Text and Photos by Cecille Santillan-Visto
WHEN TRAVELING with kids overseas, there are three main factors to consider — enough interesting sites to visit and stimulating activities to indulge in; the convenience of getting around; and safety. But as children live in the same fast-paced technological world as adults do, high-speed Internet connection may well be the fourth consideration.
Fortunately, Seoul, Korea offers all these and more — making it an ideal destination for vacationing families.
It took me two visits to Seoul before finally deciding to bring my children to the Land of the Morning Calm. Aged 13 and 10, Hermione and Harry immensely enjoyed what Seoul had to offer and readily concluded that the one-week stay last April was simply not enough. They are already requesting to return soon.
Inshik Park, Director of the Manila Office of the Korea Tourism Organization, agreed that seven days is too short a stint to explore even the major cities and provinces of the country.
“There is so much to see and since we have four seasons, there are different attractions depending on the time of visit,” said Mr. Park at the sidelines of the Korea Travel Mart 2015, held at the Glorietta over the weekend.
He said if we roamed around Seoul and its environs only, we may not have actually experienced the best of Korea.
“Seoul is a metropolis much like Manila and if your experience was limited to K-pop, it is unfortunately just a small portion of the encompassing Korean culture and tradition,” Mr. Park added.
Sadly, the threat of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has kept some tourists from visiting Korea these past few months. Tourist arrivals from the Philippines dipped 10% to a little less than 435,000 from January to September compared with the same period in 2014.
But with threat of MERS-CoV past, Mr. Park said he is positive that more Filipinos will either return to Korea or visit for the first time.
In hindsight, our spring-time visit to Seoul — and prior to the MERS-CoV outbreak — centered on the hip, the modern, and the popular. While we dropped by the Gyeongbokgung Palace to witness the colorful changing of the royal guards (garbed in their Joseon Dynasty uniforms), roamed around the Secret Garden of the nearby Changdeokgung Palace, and tried on the traditional costume, the hanbok, for good measure, the trip was far from “cultural.”
When asked if there was one place in Korea he recommends for children, A-In of the K-pop group, NOM, readily replied that his top choice is the Han River.
“When I was kid, my ‘happy place’ was the Hangang (which means river) and Hangang Park,” A-In told BusinessWorld. It was the second time in as many years that NOM was invited to perform during the Korea Travel Mart and to encourage Filipino tourists to include Korea in their bucket list of must-go-to places.
A-In said he loved riding the bicycle along the river and just spending lazy time in the park that surrounds it. The best thing, he said, is that hanging out at Hangang (Seoul’s version of our Pasig River, only well-maintained) was, and continues to be, free.
Having missed the Han River, for Hermione and Harry, the top seven Seoul destinations and activities are:
• Riding a bicycle in Nami Island. Although their legs are strong and they could have easily explored the famed location of the Korean drama Winter Sonata by foot, thankfully the children suggested that we circle the island by bike. Famous for its gorgeous tree-lined roads, we could just imagine how beautiful the place must be during winter. The 5,000 Korean won (roughly P205) bicycle rental was well worth it.
• Strolling and enjoying the attractions at Everland. The lines for the extreme rides in this Disneyland-like theme park were long and the kids were impatient. The cable car, the hologram theater featuring K-pop groups Big Bang and 2NE1, and few “tame” rides were more than enough for them. The manicured gardens were a sight to behold and offered numerous photo opportunities. The quality of the food at Everland, as in most theme parks, is wanting.
• Binging on Korean snacks in Myeongdong. From the famous mandu (similar to siomai dumplings) of Myeongdong Kyoja Restaurant to the odeng (fish cakes) and tteokbokki (rice cakes) and seondae (blood sausages) sold on the streets of the shopping district of Myeongdong, everything was free game. Neither did the children refuse a bowl or two of spicy kimchi in all the restaurants we dined at.
• Enjoying the breeze at the N (Namsan) Seoul Tower. The cable car ride to the tower was short but memorable. Though a bit creaky, the excitement of tourists and locals alike easily rubbed off on the kids. Hermione was giggling in delight after she left a love lock for her favorite K-pop idol at the N Tower.
• Taking wacky photos at the Trickeye Museum and the Ice Museum. Here is where Korea disappoints slightly. Since the kids had visited the Art in Island in Cubao prior to the Seoul trip, the Trickeye Museum in Hongdae paled in comparison. The Quezon City facility is bigger and has more galleries for its 3-D paintings. It is also newer and better maintained (no shoes allowed). As such, Art in Island with its P400-student rate offered more value-for-money compared with Trickeye’s 12,000 Korean won children’s rate. But for an additional 3,000 won (roughly P620), we enjoyed both the Trickeye and the nearby sub-zero-degree Ice Museum. With the package, the price was just right.
• Learning the story of The Little Prince in La Petite France. Parents who read The Little Prince to their children will enjoy La Petite France immensely. All the well-loved snippets in the book are depicted in this quaint French cultural village — although I think the Eiffel Tower replica appeared to be off. “It is only through the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye,” I remember telling my kids. And that line was happily explained and deciphered over cones of ice cream and hot churros.
• Whiling away the time at the Hello Kitty Café in Hongdae. This Japanese bobtail cat popularized by Sanrio is a favorite among young and old alike and it’s no wonder that the café in the university area of Hongdae is almost always filled to the brim. We were lucky enough to grab a table and leisurely try the famous sweet potato latte during our visit. We also took photos of Kitty’s bedroom and sneaked into her impeccable toilet.
Navigating Seoul was fairly easy. Children’s train and bus fares are 50% cheaper and Koreans are almost always willing to help despite the language barrier. Parents need not fret over the possibility of kids getting lost in the crowd. During long trips, they played their Android phone games, thanks to the high-speed Wi-Fi connection.
Admittedly, my family merely scratched the surface in our last visit to Seoul. The same is true for me and my three week-long stops to Seoul in the last three years.
With the promise that there is more to discover — numerous provinces offering delectable hansik (Korean food); dozens of museums, both modern and traditional, to spend endless hours in; beaches to bask in and mountains to conquer; and quirky festivals that adventurous tourists can enjoy — there is definitely a thousand and one reasons to return.