What the Heck Just Happened?
It’s inexplicable. After two weeks in Thailand Kim and I strangely have blurry memories of freezing our dumplings off in Seoul. What the heck just happened? An unexpectedly entertaining eight hour layover in Seoul. That’s what.
Here’s a timeline of our experience and how you can (and should) have the same if you’re lucky enough to one day have a long layover in Seoul’s Incheon airport.
Timeline of Our Whirlwind Layover in Seoul
We land in Seoul Incheon Airport. We’ve taken three buses and two flights to get here (the last on departing Bangkok at 2:10 a.m.), so let’s just say we’re a bit discombobulated.
With fuzzy brains and swollen feet, we hustle as best we can to the Free Tour desk by Gate 25 inside the terminal.
Free Tour? That’s right, the airport offers passengers in transit free layover tours of Seoul and the surrounding area. There are many tours (see here) ranging from 1 to 5 hours. And since our layover in Seoul is eight hours, we hope to take the longest, 5-hour, tour. It starts in 15 minutes.
Just one problem. According to the lady at the tour desk, it’s full.
Dang. And the next 5-hour tour is too late for us. We really don’t want to be left out—we’re planning on blogging about it!—so we race towards the 10 a.m. tour anyways.
Fortunately there is no line at customs, so we breeze through and and run to the actual tour desk by Gate 8 of the arrivals hall to see if we can somehow squeeze in.
As luck would have it, there were two no-shows so… we’re in! But, despite being five minutes before to the official start time, the tour was already leaving without us!
Fortunately, the amazingly helpful tour desk lady manages to snag our tour guide just as he’s herding the other 38 free-loaders towards the bus.
The guide, the type of guy who starts tours 5 minutes early, is not happy with this improvisation. Despite Kim and my best attempts at charming smiles of gratitude, he just sternly looks us up and down and orders, “Come!” Then he hurries away to refocus the others’ headless migration down the arrivals hall towards the bus.
10:00 a.m. – 11:10 a.m.
The forty of us on the tour board the coach bus for what we’re told is a 65 km ride to Seoul.
Our guide introduces himself as Alex. He’s a 65-year-old semi-retired Korean with 32 years experience as a flight attendant and excellent English. Kim and I can’t decide whether he is curmudgeonly or has an extremely dry sense of humour. Either way, he’s funny (to us at least).
On the 70 minute ride, Alex shares many fun facts. Among my faves:
- Asians have no problem sleeping in buses, but white people do.
- Seoul Incheon airport has won the Airports’ Council International’s #1 airport in the world for eleven years running. They are very proud and competitive about this, going to great extent to retain the title (like Free Tours!). No mention is made of the fact that the airport is only second in the World Airport Awards.
- On a clear day from the island next to the one the airport is on, you can see North Korean soldiers marching on the other side of the border.
- He gets mostly Filipinos on his tours (over 40%) because an airline offers discount fares from Manila to the US through Korea and Filipinos are cheap. Also, we shouldn’t confuse American Filipinos from their Canadian counterparts. They’re very different.
11:10 a.m. – 12:20 p.m.
We get off our bus at our first destination, Changdeokgung Palace, in central Seoul. It’s freezing. Only hours ago we were sweating in Thailand’s balmy 30°C (86°F) climes. Now it’s -4°C (24°F). Our sweat’s turning to icicles.
Very thoughtfully, the tour offers free parkas for those of us without appropriate apparel. But we don’t get one because they are limited in quantity and women, elderly, and children get priority.
Our guide Alex leads us into the palace and tells us we can either join him on a guided tour, or go off on our own. Amazingly, only one other lady joined Kim and I in sticking with Alex. Perhaps they’d been offended? Well their loss, because on our palace tour Alex once again brought the heat with more fantastic facts:
- The king had to spend every day from 5-7 am being greeted by his family and other hangers-on.
- The king did not walk. He was carried everywhere he went. This led to short-lived obese monarchs. Their average life expectancy was only 45 years.
- The king and queen were only allowed to sleep together when a spiritual advisor said the time was right for them to do so. Servants would then watch the king and queen get busy in case of any health issues during the strenuous coitus (see: previous point).
- When the last king of Korea handed over rule of the country to Japan in 1910, his descendants have subsequently vanished from the map.
- Back when Alex was a kid, his father got to sleep closest to the heat, followed by the kids, and then his mother. But now his wife gets the warmest spot and him the coldest. He is not pleased with this development.
Normally we’re not huge fans of visiting historical buildings, but thanks to Alex, who was very well informed, and despite the cold, we enjoyed ourselves.
12:20 p.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Back on the bus for a short drive from the palace to our next destination: lunch and exploring at Samcheong-dong.
According to the tour website, Samcheong-dong district is “one of the leading, and most loved, cultural places in 5eoul [sic] with its unique sense that comes from the stark contrast between reinterpreted hanoks made of steel and glass and ultra-modern-minimal buildings.” In other words, we don’t know what to expect.
12:30 p.m. – 12:45 p.m.
Cold and hungry, Alex tells us to follow one of our fellow tour-takers to the restaurant. And how’d this guy know the directions? Because he’d done the tour before! (He must be Filipino.)
Lunch is in a charming local restaurant. Kim and I order one of each of the two options we were given, bibimbap and bulgogi, and share (i.e. I eat 70%). Both are better than expected, but the others in the tour don’t bother to appreciate it. Wanting to maximize the one hour we have left, they vacuum in their food and take off to shop and explore the area. Fifteen minutes after initially entering the restaurant, Kim and I are the last to leave.
12:45 p.m. – 1:05 p.m.
Kim and I don’t make it far down the street. We see a place with smoke billowing out of its window. Smoke = Fire, Fire = Warm, and the cold is too much for us. Plus it smells delicious. It’s time for a second lunch.
The place specializes in dumplings. Yum. We order one plate of steamed pork rib dumplings and another mega-sized fried veggie ones. They are perhaps the best dumplings I’ve ever eaten. And only $6 US. Korea, you’ve found the key to my heart.
1:05 p.m – 1:35 p.m.
Kim and I wander around Samcheong-dong, being careful not to go too far, get lost, miss our ride back to the airport, and face an indefinite layover in Seoul.
It is a weird sensation to be dropped in a foreign country with know idea where we are or what’s going on around us (and it doesn’t help that we’re deliriously tired). Normally I like to read as much as I can about a place I’m about to visit. But in this case I know nothing. My only knowledge of Korea comes from Gagnam Style and the original Oldboy movie. Samcheong-dong is unlike either. It is a happening area full of an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants, and street vendors.
Oh the street vendors. The snacks they’re selling look delicious, but they don’t take credit cards. We’re forced to swallow our drool, and start planning a return trip.
Korea’s way cooler than we had expected (no pun intended).
Despite consciously not wandering too far from the bus, we’re still two minutes late to board, the last ones on. This earned us an icy glare from Alex. This guy really drives a tight ship!
1:35 p.m. – 2:45 p.m.
On the ride back to the airport Alex undoubtedly shares many more fantastic facts, but we miss out because we pass out.
Back at Incheon airport. Alex wakes us up, visibly impressed by our sleeping ability. Maybe he’ll rethink his position on Asians being better bus sleepers than whites. We thank him and gave him a tip.
Back inside the terminal, reality hits. What just happened? We start doubting whether the tour was real or not. But for some reason we feel a deep desire to plan our next trip to Korea.
Five dumplings out of five!
We couldn’t have imagined having a better layover in Seoul. Sure this type of group tour goes completely goes against our preference to escape tourist crowds and “blend in”, but it sure is convenient. What’s more, our guide Alex was equally informative as he was hilarious (intentionally or not), and the price couldn’t be beat.
Most surprisingly, the tour worked. Kim and I are sold on Korea. We can’t wait to go for a more substantial visit.
Other airports: take note!
General Info on The Incheon Layover Tours:
- Cost: $10 US or 10,000 won, which includes lunch and entry into the attractions. The tour is free, but the rest is not (but still a fair price!).
- Visas: Most countries don’t need a visa to visit Korea. The customs agents are evidently well aware of the transit tours. We told them we were there just for the day, showed the agent our ticket, and she stamped us through immediately. Easy. Maybe we were lucky with the lines, but it took us max 15 minutes between getting off the plane and arriving at the tour desk in the arrivals terminal by Gate 8.
- Warm clothes: If like us you didn’t pack a jacket for your trip to the tropics, don’t bother packing just for your layover in Seoul. They’ve got your covered. The tour lends out free down winter jackets. There’s also a new company Seinustar where you can rent jackets of all styles for longer layovers if you’ve just come from a warmer country (like us).
- Tour info is available here. Seoul may be the “Best Airport in the World”, but their website sure isn’t!
- Reserve in advance: Our tour was 100% full. Don’t miss out on this experience and ruin your layover in Seoul due to laziness. Reserve here.
- Luggage: The bus has ample storage, so don’t worry if you have a heavy carry-on.