There is a fine line between order and chaos. At the Korean Folk Village, an hour’s drive south of downtown Seoul, 30 pre-school children were corralled by a long string that each gripped in his hands, keeping them in an orderly double line until it snagged on a wooden see-saw and snapped. Suddenly freed, the children toddled off in every direction, pursued by their harried teachers.
We looked on in sympathy. Once the kids were rounded up, tranquility returned, and we resumed our wanderings through this meticulously recreated traditional village.
The modern hurly-burly of the capital city seemed very remote, both in time and distance. Seoul is symbolic of South Korea’s unrelenting reinvention and modernization. In the space of just 40 years, the so-called Hermit Kingdom has embraced the technology, lifestyle and logos of the Western world.
But beyond the skyscrapers and gaudy advertising there is a rich culture that has endured unchanged — and in relative isolation — for centuries. Among the 260 buildings of the Folk Village, that heritage is brought to life with regular dance performances, cultural displays and handicraft workshops.
A particular highlight for older children (and brave adults) is the chance to try the Korean see-saw. Jumping alternately on each end, the two participants can propel each other two or three feet into the air. According to legend, the see-saw allowed Korean women to jump high enough to see over prison walls when their husbands were incarcerated.
Having viewed Korea through Western eyes at the Folk Village, nearby you can view the West through Korean eyes at Everland, the country’s answer to Disneyland. Attractions include hair-raising rollercoaster rides, themed European and American areas, a drive-through zoo, a speedway and a 45-square-mile water park, Caribbean Bay. With many of its main attractions outdoors, Everland is subject to the extremes of the Korean climate, which can be ferociously hot in summer and seriously icy in winter.
The weather is not a problem for Seoul’s other major theme park, Lotte World, a vast complex located on the south bank of the Han River close to the city’s Olympic Stadium. Most of the thrill rides, parades and other attractions are indoors. In addition, there are cinemas, a monorail, shopping malls, a skating rink and a surprisingly un-tacky folk museum. Lotte World is packed throughout the year and, along with Everland, is ranked as one of the world’s top 10 theme parks.
With a population of more than 24 million, Seoul is the world’s second-most populous metropolitan area after Tokyo. You get a sense of the scale of this sprawling metropolis from the top of Seoul Tower, a 777-foot communications tower situated on the summit of Mount Namsan.
To reach the tower from downtown, take a cable car that departs the hectic city streets and rises serenely over densely wooded mountain slopes. Mount Namsan divides downtown Seoul from the southern suburbs, though the barrier is more psychological than physical, with three highway tunnels linking the two parts of the city.
From the tower’s observation deck, through the inevitable veil of pollution, we were able to see how Seoul’s continued expansion had been restricted by mountains to the north and the meandering Han River to the south. Molded by the natural contours, the city breaks up into a patchwork of distinct districts, each with its own character.
The Seoul City Tour Bus is a great way to get a flavor of the various districts. The bus plies two regular routes — one takes in the city’s main palaces, museums and other cultural attractions while the other stops at the markets and prime shopping areas. You can buy a day ticket that allows you to jump on and off as often as you like.
Despite Seoul’s breakneck progress into the 21st century, pockets of the past have been preserved, including several magnificent royal palaces. The most impressive of these is Gyeongbokgung, the Palace of Shining Happiness, which is set within beautiful, leafy grounds immediately to the north of the Central Business District.
The impressive National Museum of Korea was formerly located within the palace grounds, but in 2005 it relocated to a Modernist building in the southern district of Yongsan, constructed on land returned to the city by the Eighth United States Army, which has been stationed in Yongsan since the Korean War.
Not far from Yongsan is the legendary area of Itaewon, a favorite hang-out for U.S. soldiers and foreign tourists and, consequently, one part of the city in which English is widely spoken. By day, the main attraction is more than 1,000 shops and 400 sidewalk stalls selling souvenirs, “designer” clothing and electrical goods at negotiable prices. By night, Itaewon transforms into a multi-colored neon wonderland of nightclubs and bars.
A more upmarket shopping district is Myeong-dong, which caters to young fashionistas. It is one of the epicenters of the Korean Wave, the great outpouring of Korean popular culture that has swept across the world in recent years and is now lapping at the shores of Europe and the United States. Here you can get a feel for the latest Korean trends and pick up local music CDs, including releases by the wildly popular hip-hop artist Rain and the boy-band TVXQ.
Popular music is ingrained in modern Korean culture, and the city is dotted with hundreds of noraebang — karaoke rooms. Many offer a wide selection of Western hits.
Also cresting on the Korean Wave is the country’s prolific film and television industry, which has produced many of Asia’s most popular movies and miniseries. The major Seoul cinemas often show the latest homegrown movies with subtitles, or you can visit a DVD Bang to watch the latest Korean and Western DVDs on a huge, high-definition TV in a private room (your hotel concierge can recommend a family-friendly DVD Bang; some cater primarily to couples and offer risqué movies).
During a stay in this dynamic city, it is easy to forget that it lies just 34 miles from the most dangerous border in the world. No visit to Seoul is complete without a daytrip to the Demilitarized Zone that separates South Korea from the communist North. USO Seoul runs DMZ tours, which you need to book well in advance.
At 7 o’clock one cold autumn morning we boarded the USO bus at Camp Kim, opposite the Yongsan Garrison, and headed across the city through heavy traffic. When we reached the road to the border, the traffic reduced to a trickle. Eventually our bus was the only vehicle in sight.
The surroundings of Panmunjeom, the village that straddles the border, bristle with barbed wire and military defenses. We were ushered into a hall and given a briefing to ensure that we didn’t inadvertently trigger a resumption of hostilities (technically, the Korean War still hasn’t ended). Then we were escorted to the border itself, where North Korean soldiers gazed at us impassively.
In a prefabricated hut, we walked round the table at which the two sides periodically negotiate. The border effectively runs across it. At the far side, we were in North Korea. We posed for photographs, then took the few steps that carried us back into South Korea. It can be a fine line between oppression and freedom.
Info To Go
Most visitors arrive at Incheon International Airport (ICN), 43 miles west of downtown, constructed on reclaimed land in the Yellow Sea. KAL Limousine is one of several operators providing shuttle service between the airport and major downtown hotels, from $11 for adults and $5.50 for children.
Fraser Suites Seoul
Centrally located serviced apartments within the cultural district of Insadong are ideal for families; babysitting available. 272 Nakwon-dong, tel 82 2 6262 8888, $$$
Grand Hyatt Seoul
Set in attractive hillside grounds a short walk from the shopping district of Itaewon. Stylish, contemporary guestrooms. 747-7 Hannam 2-dong, tel 82 2 797 1234, $$$$
Lotte Hotel Seoul
This super-deluxe hotel is adjacent to the famous Lotte Department Store, just one block from City Hall in the heart of downtown. 1 Sogongdong, tel 82 2 771 1000, $$$$
Mediterranean cuisine close to the shops of Itaewon, convenient for lunch during shopping expeditions. 116-6 Itaewondong, tel 82 2 790 0540, $$
Gorilla in the Kitchen
Korean actor and heartthrob Bae Yong-joon’s trendy restaurant offers healthy international cuisine with portions in two sizes: “human” and “gorilla.” 650 Sinsa-dong, tel 82 2 3442 1688, $$
Occupying a historic royal mansion, this celebrated traditional restaurant offers a range of multi-course set menus. 125 Hongji-dong, tel 82 2 395 2500, $$$$
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