Korean Holiday Days 1-3: Seoul

Seoul is madness in the summer. 14 million people congregated into such a small space, all wanting to relax, spend time in the air conditioning and make the most of really limited and often identical time off. It makes for a hectic, sweaty environment. What possessed us to spend some of it in COEX, Korea’s biggest shopping centre, I’ll never know.

Having overcome that frankly ludicrous urge, Helena, Tak, Kristen and I headed for ‘Bongeunsa’, the nearby Buddhist temple. Bongeunsa has precisely the opposite effect to COEX: it’s serene, lantern filled complex feels like escaping the city all together. Only a couple of hundred metres from the incredibly overcrowded COEX, the temple is far enough from the holiday traffic that despite the back drop of multi-storey skyscapers you can only hear the intense summer mating calls of the insects (about the only creatures enjoying the heat). It’s easy to lose yourself amongst the walls of lanterns and grey-clad monks.

Bongeunsa contains a particularly large standing stone Buddha – as featured on the front page of the Lonely Planet Korea – that is somehow placed with a stunning woodland backdrop. The temple was first built in the 11th century, and the stone Buddha – it’s most impressive feature – seems to be something of an architectural afterthought, planted in the temple’s ‘backyard’ and surrounded by small offerings and monks in large straw sun hats. It’s all feels very calm, very spiritual and like the best possible follow up to COEX. If only Buddhist serenity somehow tamed the sweltering sun and intense humidity.

Hard Rock Café – our Saturday night destination – gives a similar feel. A heavily air conditioned large-scale underground bar, Hard Rock feels more like Vegas than Seoul. As does ‘The Bungalow’: a sandy floored, Jacuzzi filled bar that would fit right in to the sleazier districts of Bangkok. Clearly, when it comes to vacation, I am the king of escapism.

A weekend spent avoiding human-traffic and 35-degree heat gave way to a Monday of frustration. I’d forgotten how ill advised it is to try and do anything touristy in Seoul on a Monday. Both my attempt to visit the prehistoric village in East Seoul and (amazingly) the park containing the tombs of some former Kings were met with closed gates (who closes a park?!). Buddhist temples aside, this was a fairly unsuccessful start to my first proper relaxing week in 8 months. I guess watching 24 in bed and chilling it out is not so bad as a way to spend the holiday… time to hit the road.


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