South Korea, Traveling on a Budget

Seoul on Budget: DMZ + Final Expense Tally at 20,000plus!

I was able to check one of the items off my bucket list during my last Seoul trip: be in two places at the same time by having one feet in North Korea and the other at the South — thanks to the wonderful DMZ Panmunjeom (JSA) Tour I booked online.

This is when I was standing and looking at the boundary of the two countries:
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For our final day, we didn’t schedule anything anymore since we are certain that the whole day will be spent at the DMZ. The itinerary given to us also indicated that we will be returning to Seoul around 4PM, due to the hour and half drive from the border.

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I’ve written a more detailed description of our fourth day here.

For souvenir items, our guide told us about North Korean wines, BB and CC Creams, North Korean won, mugs and shirts being sold at the Panmunjeom Visitors Center. The waivers we signed prior to the tour was also handed back to us, with our guides noting that it would make a good souvenir for the visit — personally, I think it’s because the signed waivers really didn’t have any use at all at that point. After all, we emerged unscathed from the experience. So, aside from the DMZ shirt (for KRW10,000) which I bought my dad (who loves to collect shirts from the places we visit), the DMZ magnet currently in the fridge (KRW5,000) and a pair of Korean wooden wedding dolls (KRW5,000) I also bought a DPRK 100 won for KRW5,000. Both items I intend to frame one of the these days, but right now — still currently stuck somewhere on the top drawer in my room.


Our total expenses for the DMZ visit (day 4) include:
Payment for the tour (pre-paid): KRW95,000 per pax (PHP3,800.00) NOTE: This includes free lunch
Breakfast from convenience store: KRW10,000 per pax (PHP408)
Souvenir items: KRW25,000 (PHP996)
TOTAL KRW130,000 (PHP5,177.00)

After we were dropped off along the vicinity of City Hall, we just decided to pass time at Dukseogong Palace which is just right across the street and have an early dinner at the nearby Dunkin Donuts (KRW5,000). Then, we decided to hang out at Insadong, the artsy district in Jongno-Gu, with the intention to walk home and retire to bed early in time for our 12NN flight back to Manila the next day.

A famous hang-out place in Insadong is the Ssamzie-gil Mall Complex, composed of rows and rows of shops selling artisal crafts and products, organic cosmetics and food materials as well as artworks. I read somewhere that it’s one of the cool places to hang out in Seoul — where you can indulge in a bit of shopping (if you are the artistic type) or hang out in one of its many cafes. Maybe I’ve had too many coffees already while in Seoul or maybe I just found the items on the pricey side so I didn’t enjoy window shopping at Ssamzie-gil. What I did enjoy though was people watching and taking photos of the art works displayed.

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The next day, we checked out of Stay-In-GAM at 8AM in the midst of pouring rain. Kevin, ever the gentleman, gave me one of the umbrellas at the stand amidst our protestations and declarations of “we’ll be fine”. We walked to the opposite side of the road to catch the same bus (6011) heading to the airport.

We arrived at the airport by 1030AM, just in time to go through the whole check in process and grab a quick bite to eat at the Dunkin Donuts nearest the waiting lounge for the Air Asia flight back to Manila. I also made sure to drop by Starbucks to buy the requisite Seoul City mug.

Expenses (Day 5):
Bus fare – KRW10,000 (PHP408)
Dunkin Donuts – KRW5,000 (PHP204)
Starbucks mug – KRW10,000 (PHP408)
Total Expense – KRW25,000 (PHP996)

Here’s the final tally of all my expenses during the five day, four night trip:

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As you can see, we really didn’t pass up on the souvenir shopping and the endless eating. We know that we are on a strict budget but we also managed to maximize our expenses during the trip. Minus the air fare, the trip cost me only about PHP20,000 — quite a bargain already considering I went to a lot of places, had fun shopping and even fulfilled my long-time dream of seeing the DMZ. If you want to follow this itinerary, feel free to use the itinerary and information for booking the Nami Island tour bus as well as the DMZ Tour agency. Who know? You might be able to spend less than I did! I look forward to reading your itinerary.

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South Korea, Travel Diaries

Seoul on a Budget Day 02: Nami + Petit France

This is the part 2 of the our budget breakdown for my Seoul trip last number (for part 1, go here).

Day 2: Nami Island, Petit France and Nandaemun Market
We woke up really early for our second day in Seoul because we decided to avail of the Nami Island Limousine, instead of embarking on a grand adventure like before (by taking the train). We decided to get a one-way ticket since we are planning to take advantage of Nami’s Proximity to Petit France and visit that as well.

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How to go to Nami through the Namiseom Limousine Bus
1. Go to http://www.namisum.com and look for the transportation information. Click “Online reservation” at the bottom of the page. This will direct you to a page that you have to fill out. Round trip fare, including entrance to Namiseom Island cost KRW23,000 for foreigners. Since we opted to take the Shuttle Bus for one way only, we paid KRW15,000 (PHP639) each — this already includes our entrance.

2. In our case, the bus departs in front of Tapgol Pagoda Park in Insa-dong, a 10-minute walk from our hotel. Since we were disoriented by the direction, we started walking in the opposite direction going to the park. Good thing we were able to realize the mistake immediately and had to run to Tapgol Park where we found the bus driver already checking passengers from his list. Note that the drivers are very strict when it comes to reservations, so it is recommended that you reserve a slot. We saw some people trying to buy ticket on the spot to no avail. You will pay on the spot, to the driver after you have checked your name on the list her carried with him.

3. After going onboard, you can start relaxing. Travel time going to Namiseom is about one and a half hours.

Since we already have tickets, we didn’t need to line up along with the other tourists who were all cramming to get to the approaching boat from Nami. (Note: if you are adventurous, you can cross the lake going to Nami by taking their infamous zipline).

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One thing we love doing while in Nami is buying instant coffee or ice cream in the convenience store and consuming it while sitting in the fireplace. Coffee is about KRW1,000. As indicated in my earlier blog post, Nami is the location for the famous Korean drama “Winter Sonata”, so there are a lot of attractions in Nami that is based or used in the drama.

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Before leaving, we decided to have a quick lunch at the newly-constructed food hall located at the middle of the Island. We chose a vendor selling udon noodles and literally had a hearty lunch that warmed our stomachs amidst the very cold weather.

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After enjoying the sights of Nami and playing with the many squirrels that were feeding on the dried nuts in the island, we decided to wing it and go to Petit France, one of the locations for the hot Korean drama, “My Love From the Star (You Who Came from the Stars”.” Jun Ji-hyun has always been a favorite since I first saw her in “My Sassy Girl” and her role as the bratty, clueless actress with a heart of gold, Cheon Song-Yi opposite the charming Kim Soo-hyun (Do Min-Joon) resulted to too many nights trying cramming episode after episode of the drama.

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After realizing (after tons and tons of research) that Petit France is located also in the city of Gapyeong, we made sure to make it part of the itinerary. The initial plan was to go to Petit France via the Gapyeong City Tour Bus, which picks up and disembarks passengers near the waiting shed just outside the outer gates of Nami. Fare for the whole trip is just KRW5,000 and you can hop in, hop off as you see sights of the city of Gapyeong. The initial plan was to go to Nami then to Petit France and then to The Garden of Morning Calm (another location for one of my favorite K-Drama, the kitschy, “so-bad-it’s-good” Full House 2) but since we were running out of time and we had no idea how far Petit France was from Nami, we decided to wing in and take one of the numerous cabs lined outside Nami.

I read somewhere that the two attractions are near each other, I guess I read wrong. We were traversing mountain sides, zigzagging across crooked roads as we go farther away from Namisum. Sometimes, there was barely another vehicle in sight (take note, this was only at 2PM) and clusters of houses are farther and farther in between. My over-active imagination, the one who watched too many slasher flicks started playing into overdrive – the driver was silent as he navigated the quiet, winding roads while my friend and I tried to fill the tiny cab space with nervous laughter. At first, I was curious if we were lost but the driver seemed to know the way by heart. I guess we were just another bunch of foreign fans who trekked to Gapyeong on a K-Drama pilgrimage. After what seemed like forever and with almost KRW30,000 registered at the meter, our driver finally stopped in front of a somewhat non-descript attraction betrayed only by the large tarpaulin in the entrance.

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Petit France is a little village constructed to look like a charming, little French village. The houses and the entertainment available are all French-inspired, carrying the timeless classic, “The Little Prince (Petit Prince)” as the central theme. Recently, this little attraction had a resurgence of visitors after it was used as one of the filming locations of “My Love from the Star.” It was also a filming location for another K-drama, Beethoven’s Virus. Entrance to the village is KRW8,000 for adults, KRW6,000 for teenagers and KRW5,000 for kids.

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Movie-magic has a way of making Petite France looks huge and spacious. Well, in reality it is not. You can see the whole village in less than 45 minutes tops, 30 minutes tops if you are the type who gets easily bored with gaily colored buildings. The site offers many “European” attractions like puppet and entertainment shows, there’s also a doll museum plus exhibitions dedicated to Antoine Saint Exupery, the author of The Little Prince. Images of the Little Prince and all the other characters in the book was scattered and depicted in every nook and cranny of Petit France. For K-Drama addicts, there’s a photo studio where you can pose with cut outs of Do Min-Joon and Cheon Song-Yi.

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While Petit France is a nice item to tick off your travel list while in Korea, it’s not exactly something that will blow your socks off. As someone who easily gets bored, even while traveling, there’s really not much to see in Petit France after you have visited the exhibits, oggled the houses, posed yourself silly to the many nooks and locations, had your fill of the Little Prince and K-Popped yourself to death. In our case, we decided to pass time in one of the little cafes near the entrance and sampled their strawberry waffle with a scoop of ice cream (KRW4,000).

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Honestly, if we were to rate the Petit France experience, it’ll be a 6 out of 10. Something nice to experience, but definitely something that can also be placed on the second tier of “must-visit” places in Gapyeong City. Since it was already close to 4PM, we had no choice but to miss “Garden of Morning Calm” and save it for another South Korea trip someday.

Going back, we decided to take the Gapyeong City Tour Bus which stops on the waiting shed just across Petit France. We paid KRW5,000 directly to the driver who kindly informed us that bus direction is going to Nami then to the Gapyeong train station where we hope to catch a train going back to Seoul. The driver, a kind elderly uncle quipped that we should have gone to Gapyeong at an earlier time so we could maximize the KRW5,000 hop on, hop off bus fare. He seemed to be worried that we were paying the full price for just partial of the trip. We assured him that we don’t mind and that we enjoyed looking at the country side.

We missed the ITX train headed to Seoul so we decided to take the regular trains and paid about KRW2,000 as part of the regular fare. At Seoul, we stopped at Nandaemun to window shop, then moved to Dongdaemun Design Plaza to hang out and people watch. We ended the night traversing the 10 kilometer Cheonggyecheon Stream, which cuts across Dongdaemun Fashion Town, Cheonggyecheon Stream Culture Center, up to the Gwangwahmun Square, and covers almost 10 subway stations.

Maybe we were crazy, or we were enjoying the cold Seoul weather so we didn’t mind the long walk or the many couples on full PDA-mode along the stream (can be a bit lonely if you’re walking on your own and you are broken-hearted). There are some parts of the stream that are a bit dark due to the foliage and bridges covering the area, but we felt safe and secure the whole time. Even if the stream is in the middle of busy industrial area, the water is clear and there was no unpleasant smell all throughout the 10-kilometer path. We ended the walking tour at the Cheonggyecheon Stream Plaza, a few meters away from the Statue of King Sejong. By this time , our hands were numb with cold and our feet were killing us, so we hightailed it back to our hotel.

Expenses (per person):

Nami Limousine Bus with entrance to Nami Island: KRW15,000
Lunch at Nami Island: KRW5,000 (Udon with a side of kimchi – best for cold weather!)
Coffee: KRW1,000
Taxi Fare Petite France: KRW15,000
Entrance to Petite France: KRW8,000
Snack (waffle + ice cream): KRW4,000
Bus to Gapyeong station: KRW5,000
Fare going back to Seoul: KRW2,000
Dinner/Snacking at Dongdaemun: KRW5,000 (we indulged in tteokboki, fish cakes and snow cones)
TOTAL: KRW60,000 (PHP2,405.00)

* We also went omiyage shopping at Daiso – I bought little bottles of Argan oil hand creams, aat KRW1,000 each. Spent about KRW10,000. This brings total expenses for Day 2 at KRW70,000 (PHP2,806.00)

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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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