Final Thoughts About My First Trip to Seoul

Heungnyemun

This post collects my final thoughts about my trip to Seoul, South Korea, in April 2012. To write these posts I have been working from a series of letters I sent home to family and friends as well as some notes I jotted down while still in Seoul. Not everything fit into previous posts but there are a few things I still wish to share. Expect to read an assortment of anecdotes and fleeting impressions from the remainder of my stay in the South Korean capital.

Seoul After Dark

Gwangjang Market after dark

I spent a great deal of my time in Seoul wandering around after dark. Here are some of the images I captured in that time, invariably a mix of glowing neon lights and empty alleyways.

Bongeunsa Temple

Bongeunsa Temple

Bongeunsa 봉은사 (Hangul: 봉은사; Hanja: 奉恩寺) is a Buddhist temple in the Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam) of Seoul immediately across from COEX Mall, supposedly one of the largest in Asia. Towering skyscrapers on the horizon are a stark reminder of the modernity outside the temple grounds. Inside, many of the structures show their age, particularly the antique bell house (depicted in the last photo below). Still, little remains of the original Bongeunsa. As with other historic sites in Seoul it has undergone many renovations and improvements over the years. The results are pleasant enough to walk around but one does not feel the weight of history in this place.

The Dark Side of Seoul

Seodaemun Prison

Today the weather changed. Rain has given way to light snow, strong winds, and subarctic temperatures. Gusts of up to 60 km/h have rattled windows and knocked over street furniture. After drying my shoes from the previous night’s misadventures I left my hostel for Insadong, intent on grabbing a hearty breakfast, but as the minutes began to drag I only allowed myself time to grab one of those delicious mung bean pancakes and a coffee. I didn’t know it at the time but I was bound for one of the darker parts of Seoul.

Gyeongbokgung

Hyangwongjeong 1

Gyeongbokgung 경복궁 (Hanja: 景福宮) is a historic site in downtown Seoul, the site of an opulent palace built by the Joseon Dynasty. Few, if any, of the structures in the photographs below are original; the palace was more or less razed by the Japanese occupiers in the colonial period or during the Korean War. Nowadays it is a major tourist attraction and a curiously contrived window into traditional Korea.

Seodaemun Prison

Seodaemun Prison Cell Block

Seodaemun Prison (Hangul: 서대문형무소) is not a happy place but my visit there was a tremendously educational experience. It housed thousands of political prisoners over the course of most of the 20th century—many of whom lost their lives here, either through neglect, overwork (it was also a forced labour camp), or by way of the “body removal tunnel”. A memorial to many of Seodaemun’s victims can be seen in the photos below.