South Korea, Travel Diaries

Seoul on a Budget Day 03: Palaces, Secret Gardens and Shopping

On our third day in Seoul, we decided to travel back in time and learn more about South Korea’s rich history. We woke up on the third day to a rainy, cold weather — the kind of cold that creeps up to your bones, forcing you to consider hibernating on the warm room (courtesy of the ondol heating). But we were in Seoul and just outside the door, if we attempt to go beyond the bone-chilling rain, awaited another day of adventure.

So, after layering and procrastinating — we were finally out the door and into the ticket booth of Changdeokggung Palace. If you plan on spending a day palace-hopping in Seoul, I would suggest that you get the Integrated Admission ticket (4 palaces: Changdeokgung with entrance to Huwon (or the Secret Garden), Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace) only for KRW10,000. This is a steal already, considering entrance to Palaces is usually pegged as KRW3,000 each plus a separate entrance fee for the Secret Garden at KRW5,000.  Since, we’re really not sure if we can visit all palaces during our stay due to the maddening rain and I really don’t want to commit myself, we ended buying the separate entrance rates (KRW3,000 + 5,000). We also availed of the English tour, which was offered at no extra cost.

I know I mentioned in one of my post that I am the type who shun away tours but I think for historical places like the palaces, it’s important to see the place through the eyes of someone who knew its history. If I were to go around the palace on my own, a bed room is just a bedroom, but joining the tour gave me perspective of how, one bedroom was used by the Widow Queen when her husband the King died. When he died, she moved out of her shared bedroom and went to another house nearest the Secret Garden because she can no longer stay in the room she once shared with her husband. Our tour guide was also kind and interacted well with her group so the tour was never boring.

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At the end of the tour, we were asked if we have separate tickets to the Huwon (Secret Garden) tour. We were then ushered to another part of the palace where another tour guide was waiting for us. Note — you can’t go on a tour of Huwon on your own. You have to be in a group in order to navigate the winding areas of the garden.

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A visit to the Secret Garden is a must-do for me. If you are in the Garden at the height of Autumn and Spring, expect a riot of colors out of the many flowers and trees inside the 78-hectare property. Originally conceived and developed for the pleasures of the Royal Family and the Palace courtiers, the Garden was originally off-limits to the public.

“The garden incorporates a lotus pond, pavilions, and landscaped lawns, trees, and flowers. There are over 26,000 specimens of a hundred different species of trees in the garden and some of the trees behind the palace are over 300 years old. The garden for the private use of the king had been called ‘Geumwon’ (금원, 禁苑, Forbidden garden) because even high officials were not allowed to enter without the king’s permission. It had also been called ‘Naewon’ (내원, 內苑, ‘Inner garden’). Today Koreans often call it ‘Biwon’ (비원, 秘院, Secret garden) which derived from the office of same name in the late 19th century. Though the garden had many other names, the one most frequently used through Joseon dynasty period was ‘Huwon’.” (WIKIPEDIA)

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The tour throughout selected areas of the garden can be a bit punishing, especially if you are like me who had bad knees and is an incurable klutz. Didn’t help that it was raining and some areas of the trail was slippery, but it was worth hiking through the forest.

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Because we were soaking wet by the end of the tour, we went back to Stay-in-GAM to change clothes and have a quick cup of coffee. The fact that their waffle, coupled with Matcha ice cream was delicious also helped replenish our energy.

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Re-energized and refreshed, we walked to Gyeongbukgung Palace where we decided to explore the palace grounds on our own. We were momentarily distracted by a cute guard who was dressed up in ancient warrior garb.

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We then went on a tour of Gwangwahmun Square and the King Sejong statue then raced to Myeongdong where we had hoped to have our pictures taken wearing Hanbok at the Seoul Culture and Tourism Office. Unfortunately, unlike my 2012 visit where I just dropped by and immediately accommodated, we were told that we had to set an appointment before we can have our pictures taken. We ended up hearing the 6PM Korean mass at the Myeongdong Cathedral and having early dinner at one of the chicken places in Myeongdong.

And then, we went shopping:

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I ended spending around KRW40,000 (about PHP1,600), including tons of beauty products, candies, socks and even a really cool bag which was on sale for just KRW10,000. If you plan on shopping in Myeongdong, it can be a bit of a stretch for your wallet, but again the trick is to know what you want and stick to a budget (if you have any). The numerous beauty shops lining the streets were offering a lot of good deals (70% from Nature Republic and about 50% off on selected Innisfree products).

Expenses: Palace Tours:
Tickets to Changdeokgung Palace + Hawon = KRW3,000 + KRW 5,000 = KRW8,000 (PHP322.00)
Ticket to Gyeongbukgung Palace = KRW3,000 (PHP120.00)
Waffle + Coffee = KRW8,000 (PHP322.00)
Dinner – KRW10,000 each (PHP403.00)
Pasalubong shopping = KRW40,000 (PHP1,600)

Day 3 total = KRW69,000 (PHP2,781.00)

Get more information about Changdeokgung Palace here

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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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