If you had an 8 hour layover and didn’t need a visa for the country, would you stay in the airport? That was the very thought running through my head as I was booking my return ticket to New York from Shanghai. See, I was due to spend a significant amount of time in Seoul, as that wonderful airline Asiana is based there. But I didn’t know a darn thing about Seoul and certainly wasn’t going to go and buy a book on it just for a short visit!
Incheon International Airport is some 45 miles outside of the city and fortunately has a train that connects it to the (mostly) domestic Gimpo Airport on the outskirts of town in a mere 30 minutes. From there, subway connections are available to take you just about anywhere in the city you want to go! A Seoul native I had met in Laos suggested that a good thing to see would be the palaces, so I made my way downtown to do a little exploring.
As I wandered down the bustling downtown area, I meandered my way through bustling street markets and got to witness the elaborate changing of the guard at one of the several palaces. I made my way north, only to stumble upon something that would completely change my brief experience of Seoul.
Before me sat the sprawling Lotus Lantern Festival (no relation to the Chinese Lantern Festival I experienced in February) celebrating the Buddha’s birthday some 2,553 years ago. A massive street fair gave way to several different stages where performers swathed in traditional costumes bore hourglass-shaped drums and partook in traditional dance (including some impressive numbers with excessively long hair braids). It was loud, packed and exhilarating. After all, I didn’t expect to be getting a healthy dose of Korean culture in my oh-so-short time in the country!
The performances were so fantastic that I just had to shoot some video! Check it out below!
The street fair boasted booths from quite a few different countries, representing the form of Buddhist they practiced in their homelands. Having now experienced quite nearly every different form of the religion, it was all too familiar to me. There were those saffron-clad monks from Thailand and Cambodia and maroon/yellow-clad Tibetan monks who exhibited their immense patience as they scooped sand onto a canvas, forming a picture of a Tibetan Buddhist symbol.
Alas, given the extensive travel time between Incheon Airport and downtown (approximately 90 minutes), I didn’t end up seeing any palaces. For that matter, the festival was so intriguing that I really didn’t see a whole lot of Seoul at all, with the exception of a few blocks of downtown. But, much like my (much longer) experience in Shanghai, this served as a little taste to wet my appetite for another journey.
But more than just a taste, the unexpected surprises I encountered in Seoul served as a perfect ending to my rather epic adventure. There’s nothing quite like ending with a bang and it certainly felt that way! With such an amazing cultural experience under my belt, I was ready for that lengthy flight back to New York!