Tue, 21 May 2024


A Seoul-searching experience
Published on: Sunday, May 12, 2024
By: Hayati Dzulkifli
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Sabah and Sarawak media personnel in a group photo with KTO representative, Hiza (second right) and AirAsia representative Ahmad Hafiy (fourth right) at the compound of the grand Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul.
SOUTH KOREA is not just about BTS, Black Pink, Winter Sonata and Lee Min Ho or the Running Man. It is more than that. 

Beyond the K-pop culture, it is a treasure trove of historical gems and cutting-edge technological wonders. All this is just a flight away, thanks to AirAsia’s recent direct flights from Kota Kinabalu to Seoul.

This multifaceted peninsula is now easily accessible for those seeking a heady mix of ancient traditions and futuristic innovation.

No more transit to Kuala Lumpur or any other city as passengers would fly direct from Kota Kinabalu to Incheon, with a journey that takes about five hours and 15 minutes.

One may purchase the tickets online through its website www.airasia.com or via the AirAsia Move. But most important, don’t forget to obtain K-ETA before entering South Korea. It must be submitted two days before departure.

If travelling to South Korea in early March, although it is at the tail end of winter will require winter jackets or coats, a pair of gloves, winter hats, and a muffler, among others, as temperature will be between eight and nine Celsius and can go below zero Celsius, especially in Incheon.

The bustling capital of South Korea with about 10 million population, is followed by Busan and Incheon in that order with each has about three million.

Visiting Seoul for the first time is an exciting and enriching experience that will leave anyone captivated by its vibrant and rich cultural heritage and fascinating history of the Joseon era.

Seoul boasts an eclectic mix of ancient and modern to create a truly unique urban landscape. 

The Blue House is a “must visit” to get to know the soul of Seoul. Called Cheong Wa Dae in Korean, this house with blue roof is covered by handmade 150,000 blue tiles.

The Blue House (or ‘Cheong Wa Dae’ in Korean) is Korea’s official Presidential Residence with its handmade striking blue-tiled roof and a must-visit in Seoul.

It is the official residence and executive office of the President, the equivalent of the White House in the United States or the Palace of Versailles in France.

Built in 1910 during the Japanese occupation of Korea, it served as the residence of the Governor-General of Korea. After independence in 1945, the building was used as the official residence of the President.

The Blue House is an iconic architectural landmark with both traditional Korean elements and modern features. The design reflects a harmonious blend of traditional Korean aesthetics and contemporary design.

Housing meeting rooms, reception halls, living quarters and administrative offices, it represents the country’s democratic values, leadership and history – where important decisions are made, diplomatic meetings are held, and official events take place.

Home to every President since 1953, it was opened to the public in May 2022, the first time in 75 years as part of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s election promise.

Yoon, the nation’s 13th President relocated his main office to the Ministry of National Defence building. The Blue House is also where important diplomatic meetings, state banquets and official events are held. The complex includes a number of buildings and facilities for administrative functions, as well as areas for ceremonies and receptions.

It also showcases traditional Korean art with commendable craftsmanship and cultured and refined woodwork that represent narration of South Korea’s commitment and dedication in maintaining its historical legacy.

School children, senior citizens and people from rural areas come in groups to visit The Blue House, which sprawls over vast acres to appreciate and admire its history and traditional feel.

To fully appreciate this heritage structure would take about three hours. It is important to book the visit early because there is a limit on the number of people allowed and some parts are off-limits to the public visit.

Guided tours are available for those interested in learning more about the history and significance of this important site.

Behind the Blue House is Bukgasan mountain from where hikers and visitors can get a panoramic view of Seoul as well as the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that defined the border of South Korea and North Korea. It is an hour’s drive to the border.

Adjacent to The Blue House is Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is the largest of five grand palaces in South Korea. Also known as the “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”, it is a second “must visit” historical site.

Gyeongbokgung Palace symbolises Korea’s cultural heritage. Visitors can tour the grounds and learn about the history the Joseon Dynasty. It is another a great place to experience traditional Korean architecture and design.

“Koreans believe in the principle of Yin and Yang,” said tour guide Lisa Hong. Feng shui or geomancy was used when the palace was built to ensure good vibes and flow of positive energy.

According to her, the Blue Hall and Gyeongbokgung Palace were erected in favourable and auspicious sites supported by mountains and a river.

Gyeongbokgung Palace built under the Joseon Dynasty founded by Yi Seong Gye is recognised as an Unesco cultural heritage site because Korean traditional architecture and beautiful gardens comprise 70 per cent of the Palace grounds.

Gyeongbokgung is the grandest of the five Grand Palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty never fails to amaze visitors and tourists alike.

Also known as Gyeongbok Palace, it served as the main royal palace for centuries and the name “Gyeongbokgung” means “Palace of Shining Happiness”.

The palace complex encompasses over 400,000sq m and has over 500 buildings.

Many of the original structures were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, but efforts have been made to restore and preserve the palace over the years.

One of the most iconic features of the Palace is the Gwanghwamun Gate, which serves as the main entrance.

Beyond the gate, visitors can explore the various halls, pavilions, and gardens that make up the palace grounds. 

Some of the highlights include the Geunjeongjeon Hall, where official state ceremonies were held and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion situated on a pond.

The Joseon Dynasty was the longest monarchy for over 500 years from 1392 until the Japanese empire annexed Korea in 1910.

Korea had 27 kings throughout its history before it became a republic in 1948. There are no descendants of the last Korean King because all the royal children were forced to move to Japan during the Japanese occupation where they adapted Japanese culture and lifestyle.

The story of the Joseon Dynasty was the subject of a movie titled “The Last Empress” in 2016. The palace houses the Joseon King’s throne which is the elevated main building and highlight of the tour.

The four includes visiting the palace of the King’s mother, the Crown Prince, a building of the Royal concubines and pavilions for the Royals to relax, enjoy family and social gatherings.

Tourists often don Korean traditional costumes known as “Hanbok” which could take a few hours to fit before exploring the palace.

As an incentive, tourists who don the traditional costumes get to the Palace for free.

After visiting historical landmarks and traditions under the Joseon period, tourists move to the five-storey Hi KR Ground, a popular sports and entertainment complex that is a venue for concerts, sports tournaments and cultural performances.

HiKR means “Hi” and “Korea”or “Hi! Welcome to Korea” the word “Ground” was added to make it an entertainment playground for travellers and to greet foreign tourists in a fun and exciting way.

The building was transformed into a playground-like virtual travel to soak in everything K from K-pop to K-drama, K-food, etc.

A Korean artist, Dee Kay Kwon, produced the visual work of a character who looks like the Super Mario in a 2D animation.

The HiKR Ground caters to the needs of young people who love music, technology and innovation. The complex includes a large outdoor stadium that can accommodate thousands as well as indoor facilities for smaller events.

HiKR Ground has state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, making it a popular choice for music concerts and dance performances.

On the first floor a large media wall that is the first impression of HiKR, a Korean tourism landmark and expresses its spatial brand and identity. Visitors get to enjoy and admire various media arts by several Korea media artists and featuring some Korean tourism videos by Hallyu fans.

The second floor named K-pop Ground has the XR Live Studio which enables visitors to be creative in producing own K-pop music videos through XR technology such as live studios and music video stages. 

They have the liberty to choose their favourite songs and colourful backgrounds before dancing like an artist. It has a subway background, stage, coin laundry, colour room and space ship, which they can set the backgrounds of their creative music videos.

On the third floor, visitors get to see arts and exhibitions, among others, such as exhibiting a North Wall art piece that symbolises Korean tourism by a well-known artist of Korea Do Ho Suh while the fourth floor has HiKR Cave that provides multi-experiential zone for domestic tourism where visitors can “feel” local tourist attractions and tourist hub cities using diverse senses.

It also has HiKR Cube featuring a digi-log special exhibition where visitors can enjoy and experience Korean tourism and Korean wave content.

Finally, the fifth floor has a lounge for travellers to rest with the view of Cheonggyecheon Stream and it has a HiKR Challenge that provides an adventure game to spin a roulette and complete the missions.

In front of the HiKR Ground building is the Cheongyecheon Stream, a picturesque and historic stream that spans 10.84km and flows through downtown Seoul, starting from Cheonggye Plaza near Gwanghwamun Gate and flowing all the way to the Han River.

It was established in 1958 and underwent restoration. In 2003, the city government decided to remove the highway and restore the stream, leading to a major urban renewal project that transformed the area into a beautiful public space.

HiKR entertainment playground which enable visitors choose any realistic background to choose from to make own music videos.

The Cheonggyecheon Stream is a popular spot for visitors to leisurely enjoy the natural view next to the HiKR Ground building.

In 2005, the historic waterway reopened in 2005, and has since become a popular recreational spot and tourist attraction. The stream is lined with walking paths, bridges, and artwork, making it a peaceful and scenic retreat in the bustling city.

Visitors can enjoy leisurely walks along the stream, participate in cultural events and festivals that are often held along its banks and admire the various artworks and installations that dot the area. 

Cheonggyecheon has become a symbol of Seoul’s commitment to preserving its natural and cultural heritage while also embracing modernisation.

The area with many jewellery stores, is also popular with Korean couples who wish to marry as they can find quality wedding rings.

Another tourist attraction is the world’s fifth tallest building in Jamsil district in Seoul and the highest in South Korea. Lotte World Tower offers breath taking panoramic views of the city and beyond.

The 123-storey tower, which is 555m high, houses the Seoul Sky Observatory Deck (Lotte Sky) on the 117th-123rd floors that is very popular and promises visitors a beautiful and panoramic view of Seoul.

They can take the high-speed sky shuttle elevator to the observation deck, which offers 360-degree views of Seoul and the surrounding mountains. The observation deck features floor-to-ceiling windows, glass floors and outdoor terraces for visitors to enjoy the stunning vistas.

Lotte Sky also offers various dining options, including a cafe and a fine dining restaurant for visitors to enjoy a meal or drink while taking in the spectacular views of Seoul.

Lotte Sky is a must-visit for those wanting to experience a bird’s eye view of Seoul and appreciate the beauty of the city from above. 

Then there is Mangwon Market a traditional market located in the Mangwon-dong neighbourhood of Mapo-gu. 

This spacious indoor market is where people purchase fresh produce, local delicacies and side dishes, besides delicious street food. There are many outlets selling deep-fried and braised chicken or torched marshmallow ice-cream.

The market is also known for its wide variety of fresh seafood and meat. Visitors can also find household goods, clothing, and unique handicrafts.

The last spot in Seoul’s tourist attractions is Hongdae, a vibrant and eclectic neighbourhood known for its youthful energy and creative spirit. 

It is named after Hongik University, one of the leading art and design schools in the country, located in the area. The neighbourhood is also known for its bustling nightlife scene, with numerous bars, clubs and restaurants that cater to diverse tastes.

Visitors can start their exploration from Hongik University Station, Exit 6 where Gyeongui Line Book Street awaits and follow a path along closed railroad tracks to discover hidden gems in Gyeongui Line Forest Park.

In addition to its artistic and cultural offerings, Hongdae is also a hub for shopping offering everything from trendy fashion and accessories to vintage clothing and handicraft. The area has numerous cafes and eateries offering traditional Korean street food to hipster coffee shops and international restaurants.

Another must-visit for those looking to experience the creative and contemporary Seoul. Come night fall, there is Myeongdong, a bustling shopping and entertainment district located in the heart of Seoul that come to life at night.

The bustling Myeodong night spot swarmed by visitors and tourists for shopping and street foods.

It is 10 to 15 minutes walk for those living in nearby hotels. It packs vibrant atmosphere, diverse shopping options and delicious street food. Also a hub for fashion and beauty enthusiasts, with numerous local and international brands lining its busy streets. 

They can choose from high-end luxury boutiques to affordable fast fashion retailers as the area offers a wide range of shopping options to suit every budget and taste. 

In addition to clothing stores, Myeongdong is also home to numerous cosmetics shops, selling popular Korean beauty products and skincare items.

It is also renowned for its street food, offering a variety of delicious snacks and treats that you can enjoy while exploring the neighbourhood. The popular items include tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), fried chicken, and hotteok (sweet pancakes).

If that’s not enough, try the Hansik Space E-Eum. This translates to “Korean Food Space E-Eum” in English and E-Eum is a popular Korean food-related platform that strives to promote traditional Korean cuisine and culture. Hansik means Korean food, so in this context, “hansik space e-eum” refers to a space or platform dedicated to Korean food and culinary experiences. It may feature articles, recipes, reviews, and other content related to Korean cuisine.

Those interested can learn how to make authentic Korean desserts, Gokgam-danji which is a stuffed dried persimmons filled with candied nuts, walnuts, Yuza marmalade, sliced jujube, cinnamon powder and pine nuts.

The dessert was a royal favourite that was kept inside a decorative box and wrapped with a cream silk-like cloth.

Seoul offers a worthwhile escape into Korean culture and tastes – and all in a matter of five hours now with AirAsia’s direct links from Kota Kinabalu.



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