Travel Factor: BACKPACKING Korea (Winter Edition) 2011

Discovering Travel Factor

I've always loved to travel.  Seeing different sights, talking to people of different cultures, experiencing different climates... all these are constant reminders that there's more to my life than just the comfort of home or the monotony of work.  Each opportunity to go out of the country--or even the city--is a welcome opportunity to experience a whole new refreshing side of life.

My only qualm about travelling is the hassle of preparation one has to go through.  Although I'm not that picky (A/C, hot/cold showers, and decent transportation are my only staples), I still want my trip to be as hassle-free as possible... without going overboard in the budget, of course.  Unfortunately for me, I have neither skill nor connections to aide me in getting the perfect travel deal.

Then I discovered the Travel Factor.  Travel Factor is a group of travel enthusiasts who decided to create an organization and make a career out of their passion.  They offer various trip packages--at VERY affordable prices--where people can sign up.  Once a package has reached its required number of attendees, the trip is set to go.


Image courtesy of the Travel Factor website. 


Travel Factor is pretty much self-service, giving the attendee responsibility for securing his travel visa or airfare to the destination (though they would detail the recommended flight to take, since it is a group travel, after all).  What I like about this organization is that they take care of the necessary preparations regarding transportation, meals, scheduling and the like.  All you need to do is sign up, pay the necessary fees, secure your travel documents, and show up at the designated meeting place.  Once you're in the destination, that's where their itinerary comes into play.  They are flexible enough to include other places that you want to go to and even lenient enough to allow you to stray from the itinerary.  I guess, the main difference between Travel Factor and other travel agencies is that, aside from it being WAY cheaper, you also get to gain new friends along the way.  Highly recommended for a solo traveller who does not want the solo travel experience.

As a sampler, I signed up for their PHOTOHOLIC Bataan, which is a day trip for travellers looking for a photo-op.  I had fun, and was satisfied by how they organized the activity, so I decided to sign up again but this time for a bigger trip.  Thus I signed up for BACKPACKING Korea.

Group Jump Shot at Nami Island. 


Korea seems like a nice place to visit, especially now that K-POP is all the rage in the Philippines.  Plus, the trip is scheduled in winter, and I have no experience of winter prior to that trip.  K-POP, winter, and of course, shopping.  What more can I ask for?


DAY ONE - February 11, 2011
  • Manila - Incheon - Seoul
  • Check in at Seoul Hostel
  • Seoul Citypass
  • Gyeongbokgung
  • Samgyeopsal
  • Changdeokgung
  • N Seoul Tower
  • Myundong shopping/dinner 


MANILA - INCHEON - SEOUL

Took the Cebu Pacific early, EARLY morning flight to Incheon Airport, Korea.  This was my first time in NAIA Terminal 3, and I've noticed that Cebu Pacific dominated this terminal, as both domestic and international flights are placed here.

NAIA Terminal 3 is bigger and
a lot more spacious than the older terminals. (click click)



Check out the restrooms! In fairness, malinis. (click click) 


After checking in (Cebu Pacific has a baggage limit of 15kg per person.  More info here) and paying the necessary fees and taxes (Terminal Fee of 750 PhP and Travel Tax of 1,620 PhP); we're off to the pre-boarding area to wait for our departure.

Left: Seeing that cheap receipt-type boarding pass makes me cringe a bit. (click)
Right: Night shot of Manila.  Pretty lights. (click) 


Travel time from Manila to Incheon took about four hours; with Korea being one hour ahead of Manila.  We arrived at the Inchon airport at around 6:30 AM.  It was COLD, that morning.  I think it was about -10c outside, and our breaths were fogging in front of us.

Left: Night shot of Incheon from the airplane. (click)
Right: Signage from the airport. (click) 


Currency Tip: When we arrived in Korea, our currency on hand is USD.  While there are open money changes in the airport, the sulit ones are situated in the shopping districts.  You can opt to exchange a few dollars to South Korean won, for the sake of having emergency money, and then exchange the rest of your dollars when you get to the city, or if your bank's ATM cards accept international transaction, you can also opt to withdraw some cash.

Incheon is a good hour or so away from Seoul (I can't recall how long exactly, I was fast asleep during the commute), and there are public buses that go to and from the airport into the city.  The fare price was 10,000won (roughly 400 PhP), included in the travel package.

Left: Waiting for the shuttle for inter-terminal transfer. (click
Right: Interior of the bus. (click)
 


Looking out of the window of the bus, I was able to catch my first glimpse of the snow.  It wasn't thick; it was actually more like a remnant from the past month's snowfalls.  Still, I was pretty ecstatic as it was the first time that I was able to see snow.

Left: SNOW!!! (click)
Right: Another first-time experience: Uber-fast Internet speed. (click) 


CHECK-IN AT SEOUL HOSTEL

When we arrived at the Seoul Hostel, there were no vacant rooms as nobody has checked out yet.  So we hung around the lobby, updated our Facebook statuses on the communal desktops there (And the stories you've heard about the Internet speed in Korea?!! All true.  Seriously), and had a quick breakfast at the nearby Ministop.  Apparently, restaurants open a bit late (around 11 or close to lunchtime), so early-morning breakfast needs will have to be addressed by the neighborhood convenience store.

Left: Lee Min Ho!!! <3 <3 <3 (click)
Right: Our first meal in Korea: instant noodles and bottled water. Toinks. (click) 


SEOUL CITYPASS

Going back to the hostel, some rooms have already been vacated and cleaned.  So some of us were assigned with rooms, while the others had their bags kept in those rooms for the time being.  After organizing ourselves, it was off to the city tour.  The hostel is conveniently situated near a train exit, so the first thing we did was to buy a stored value ticket for the trains.  There's also an option to have a one-day ticket, but I guess it was cost-effective to buy the one that doesn't expire.  At least if ever I get the chance to go back, I can use the ticket again.

Left: I think they have around ten subway lines. TEN!!! (click)
Right: A view from inside the subway. (click) 


GYEONGBOKGUNG

The first palace that we visited was the Gyeongbok Palace.  It is the biggest palace in the city, and the one with the most tourists, too.  We were fortunate enough to catch the Changing of the Guards ceremony, which showcased colorful imperial costumes and disciplined choreography.  We toured the grounds for a good hour and a half, before deciding that it was time for lunch.

Left: Entrance to the Gyeongbuk Palace. (click)
Right: Changing of the Guards ceremony. (click)
Left: Frozen lake!!! (click)
Right: Sights like these make me feel that I'm really out of the country. (click) 


SAMGYEOPSAL

We had our lunch at a local Korean BBQ place.  Of course, all of us wanted to try *authentic* Korean BBQ so we ordered Samgyeopsal.  Little did we know that this dish actually eaten for dinner, but what the heck?! We were hungry and we enjoyed the food.  Haha!

Left: Mmm look at that pork. (click)
Right: Hungry travellers! (click) 


CHANGDEOKGUNG

Our next tourist destination was the Changdeok Palace, which had a slightly smaller ground area, nevertheless equally impressive.  Its distinct feature was the section in the palace grounds where structures that were built had a certain Japanese shogun feel.  Made me want to do a Karate Kid pose, if not for the biting cold climate.

Left: Inside the palace grounds. (click)
Right: Japanese shogun-like buildings. (click) 


N SEOUL TOWER

It was about mid-afternoon when we finished the tour of the palace grounds.  Some of the sections of the palace were starting to close, so we decided to head on to the last stop of our city tour, N Seoul Tower.  We took a bus to the foot of the where the tower was, and took a brisk uphill walk to the tower.  Mind you, it was about -6c and getting colder as the day was about to end, so it was quite a challenging hike.

Left: Electric bus! So eco-friendly. (click)
Right: A view of the city from the uphill walk. (click)
Left: A view of the city from the top of the tower. (click)
Right: Various cities and how far they are from Seoul. Hello Manila! (click) 


On various sections of the tower you can find railings with lots and LOTS of padlocks.  These are so-called Love Padlocks, where couples would inscribe their names and/or pictures on padlocks, to lock them to the railings as a sign of their eternal love for each other.  Aside from N Seoul Tower, there are other places around the world that adopt this tradition.  Cheesy, yes, but you have to admit that it's hella romantic.

Left: Love Padlocks. (click)
Right: More couple-y stuff in the tower. (click)
Left: Wow, vandalism in Seoul. (click)
Right: Sunset at the N Seoul Tower grounds. (click) 


MYUNDONG SHOPPING/DINNER

After spending the sunset on the tower, we decided to go to Seoul's shopping district, Myeong-dong, to have the rest of the currency exchange, as well as dinner and a little shopping.  When they say shopping district, they really mean it.

Freebie Alert!!! In every corner you can literally find beauty shops of any kind of brand.  Their marketing strategy is to entice you with freebies so you can check out the products in the store.  What you can do is to get the freebie from the saleslady outside the shop, make a few rounds within the store (just avoid eye contact from the staff so they won't take a cue and accommodate you), and go out without buying a thing.  Voila! Free samples.

Left: Myeong-dong at night. (click)
Right: Street food vendors. (click) 


After having dinner at a restaurant that serves tonkatsu (don gatsu is what they call it there in Korea) and circling a block or two to check out the stores, we headed back to the hostel.  Winter is really bitter in Korea, and the weather just keeps getting colder at night.  Good thing that Seoul Hostel has hot/cold showers AND a heated floor.  Day One sure was long, but we had to get our much-needed rest since we still have four days to go.

DAY TWO - February 12, 2011

EVERLAND

Our original schedule for Day Two was Nami Island, but I think there were booking issues that time, so it was decided that the Everland tour be bumped to that day.

After a quick brunch at a local restaurant near the bus stop to Everland, we hopped into the bus for an hour-or-so ride to the destination.  At first we weren't too sure where to stop, but a friendly local who were in the bus with us told us where to get off.  If not for him (or was it a her?  I don't remember) we would probably miss the stop and would have gotten lost instead.

Everland is a sub-theme park (if there is such a term) of the Everland Resort.  This theme park has areas, each with its own theme that showcases attractions from different eras, areas of the world, and seasons.  My favorite area was Zoo-topia, and of course the snow area.  As usual, we were very much excited because of the snow, but at the same time we were having a hard time going around the area because of the bitter cold.

Left: Entrance to Everland Resort. (click)
Right: Snow Buster, Everland's sledding attraction. (click)
Left: Heaters at designated areas of the resort, to warm people up. (click)
Right: Night parade of the resort's mascots. (click) 


Maybe it was because of the weather, but I also enjoyed the snacks that were sold in the park.  I sampled their caramel popcorn, chicken kebab (which is actually just chicken BBQ using the white meat nuggets), and hot chocolate.  Their snacks range from 2,000 to 4,000 won.

After a day in the theme park, we headed back to downtown Seoul for dinner.  It was quite funny that we happened to run into a Filipino family who we also saw in Everland; I guess kababayans do share similar tastes.  After dinner, while walking to the subway, I also was able to buy Uggs-like boots from a street vendor.  After riding the Snow Buster, my N-year old Nike rubber shoes were starting to give way, thus the need for sturdier and warmer shoes.  Around 15,500 won for a knock-off Uggs?  Not bad.

DAY THREE - February 13, 2011
  • Seoul Ski Resort
  • National Ginseng Outlet 


SEOUL SKI RESORT

Our original itinerary was to have the DMZ tour.  DMZ AKA Korean Demilitarized Zone is the area where we were supposed to view the North Korea-South Korea border.  But because of the recent conflict between the two Koreas, and since this was a rare opportunity for us to experience winter, we opted to exchange the DMZ tour with a ski resort tour.  We had to shell out extra wons as the trip costs a bit more than what is stated in the tour package, but after the experience, I should say that the change in itinerary was well worth it.

A local tour agency, recommended by Seoul Hostel, was hired for the day.  A chartered van picked us up from the hostel, and we were welcomed by a friendly guide who speaks good English.  Aside from our group, we were accompanied by a Malaysian couple who were also on tour.  Funny that, when the tour guide learned that we were from the Philippines, the first thing she asked from us is if have 7D Mangoes with us.  Apparently dried mangoes are a delicacy in Korea.

After a 40-minute ride, we arrived at the Seoul Ski Resort.  But before that, we were brought to a shop for us to rent ski clothes.  A set of jacket, pants, goggles and gloves for a fee of 30,000 won.  We also had to pay an additional 6,000 won for the entrance fee to the resort.  Once inside, we rented lockers for our shoes, and of course ski shoes, the actual skis and poles.  After that, we were briefed by our tour guide on the proper way of wearing and taking off the skis, and what is the correct position when skiing.  Then we were left to ski on our own, at the beginners' slope, well into the afternoon.

Left: A view of the ski resort. (click)
Right: Myeong-dong freebies. (click)
What a noob. 


After bruising our bodies in the ski resort, the tour van brought us to the National Ginseng Outlet, where we were shown how Korean Red Ginseng was made.  True to the expectations from a tour agency, we were persuaded to by six-year old ginseng essence that costs some hundred of US dollars.  Since we were a backpacking group, we declined purchase (but I think the Malaysian couple bought some).  However, I still couldn't resist buying a ginseng moisturizer from the shop below the museum.  That cost me 32,000 won.

Oh, and during dinner we took another detour to Myeong-dong, for more shopping.

DAY FOUR - February 14, 2011
  • Nami Island
  • Pochangmacha 


NAMI ISLAND

Nami Island is the Koreanovela part of our tour.  This is the setting of the famous drama Winter Sonata, and some people would even say that this Kdrama was the one that made Nami Island famous.  Well, I have no idea since I haven't watched the drama, but seeing the volume of people that were there during our day tour, I have to say that the island is quite famous.  This island is also famous among couples, so a day tour on Nami Island during Valentines' Day was... to say the least, appropriate.

The tour bus that was waiting for us a couple of blocks from the hostel had a call time of around 9AM.  After some hour++ ride, we were dropped off at a port where we had to take a ferry to the island.  They themed the place such that Nami Island is another country, so our ferry tickets were "visas" and we had to go to "immigration" to get into the ferry.  It was kinda cute.  There were food stalls by the port, and I had mini sweet potatoes cooked in butter, salted to taste, and corn on a cob.  They were perfect snacks for the cold weather.  3,000 won for each of the snacks.

After taking the ferry to the island, we were given the whole day until 4PM to tour the island.  Nami Island was actually quite small, much like Samal island in Davao.   This makes Nami Island a perfect day trip for tourists.  From what I learned, Nami Island was bought by a local for his wife, where he landscaped the area to make it into one huge scenic park.  There are pine tree paths, benches by the lake, and bike paths surrounded by trees.  When the island was opened to the public, various organizations would setup exhibits to showcase their causes.  And when Winter Sonata got the location, some sets were preserved for tourists to see.

The area was supposed to be snow-white during the winter, but since we came at the end part of the season, only remnants of snow welcomed us.  We were, however, quite lucky to experience a light (emphasis on light) snowfall during the afternoon.  It was nice, like feathery drizzle.

After the day tour, our bus took us back to the meeting place, and from there, we went to the Jongno-ga district for another dinner of samgyeopsal and souvenir shopping at nearby Insa-dong.

Left: A statue of the Winter Sonata couple in Nami Island. (click)
Right: Pochangmacha tents in Jongno-gu. (click) 


POCHANGMACHA

Pochangmacha are street food tents pitched during the night.  I actually became interested in this when it was featured in Rain's biography special shown in Discovery Channel.  On one of the scenes, the interviewer was talking to Rain in a Pochangmacha tent, while they are eating spicy soup.  Thus sparked my curiosity.

The best Pochangmacha tents, according to what I've read in the web, were in the Jongno-gu district, which happened to be where we had our dinner following the day trip to the ski resort.  So after a quick tour in the Insa-dong souvenir area followed by dinner, we hung around to sample food from the Pochangmacha tents.  They usually serve clear soup, accompanied by seafood or meat of your choice.  I chose octopus.  I was expecting the soup to be on the spicy side, but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't that hot.  10,000 won for the food in the tents.

Another good thing was the whole area was just walking distance from the hostel, so we can choose between buying the all the souvenirs that night, or waiting until our free day.

DAY FIVE - February 15, 2011

FREE DAY!!!

This was the day of our flight, so we were given the whole day off for last-minute shopping or touring.  We chose shopping, so we spent most of the day at Myeong-dong, and a bit of the afternoon at the Namdaemun Market.  If Myeong-dong is akin to your typical retail shopping district, Namdaemun Market is akin to Divisoria, only cleaner and much more spacious.

After buying a few more stuff, we headed back to the hostel to gather our belongings.  Before leaving for the day, we made an early check-out.  Seoul is very safe; there are no reports of theft.  That is why we were comfortable enough to leave our luggage at the lobby.

Another bus ride to the airport, and we bid our last farewell to Korea.

Left: All our bags are packed... (click)
Right: McDonalds-like fast food in the Incheon Airport. (click) 


It was really fun; having an out-of-the-country experience backpacking-style.  In retrospect, since the Philippines is still a developing country, a trip to any other country that is more advanced than ours will still be a luxury experience even if you go backpacking.

Some thoughts on BACKPACKING Korea (Winter Edition)
  • Winter in Seoul is no laughing matter.  The average temperature when we got there was around -6c, but due to the wind chill factor, the "feels like" temperature would drop as low as -12c.  So if you want to experience Seoul in the winter comfortably, stock up with thermal clothes.  Windproof jackets with fleece linings are a must.  If you're extra sensitive to cold, bring earmuffs, scarves and gloves.
  • If the clothes you have at home do not suit the weather in your destination, you may opt to buy them in the destination instead.  This way, you can pack light, and at the same time have the assurance that your clothes are functional to the climate.  There's no need to go after famous brands; local clothing stores will do.
  • Main modes of transportation would be the subway and the bus.  And a LOT of walking.  So do bring your comfy shoes.
  • We were fortunate enough to find a place to stay in the heart of the city.  Still, it was a long way from the hostel to the bus stop.  So, if you're bringing rolling luggage, make sure that they're sturdy.  If not, make sure that you can carry them.
  • If you have bank accounts with ATM cards that can withdraw internationally, use these to withdraw money in the airport.  This may come cheaper than exchanging currency, as the rates could be smaller.  Don't know about the bank charges, though.
  • Again, PACK LIGHT!  You never know how much you will buy in your destination.
  • Be a friendly traveller; as you will get to meet a lot of new people in Travel Factor tours.
  • If you are going to a country where the English language is the least of their priorities, do not bother constructing sentences in the proper grammar. Simple what-where-when-how sentences will do.  Also, it helps to learn a bit of THEIR language for a change.

Comments

  1. Hi! Stumbled upon your site and wanted to drop you a line. Loved this post in particular. You're an awesome writer. I'm working on my own music festival blog that centers around travel and thought your blog would be great to reference for future posts.

    Should also mention I started following you, drop me a link and follow back if you can! Cheers :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, thanks for dropping by! No worries, I'd be happy to share my blog posts with you as reference links. Good luck!

      Delete
  2. Korea is one of the favorites place to visit, hopefully will be there again asap...

    Eco Travel

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for viewing my blog! Yes, I'd like to go back to, if given a chance.

      Delete
  3. Hi,
    I'm trying to find a nice travel blog entry about Seoul and I saw yours. Great detail and information, will definitely use this as reference for my trip this December. Kudos to you.

    Cheers! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, thanks for taking time to read my blog! Good luck to your trip this December!

      Delete
  4. I bump on his blog, upon searching pinoy winter in korea. Certainly you had a great experience in South Korea. We plan and do the same maybe next year and might spend christmas there. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be great! Hope your trip pushes through. Thanks for dropping by my blog. :)

      Delete

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