends who made my time really special, and some of my favorite travel companions all year (right up there with my big New Zealand family). 
One particularly awesome moment came when I connected with Carter, who is from Athens, Georgia – near home for me – and has been living in Seoul as a teacher for a while now. I met Carter one time back in 2016 at my good friend Austin’s house party, connected with him on Facebook, and never saw him again – until he saw that I was in town, reached out, and set up some time to break bread. We had a great time shooting the shit, and it was a moment I really appreciated – the sort of chance opportunity you never pass up while traveling (a lesson that I think will extend into daily home life as well).
I spent my days exploring Seoul with some of my hostel crew, appreciating the incredibly unique way in which its ultramodern edge bleeds into its traditional streets, palaces, and temples. A trip to Gangnam – yes, THAT Gangnam – to catch an afternoon baseball game (which Koreans enjoy perhaps even more passionately than Americans) was rained out, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating a giant homage to K-pop phenomenon Psy or an equally gargantuan library.
We saw the traditional changing of the guard ceremony at the beautiful Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Here’s a fun bit: near the palace is a statue that apparently depicts a popular children’s game, but looks a bit… uh… suspect. It’s also the reason I haven’t showed you a photo of Andy yet.
Hey, I never said we were mature
Always super serious, this guy
We lied in the grass amidst a masterpiece of architecture at Dongdaemun Design Plaza – a steel spaceship of a building that ebbs and pulsates with white light.

It was the perfect place to witness night fall over Seoul, because it also happens to host a field of more than 25,000 LED roses (because why not).

Speaking of architecture, check out some other favorite shots of mine from Seoul that highlight its incredible manmade landscapes.
Not that you didn’t see this coming, but we ate a lot too. A particularly memorable day out at a popular covered food market saw us being hand-fed kimchi by a Korean grandmother and eating a squirmy local delicacy: Octopus tentacles so fresh that they’re literally still wriggling around the plate. These still possess enough suction strength as to stick both to the plate and the inside of your mouth as you fight to chew them in time to suspend their animation. Fun dish.
On one of my last nights, I ventured out to see NANTA Cookin’, a long-running and immensely popular nonverbal comedy and performance show that plays out like a cross between Iron Chef, Blue Man Group, and Stomp. It was great fun, and you can watch it for yourself if you like too! 
Before long, my time in Seoul had come to an end, and I found myself really wishing I’d had more than 4 days in this incredible mecca of modernity and fun. Its infectious K-pop melodies, shining lights, haunting food, raucous nightlife, and sleepless youthful energy were enough to propel it into a surprising status as my favorite city I’ve seen all year – or perhaps even ever – and the awesome people with whom I was able to share these experiences just further skyrocketed my time in Seoul into an echelon of unparalleled greatness. 
 
I’ll remember this stop of my trip fondly for many, many years to come – and I have SO MUCH MORE of Seoul left to explore; this is a city that constantly surprises, rewards exploration, and hides treasures – and silliness – around each and every corner.

You could live here for decades and still find yourself charmed and delighted in ways you couldn’t have anticipated – and that, my friends, is the mark of a very cool place.

Particularly sad to note here is that this was – for now – the end of my time in Asia (at least until I later return for a VERY anticipated journey through Japan). Asia has absolutely radically changed me for the rest of my life – a perfect storm of exoticism, spice, unrelenting culture shock, and pure unadulterated experience. Permeated to the core with noise and light, vice and spirituality in equal extremes, impossibly ancient cultures, paradise landscapes, and an ever-present juxtaposition of outright poverty and devastating opulence, Asia is the most visceral of the continents: an outright war on the senses that sniggers at any effort to tap out or escape its beautiful madness. But for the adventurous, the bold, the students of experience and banner-waving disciples of the church of ‘yes’, Asia is heaven on Earth. 
 
This feels like a fitting time to add one last note about one such person. I generally don’t jump on the celebrity RIP bandwagon; I’ve never really felt as if my voice added anything meaningful to the ‘me too’ chorus that inevitably clogs your social media feeds in the aftermath of the death of anyone of the faintest notoriety. But I can’t refrain from writing a few words this time.
 
Tony Bourdain was an icon and a hero of mine, and it was him who instilled in me the core principles that brought me to fall madly in love with Asia – as he himself did. This man, more than any other, inspired me to live an intrepid life of adventure, to say ‘yes’ at every opportunity, to see the far-flung corners of the Earth and extract from it the sweet nectar of experience. He broadened my palette, my worldview, my sense of wonder. He was, in some strange way, my friend.
 
Above all else, Tony was rock-and-roll. He was a big middle finger to the mundane, the safe, the uninspired. Today he’s gone, and in the aftermath of his suicide I owe him a tremendous deal of gratitude.
 
It seems appropriate that I learned of his passing amidst the unnerving abandoned ruins of Chernobyl, over a bowl of Ukrainian borscht (an experience that I’ll be writing about eventually – still playing catchup here!). I like to think he’d approve.
 
So long, my friend.
Dedicated to Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

6 thoughts on “Korea’s got Seoul

    1. Thanks man! I assume this is either Isaac Kim or Isaac Shinn – amirite? Glad you enjoyed, hope I did Seoul justice!

  1. Hi Chris!! Love this blog post! Seoul is one of my favorite cities too and this makes me want to plan a trip back.

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