In a world that is K-Pop and K-drama crazy, this writer is one of the rare breed whose exposure to anything Korean (besides food) ended in the mid-2000s together with her youth.
So, when our editor asked the team if anyone wants to join Korean Tourism Organisation’s media family day - which involves attending a K-pop concert and visiting a few places made popular by K-Dramas – this vacation-starved person said yes albeit with some misgivings.
Don’t worry. Despite the sombre tone of the intro to this article, this story has a happy ending, which involves a new love affair with many things South Korean.
The first signs of love started during our flight itself, when we were given ‘paper’ slippers to wear on the flight (it was an overnight flight). Anyone who condones taking off shoes and getting comfortable even in a public setting ‘wins’ as far as this Asian is concerned.
We arrived in Seoul the next morning, quite early, and headed straight to the Gangwon province, which was about a four-hour drive from the Incheon airport.
We believe little things matter as much as the big things when one is traveling. As such, a stop at the rest area on our way to Jeonggangwon Korean food experience was something that made a pretty good impression.
The rest stops in South Korea have pretty much everything (except alcohol), from a wide variety of food to clothes and shoes, and even pharmacies.
But what really impressed was that there were strollers and wheelchairs there too. How thoughtful!
Here are some highlights of our trip:
Making our own potato pancakes and Bibimbap
Our next stop, Jeonggangwon, was stunning.
While our main purpose of going to the restaurant was make our own potato pancakes and mix our own bowls of Bibimbap, the sprawling place was as much a feast for the eyes as was the food to our tummies.
Surrounded by mountains with a stream running right beside the restaurant area, you will start relaxing the moment you arrive.
At the restaurant, we donned our aprons, and with the help of the restaurant owner and our tour guide who also acted as translator, we started making potato pancakes.
It was easy to make and delicious too.
As much as we wished to make our own Bibimbap, we were pressed for time.
The restaurant owner prepared all the ingredients beforehand – there were 20 in all!
The ingredients, especially vegetables, vary depending on the season but that just adds to the experience of eating the dish.
If you ever end up here, don’t forget to check out the many terracotta pots just outside the restaurant and ask about the various fermented food in them. You can even buy some back as souvenir or for you to recreate authentic Korean food at home.
Unfortunately, a typhoon was passing and we had to cancel the plans for the rest of the day.
We headed straight to the Chodang Sundubu Village and checked-in to our hotel, which was located right beside a beach.
If you happen to stay at the biggest hotel in the village, check out the beach that has a lot of interesting sculptures.
Although the place is called a ‘village’, we’d term it more as a town as it is pretty developed after the Pyeongyang Winter Olympics which was held in the region.
Visiting the historic Ojukheon wearing hanbok traditional costumes in Gongwon
Everywhere you go in South Korea, most transactions you make can be cashless. But if you happen to carry some cash with you, do check out the 5,000 and 50,000 won notes.
On the 5,000 notes, you will see Neo-Confucian scholar, Yi I and on the 50,000 notes you’ll see an image of his mother, Shin Saimdang, who also dabbled in arts.
Ojukheon (means black bamboo) house is 500 years old, and that was where the mother and son lived. It is one of the oldest wooden homes in the country and is well-preserved.
Right outside the place, there’s a Hanbok store where you can rent traditional Korean costumes and feel like you were visiting the house when people still dressed that way.
As you enter the vast gardens of the house, you will see a statue of Yi. Legend has it that if you touch the statue’s index finger, you’ll do well in your studies.
As you walk into the main compound of the house (or rather, houses), you’ll find a pair of footprint that you can stand on to take a picture of one of the houses that's printed on the 5,000 won banknote.
Taking pictures at the set of ‘Goblin’ K-Drama, BTS Bus Stop and Pocheon Art Valley
We’ll be honest and tell you that our first reaction when we found out about these visits was: “Huh. But why?”
We’re not talking about 'Game of Thrones' or 'Harry Potter' shooting spots or sets here. Those make sense because of the amazing landscape and crazy elaborate sets, ya know what we mean?
But anyway, we first went to Jumunjin (not 'Jumanji' ya) to the set of the ever popular series 'Goblin'. It was basically like a beachside across the road from some restaurants.
People were literally parked by the side of the road, blocking traffic, to get pictures.
We’d admit the beach was pretty, especially since the typhoon just passed and the sea was trashing like an angry water goddess.
However, if your intention of going to the location is to get an Instagram picture just like the scene in the show, we’d advice you to only go there if the weather is good.
Maybe during the summer?
Now, we thought the ‘Goblin’ location was popular, but it was nothing compared to the ‘BTS Bus Stop’. That’s literally the name of the place now. You can Google it if you don’t believe us.
It’s not even a real bus stop. It was one built for a photoshoot with the boys from the ultra popular K-pop group BTS, and the queue to take pictures there is long.
People go there by the busloads to take pictures and our old minds were just blown.
To be fair, the bus stop is located by the beach so we can still enjoy that, but there’s nothing much to do there otherwise.
The Pocheon Art Valley, meanwhile, is located somewhere between the Gongwon province and Seoul, and it was another K-Drama shooting location that we visited.
From what we gather, it’s not as famous as a shooting location as it is for its beautiful landscape. The area was once a granite stone quarry, but was abandoned after all the resources were mined.
Koreans, however, are a resourceful lot and decided to turn the place into an attraction.
There are a lot of interesting sculptures around the place and even a museum of sorts.
If you have extra time in your schedule, it’s not a bad place to visit.
‘Mengopi’ i.e enjoying coffee at the Gangneung Coffee Festival
This, we loved! Being a coffee lover, this was perhaps one of our favourite activities this trip.
There were dozens of stalls offering free coffee testers – a heaven for the right people if there was any; and books! Unfortunately, the books were all in Korean but it still made this nerd happy.
Snacks, coffee beans and grounds, coffee-related items such as different types of coffee machines and makers, art and more were also available at the event.
It’s an annual event held at the Gangneung Ice Arena, so check the dates before you make your trip.
Trust us when we say no coffee person will regret going for the Coffee Festival.
Oh! Did we mention it’s free?
Watching a K-Pop Concert
So, apparently there’s this show called 'Music Bank' that’s super popular in Korea.
The way it was explained to this writer is that it’s like ‘Melodi’ and has like a chart and everything (not that we ever watched ‘Melodi’ either), but you get the drift.
So, at some point, the top 10 artists and bands competing for the number one spot will perform at a free concert where the result is announced.
What’s cool about this show, especially if you’re a K-pop fan from outside of Korea, is that you get to catch many of your favourite performances in one concert.
We had to queue up to get into the stadium more than two hours before the concert started.
Despite the long queue that made us feel like we got the workout for the day by the time we got to the stage area, we were impressed by how organised the whole event was.
You’d be happy to know that for most of the concerts held in Korea, there’s an area close to the stage reserved for tourist to promote tourism. You can book the tickets online or through tour agents and get some special treatment.
The only weird part was that if you’re in the standing area, you’re not allowed to sit on the ground or anywhere else even before the show starts. So, we were standing for a good five to six hours and exhausted by the end of the concert.
Now going to the concert (taking a deep breath and preparing for bashing from K-Pop fans) was hmmm…a new experience.
In our younger days, we used to go for concerts. Different language ones too – English, Malay, Tamil, and in every one of them the artists sing and we’ve always thought that was the point of a concert – to hear your favourite singer(s) sing live.
Apparently, we were wrong because most of the performers at the concert, bar a few who sang ballads, lip synced and danced throughout their performances. They didn’t even bother to hide the fact that they were lip syncing or even try to do it well.
And people are OK with it ‘cos well…who doesn’t want to watch “hot” guys and girls showing off their moves in sexy clothes? We’ll admit that they can move but shouldn’t watching people dance be classified as a dance show instead of a concert?
Overall, the show was impressive - the set, the sound system, and the general organization of it was smooth. As for the show, all we’ll say is…only go if you’re a K-Pop fan and know the bands and artists performing.
Gangwon-do is a must visit place in South Korea
If you're tired of just visiting Seoul, Busan and Jeju, you might want to consider the Gangwon province for your next trip.
There's plenty to do no matter which season you go, it boasts some of the most beautiful sceneries ever and during winter, you can even go skiing!
Alps? pfft... It's got nothing on Gangwon especially when it comes to the much lower cost.
Check out Korea Tourism Organisation's website for more awesome ideas on where you can go besides the usual touristy spots!
Don't forget to read our article on Seoul next, coming soon!