Seoul Searching

Many a night was whiled away attempting to conceive a master plan of how I could travel the world and earn dollar at the same time. For some reason, I decided that teaching English to kindergartners was the answer, and shortly after signing up to a recruitment company I was on a one-way flight to South Korea – teaching little kids surely can’t be that difficult? This was my first venture into Asia, and I deemed SK to be the perfect base from where I could plan my voyage around the continent. Teaching jobs are aplenty there, plus the working environment is exceptionally relaxed and easy-going – well that’s what it said on the website. It did not mention that South Korea has the largest work-related suicide rate on planet earth. Although I don’t blame them for omitting that from the brochure.

Well, the first two weeks, maybe two months, of teaching in Daegu (SK’s fourth city) were a baptism of fire, but once the kids stopped shitting themselves at the sight of a foreign person we were headed in the right direction. Don’t get me wrong the staff at the school are all lovely people and they do their best to assist in your survival, but Koreans, in general, are used to working themselves into the ground – admittedly with the support of a copious amount of alcohol and karaoke (did I mention that South Koreans also consume far more booze per person than any other Asian country). It is a full-on kind of place and you’ve simply got to embrace it – or you’ll end up more stressed than a bungee cord attached to Boris Johnson. In order to embrace SK to the max, I made my way north to Seoul at the earliest given opportunity.

Seoul is about as vibrant a city as I’ve ever come across, and that’s including Milton Keynes. Lights, colour and noraebangs (karaoke rooms) are everywhere you look, but that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t have a rich history and architecture. Gyeongbokgung is one of the largest royal palaces on the Korean Peninsula and has undergone large-scale renovation in recent years to return it to its former glory (before Japan invaded at the start of the twentieth century and did their damned best to wipe it off the map). Japan has attempted to destroy Korea and its culture quite a few times over the centuries, hence why they aren’t always the best of friends today. The palace has an elaborate gate, court, or palace around every corner, and you can even enter the grounds for free if you wear a hanbok (a traditional Korean dress as pictured above). Mine was in the wash so I had to fork out the full price.

With Buddhism being the largest religion in South Korea, stunning temples are easy to locate and appreciate to your heart’s content. Some of the larger ones even allow you to stay on site for the night and experience the practice of being a Buddhist monk for the day (something I may write about in the future…). After you’re all templed-out, a visit to the National Museum of Korea is well worth the subway ride. One of the largest and most-visited museums in the world, it provides simpletons like me a highly informative and entertaining guide to a country with a history richer than a Rothschild, from the first intrepid settlers to the great Korean dynasties of later centuries. Get there early or risk being caught behind a Chinese group-tour or twelve.

When the sun starts to fade behind Bukhansan Mountain, the city really comes alive. With a nightlife that rivals any of its European counterparts, Seoul is one of the best night’s out I’ve had. No not because of Ibiza-sized superclubs or world-renowned DJ’s, but because the selection of noraebangs on offer is mind-blowing. Now I urge you not to knock them until you’ve tried them, this is not like karaoke down the Red Lion on a Saturday night. You won’t hear Sheila banging out Sweet Caroline three or four times as you slowly watch her slipping into a pink gin-induced stupor.

In Korea, you get your own room for just you and your friends/work colleagues, your own room service for drinks/food, your own instruments (if you’re a little lucky), and what can only be described as a War and Peace sized catalogue containing every song you’ve ever heard. Make your selection, watch the music video on your own sixty-inch TV and bang your tambourine into oblivion. I’m contemplating introducing noraebangs to the UK, I really miss them that much, and I feel that they suit our culture quite well: alcohol, snack-food and making an arse out of ourselves. Anyway, that’s your whistle-stop tour of Seoul done, time to head back to Daegu and attempt to stop kids from trying to kill each other. Wish me luck.

J

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