South Korea, Travel Diaries

Seoul on Budget Day 1: Mt Namsan, NSeoul Tower, Myeongdong

Finally had a chance to review my itinerary during my five day-four night stay in Seoul. We spent a total of PHP20,000 covering hostel stay, tours, food and beverage, sight seeing and even a bit of shopping in Myeongdong. What’s not included is the PHP8,000 RT air fare we got from AirAsia. At the Manila airport, we already paid about PHp2,200 for our travel tax and terminal fee.

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Photo above was one of our favorites. We are lucky to have caught the end of Autumn as Winter was just about to start.

Here’s the low-down of the Great Seoul Searching Trip, Part Deux:

Arrivals

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Our Air Asia flight Z2884 left Manila at exactly 7AM and arrived a bit ahead of schedule at Icheon International Airport shortly before 12NN. Flying time from Manila to Seoul is about 4 hours. Seoul is an hour ahead from Manila. From the passenger concourse of the Incheon International Airport, we were transferred to the Main Terminal which houses Immigration and Baggage Claim via the IATs (Intra Airport Transit). We were caught in a wide influx of passengers, all who arrived at the same time as ours — so train was crowded and lines to Immigration a bit long. However, the efficient management of lines, and quick arrival of the IATs made sure that we are out of the airport in less than 45 minutes.

Traveling to the City
There are numerous ways to get out of Incheon and to the city center (Seoul) but we will just discuss the Limo Bus since it’s the one we used to get out of the airport. Stay-In-GAM (our hostel) gave us directions on how to go to their hotel based near Insadong through the 6011 bus. Also included in the email is a voucher which was to be used to get a KRW1,000 discount out of the KRW10,000 bus fare from Incheon International Airport to the Changdeukgong Bus Stop which was just a few steps away from our hostel. However, as mentioned in my earlier post, this became irrelevant since the uncle bus drivers did not honor the voucher. We paid our fare the usual way, by dropping our crisp KRW10,000, fresh from one of the international ATMs using my BPI ATM card. Note that you can withdraw money direct from any international ATMs in Korea, this is way more convenient and with bigger exchange rate compared to changing money at the airport. In our case, we got our KRWs from one of the many ATMs lining the area near the Waiting Area (where people wait for their arriving families/friends).

Note: You may need to have the international withdrawal capability of your ATM activated at your local bank prior to departure. For BPI, we dropped by the branch nearest my office and informed the officer that we will be using my ATM abroad. You will be asked by the bank officer to fill up a form and voila — ATM is activated within 24 hours.

The 6011 Limo Bus is perfect for those staying the “palace row” – basically what we call the area which has the nearest cluster of palaces like the Gyeongbukgung Palace near Gwangwahmun Square, Changdeokgung, Unhyeongung and Changgyeongung. Deoksugung meanwhile was the lone hold-out, being located near the City Hall instead. 6011 will also take you to Insadong as well as the university area closest to the Gyeongbukgung Palace.

Expenses: KRW10,000 (PHP408.00) for bus fare

Accommodations

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We stayed at the amazing Stay-In-GAM Hostel for five days and four nights. Total bill is KRW248,000 or PHP10,118 for a twin room, includes TAX and breakfast. Individually, we each paid PHP5,059 (my friend and I split the cost of stay) or about PHP1,265 per night. Not bad for a room in a safe and secure hotel with comfortable amenities thrown in as well as free breakfast for all 5 days. Hostel is about 10 to 15 minute walk to the nearest subway.

Read more of my review of Stay-In-GAM here.

Expenses: PHP5,059.00 per person (5D, 4N stay)

Sight-seeing/Attractions

Day 1: Mt. Namsan, NSeoul Tower and Myeongdong.
After a bit of freshening up, my friend and I began our day by walking again to the Gyeongbukgung Palace to hang around for a bit near the palace gates, then took the trains going to Myeongdong. We opted to skip the T-Money and instead used the card dispensers everytime. Card dispensers in Seoul are very easy to use as there is both an English, Japanese and Chinese instructions. Once you get the hang of it as well as identifying destinations and transfers, the Seoul Metro will be your new best friend.

At Mt. Namsan, we took the cable car to the viewing deck nearest the tower. Fare for the cable car is KRW8,500 which you can purchase at the ticketing office located near the base of the mountain. If you are coming from Myeongdong area, you will have to take the sidewalk elevator located near the Namsan-3 tunnel. For K-drama fanatics, yes — this is the way to go up the cable cars where Gu Jun-Pyo and Geum Jan-Di got stuck during their supposed first date in “Boys Over Flowers” and to the same viewing deck where they had the KRW30,000 coffee.

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The elevator ride is free but you have to pay KRW8,500 for a RT ride to the cable car and another KRW9,000 as payment for entrance to the Nseoul Tower observatory. We paid KRW20,000 because we opted to get the Entrance + Drinks + large tub of popcorn for 2 package.

The viewing deck which you will see after alighting from the cable car houses the famed “Locks of Love” wall. The locks were actually located in different areas along the viewing deck. You can buy your heart-shaped locks from any of the vendors located within the viewing deck or from the NSeoul Tower Souvenir Shop. Locks usually retail from KRW5,000 to KRW10,000 — a usual design is a heart-shaped lock which sometimes came with a small frame (in case you want to include you and your beloved’s face – hehe!).

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At the Sky Observatory, you will be treated to a magnificent, 360 degree view of Seoul. Of course, it goes without saying that the best time to visit NSeoul Tower is at night or during sunset where you can see the changing colors of the sky as well as the night lights of Seoul coming to life.

Since it was almost winter, it was very cold when we went up Mt. Namsan. I mentioned before that I lost my jacket somewhere in Myeongdong on my way to the elevator. Yes, I was the only person that night crazy enough to stay on top of Mt. Namsan wearing nothing but a flimsy Joker-printed shirt, jeans, Chucks and my trusty beanie.

We grabbed dinner at Myeongdong where I introduced my friend to the wonders of Yoogane, which serves a mean combo of spicy chicken, rice and melted cheese.

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A single serve of Marinated Chicken Galbi, with fried rice is KRW6,000, add KRW2,000 for the Mozzarella Cheese. Yoogane offers unlimited servings of shredded cabbage salad, pickled radish and kimchi as sides. Plus, refillable pitchers of water which you will badly need especially if you have low tolerance to spicy food. When I first ate at Yoogane in 2012, I remembered requesting the server to temper the spice level. This time, I forgot to request to make it less spicy so you can just imagine the tears and the amount of sweat we had while trying to finish everything.

DAY 1 TOTAL EXPENSES:

Pre-departure expenses: PHP2,200
Limo Bus 6011 fare: KRW10,000 (PHP408)
Accommodations: KRW124,000 (PHp5,059) per pax
Sightseeing
Cable car ride KRW8,500 (PHP347)
Entrance + Food KRW10,000 (PHP408) each (Observatory)
Dinner at Yoogane KRW8,000 (PHP326)

TOTAL: KRW160,500 (PHP6,548) + PHP2,200 (pre-departure expense) = PHP8,748
Note: Based on latest exchange rates. Prices are rounded off.

This post is too lengthy already, to be continued for days 2-4


DISCLAIMER:
Prices indicated are based on the quoted price during my visit to Seoul last November 2014. Prices are subject to change, depending on merchant policies.

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South Korea

Bucket list item checked: A visit to the DMZ – Joint Security Area (JSA)

I am writing first about my visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA) because this is the most unforgettable part of my second trip to South Korea.

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For the longest time, I’ve always wanted to see the DMZ – blame it on my fascination with war movies, with history and a paperback novel set during the Korean War. So, when the opportunity to come back to Korea was presented last November, I made sure that a visit to the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone and the Joint Security Area (JSA) is in order.

First: DMZ/JSA – A quick background

According to Wikipedia – The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ; Hangul: 한반도 비무장지대) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ is a de-facto border barrier, which runs in the vicinity of the 38th parallel north. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces in 1953. (Source)

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To put it simply, the DMZ is the area between North and South Korea where military activity is prohibited in any area within 4 kilometers of the boarder. In spite its name, the DMZ is actually heavily-armed, with military patrols manning both sides of the fence at all times, as well as landmines planted along the boarder. True, while you can’t see any guns or tanks or anything that would hint the presence of weaponry in the area–there will always be a heavy feeling, like a feeling of being watched at all times, constantly and vigilantly

Within the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA) also called Panmunjeom. This is the area containing the blue buildings (also referred to as the Conference Row). These is where talks between the two countries are usually held. Fronting the conference buildings are the Freedom Building (South Korea side – where you will stand during the tour to look into the North) and the Panmungak House in the North.

How do I get to the DMZ? Can I do it on my own?

If you want to go to the DMZ, you have to arrange for a tour with any of the affiliated-tourist companies in Seoul. This is if you are entering from the South Korean side. There are many tour companies, with almost the same rates and you can get in touch with them thru email to inquire or confirm a tour.

In our case, we picked Seoul City Tour, which is one of the trusted tour providers in the city. We also saw some good reviews regarding their service on the net, that’s why we chose to get in touch with them. You can send an inquiry online and they are known to answer immediately.A typical tour to Panmunjeom usually costs around KRW95,000, (about PHP3,800). Upon confirmation of your preferred date, the agency will send you instructions on how to complete payment online, as well as strict instructions to send them a scanned copy of your passport. Passport copies are usually submitted to the UN Security Council for their approval two to three days prior to your actual trip to the JSA. Note that some nationalities are prohibited from entering the JSA, including citizens of South Korea. The agency will also remind you of the strict dress code as well as somne do’s and don’ts during the trip.

The fact that North and South Korea is still, technically, at war; and that strict security measures has to be observed are just some of the reasons why a DYI-trip to the JSA is not possible.

The tour – what to expect

1. On the day of the tour, you will be advised by the agency to proceed to the International Cultural Service Club (ICSC) office located at the 6F of the Lotte Hotel in Myeongdong. At the ICSC office, I realized that regardless of which agency booked your tour, you will still be directed to the ICSC office which solely handles tours to the JSA.

2. At the ICSC, you will be handed a bus voucher, with strict instructions to find your assigned bus parked at the 2F of the Lotte Hotel. Proceed to the 2F and present the voucher to the tour guide inside your assigned bus. Your busmates will automatically become your group mates during the tour.

3. Travel going to the North Korean border is about an hour and a half. Along the highway, you will see barbed wires and fences along the sea. Our guide said that this is protection against defectors. It is also during the bus trip that the tour guide will share about the history of the Korean War. For a history buff like me, this is where I was all-ears even while some of my bus mates tried to catch some sleep.

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4. You will first arrive at Camp Bonifas where you will be asked to sign a waiver absolving the tour company of any liability should there a fight broke out between the North and South during the visit. After all, the both sides are still technically at war. But I assure you, this is just formality and the probability of war breaking out while you are enjoying the view is as possible as a zombie apocalypse breaking out while you are aiming your camera at the Panmungak.

5. From Camp Bonifas, you will be transferred to another bus who will bring you to the JSA.

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I don’t know how I can describe what I felt, seeing the familiar blue buildings I have only seen before in movies and in other blogs. To say that I was blow away is an understatement. Honestly, I just can’t believe that I was seeing it for real. The feeling was surreal – a mixture of fear (what if something scary happens) and awe (you are a few steps away from North Korea!). Your guide will usher your group inside the blue conference room for the requisite group photo and photo ops. Inside, you will see the conference table where discussion between the two countries are made. You will be invited to take photos with the dashing South Korean JSA guards stationed inside the conference room. If you are wondering where the North Korean guards are, we were informed by our guide that they usually leave the area when the South Korean side had tour guests and the South Korean side usually does the same when the North has their guests.

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It’s just a simple conference room, with wide windows where you can see the demarcation line between the two countries. Inside was a framed poster showing the flags of the countries who assisted the South during the Korean war. After about 20 minutes, you will be again ushered outside, asked to line up on the steps leading to the Freedom Hall where we are given the go-signal to again use our cameras to take a picture of the conference row and the Panmungak behind it. At the Panmungak, a lone North Korean soldier stands. According to our guide, usually the NK soldiers appear when there are tours from their side but since it is quiet when we made our tour, we can only see a lone soldier standing at the beginning of the steps of the Panmungak.

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We were reminded again and again to focus our cameras ahead only and to not take photos of the other buildings to our left or our right; but seems one of the Japanese tourists didn’t hear this. Our minder from the JSA corps saw him taking photos of other buildings, so he was admonished and asked to hand over his camera where the soldier (presumably) deleted his other photos.

After the photo op at the steps of the Freedom Hall, the bus will bring you to the Bridge of No Return where you will be invited again to take photos. The Bridge of No Return is called as such because exchange of prisoners of wars (POWs) was usually done here. Once the prisoner chose which side he preferred and he chose to cross over, he can no longer cross over to the other side.

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The tour usually ends back at Camp Bonifas where you can buy souvenirs, including North Korean won, North Korean liquor and the requisite shirt, cap, mugs paraphernalia. Usually, tour packages come with a lunch option — usually held at a pre-chosen Korean BBQ restaurant in a town on the way back to Seoul. By 3PM, we were dropped off back to the Lotte Hotel – a bit tired but thoroughly happy that we chose to include DMZ as part of our itinerary.

Would I recommend this attraction?
Definitely. If you have 4 to 5 days in Seoul, I will recommend that you allot a day for a trip to the border. This is one of the best decisions you will make. Plus, imagine ticking this off your bucket list. You actually get the chance to lay your feet on two countries at the same time.

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South Korea, Travel Diaries

The Great Seoul Searching Trip for less than PHP20K

Sorry for the long absence, but as usual, life gets in the way of a good wandering.
I still owe you my dispatches from my Seoul – Part Deux trip.

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But here’s a quick summary:

Air Transportation: AirAsia
I don’t know how to write this without being offensive or insensitive, given the light of the current tragedy involving the airline. But I have nothing but fond memories of my MNL-SEOUL-MNL trip aboard AirAsia. Our flight was without any hassle, and the crew was attentive and efficient all throughout the four-hour trip. We left Manila and arrived in Seoul ahead of schedule, while our return flight was a bit delayed due to airport congestion at the NAIA.

This very positive experience is what I carry with me as I send prayers to the the families and friends of the passengers and crew lost onboard the QZ8501 flight from Indonesia to Singapore.Thus, I pray that AirAsia will be able to bounce back from this tragic incident and may all those lost on board be reunited with their their loved-ones.

Accommodations: Stay-in-GAM Hostel

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Read my full review here
Bottomline? Worth it!

Itinerary
Since I am accompanying a good friend who is a first-time in Seoul, I made sure to show her the best of the city without breaking her and my budget.

UPDATE: Here is now the detailed breakdown of cost of the trip. With the plane fare included, total expense is almost PHP29K. Hotel stay, itinerary and places to visit, transpo, food and souvenir shopping all achieved at just PHP20,000.

final expense tally SK 2014

UPDATED: Itinerary list now updated to include links to complete travel report, with expense breakdown

Day One – Mt. Namsan, NSeoul Tower and Myeongdong
Or to be remembered as the day where I roamed atop Mt. Namsam in just my flimsy t-shirt, jeans and beanie because I lost my jacket along the way. I was able to stay there roughly for about 4 hours tops before finally begging for mercy and descending away from the Mt. Namsan fog and the biting cold.

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Day Two – Nami Island, Petite Prince, Dondaemun and the long walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream
I mean, whoever goes to Seoul without seeing Nami Island. The island, regardless of the fact that some trees have been laid bare and wilting already due to the incoming winter, were still magical. Because of the fact that I spent sleepless nights watching “You Who Came from the Stars”, my friend and I threw caution to the wind and rode a cab across winding mountain roads just to see Petite France (my review to be posted later). In the evening, we stayed at Dondaemun for a bit before traversing the length of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, from Dondaemun to Gwanghwamun Square. A word of warning: if you are broken hearted, do not by any means walk the whole 10.7km length of the stream — your heart will be further broken by the sight of young (and not-so-young) lovers whispering sweet nothings along the strategic nooks and crannies along the stream. However, if you are in that situation, save your aggression and release it by throwing a coin on the wishing well located at Cheonggye Plaza.

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Day Three: Palace Tour: Changdeokgung Palace, The Secret Garden, Gyeongbukgung Palace, Gwanghwamun Square, Monument of King Sejong, City Hall, Changing of the Guards at the Deoksugung Palace, Myeongdong

What I loved best about our third day was the opportunity to Tour the Secret Garden located inside the Changdeokgung Palace. I know I said before that I hated taking tours when I travel but for some weird reason, I took the opportunity to avail of the English-language tour being offered by the palace and we were matched with a very graceful and kind lady who showed us the different attractions inside the palace. I learned of the sad love story of its occupant and the presence of “Biwon” or the Secret Garden especially commissioned for the enjoyment of the King and Queen. We visited Biwon at the tail end of Autumn, leading to Winter and the sights were just too beautiful, the colors of nature were just too much. Yes, even if at one point, it was raining like crazy.

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Day Four and the highlight of the trip: Journey to the Joint Security Area/DMZ and the Imjigak Peace Park.
The best part of the trip so far. I am leaving you with just some photos because I want to write more about this as part of a longer dispatch.

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We didn’t do anything on the fifth day because we had to catch an earlier flight going back to Manila. However, the four days in Seoul again made me miss the city more. Someday, when I finally had kids, I will bring them back to Seoul and finally experience Winter in Korea with them and the Hubby.

The best part? I spent less than PHP30,000 only for the whole trip, including air fare, hotel accommodations, entrance to sights, lots and lots of eating and a bit of shopping. I can’t wait to go back.

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South Korea, Travel Diaries

Review: Stay-in-GAM Hostel, Jongno-Gu, Korea

I always say that I am the kind of “no-fuss” traveler. I am not choosy when it comes to hotel accommodations and actually prefer staying in B&Bs and hostels if that would mean I will be able to save more money. I am the type who loves discovering cheap accommodations offering superb services, like the amazing CityInn Plus Ximending in Taipei, Taiwan and the quaint K’s House Tokyo Oasis Asakusa in Tokyo, Japan.

So, imagine my pleasant surprise to discover another amazing (and affordable!!!) accommodation in Seoul, South Korea during my second time in the city last November. I found Stay-In-GAM Hostel after a random search at Booking.com which has become my go-to place for quick hostel bookings. After reading a lot of wonderful reviews onsite and on Facebook (because I can be a stealthy tracker like that), I decided to throw caution to the wind and book Stay-In-GAM maybe about 2 months prior to the trip. After getting confirmation from Booking.com, Stay-in-GAM almost immediately got in touch with me through my email to confirm the booking and to send additional info on what limousine bus number to take and where to get off going to the hotel.

We were charged KRW248,000 or about PHP10,118 for a 5 days, 4 nights stay for a twin accommodations room — a steal when you think about it, considering we only paid about PHP5,059 per person for four nights, or about PHp1,265 per person per night for the room stay. And we are staying in central Seoul, a stone’s throw away from Insadong and two MRT rides away from Myeongdong.

“Yes, my WanderingGirl — your hostel stay is cheap, but is it worth it?” you ask. You have no idea.

But first, let me give you the basics:

1. Directions and how to go there

If you are landing at the Incheon International Airport, the easiest and most convenient way to go to Stay-in-GAM is to take the 6011 Limousine Bus stationed just outside the airport. Stay-in-GAM gave us vouchers for a KRW1,000 discount, but it was really of no use for us since the drivers did not honor it. When you find the 6011 bus, just hop in and don’t forget to drop KRW10,000 on the payment counter right beside the driver’s seat. There is room for luggage on the front of the bus, but if you are carrying the equivalent of a small house, the efficient bus driver will store it in the bus luggage compartment. I wish I can say that the drivers are friendly, but they are a bit grouchy.

The email from Kevin (of Stay-in-GAM) indicated that we are to get off the Changdeokgung Palace bus stop, which is just a block away from the hostel, but maybe I was too sleepy or too excited that me and my friend got off the bus not at Changdeokgung (as instructed) but at Gyeongbukgung Palace drop off which is still a 20-minute walk away from the hostel. While it was a bit inconvenient walking the whole way, it was also an opportunity to soak the sights of Seoul and people watch while dragging my heavy luggage with me.

The email from Stay-In-GAM indicated that we are to turn right on the next street after the Nescafe Cafe just right past the Changdukgung Palace–and true enough, there is Stay-In-GAM all warm and cozy as expected!

2. Our Stay

The room is cozy for two people, and comprised of two single-sized beds, outfitted with the most comfortable and softest comforter, aircon, mirror, a bed table, lampshade and a hair dryer. Our room is a part of a three room grouping, located in one corner of the hotel where we shared a common area, toilet & bath, a bench and a cabinet to keep our shoes. Yes, shoes are not allowed inside the room, instead the hostel will issue a standard home sandal for your use.

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The best thing about Stay-In-GAM is that the rooms will look exactly like the pictures on its website. In short, you won’t have the experience of expecting a really nice room only to find something below what you are expecting. Outside our corner is the hallway leading to the elevator and where the common PC, lockers and a phone that can make international phone calls are located.Right across from the elevator is the common kitchen, outfitted with a water dispenser, ref, microwave, stove, sink, table and chairs as well as cooking utensils are located. You are welcome to use them, provided you will clean after yourself after use.

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At the first floor is the reception area and the Stay-In-GAM cafe which served probably one of the best waffle and mochi ice cream combinations. The reception area/coffee shop is also where the free breakfast spread is served every morning. Breakfast is usually bread (with strawberry and butter spread options), steamed egg, steamed ham, bean sprout salad, OJ, milk and coffee. I read some reviews bemoaning the fact that it is the same breakfast over and over again (it is) but I kinda think it’s ungrateful to bitch about something that is given for free, considering the affordable cost of staying in Stay-In-GAM. If you’d like to have some variety during breakfast, I recommend you pick-up ramen, egg or cheese from any of the neighboring convenience stores.

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Decorating the walls of the reception area were messages from the people who stayed there before. Before we left, the friendly and efficient manager, Kevin asked us to also write our messages along with the photo he took of us. Reading through the many messages, to say that Stay-in-GAM has a lot of satisfied customers is an understatement.

The hostel will also issue you your own key for the room (no key card yet) as well as they key code to punch in for the main door. There are no curfews and you can come in anytime you like. The neighborhood is also relatively quiet and very peaceful. In fact, we actually tried walking around the neighborhood at 12MN just to see how it feels like and I swear there’s literally no one there to disturb the peace, except us two crazy Filipinas who probably scared the neighborhood.

3. Any Rants?

None really, well — maybe except the fact that our room has no TV inside. There’s also no television in the common area or even at the reception area. But this is very minor actually, I mean — who would go to Seoul just to watch TV?

Our verdict?
If you are planning to go to Seoul and would like to save a few bucks, consider booking a room at Stay-In-GAM. The place is really nice and Kevin, the manager, is very efficient and accommodating. It is also located just right across Changdeokgung Palace where you can also tour the Secret Garden (do not miss this!), plus walking distance to the Subway, the Bukchon Hanok Village as well as the trendy area of Insadong.

Read more reviews, including mine, on Trip Advisor.

Hotel Details:

Stay-in-GAM Hostel
21 Waryong-dong
Jongno-Gu, Seoul 110-360
South Korea
+822 7642052
www.stayingam.com

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