Saturday, June 27, 2009

080906 – Panmunjeon (Joint Security Area)

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This simplified winning article was selected in the local newspaper.

When you are in Seoul, I do highly recommend EVERYONE visiting Panmunjeon which is around 2 hours journey from Seoul by tour bus. You need to engage a local tour and no personal tour is allowed. Its preferable one week in advance booking for necessary security clearance for this tour. After confirmed a place, I went to designated local tour at 6th floor Lotte Hotel, Seoul and there are more than 10 travel agencies organizing this tour. The tour package is around 50,000 - 100,000won depending on the tour package you selected. I paid 75,000won for this half- day tour. It will be great if you can visit this place during the weekdays as you may see North Korean soldiers performing their routine daily marching. Remember, you must carry your passport on the tour day. South Korean need to make at least 2 months arrangement in advance for this tour due to complicated procedures they need to adhere.

Strict dress code applies here. No jeans, sandals, shorts, miniskirt, revealing clothes are allowed else you will be rejected from the tour on that day. I was told by the tour guide, you need to wear good pair of walking shoes or any shoes that allows you to run fast in case of cease fire happen between the North and South Korea, this is serious. Just make sure wear smartly, even your hair; else the North Korean soldiers will secretly snap a photo of you and end up on the North Korea’s propaganda posters. When the tour guide gives some instructions, we must obey like no smoking at certain area, any photo snapping and etc, else you are risking the whole tour been cancelled due to your stubbornness.

Panmunjeom is located in a no-man's land called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The road to Panmunjeon is the only remaining link between North and South Korea. Same like my previous DMZ tour, we stopped at Imjingak and waited for 30 minutes before we departed to Panmunjeon via a designated shutter bus.

While waiting at Imjingak, I walked to the South Korean checkpoint in the DMZ. I secretly snapped photo without being caught.

There’s also a bell pavilion nearby.

Half way on the journey, the bus stopped for lunch. A buffet lunch will be provided for this tour that serves a wide range of Korean and Western dishes. This is the opportunity for you to get a taste of Korean dishes like varieties of kimchi. The best dish will be the Bulgogi (a marinated barbecued beef or chicken) which will definitely suit visitor’s taste bud and it’s so tender and less fat.

One of the main highlight of Panmunjeon will be the Joint Security Area (JSA) inside Camp Bonifas. JSA is a hostile zone and you are required to sign a waiver of responsibility form saying the South Korea government is not responsible of any injuries or fatalities during the cease fire. No worry, the tour guide said nothing happen last year.

At Camp Bonifas, tourist will be transferred to a United Nation bus and accompanied by an English speaking sergeant as our tour guide. He will check on our passport and make sure our dress code is complied. An army jeep will be guiding the bus to JSA. Upon reaching at the JSA, the sergeant told us to line up in a line of two and follows him. Every soldier here is allowed to use his weapon in his own defense and in the defense of others without specific orders.

We went up the observation tower called Peace Pagoda which provides a bird eye view of the JSA.

At this point, we are under constant observation by the North Korean soldiers with high-powered binoculars, cameras and guns.

The main buildings in Panmunjeon are the three blue barracks or conference room, each with a door on North and South Korea side.

One of the observation posts belongs to North Korea.

Observation post belongs to South Korea.

The grey barrack is also belonging to North Korea, according to the tour guide.

Freedom Building, view from the Peace Pagoda. It’s built to host reunification meetings between families separated by the Korean War.

Soldier monitored us from doing anything crazy that will provoke the North Korean soldiers’ anger. Do not make any arm or hand gestures while in the presence of the North Korean soldiers. They consider almost anything as obscene gesture.

The conference rooms straddling the demarcation line where the South and North Korean soldiers glare at each other across the demarcation line and are not allowed to cross over it.

The sergeant also warned us not to touch anything in the room or talk to the North Korean soldiers.

Inside the room, we are allowed to take photo with the ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers.

The requirement to be the ROK soldiers, one must be 6-feet tall and owned a Taekwondo black belt. These soldiers have ball bearings in their pants. As the North Korean forces were much larger than the South Korean, when these soldiers marched, ball bearings would make it sound as if many more troops were approaching. They never smile and the way they stand as if they are going to hit you anytime with their grip fist.

By walking around the north side of the table inside the room, you are basically stepping on the North Korea land. The demarcation line, the smooth surface is belongs to North Korea, while the rough surface is belongs to South Korea. Yes, I finally on North Korea land, yippie.

Then the bus drove us to a observation post where we can see the nearest of North Korea.

Observation post of North Korea?

Another North Korea’s observation post

The village of kijong-dong on the North Korea side, the tall pole is the tallest flagpole in the world, at 160m.

Plaque commemorating the Armistice

Trees beyond the demarcation line. The tour guide jokingly said, one sweeper was so joyful as he/she had collected the leaves from the North Korea, haha.

Later we onboard the bus and there was a jeep with us, basically guarding us.

Memorial for the famous 1976 axe murder incident where two American officers were attacked and killed with axes by the North Korean soldiers in JSA.

On the way out of the Joint Security Area, the bus took us to the Bridge of No Return which leads to North Korea.

Then we stopped at a shop inside the JSA that sold sovenirs. The best souvenirs to get will be the key chains, t-shirts, plates to hang on the wall, postcards and shot glass of North Korea. I got myself a North Korea currency notes and shot glass. The shop even sells beer and liquors from North Korea.

It may not be an entertaining tour, but it’s an educational and life experience moment. Totally worth it!!!

080903 – Dongdaemun Market and Misc Foods Adventures

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I had a mission to discover more of Seoul, so I took a 20 minutes walk to Dongdaemun market. It is the largest wholesale and retail shopping center in South Korea. That whole area in Dongdaemun is basically filled with shopping malls, specialty stores and wholesale stores. They sell everything and anything you want. It’s cheaper if you buy in bulks at the wholesale prices. The area here is always alive as there are some stores still open until wee hours.

After wandering around for an hour, I decided to get some cute pyjamas for my 20-months old son. Total damage was 28,000won.

The Cheonggye stream stretch through Dongdaemun and there is a fountain in the middle of the stream.

This is the East Gate which also called Dongdaemun. In the olden days, it served as the main eastern gate in the wall surrounding Seoul and built in 1397.

Near Insadong, I tried to be a bit adventurous for my dinner meal. I had cold noodle in soysoup called Kong guksu. It’s basically noodles with soymilk-based broth, served cold and this dish is good for summer. The soy soup was made from soy bean. I find it horrible, as the soup was tasteless but I managed to finish the noodles and other ingredients. Wasted my 4000won.

Feeling not satisfied, I had a skewered sausage and chicken at the nearby roadside stall for only 2000won.

Another food I would like to recommend was the spicy rice with braised octopus. It was real good. It cost 5500won

This was what I found out real amusing. If you are in Seoul and during emergency, do not dial 911, 999 or anything start with 9xx. You will die miserably without any responses. I saw this sign in one of the building in Seoul, you need to dial 119. How weird, haha.

080830 – Buseoksa Temple and Geusam Ginseng Festival

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After referring to the USO monthly tour itinerary, I saw a ginseng tour at Geusam. Geusam is the center of Korean ginseng distribution and held the world ginseng expo from Aug 29th – Sept 7th. Korean ginseng is well known for its medical health effects and ginseng from Geusam is regarded as the best in Korea. Therefore I took this great opportunity to participate this ginseng tour.

I engaged a guided tour service provided by the US military based in Seoul, called USO Korea located at Itaewon. I have been engaging with this tour for all previous tours and 90% of the tourists are foreigners. If you are in Seoul and wanted to engage a local tour, USO Korea is highly recommended. I normally sent an email to requesting their monthly tour itinerary so that I could plan my travel schedule promptly. You may also call them at 0082-2-795-3063/3028. The one-day tour fare per person was USD40 included bus transportation, ginseng chicken soup lunch and stop-by at Boseoksa Temple. To me, it’s a reasonable price.

I took a subway to USO office, registered myself at the office counter and onboard the bus. The journey started at 8am and our first stop was Boseoksa Temple after around 3 hours bus ride. The bus stopped at the parking lot and we walked for about 5 minutes before reaching the temple entrance. One of the highlights was a 1000 years old ginkgo tree at the entrance of temple. According to the tour guide, this tree made a sound when there is an accident in the village or country, this tree is considered as a guardian.

The main hall of Boseoksa temple

Hanging lanterns in the main hall

I didn’t know this was the sesame plant.

Bell pavilion

After the temple visit, we headed for a lunch at the nearby restaurant which served ONLY Samyetang, which means ginseng chicken soup. After the lunch, we were given sample bottle of ginseng soju where the ginseng root was soaked with soju (Korean famous liquor) in a bottle. I still have the bottle with me, untouched.

Our next destination was the ginseng farm and saw how the farmer digged the ginseng from the ground. The weather conditions in Geumsan together with great geographical and environment make it the best place to grow ginseng.

In Geumsan, digging for ginseng begins in July, and the harvested herb is processed through the end of October, making it one of the most priceless ginseng products in the Korea.

Ginseng root I managed to dig and I brought back to my home country. Luckily I was not detained by the custom.

The last itinerary of the day was heading to the ginseng festival at the expo venue.

At the entrance, there is the International Ginseng Distribution and Exhibition Center

Vicinity of the festival venue

Booths for visitors to learn about ginseng

The weather was so hot that day, so I quickly went to the so-called Health Center with air-cond where visitors can check their health condition and feel the benefits of ginseng.

Visitors soaked their legs with soils that was used to grow ginseng

This tour provided us either a free body massage or ginseng extract facial. Of course without any hesitations, I went for the facial. I think I looked 10 years younger after the 20 minutes facial. Nowadays, so many facial products are made of ginseng extracts.

Huge ginseng root displayed at the expo

Feeling so thirsty and hungry, I bought a fried ginseng root and pure ice-blended ginseng drink for 1000won each. There were shops selling other dishes either made of ginseng or garnished with ginseng.

Rows of shops selling ginseng products

Some shops were selling dried ginseng root. Due to language barrier and not even a single English sign on the price, that deterred me from buying. It’s great if you go with local friends. Besides that, I also worried being slaughtered with the huge price since I’m not local. Recommended product to get here would be the pure ginseng extract. I bought at Lotte Mart, though it’s pricey. I checked the price back in home country was double the price.

At the entrance, I saw these scarecrows with colourful clothes.

We all gathered at the entrance at 4pm waiting for out tour bus before heading back to Seoul. The bus reached USO office in Seoul and I took a subway back to my hotel.