Going Solo in Coron

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While working non-stop on Project Runway Philippines earlier this year, I promised myself that I would take a much-deserved break after the first leg of shoots concluded. Not only would I take a break; but I would do it alone. Yes… alone. It has always been something I’ve wanted to do; and this was the perfect opportunity to do it.

I picked Coron as my destination; because I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about it. Aside from that, my first experience in Palawan was for work (a shoot in El Nido); so I wanted to go back to that wonderful island but in a new area. And you know what? It was a great experience that I would not forget.

Flights and Accommodations
Before I get into the details of the amazing sights I saw, I will run you through the tickets I bought and the resort that I stayed in.

I only booked my tickets one month before my trip; so seat sales weren’t exactly in the horizon when I decided to take this vacation. Still, I did my due diligence and checked the cheapest fares from the usual suspects. I ended up flying with Philippine Airlines. They had a special offer when you book via their mobile site; and the total roundtrip fare was around Php6,500.

the plane i rode in on the Busuanga airport runway

the PAL plane i rode in on the Busuanga Airport runway

As for the accommodations, I honestly wanted to splurge. Given that I was traveling alone and was in charge of my own budget, I decided to pick a well-reviewed resort that had amazing views and a spa. It HAS to have a spa. I just set a budget cap for myself based on my current savings for travel. (Side note: Yes, I always set aside money strictly for travel. I highly recommend you do it as well.) I checked Agoda for options; and I picked Busuanga Bay Lodge. It was not as expensive as Two Seasons or Huma Island (Those resorts are insanely pricey especially for a solo traveler.); but I felt like it would still have a luxurious, exclusive feel. I just went with the pictures I saw and my gut feel. It’s still more expensive than the average hotel or resort in Coron; but I just went with it and have no regrets.

The resort itself is about an hour away from the airport. When I arrived, I was welcomed with the staff singing followed by a cool drink. I was then oriented about the facilities that the resort has to offer and the activities I could organize with the person in charge. I was also accompanied to my room and the guide showed me its features from the balcony lock to the television. It allowed me to familiarize myself with the place I’ll call home for the next couple of days.

Busuanga Bay Lodge is one of the few resorts situated in Sitio Lawi, Barangay Concepcion. It’s literally perched in the mountains and the roads are still being built to this day. Still, it adds a great deal of privacy and security. The views are also quite unique from Coron town proper, which is about an hour away. Their room packages usually include breakfast, airport transfers, use of resort facilities and non-motorized sports equipment (ex. kayak). They have two restaurants that serve an array of dishes and drinks. They also have a small spa where you could get a massage. It really has everything you could ever need to make your stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. I really loved staying here.

Coron Galeri Tours
A decision I made in traveling solo was to be extra cautious. This was my first time; so I didn’t want to take any chances with my safety. I went on organized tours with round trip transfers from the resort already covered. I made sure I was always with a guide and I had a pre-planned itinerary for the day. I rarely wandered off by myself; and I only stayed in Coron town until the afternoon. After the tour, I was immediately whisked back to Busuanga Bay Lodge. Traveling solo was an adventure; but I’m not too adventurous that I would go around looking for places to go all by myself. I had to pre-plan and pre-arrange everything even before arriving in Busuanga.

As for the tours themselves, I had to join group tours to save money. Customizing a trip all on my own would be more costly. I booked these with Coron Galeri. They have a number of options for group tours and as long as you meet the minimum number of people, it would push through. They are very organized and the guides are knowledgeable. It was really fun for me; because being without companions allowed me to talk to other people also in the group. We took each other’s pictures and chatted along the way.

I had two full days for activities; so I picked Tour B-1 (Php650/pax) and Tour B-2 (Php750). This includes at least 5 stops and a delicious lunch.

B-1 B-2

I was thankful that the weather was generally favorable (save for a few moments in the morning when we were met with strong waves). I just spent the days relaxing, swimming and simply ogling at the beautiful sights of Coron. On more than one occasion, I just kept going “wow” at the natural beauty of it all.

Since I went on organized tours, I missed certain tourist spots such as the Tapyas Viewdeck, the hot springs, the ship wrecks, Malcapuya Island (among others) and the Calauit Safari Park. That is why I plan to go back to Coron in the future. Still, what I did get to see and experience are more than what I expected given the limited time I had on the island.

Tips on Traveling Solo
1) Have a budget but be prepared to spend more than usual.
Traveling alone means that accommodations, food and transportation cannot and will not be split with another person or with a group of people. You only rely on yourself and your own money to make it through the trip. Make sure you have a budget; but consider the fact that you will spend more than usual.
Still, the upside to this is that you control the expenses. You can pick the hotel that you will stay in. You can pick the tours you will join. You can scrimp on the food you eat. Your money is your sole responsibility; so you get to decide whether you’ll splurge or save on each activity and each expense. Very adult!
2) Join group tours and meet new people.
This is really the ideal set-up for solo travelers. Group tours mean that you will be able to share the full expenses of an organized tour with other people. This is also your opportunity to meet new people and practice your social skills. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to take a photo of you, or ask where they’re from to start a conversation. Everyone has a story to tell; and it’s always great to widen your horizons.
3) Enjoy yourself but be safe.
Depending on your comfort level, traveling alone is a great time to be adventurous and explore places on your own. If you’re like me, you want everything to be organized before you even step foot on your destination. Others are braver. They like not having any plans and going with the flow. Either way, your first priority has to be your safety. There’s always a level of danger in being alone in a strange place. Don’t always trust every person you meet; and don’t go for the first deal offered to you. Always be aware that being alone means you’re more vulnerable. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
4) Make the most of “me” time.
Trips with friends are great; but traveling solo has its perks… Number one of which is you control your schedule.
You don’t have to be dragged by friends to an activity. You don’t have to join another tour if you don’t feel like it. You can wake up at noon if that’s your plan… Read a book. Get a massage. Lounge by the pool the whole morning. Sleep! No one will resent you for it. Solo travel is “me” time to its fullest. Make the most of it.

Project Runway Philippines Season 4: #veryveryfashion

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Let’s start the show…

The project was awarded over a year ago; and yesterday, the pilot finally aired on ETC. From auditions to the runway shows, it was a long road for our team; but I’m so thankful to have experienced shooting Project Runway Philippines Season 4. It was a far cry from advertising and shooting commercials; yet it was still fun in its own way. Aside from the drama and challenges posed to the designers on cam, a different kind of drama also unfolded behind the scenes… Believe me. Still, we are way past that and everyone’s just really proud and happy with what we’ve put up.

In celebration of the premiere of Project Runway Philippines Season 4, I’m sharing some behind the scenes photos from the first few days of shooting (aka shooting the pilot). Be sure to check out the captions for some interesting info about the show.

Don’t miss the all new #sewlegit season of Project Runway Philippines. New episodes air every Sunday at 8pm on ETC, with primetime replays every Monday at 7PM and every Wednesday at 10PM. Other schedules: Mondays at 12nn, Tuesdays at 7am, Tuesdays at 2pm, Thursdays at 10am, Saturdays at 1pm. No excuse missing it! Make sure to use the hashtags #prponetc #sewlegit #veryveryfashion

Please watch and support the next big names in Philippine fashion.

the IT list #13: TV’s Freshman Class

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“the IT list” A series of posts that highlight the various stuff, old or new, that I’ve been doing… reading, watching, eating or simply obsessing over recently. It’s my personal countdown.

the IT list #13
The 2014-2015 TV Season is drawing to a close; and I’m happy to have discovered a bunch of new shows to obsess over. They are all fresh, brilliant and entertaining. Most, if not all, of them have finished their freshman year (1st season); and I could definitely vouch for their quality and potential for longevity. I suggest you get hooked and catch up as soon as you can. As a bonus, I’m adding a mini-series/documentary that made waves early this year. Read on…

#ONE
Better Call Saul is a spin-off/prequel of the groundbreaking AMC series Breaking Bad. But instead of living under the shadows of its predecessor, Better Call Saul stands on its own. Its only connection to the former show is the common characters and the setting. Other than that, it has its own stories to tell and gives great insight into the origins of the Saul Goodman (and even the Mike Ehrmantraut) we think we know.

#TWO
Marvel’s Daredevil is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and is meant to be a first in a series of shows that will lead up to a Defenders crossover miniseries.

Honestly, I don’t particularly follow the TV shows from the MCU (Agents of Shield, Agent Carter are not in my radar.). I’m more of a DC follower when it comes to the small screen. However, if this is the jumping off point for the next series Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, then sign me up. The season arc is well-developed and tight as a story. The show is also anchored in reality in that every episode shows just how vulnerable our hero is despite his abilities. The characters are complex. The action sequences are amazing. The build-up to our hero donning his suit is also not contrived. It’s definitely another feather in Netflix’s cap of awesomely-produced shows.

#THREE
Anything Rob Thomas does, I will most definitely watch. As an avid fan of Veronica Mars, I eagerly awaited his latest foray into television — iZombie. It definitely doesn’t disappoint.

It might be another zombie series, sure; but this one has elements of Veronica Mars. You have a strong female lead. The episodic mysteries are engaging, yet there’s an overarching story that spans the whole season. There are hooks at the end of each episode that keep you intrigued; and the characters are interesting and funny. The season hasn’t ended but with two episodes left, I’m positive it’s going to be good.

#FOUR
This is the absolute standout freshman series for me this season. It is loosely based on Venezualan telenovela Juana la Virgen, where our lead, Jane, accidentally gets artificially inseminated. Her world turns upside down when she discovers that she’s pregnant despite being a sworn virgin.

The premise seems crazy; but the show just goes with its telenovela roots yet still infuses a lot of heart into the story. This results in a really unique, quirky and funny show that will let you see past the craziness and just appreciate the characters and their relationships, which is still grounded in reality.

#FIVE
The Flash is a spin-off of Arrow, the other DC TV show that’s pretty good in my book. The Flash is one of my favorite superheroes; so it’s great to see him get his own TV series. As far as first seasons go, this show succeeds in creating its own fun little world within Central City, far and away from the dark and brooding seriousness of Star(ling) City. The characters are really likable; and the central villain (for the first season) posed a real threat to our hero throughout the season. I hope this show doesn’t lose its momentum and continues to impress leading into Legends of Tomorrow.

#BONUS
Documentary crime dramas are my guilty pleasure; and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst hits that sweet spot. It’s very real. It’s very controversial. It’s seriously intriguing… especially in the end. It’s only six episodes; so I highly recommend that you check it out. I guarantee you won’t be able to stop watching until the gripping conclusion.

Korea 2014: Stop! Shop! Eat!

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What’s a trip to another country without shopping and eating? I will conclude my series of posts by giving some suggestions on where to shop and what to try and eat when you’re in South Korea.

SHOPPING
I stopped by a number of shopping streets, malls and entered a ton of cosmetics shops (They’re everywhere!). I saw everything from designer labels, international brands, local labels to mass produced trendy fashions. Shopping in Korea is inevitable; and the range that’s available is just overwhelming. Fear not, though, you’re bound to find something you love at a price point that’s reasonable. Contrary to popular belief, Korea is actually very affordable… more affordable than Japan and even Singapore (in my opinion). I loved shopping and here were some of my favorite stops:

one of the streets in EDAE

one of the streets in EDAE

EDAE (Ewha Women’s University)
Accessible from: Exit #2 or #3, Ewha Woman’s Univ. Station, Subway Line 2 OR Exit #2 or #3, Sinchon Station, Subway Line 2

EDAE is one of the popular stops for young Korean women to shop for affordable and trendy fashions. With enough stamina and energy, you will be able to find a lot of nice items from clothing to accessories to shoes. Cute bags go for just ₩10,000 (Php400). Pretty shoes and boots go from ₩10,000-₩25,000 (Php400-Php1000). There are also some independent local shops that may be more expensive; but are good quality items just the same. Be sure to make the most of the inner streets and shops. Also, be patient in finding the same item for a better price. A number of the stores sell the same thing; and something that caught your eye earlier on could probably be cheaper just down the street (Believe me, I know the feeling.).

Myeong-dong
Accessible from: Exit #6, Myeongdong Station, Subway Line 4

Myeong-dong

Myeong-dong

Myeong-dong is the prime shopping destination when you’re in Seoul. In and around the area, you will find an almost endless array of shops and restaurants. A good mixture of tourists and locals literally crowd in Myeong-dong to do most of their shopping. Street food also line the narrow streets; so you could satiate that hunger in between retail stops. This is also the place where you could get the best foreign exchange rates. There are a lot of money changers and be patient enough to walk around and canvas for the best rates; so you could get the most for your dollars. Most important of all, Myeong-dong is home to Cosme Road, an area where all Korean make-up brands have their biggest stores. If you love make-up and skin-care products, be prepared to spend a LOT of time here.

Gangnam Underground Shopping Center
Accessible from: Express Bus Terminal Station (line 3 or 7), follow the Gangnam Terminal Underground Shopping Center sign

Gangnam has a certain luxury attached to its name. It is mostly known for its expensive shops, rich clientele and high standards of living. In contrast, the Gangnam Underground Shopping Center turned out to be my favorite shopping destination out of all those I’ve visited. I loved it here. It felt like a higher end 168 (yes, the one in Divisoria) in its layout; and I think they have the cheapest items and the widest array of products (including home items).

Gangnam Underground Shopping Center

Gangnam Underground Shopping Center (photo from khompy.com)

How cheap? Clothes such as shirts, blouses and coats range from ₩5,000-₩15,000 (Php200-Php600). Socks and hair accessories are between ₩1,000-₩3,000 (Php40-Php120). Bags and shoes are mostly at ₩10,000 (Php400). I was also lucky enough to purchase an authentic leather shoulder bag on sale at ₩39,000 (Php1,500) from ₩150,000 (Php6,100). Gangnam Underground Shopping Center is one of the places that showed me how affordable South Korea could be. Since the prices are already low, you shouldn’t haggle anymore. Also, most of the items are free size and fitting is not allowed. Be ready to make guesstimates on what clothes may suit you.

Lotte Mart
Accessible from: Seoul Station (line 1, 4), Exit 1.

Lotte Mart

Lotte Mart (photo from Korea Tourism Organization)

Lotte Mart is a huge supermarket where you could get the best deals for food items and other products that you plan to bring home as pasalubong. From tea, to baked goods, to sweet treats… You will find them all here. Be prepared to share with your companions especially in the packaged/bundled products; so you could get the best price per item.

FOOD
Koreans love to eat and drink. It was especially apparent in the area we were staying in (Hongdae) where a number of restaurants and clubs were within walking distance from our residence. It can sometimes get dizzying looking for what to eat next; but to sum up… They were all delicious and fresh. Here are some of the food items you must try and eat when in Korea:

Side Dishes/Appetizers
Wherever you plan to eat lunch or dinner, you will be served with different forms of appetizers. The most common of them all is kimchi. The tastes range from sour/spicy to sweet. My favorites were kimchi, jeotggal (salt-fermented seafood) and egg roll.

different side dishes/appetizers

different side dishes/appetizers

Street Food
Many forms of street food can be found all over Seoul. I wasn’t able to try all of them; but they are mostly fried items such as sausages… potatoes… sausages wrapped in potatoes, among other things. They usually range from ₩2,000-₩2,500.

street food stall in Dongdaemun

street food stall in Dongdaemun

Fried Chicken
I would have to say Koreans know their fried chicken. The skin is always crisp and flavorful. The chicken itself is tender and juicy. It’s especially great with beer when you’re in the mood to just chill and relax with your friends after a long day of walking and sightseeing. We ate different forms of this for about three times during our trip.

delicious, crispy, juicy fried chicken

delicious, crispy, juicy fried chicken

Bibimbap
This is one of my favorites, even before going to Korea. It’s basically rice topped with vegetables, meat and egg. You’re supposed to mix them all together with sauces and spices before enjoying.

bibimbap and appetizers

bibimbap and appetizers

Korean BBQ
This is another one of my favorites and it’s so simple! Marinated meat is grilled and cut up as it cooks. Stuff it in a lettuce leaf with the right sauces and enjoy… So yummy.

chicken bbq

chicken bbq and chilis

Ice Desserts/Ice Cream
All over Seoul, there are a lot of dessert shops and ice cream stalls; so you’re bound to try one at some point. Convenience stores also offer packaged ice cream, which we already love here in Manila. So remember to always leave room for dessert!

shaved ice dessert

shaved ice dessert

ice cream stall along Dongdaemun

ice cream stall along Dongdaemun. this one’s delicious!

Coffee
Coffee shops are also all over Seoul. There are Starbucks, of course; but there are smaller coffee chains that you may want to try. Their coffee is more on the sweeter side (much like the Philippines); but they’re worth trying nonetheless. Be sure to also try some waffles or pancakes while you’re there.

coffee and pancake for breakfast

coffee and pancake for breakfast (Coffee Prince)

coffee and waffles from Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae

coffee and waffles from Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae

That concludes a rundown of another epic trip. I will definitely go back to this wonderful country in the future. There is still a lot of sights to see, things to do and food to eat. It was an absolutely wonderful experience getting exposed to South Korea and its wonderful people and culture.

Previous Post – Modern Sights

Korea 2014: Modern Sights

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Aside from their many temples, hanok villages and museums, South Korea has a whole catalog of activities to offer tourists. You will never run out of things to see and do when you’re there. We visited as many sights and attractions as we could. That was the goal. Here are some of my stops:

DONGDAEMUN DESIGN PLAZA (DDP)
Accessible from: Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Exit 1.
What I Saw/Did:
– I was lucky enough to be in South Korea when the My Love from the Star Exhibit was on display at DDP. It was exciting to see the actual set pieces and props from the show.
Why Go There:
Feel free to stop by if you feel like there’s currently an exhibit that may be worth your time. It was mostly fortunate timing on our part that this became one of our first stops during the trip.
**I just learned that the same exhibit is currently ongoing until 08.31.2015! However, it’s now at KINTEX 2 Outdoor Special Exhibition. Don’t miss it!

N SEOUL TOWER
Accessible from: Myeong-dong Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), walk for about 15 minutes to reach the street laying next to Pacific Hotel. The boarding place should be seen.
What I Saw/Did:
– The line to the cable car was pretty long; so my companions and I took a risk and conquered the long, winding staircase up Namsan Mountain. We were all VERY exhausted by the time we reached the top.
– Saw the famous Locks of Love.
– Visited Alive Museum and took a lot of hilarious pictures. This served as our alternative to the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae, which we didn’t have time to go to anymore.
– Went up the observatory to see fantastic views of Seoul.
– Wrote on postcards and sent them to my parents.
– Shopped at the observatory gift shop.
– Rode the cable car going down Namsan Mountain.
Why Go There:
The view from the observatory is just beautiful. This is one of those places that you must go to when in Seoul… especially if you’re with a loved one. It is especially good to start going up just when the sun is about to set. That way, you’d get to see the view as it transitions from day to night (like I did).

CHEONGGYECHEON STREAM
Accessible from:
– City Hall, Jonggak, Jongno 3-ga, Jongno 5-ga, Dongdaemun, Sinseol-dong (Seoul Subway Line 1)
– City Hall, Euljiro 1-ga, Euljiro 3-ga, Euljiro 4-ga, Sindang, Sangwangsimni (Seoul Subway Line 2)
– Jongno 3-ga (Seoul Subway Line 1, 3 and 5)
– Dongdaemun History & Culture Park (Seoul Subway Line 4)
– Gwanghwamun (Seoul Subway Line 5)
What I Saw/Did:
– Took a leisurely walk along the stream.
– Watched a laser show.
– Dipped my toes in the shallow stream and rested for a bit while doing some people watching.
Why Go There:
This is a very relaxing place to go to. Here, you can take it easy and just walk around to appreciate the sights and sounds of the many attractions along this long stretch.

HANGANG RIVER FERRY CRUISE
Accessible from: Yeouinaru Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 3 OR Sincheon Station (Seoul Subway Line 2), Exit 6.
What I Saw/Did:
– Enjoyed the 40-minute Sail Around Course that gave a glimpse of the many attractions that can be seen from the Hangang River which flows through Seoul.
Why Go There:
This is one of our stops that I enjoyed the most. It was simply relaxing to feel the wind through my hair, see the sights along the river and take many, many pictures. This is another activity that is best experienced just before sunset so you hit that magic hour.

NAMI ISLAND
Accessible from: Chuncheon Station (Gyeongchun Line). Purchase the shuttle bus ticket that allows you to go around Chuncheon for a package rate. This is especially ideal if you also plan to stop by Petite France and/or Garden of the Morning Calm. Be aware of the scheduled stops, though! They are always on time!
What I Saw/Did:
– Walked around the tiny island and enjoyed nature! Again, I took a lot of pictures.
– Saw the famous Winter Sonata film locations (although I haven’t watched that particular series).
Why Go There:
If you love nature, feel free to visit Nami Island; because it is definitely a beautiful place where you could just take a walk and appreciate the trees, flowers and ponds… You might even spot a squirrel or two (I saw a bunch of them all over the island!). If you’re a fan of Winter Sonata, then there’s no doubt you must visit this place.

PETITE FRANCE
Accessible from: Refer to Nami Island (above)
What I Saw/Did:
– Enjoyed this charming French cultural village inspired by the book The Little Prince. Picture picture!
Why Go There:
If you’ve watched Secret Garden and My Love from the Star (like I have), then visiting this place will feel quite surreal… definitely a must-see. If not, then simply be drawn by the adorable and colorful houses that surround the place. It’s all really cute and picturesque.

BANPO BRIDGE RAINBOW FOUNTAIN
Accessible from: Dongjak Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Exit 1 or 2.
What I Saw/Did:
– Sat by the riverside, had some chicken & beer, and enjoyed the lights show.
Why Go There:
This is another one of those places where you could sit back, relax and enjoy the view in front of you. It was just so chill seeing all the other people doing the same thing; and I really loved the atmosphere.

EVERLAND
Accessible from:
– Sinnonhyeon Station, Gangnam Station, Yangjae Station: Bus 5002
– Pangyo, Segok-dong, Suseo Station, Songpa Station, Jamsil Station, Gangbyeon Station: Bus 5700
– Sadang Station, Nambu Terminal (Bundang and Gwangju via): Bus 1500-2
– Gangbyeon Station, Gangdong Station (via Gwangju): Bus 1113
What I Saw/Did:
– Enjoyed the rides, shows and attractions.
Why Go There:
It’s THE theme park to go to when in South Korea… a must when you’re with kids or with friends. Don’t miss T Express, Rotating House, Rolling X Train and Hurricane. Also, if you have time, be sure to catch the K-Pop Hologram show, watch their afternoon and night parades, and don’t ever miss the fireworks/laser show at night before closing.

From the exciting, to the relaxing, to the breathtaking… South Korea has a lot to offer kids and adults alike. It is a beautiful country filled with endless surprises and stunning attractions. I really loved seeing all these places.

enjoying the Hangang River Ferry Cruise

enjoying the Hangang River Ferry Cruise

Previous Post – Pieces of History
Up Next – Stop! Shop! Eat!

Korea 2014: Pieces of History

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My friends and I were in South Korea for a considerable amount of time… definitely longer than your average tour. However, it still felt like we had more to see and more to do. The country is just so rich in culture, history and even modern attractions that it was impossible to hit all the stops in our original itinerary. Something was always bound to distract us from our plan; and that’s what I loved about the flexibility and ease of our trip. That is why I won’t go into our day-to-day activities. I will instead write about certain highlights and attractions based on what they have in common. Hopefully, these posts could give suggestions as to where you should go and what you should prioritize depending on your main objective in going to this country.

South Korea undoubtedly has a rich history… a country that went through a number of challenges before becoming the developed economy that it is now. Much like Japan, Korea shows great appreciation for their heritage by rebuilding and preserving relics that remind people about their past. And if you’re the type who loves to learn about history and catching glimpses of what life might have been like before, here are some attractions that you may want to visit:

BUKCHON HANOK VILLAGE
Accessible from: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 2.
What I Saw/Did:
– Walked around and saw the many traditional houses (called hanok) in the area.
– Experienced an overnight hanok stay in Manaedang. There are a number of guesthouses that accommodate tourists and visitors… allowing them to briefly immerse in one aspect of Korean culture.
– Did some window shopping. There are a number of adorable shops and small stores that sell various souvenirs.
Why Go There:
It’s definitely a charming place that brings you to the past; but it’s also mixed with subtle hints of modernity (through the many coffee shops, gift shops and even churches) that show you how far they’ve come.

GYEONGBOKGUNG PALACE
Accessible from: Gyeongbokgung Palace Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5 OR Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 2.
What I Saw/Did:
– Watched the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony.
– Toured the grounds in the company of a student guide. These are young Koreans who volunteer during the weekends and offer free tours. We were approached by the exit of the subway station and of course, we said yes! It’s a really good program that allows them to interact with tourists and practice their English.
– Got lost in the HUGE Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds… and to think this is just a fraction of how it was when it was originally built (side note: The current Gyeongbokgung Palace is already a restoration of the original structure because it was destroyed during the war).
Why Go There:
This is a must see historical landmark when in Korea. Allow yourself to get lost in the beautiful structures and the magnificent views from all angles.

MYEONG-DONG CATHEDRAL
Accessible from: Myeong-dong Subway Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Exit 8
What I Saw/Did:
– Saw Pope Francis and heard mass in Korean.
– Visited and prayed in the cathedral.
Why Go There:
Again, I was lucky enough to be there in time for the Pope’s visit. If you’re a devout Catholic, it would be interesting to see the birthplace of the Roman Catholic Church community in Korea.

DMZ TOUR (Korean Demilitarized Zone)
Accessible from: special tour that I suggest you book with an agent
What I Saw/Did:
– Got a brief history lesson and learned about the division of North and South Korea.
– Went down the Third Tunnel (one of the tunnels linking North to South Korea, which were believed to have been planned as a military invasion route by North Korea). This is 240ft below ground. The trip down was tiring but fascinating nonetheless. I was a few hundred feet away from North Korea!
– Saw a glimpse of North Korea (though from a great great distance) and the demarcation line between the two countries.
– Visited Dorasan Station, the last railway stop in South Korea that links them to North Korea.
Why Go There: Even with a half-day tour (There’s a whole day option available.), it was a really interesting crash course into the background of the division between North and South Korea. If you love history, this is something you should definitely experience.

NAMSANGOL HANOK VILLAGE
Accessible from: Chungmuro Station (Seoul Subway Line 3 & 4), Exit 4.
What I Saw/Did:
– Took a leisurely walk around the village that features 5 restored traditional Korean houses. (Also took a lot of pictures!)
Why Go There:
Namsangol Hanok Village serves as a showcase of traditional Korean houses from the Joseon Dynasty. The 5 houses restored and featured in this village range from those owned by a peasant to those owned by a king’s family. We just missed the hanbok wearing experience by a few minutes; but you could definitely do it here for a small fee. In addition to that, there are different ceremonies that you could witness or even experience and traditional games that you could play. It’s a great cultural immersion.

SUWON HWASEONG FORTRESS
Accessible from: Suwon Station (Seoul Subway Line 1). Take Bus 2, 7, 7-2, 8, or 13 and get off at Jongno 4-geori (intersection).
What I Saw/Did:
– We got lost getting there… But we got there; and that’s what’s important!
– Took in the sights and took pictures.
Why Go There:
The Suwon Hwaseong Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a very imposing structure, a very long walk (if you go from one end to the other), but at its core, it’s simply an impressive historical site to see.

UNHYEONGUNG PALACE
Accessible from: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3) Exit 4 OR Jongno 3-ga Station (Seoul Subway Line 5) Exit 4
What I Saw/Did:
– Got a chance to wear a traditional hanbok and went around the grounds taking pictures.
Why Go There:
This is an example of a royal residence from the Joseon Dynasty right in the heart of the city. It’s a small compound; but it’s another opportunity to have a glimpse of the past and how royals lived during that time. Like Namsangol Hanok Village, Unhyeongung Palace offers activities that allow tourists to experience some cultural immersion while in Korea.

hanbok wearing experience in Unhyeongung Royal Residence

hanbok wearing experience in Unhyeongung Palace

There are definitely a few other sites we planned to see (a couple more temples, palaces and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites); but these few pieces of history allowed us to travel back in time and served as a good introduction into the culture, history and heritage of South Korea.

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Korea 2014: Free and Easy

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Before I touch on the sights to see in Korea, I will share with you my day-to-day itinerary for this trip. This could serve as a rough template if you plan to go there soon.

My friends and I spent 11 days there during the summer-monsoon season. The weather was a bit unpredictable. It was raining one day, sunny the next… much like here in the Philippines. It was good that we kept our plans free and easy. We shuffled and rearranged destinations depending on what we could physically fit in one day. It also allowed us to be flexible and adjust depending on weather (not to mention our stamina for that day). We also modified our itinerary a bit; because we had to fit a once in a lifetime chance to see Pope Francis. We were lucky enough to be there when he visited. In the end, we still missed going to some places from what we originally plotted out; but we still saw/did a LOT of things while having a great time and that’s what mattered.

We usually started our day just before lunch and ended around midnight (or later) back at the hotel. It involved some getting lost, I have to be honest (though rarely); but at the end of the day, the experience of being free to explore as we go along… not being hauled off into a bus for every stop made the trip all the more enriching. We got to drink in the sights, take a rest when we needed to, and take lots of photos (*wink wink*).

Day 1:
– 0915 Arrival in Incheon
– Hanokstay (Manaedang) Check-In/Explore Area
– My Love from the Star Exhibition (Dongdaemun Design Plaza)
Day 2:
– Hanokstay (Manaedang) Check-Out
– Bukchon Hanok Village
– Rio House Check-In
– EDAE (Ehwa Women’s University)
– Hongdae Night Life
Day 3:
– Hongdae Free Market
– Myeongdong
– Namsan Seoul Tower (Locks of Love/Alive Museum/Observatory)
Day 4:
– Gyeongbokgung Palace
– Gwanghwamun Gate
– Cheonggyecheon Stream
Day 5:
– Pope Francis Mass
– Myeongdong Cathedral
– Hangang River Ferry Cruise
– Dongdaemun (Lotte Fitin)
Day 6:
– Nami Island
– Petite France
Day 7:
– DMZ Tour (with Ginseng Center/Cosmetics Center)
– Namsangol Hanok Village
– Myeongdong Shopping
– Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain
Day 8:
– Gangnam Underground Shopping Center
– Insadong
Day 9:
– Everland
Day 10:
– Suwon Hwaseong Fortress
– Lotte Mart
Day 11:
– Rio House Check-Out
– Unhyeongung Palace (Hanbok Wearing)
– Hello Kitty Cafe
– 2135 Departure from Incheon

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Korea 2014: An Overview

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For the past few years, it has been my goal to go to at least one new destination every year. For 2014, that place is South Korea… where I spent a total of 11 days. Honestly, it still wasn’t enough too see everything I wanted to see; but I think me and my companions made the most of it.

Since there are a lot of places to cover, I will spread my Korea sojourn across a number of entries. However, I will only pick certain highlights from my trip which could also serve as my recommendations when you do decide to take a trip in the near future.

I will kick things off with an overview of my recent trip… From plane tickets and visa application to basic transportation and food.

PISO FARE Never Fails

Year round, Cebu Pacific holds a number of Piso Fare Promos that could save you thousands in plane fares alone. Other airlines like Air Asia and even Philippine Airlines also hold frequent seat sales. It always pays off keeping your eyes peeled for a promo.

Thanks to a Piso Fare Promo, the round-trip tickets to Incheon International Airport set me a back a mere Php8,000++. It was a really good price given the destination.

VISA APPLICATION

I applied for my tourist visa without coursing it through a travel agency; and I’m proud to have gone through the process myself. A month before your trip is an appropriate allowance to apply. Offhand, here is the list of requirements:

1. Application Form
2. 1 piece Passport size colored picture
3. Original Passport (should be valid for more than 6 months)
4. Photocopy of Passport Bio-page (page 2)
5. Original & Photocopy of valid visa/s and arrival stamps to OECD member countries for the past 5 years (If applicable, and Korean Visas will not be counted)
6. Original Certificate of Employment (with contact number/s & address of company and date of issue)
7. Original Personal Bank Certificate (NOT Bank Statement)
8. Photocopy of ITR (Income Tax Return) or Form 2316
•If personally invited by Korean : Invitation Letter & Copy of invitor’s Passport
•If invited by Company in Korea: Invitation Letter & Copy of Korean Company Business Permit
■ Processing Time: 3 working days (for those who have visas of OECD member countries); 5 working days (for those who do not have visas of OECD member
countries)
■ Visa Fee: 59 days (or less) stay in Korea — GRATIS; 60 to 90 days stay in Korea — PHP1,800.00
Source: Embassy Website

Submission of documents is between 9-11am during weekdays; and claiming of visa/passport is between 2-4pm during weekdays.

The requirements are fairly easy to complete. What’s important is that you check and double check everything before submitting it to the consul. It’s also important to make sure that your documents proving source of income (Certificate of Employment, ITR) and savings (Bank Certificate) are substantial enough; so that they won’t doubt your ability to sustain yourself for the trip. It also helps if you’ve had a couple of out of the country trips stamped on your passport… better if you’ve been to other OECD member countries in the past 5 years.

Here are some great sources for tips on Korean Visa Application:
Our Awesome Planet | The Eager Traveller

CURRENCY: Korean Won (KRW)

The unit of currency in South Korea is the Korean Won (KRW). KRW1 is approximately equivalent to Php0.045; and USD$1 is approximately equivalent to KRW1,013. The best rates for foreign exchange could be found in Myeongdong area.

ACCOMMODATION: Rio House Hongdae

We stayed in a really charming and affordable inn called Rio House Hongdae. Its location is really great. It’s near a subway station. It is also walking distance from the hustle and bustle that is Hongdae (great area for night life/food/shopping). The rooms are cozy and comfortable and it had all the basic amenities one could ever need when staying in Seoul. There’s no breakfast offered; but there’s a kitchen, free WiFi and assistance from the manager/owner when you need it.

Deluxe Family Room for a maximum of 4 people (photo from Rio House Hongdae site)

My friends and I stayed in the Deluxe Family Room; and together with a portable WiFi rental (one of the most useful items we had on hand the whole trip), we spent an average of KRW40,222 (or Php1810) per day per person. The rooms offered may go up to a maximum of 6 people sharing. The more people in a room, the cheaper it will be per head.

TRANSPORTATION: Seoul Metro/Korail System

Seoul Metropolitan Subway

Seoul Metropolitan Subway Map

From our arrival to our departure, the Seoul Metro and the Korail served as our go-to means of transportation. It is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to go around the city without getting lost (most of the time). Compared to Osaka Subway, I found the Korean subway/train system fairly easier to navigate. If you need an easier guide, however, they actually have an app for that —

Subway Korea

This app is available on the App Store (iOS) and on Google Play (Android). Aside from an overview of the subway system, you could also click on your source and destination to know which is the fastest way to get there. It also provides transfer timetable, station and area guide. You could also determine the nearest station based on your current location.

In some instances, taking the bus or taxi would be a more practical way of getting around depending on your destination. However, about 95% of our trip involved riding the subway.

T-Money

The easiest way to pay for transportation is the T-money card. I was able to purchase mine from a convenience store at the airport for KRW3,000 (approx Php135). I then reloaded an initial amount of KRW30,000 (approx Php1350) with reloading machines at the station. This covered for about 5-6 days of riding the trains/buses including the Airport Railroad.

FOOD: Spicy to Sweet

just some of the food I ate throughout my trip

Koreans love food. It is evident from the numerous street food stalls to various restaurants to coffee shops that are present in almost every block. If you want to cover the extremes, be ready to eat some really spicy food and really sweet desserts. You will inevitably encounter some type of alcohol as well… either beer or soju. Just don’t be afraid to explore the streets for something new and different.

Must-try: Korean BBQ in all its forms (chicken, beef, pork, octopus), bibimbap (rice dish), chicken and beer (get the local beer such as Cass), chicken ginseng soup, any form of ice cream, any egg dish (steamed egg or egg roll), any street food (hotdogs and assorted fried food), any appetizer (especially kimchi), shaved ice dessert, any coffee or dessert from a local cafe.

SIGHTS: Past and Present Collide

a major road right in front of Gwanghwamun Gate

What definitely stood out from my exploration of Korea is how historical sites exist in the midst of a busy metropolitan setting. Hanoks (traditional Korean houses) are in line with modern residences. Palaces are preserved within their own gates; but it’s surrounded by busy intersections and high rise buildings. South Korea has also preserved a number of areas and turned them into places where everyone could just hang out or walk around. One would never run out of places to see and things to do. It’s a really beautiful country.

I will cover more of these sites in my next entries. I can’t wait to share more about my epic trip!

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