As many might know, an exchange programme is a huge part of a university student’s life, almost the highlight, if I do say so myself. Be it the more hyped-about America and the UK, the familiar Korea and Japan, or the more exotic South Americas like Brazil, almost every university student looks forward to that five-month escape.
For me, I picked South Korea as my country of residence for half a year, seeing how it seemed like it had it all—it’s relatively safe, it’s affordable, it’s not too far from home, it experiences the four seasons, and most importantly for me, bubble tea wasn’t too far from reach.
So, for the five months to come, back in August of 2018 until January 2019, I tried my hardest to live like a local. I walked for 10 minutes to school (it’s much harder in the cold!), cooked my dinners at home, mingled with the locals, frequented local coffee chains, and I even attended a church there. Though my stay was brief, I like to think that I’ve learnt a thing or two from my Korean-based pals who helped curate a large part of my travels during my time there. Armed with the Naver app (South Korea’s version of Google maps) and a couple of recommendations in tow, my boyfriend and I set out to conquer several lesser-known spots around Seoul that fly slightly under the radar of popular tourism spots.
It was eight in the morning, I was groggy and the journey to Anyang Art Park took us a gruelling one and a half hours. I was beginning to doubt that the trip would even be worth the while. But, once I stepped foot onto the main trail, any doubts I previously had vaporised at the sight of the life-sized art all around. The place was peppered with charming, well-thought-out Artwork that floored me.
The best part of the trail was its directional ambiguity. They had mounted maps indicating the location of each artwork, but never a curated route to dictate your path.
Visitors like us were left to wander around on our own, stumbling upon various art pieces as we went along. Not knowing what you might see next kept the trail fresh and exciting. The artworks at the Art Park were mostly huge in scale, with a running theme of repurposed everyday objects—a mirror maze, old roof tiles arranged to look like a dragon’s back, and beer crates stacked to form a room.
Though I’m a large advocate of Art for Art’s sake, it wouldn’t hurt to get a few shots for the ‘gram while you’re here.
How to get there:
Enter Seoul Station at Exit 1.
Board the Line 1 subway towards Seodongtan/Sinchang and ride 14 stops.
Alight at Anyang Station, Exit 1.
Board Bus 2 and ride for eight stops until Anyang Art Park Terminal.
Walk for 4 minutes to the entrance of Anyang Art Park.
Price: Free admission
Anyang Art Park: 131 Yesulgongwon-ro, Manan-gu, Anyang-si, Gyeonggi-do
Ikseon-Dong has been gaining traction as of late and has often been branded as South Korea’s hipster area. However, before its newfound fame, this cute enclave was introduced to me by a close friend who returned home to South Korea to study. I jumped at the opportunity to reconnect with her but was equally excited about uncovering the treasures Ikseon-Dong beheld.
Aside from beautifully drawn mural walls, the alleys had a rustic charm that just encapsulated the place’s past as a hanok (traditional) village. There, you’ll be able to find quaint cafes, jewellery stores, hole-in-the-wall snack bars, and other stalls selling trinkets.
Oh, and did I mention? Nestled within the streets of Ikseong-Dong is also an adorable old school arcade that actually still works. Come relive your childhood with this throwback haven.
How to get there:
Board Line 1 at Seoul Station towards Soyosan.
Ride three stops until Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station.
Exit via Exit 6, cross the street and walk downwards for another 2 minutes until the entrance of the Hanok road.
Price: Free admission, prices for shops vary
Ikseon-Dong: 28-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
One of the most popular tourism programmes in South Korea seems to be the DMZ tour, where tourists from all walks of life gather in hopes of snagging a peek at the North Korean side of the border. But few know that South Korea has already completed building train tracks that will eventually connect to the capital of North Korea, Pyeongyang, in hopes that the two Koreas will one day be reunited.
Some other things you can do here are to explore the Tunnels of Aggression dug by North Korean soldiers to launch a surprise attack on South Korea. For KR₩500 (approximately S$0.58), the mounted binoculars atop the viewing tower offer a rare view of the North Korean side up-close.
However, peering into the North Korean outskirts might not be what it seems, because (like many things in their country) the colourful houses you see are all merely empty skeletons. What I saw, which was probably a more accurate depiction of life there, were slightly malnourished North Koreans such as farmers scooting around on their rickety bicycles.
How to get there:
It’s complicated and even nearly impossible to plan your trip to visit the DMZ borders due to tight security measures and clearances.
Even when travelling as part of a tour group, our passports were thoroughly scrutinised by guards flanking the borders, and anyone who was not formally registered as a guest would be thrown off the bus immediately.
I suggest that you book your tours in advance via third party sites such as Klook or Indiway. They will help ensure that your trip is smooth-sailing and fuss-free. Also, as these DMZ tours are highly popular, booking your slot early will help to avoid disappointment.
Price: Tour package prices vary based on the service provider
Korean Demilitarized Zone: North & South Korean Border
Unlike gaming junkies who can spend five to six hours on end losing track of time at the arcade, I’ve never been one to frequent these places simply because I know I’d waste my money. A two-dollar game will only get me ninety seconds of play—I guess being bad at these things has its price to pay. So you can only imagine how revolutionary it was for me when I discovered an arcade in Sinchon area that lets you play unlimited games with unlimited lives all for the price of KR₩4,000 (approx. S$4.66). The best part? Unlimited playtime and karaoke rooms for use too.
I doubt many non-locals know about it though, especially since the storefront and signs are mostly in Korean. Despite knowing how to read and write the language, I too, let it slip past unnoticed. It was only until my friend, a local who frequents the arcade, told me to check it out that I uncovered this gem of a place. So forget about all the overpriced entertainment hubs, the next time you’re in the heart of Seoul, you’ll know where to look.
How to get there:
Exit at Sinchon Station Exit 2, walk straight down the main shopping area.
The arcade will be on your right, a couple of shops down.
It shouldn’t be hard to spot, with claw machines and colourful lights within the interior.
Price: KR₩4,000 (approx. S$4.66) per entry
Sinchon Arcade: Yeonsei-ro, Sinchon, Seoul
Friends who know me well know that I love animals. So when a fellow local classmate recommended I visit the Zoolung Zoolung Petting Zoo, I said yes in a heartbeat. The animals—which ranged from capybaras, hamsters, rabbits to fennec foxes and lemurs—weren’t your usual barn animals, and it was an interesting experience to be able to interact with them in a different, more affectionate way. I got the chance to cuddle little hamsters as well as large, heavy snakes.
Smaller, more solitary species like the guinea pigs had enclosures with wired tubes that stretched across many corners of the room, which meant more space for them to roam freely yet safely.
And if you’re worried about the stress that these little beings undergo, fret not, for each station has at least one vigilant staff member who will walk young petters through the petting procedures. Based on what I observed, if they sensed that an animal was getting too worn out from all the attention, they would promptly retire them back into their resting areas.
How to get there:
Board the Airport Railroad at Seoul Station towards Gongdeok.
Ride two stops and alight at Hongik Univ Station.
Transfer to the Gyeogui-Jungang Line towards Gajwa.
Ride 8 stops, and alight at Daegeok Station.
Transfer to Line 3 towards Baekseok and ride 4 stops.
Alight at Juyeop station and exit via Exit 4.
Walk 10 minutes to Zoolung Zoolung, Ilsan Branch.
Price: KR₩17,000 (approx. S$19.78)
Zoolung Zoolung Petting Zoo: 79 Juyeop-ro, Ilsanseo-gu, Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do
A little Southwest of Seoul is the Gwangmyeong Caves—it isn’t the most touristy of destinations and is frankly quite isolated. Those who do make the one and a half-hour-long journey were probably en route to the IKEA nearby.
For 60 years, the place was a mine that bore gold, silver, bronze, and zinc, amongst other minerals. Following that, it was closed for 40 years due to environmental contamination, and in 2011, it reopened to the public as Gwangmyeong Caves. This enclave makes for an unorthodox events arena, and has hosted fashion shows, concerts and even movie screenings.
Most of the public access area is a trail along the mines that allows visitors to move up and down the various levels. As an avid Minecraft player, my eyes were wide with wonder as we descended deeper, as if I were in a real-life simulation of the game, complete with mine carts and ores. In addition to the main walkway, there’s also a winery at which diners can stop by for a fancy meal and wine tasting.
How to get there:
The fastest way there would be to board Line 4 towards Oido and ride 7 stops.
Alight at Sadang Station, and exit via Exit 4.
Board Bus 8507 and ride 1 stop.
Alight at KTX Gwangmyeong Station and walk 5 minutes to the KTX Gwangmyeong Station Exit 8 bus stop.
There, board Bus 17 and ride 5 stops.
Finally, alight at Gwangmyeong Cave bus stop and walk 6 minutes to the Cave entrance.
Price: KR₩6,000 (approx. S$6.98)
Gwangmyeong Cave: 142, Gahak-ro 85-beon-gil, Gwangmyeong-si, Gyeonggi-do
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