The plan to tour Korea has been mooted some six months ago. We were undecided on whether to do Korea during the spring, summer, autumn or winter. All the seasons seems to be alluring with their own pluses and cons. Since the latest school holiday was in early summer and our favorite travel agent POTO Travel have scheduled a tour for the school holiday beginning on 5th June 2010, we decided to go at that time. Though we have booked our tour early, POTO Travel didn't seem to put on their priority list and we did not make to the list that was supposed to depart on the 5th of June 2010. That package was over booked. Their personnel told us there was another group going on the 6th of June but the number wasn't enough. As luck would have it, the travel company didn't manage to secure airline seats for the tour beginning on the fifth and some of the members were put on the tour that begins on the 6th of June whose airline seats was confirmed.
The change on dates from the 5th to the 6th of June scuttled my other airline flight from Kota Bharu to KL on the 5th and also the return on the 11th of June using Firefly airlines. I bought another ticket with MAS for the me and my wife leaving KB on the 5th and returning on the 11th intending to foregone the tickets purchased with Firefly Air. Again luck intervened when upon checking my purchase of airline tickets with Firefly was on pending status. They seemed to have problems charging the ticket costs to my credit card which MAS didn't seem to encounter. That saved me some money.
We were at KLIA early on the 6th of June even though our flight out via Vietnam Air was scheduled at 2.30 PM and we were advised to be at the airport at the latest by 12.00 noon. Our daughter who lives and work in Labuan was on the way home and would transit in KLIA at 10.30 AM. So we had a bit of time to meet her and her 2 year old daughter Balkis.
The tour to Korea was via Vietnam Air and we were to have a stopover in Saigon which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Initially we thought this was a good arrangement as we could do a short tour of HCMC which we have never done yet. It will also provide us with and opportunity to stretch our legs before the longer trip from HCMC to Incheon.
A bus picked us up at the airport upon arrival and we were whisked to a lacquerware factory where the disabled were employed. We did our bit for charity by purchasing beautiful laquerware products all tagged in USD.Here my other half did our bit for charity fearing that we may not be able to visit the place on the return trip. Since we brought along some Vietnam Dongs and some USD, making purchases was no problem.
The next stop in HCMC was at the General Post Office, an old colonial building built by the French which sits next to a cathedral built by the same colonialists and named what else but The Notre Dame to remind them of the one in Paris. On the day that we were there, there were many couples who were married there and were busy taking photographs in front of the cathedral.
The General Post Office built by the French.
This building not only function as a post office but the huge interior was used to sell souvenirs. They surely knows how to extract tourist monies.
In the midst of Saigon there are wooded parks where people come to rest and do some recreations. In our own countries such parks would be targeted for development by heartless greedy businessmen abetted by corrupt officials and politicians.
For dinner we were taken to Four Seasons Restaurant, a halal restaurant operated by some Champa Malays originally from Cambodia. The staffs there have mastered the Malay language due to either the frequency of visits by Malaysians or they may have worked in Malaysia before. I would rate their food as so,so, nothing out of the world, just good enough to placate our hunger.
Dinner at Four Seasons Saigon.
Then we proceeded to the local mosque located beside the Saigon Sheraton Hotel for our Maghrib prayers which we did together with the Isyak. So if you want to be close to the mosque and be near a halal place to eat, stay at Sheraton Hotel as the restaurant Halal@Saigon is just on the opposite side of the road. Halal@Saigon is operated by a couple from Perlis, Malaysia.
After the prayers we requested to go direct to the airport to rest and have access to better restroom facilities. Saigon was well decorated with colorful lights to make the city look beautiful at night.
When we finally boarded our flight to Korea, we were quite happy as finally we could have some rest and probably some shut eye to prepare for tomorrows tour which will start immediately after touch down at Incheon Airport.
At 4.30 AM we were woken up from much needed sleep when the cabin crew started serving breakfast. Though the food was welcome, we prefer to have more sleep.
Upon alighting from the plane we saw this huge wall picture of beautiful Korea. What a way of opening our eyes to their country.
We were met at the airport and boarded the bus. The tour guide for Korea was Lucy Kim. A very knowledgeable guide who could spew information interspersed with funny anecdotes that kept us mesmerized and ease our uneasiness over the need for a morning bath.
Some information from Lucy Kim.
1. Fifty percent of Koreans are named Kim.
2. The Incheon area has a tidal difference of 10 meters (The difference between the highest and the lowest tide). The second biggest in the world after Alaska.
3. The road to Incheon has one of the highest toll at the equivalent of RM40.00 with the aim of the prevention of vehicle congestion and also due to the road being a private financial initiative.
4. Along the way into Seould city, we were shown the garbage hill that rise to 90 meters hill after 30 years of filling. There is a chimney on it to harvest the gas produced which is used for heating and generating electricity.
After that she went into the history of how the 38th parallel became the divider between North and South Korea. From that point onward I lost my interest to jot down my notes.
Suddenly I was all ears when she mentioned the reasons why Koreans eat dog. During the difficult times Koreans had to eat clay to prevent themselves from going hungry. Due to clay consumption they had to suffer acute constipation. So to them dogs are just another animal that can provide them with much needed protein. No wonder you don't find many strays or even non stray dogs around.
Soon the Korean government will classify dog as food to prevent illegal beating to death of the animal for their meat. Once so classified, the dogs must be slaughtered in more humane ways as done with other animals for their meat.
Further more beautiful sceneries are always a distraction to me compared to the history of a place. Along the way we saw beautiful flowering plants being used as landscape. Unless I could touch them, I tend to doubt that they are real flowers but the benefit of the doubt is more on them as being real plants.
We stopped by near an imposing building with a blue roof against a backdrop of a nude hill. It is the Blue House, which is the Presidential Palace. It appears that Korean Presidents don't harbor building new expensive palaces as usually happened in some developing countries.
Actually our stop there was for toilet stop before we visit an old palace called Gyeongbokgung where the royal family used to live.
At the time of our arrival workers were replacing the flowering plants with new ones as a beautification program.
See how beautiful they are.
Before we proceed with the tour, we had a group photograph in front of this beautiful building. Climbing the steps to the building seems to be a temptation but we were too tired for such an activity. Later the tour guide commented that our group is a group who are always tired. What can I say as some of us have already breached the 50th birthday a couple of years earlier.
Pak Zawi is the one wearing the orange Firefly cap.
Inside the palace we were given a briefing by our tourist guides. The briefing was about the history of the palace. Personally I have never met a tourist guide who is as professional as Lucy Kim in Malaysia. She has all the information at her fingertip. I guess she is well trained and very experienced. Her mastery of the English language is commendable. Something our own guides lack in.
Massive wooden column that have withstood the test of time.
Is this the throne room?
Or is it this one?
The intricate design
Another imposing building in the complex.
At the end of the palace tour, our group was brought into the city proper for lunch at a halal restaurant not far from a Mosque. We were told that there are 35,000 Moslems in Korea.
I was happy with the Indian food.
Now it is time for some shopping. I can't resist the temptation of photographing this fountain in the middle of an intersection close to where we were dropped. We were given ample time to shop at two shopping areas close to each other. Or prefered choice was of course the Namdaemum Market which are made up of open air stalls along many streets in the heart of the city. These street stalls were purported to be operating for 24 hours daily.
Before splitting into smaller groups we were reminded to remember this shopping complex as the landmark to where we should gather at the end of the stipulated time. Shinsegae is a name to is known to most the 12 million inhabitants of Seoul. To help us remember, Lucy Kim told us to think of a gay sinseh and pronounce the words sinseh gay. Later I did a test and a Korean immediately pointed the way to the place.
The Shinsegae is one of the earliest shopping centers to be established in Seoul.
Along the way to the shopping areas we saw this handicapped persons busking using minus ones. I didn't contribute to him as I didn't have small change on me and wanted to do it on the return trek. We didn't come back via the same route and we missed our bit for charity.
This is just one of the streets and there are many streets like this. You could easily be carried away if you were to wander as your heart fancy. So remembering the landmark building Shinsigae is a must if you were to find your way back to the meeting point.
The stalls selling brooches and other accessories were the favourite among the mostly ladies member of the group. The minority male members had to endure the hot confined areas where the booths were set up. The ladies of course took their time to make their purchases. Most brooches cost Korean Won 5000 (approx RM15) which is definitely a bargain compared to the prices once it reaches Malaysian shores.
With the shopping finally done for the day, we boarded the bus again to get to our hotel.
After almost two days without a bath, most of us can't even bear our own smell. It is time for a good bath.
The Hotel Seoul Leisure where we stayed is located at
That is the rate for breakfast at the hotel. An American breakfast is about RM30 per head.
The room alloted to me was so huge with 2 beds. The bathroom is extremely large with a jacuzzi which I didn't manage to use. Above all I like the internet connection which was free as is with most of the other hotels that we stayed in including the one in Saigon on the last day of the tour. If there is no broadband cable available in the room, you can ask for one at th.e counter and you will be given one after a refundable deposit of 3000 Korean Won is paid.
We were taken by bus for dinner to the same area near the mosque in Seoul. Some of the members opted not to go and have their own meals in their room. Most are tired.
Upon returning to the hotel, I walked some length of the street near the hotel for some window shoppings and see some street vendors that set up business at night selling T shirts and fruits.
A walk around the hotel in the morning before breakfast I caught on camera some of these sights.
A Pizza School?
New pavements with the work area properly enclosed ensuring safety to passersby which is never a criteria in our own country.
Clean sidewalks although the night before street vendors plied their trade there. In the country where I came from heaps of rubbish is the norms as a sign that street vendors had used the place earlier.
A bicycle shops displaying their wares.
More displays from the windows on the upper floors.
Only this much for the First Part. More to come later. So please come back if you like what I am writing about Korea.