USA 2016: An Overview

usa-2016

Last year, I took the leap and went out of the Asian continent… to United States of America! It’s a dream destination I didn’t think I would go to until after a few years; but I DID IT! I took a trip to Japan earlier in the year (during spring no less!); so this sudden trip made an unexpected dent in my savings; but looking back, I have absolutely NO REGRETS. The entire trip was well worth the months of hard work, planning and extreme saving. (Side note: Don’t worry. I’m all covered. Everything’s been paid up even before 2016 ended. I’m saving up for a whole other trip now.)

My brother and I went to three main destinations for 11 days (from September 30 to October 10): San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, not counting the time it took to fly to and from the USA. This gave us roughly 3-4 days per city, with a couple of hours drive from one city to another in between. Given the short period of time, we had to be precise and discerning when it came to our itinerary. We had to give up certain destinations if it didn’t seem feasible; and we had to separate if there were sights/shows that we didn’t mutually want to go to. Compromise, swift decision-making and flexibility proved key in making the trip a jam-packed yet enjoyable one.

Before I go into highlights from each destination, I’m going to share some lessons based on my experience. From the ever-dreaded Visa application to eating out, let me drop some wisdom (if you’re willing to call it that), which could hopefully guide you if you’re planning on a trip like this anytime soon.

Visa Application

Even before planning our itinerary any seriously, I had to secure a Visa from the US Embassy. It’s one of the notoriously difficult tourist Visas to get; but honesty, comprehensiveness and preparedness helped me get approved. I wrote an extensively detailed account of my Visa application. You may just check it out here and here.

Booking The Flight to Surviving The Flight

Grab those cheap seats. A seat sale was still crucial in getting a good deal on plane tickets. I kept checking Philippine Airlines from time to time; and when the sale came around (This was end of May – even before my Visa appointment), I took the risk and booked tickets anyway. We ended up paying for round trip tickets to and from San Francisco at approximately $700 (Php33,000 – This was when the exchange rate hasn’t hit the Php50 mark) per head. CHEAP!

Exit row = comfort + survival. A few weeks before the flight, my brother then suggested we upgrade to EXIT row seats for $100 per way. I highly recommend you do this if you can shoulder the cost. Getting to sit in the exit row meant more leg room where you can stretch and stand from time to time – a must for a non-stop 14-hour flight. It was officially the first long haul flight I’ve ever taken; and I consider paying the extra $200 for exit row seats WORTH IT. I now plan to do this for any long-haul flights I take in the future.

Comforts in-flight. For the flight itself, there were two meals included. The flight staff also provided a small kit, a blanket and a pillow for your comfort. The kit had basic essentials such as an eye cover, toothpaste and toothbrush, among others. Make sure to pack a small survival kit of your own if you’d like. My personal kit contained toothbrush, toothpaste, facial wash, small snacks, etc. I also brought my own travel pillow. Fourteen hours in one giant metal flying container is sure to make you itch for a bath; so anything to refresh yourself before you land would have to be a must!

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Watched Sing Street in-flight. Good movie!

Jet lag prep. The flight to your destination is also the perfect time to reprogram your body clock for the inevitable JET LAG that’s about to hit you. It took me about 2-3 days to fully adjust; but it wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be. What I did on the flight probably helped a bit; so I’m sharing with you the technique which worked for me: Make the most out of the in-flight entertainment and just KEEP YOURSELF AWAKE for the longest time your body could possibly allow you.

Right before leaving, set your phone to the local destination time (In this case, San Francisco); so you know the time you’re working with. We left Manila around 10pm… sleepy time, right? After dinner, I resisted the urge to shut my eyes and just watched one movie after another. I started with Sing Street, then TITANIC (3 hour movie) before dozing off. A few hours after, I woke up again and watched a tv show and another movie.

For the next 2-3 days, I was usually sleepy around 3-4 in the afternoon (San Francisco time); but sheer willpower and proper sleep in the evening (around 9/10pm) allowed my body to adjust quite well.

Now, I’m not guaranteeing that this technique will work… to each their own; but I’m just sharing my personal experience handling jet lag.

Continue reading “USA 2016: An Overview”

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My US Visa Experience: Part 2

Important Note: I applied for a NON-IMMIGRANT B1/B2 (Business/Tourism) CATEGORY VISA; so anything different from this particular subject will not be covered.

Schedule An Interview

  1. Go to this link: http://cgifederal.secure.force.com/
  2. Click on “New User?” and create an account.
  3. Once you have an account, log in and click on New Application/Schedule Appointment
  4. Follow the steps with the necessary information. Be ready with your passport details, Receipt Number and Application ID.
  5. Select the date and time of the interview.
  6. Select the method of delivery. I chose to pick it up at a 2Go outlet near me; but you may opt to have it delivered straight to your home/office. The delivery is already covered in the application fee; so there’s no need to pay for this anymore.
  7. Schedule the appointment.
  8. An Appointment Confirmation will be generated. Print this out. You may also have a copy sent to your email address.

I M P O R T A N T !

There’s a grace period before your application fee payment/Receipt Number goes through the system. Refer to this page http://ustraveldocs.com/ph/ph-niv-paymentinfo.asp under Scheduling Your Interview for full details on the timelines.

T I P !

Unless you’re really confident and complete with your supporting documents, I suggest scheduling the interview at least three weeks from submission of the DS-160 form. That way, you have enough time to gather all the documents you may want to bring to the interview. But this might, of course, turn out to be unnecessary. More on that later.

Go to The Interview

  1. Bring the following:
    1. Appointment Confirmation (all pages)
    2. Original MRV Fee Receipt: Php7680 Deposit Slip Confirmation
    3. Valid Passport
    4. DS-160 Confirmation Page
    5. 2×2 Photo
    6. supporting documents proving socio-economic ties to the country. Here’s what I brought:
      1. old passport
      2. latest ITR
      3. bank certificate
      4. employment certificate
      5. credit card statements from two accounts for the past 3 months
  2. Arrive at the US Embassy Consul at least 15 minutes before your scheduled interview. There’s no need to arrive hours and hours before your schedule to line up.

T I P S !

  • You are not allowed to unload people right in front of the US Embassy. I suggest you park/be dropped off where Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf is (Avenue of the Arts, 1388 Roxas Blvd corner Sta. Monica Street) and get across via the overpass.
  • If your appointment is really early, you will see a bunch of monoblock chairs situated near the entrance to the tents. Those aren’t free. That’s Php30 for a seat. It’s cheap; but I sat without knowing I had to pay for the chair. Oh well… had to pay up.
  • Do not bring any electronic or battery-operated device, big bags/backpacks, anything with an on/off switch, any flame generating device or sharp objects. They are very strict with this. There are people outside who are willing to hold your valuable items for a fee.
  • There are people offering to sell black ballpens as well. You don’t need these. Don’t buy.
  • If you arrive around 30-45 minutes before your scheduled interview, I suggest you go ahead and enter the first barricade. Chances are there’s already a line that has formed waiting for the go signal to enter.
  • US Embassy personnel will put up signs giving notice as to which schedule is already being processed (ex. Now Processing Non-immigrant Visa 7:00am). Once your schedule is up, people are led to the first security check.

Continue reading “My US Visa Experience: Part 2”

My US Visa Experience: Part 1

Important Note: I applied for a NON-IMMIGRANT B1/B2 (Business/Tourism) CATEGORY VISA; so anything different from this particular subject will not be covered.

A number of bloggers have shared their personal US Visa stories online; and they’ve been really helpful to me. I promised myself that if successful, I will pay it forward and share my story as well. Hopefully, my own experience will help someone out in successfully obtaining a US Tourist Visa.

First, a little about myself just so you have an idea of my profile:

  • single
  • no children
  • 31 years old
  • no immediate family in the US
  • applying alone
  • working in the same company for almost a decade
  • 5-figure monthly salary
  • traveled to a number of countries within Asia: Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Japan

For the first five details I shared, I am someone usually categorized as a “high-risk” candidate – one who is most likely to go TNT and not come back to the Philippines. However, the last three details prove my strong economic ties to the country and my love for travel. What’s not on paper, though, is that I genuinely just want to go to the US for sight-seeing. I believe this is a big part of what made my application result in an approval. I will elaborate on this more once I share my interview experience.

To be as comprehensive as possible, I will start from the beginning… from deciding to apply all the way to picking up my Visa/passport. In between, I will share some tips or insights I picked up along the way.

Deciding to Apply

During early May, my brother mentioned an exhibition he’s planning to attend in Las Vegas late this year. He also mentioned wanting to visit Silicon Valley during that same trip. I suddenly became very interested. I’ve been wanting to go to the US for a long time – Hollywood, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Golden Gate Bridge, Grand Canyon (the list goes on and on)… and that’s just in the west coast! Why don’t I tag along? I certainly feel like I could set aside enough money in time for the trip. I also felt like I’m not getting any younger, right? It’s time.

After a quick Google Maps search, a trip from San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge, Silicon Valley) to Los Angeles (Hollywood!! Harry Potter!!!) to Las Vegas (main reason for the trip where the exhibition will be, near Grand Canyon) is very feasible. The idea just sounded better and better the more I thought about it. My head just kept on thinking, “Why not? Just take the plunge. Try to apply for a tourist visa. The worst that could happen is that I would be denied and the money I could potentially save will go towards a different trip.”

And with that, I decided to apply for that infamous and allegedly elusive US Visa.

Continue reading “My US Visa Experience: Part 1”

Going Solo in Coron

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.

Korea 2014: Stop! Shop! Eat!

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

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

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Korea 2014: Pieces of History

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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