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BNE January/February 2017 |


Fly direct between Brisbane and Seoul with

Korean Air which operates four services each

week. See

and find out

more about Seoul at

district. It was a riveting mix of Korean percussion music, featuring skilled

drummers and gong players (including women), amazing hanbok costumes,

juggling feats, music and song. There was no way to fall asleep during this

performance because it was so loud and full of action.

After days of walking I decide to visit a traditional Korean bath house,

or jjimjilbang, for a wind down. Inside there are hot tubs, showers, Korean

traditional kiln saunas and massage tables and a mere $10 entry for the

day (if you can last that long!) covers a sweating room and hot, cold

and seawater baths but treatments are extra. I get nude and am slapped,

pummeled, steamed and scrubbed to within an inch of my life. No one

seems to speak English at these bath houses but that’s half the fun and

theres’ no doubt you come out squeaky clean.

In fact, I’ve never seen such a clean, tidy city in Asia as Seoul. Cleanliness

is next to godliness for Koreans and I found myself keeping an eagle eye out

in search of just one piece of litter. On a more quirky note, this cleanliness

also extends to a virtual national obsession with toilets. “We are very proud

of our toilets here in Korea,” says a guide pointing them out in Suwon right

next to the northern gate of Hwaseong Fortress. “They are very clean and

beautiful and all free!” (she meant there was no charge).

Seoul underwent a beautiful toilet drive just before the World Cup in

2002 to replace squat toilets with fully automated toilets, complete with

diligent cleaners and attendants. It must be the only city in the world where

you can do a toilet tour, where people will open their homes so you can

inspect their toilets and where they even have toilets built in the shape of

soccer balls. In one place I stayed the toilets (there were two) in my room

had so many functions I couldn’t get the things to work and just keep

pushing buttons until gravity saved the day.

For my last two nights I wanted to end on a calm note so I enrolled in

the templestay program at Hwagyesa, a Zen Buddhist monastery on the

northern outskirts of Seoul. Hwagyesa is home to the Seoul International

Zen Centre and is located in peaceful Bukhansan National Park at the foot

of Mt Samgaksan.

On arrival I’m drilled about taking off my shoes and bowing before

entering rooms, not eating from the table reserved for monks, shown how

to chant and prostate myself correctly and warned that I shouldn’t fidget or

lie down during extended backbreaking cross-legged meditations.

Then in my first mediation class the eagle-eyed Zen Master spies me

trying to hide my camera at the back of the hall and shuffles up to me.

“Oops”, I think, “I’m in big trouble, Cover blown.”

“Are you planning to use flash?”, he asks in impeccable English, looking

very serious. “Aaaah, weell, yes, but….” I stutter.

A big smile breaks out on his face. “Good,” he beams, “come on up the

front.” The monk spends the rest of a terribly serious ceremony posing for

the camera like a Hollywood star and beaming cheeky grins to me from his

best angle before every flash.

Koreans are warm and funny, with a distinct sense of humour and an

endearing willingness to laugh at themselves, much as we Australians do. In

a country so clean and green, where the food offers tastes you won’t find at

home, and where football is the national pride, what’s not to like?

Karen Halabi travelled courtesy of the Korea National Tourism Organisation




, 98 Gye-Dong, Jongno-Gu,



A Buddhist Templestay, see


Eat at Hanmiri

, 983 Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu. Call

+82-2-757-5707, see

(the website is only in

Korean so ask your hanok or concierge to book)

Drink at the Tea Gallery at the Beautiful Tea Museum

, 193-1

Insadong, Jongno-gu. Call +82-2-735-6678, see

Shop at Insadong

, Jongno-gu; 110-290 Apgujeong-dong,

Apgujeong Station, Line 3 on the metro

Visit the Chongdong Theatre

, 41 Jeongdong-gil, Jung-gu.

Call +82-2 751 1500,

Visit a bath house, Dragon Hill Spa

, Hangangno3-ga

40-713 Yongsan-gu. Call

+82-2-1330, 82-792

-0001, see

or for the JoongAng Daily’s

recommended jjimjilbang list, type in “top 10 saunas” at

See the Jongmyo Ritual

at the Royal Shrine, an extraordinary

spectacle that happens only once a year in May. Well worth

booking ahead for, see

Masks at Insadong

Meditation at a Templestay