Seoul/Guam: 4 of 6 flights completed on way back

Sitting in lounge in SFO, catching up on Seoul blog.

Managed 2.5 hours of light sleep in lounge in Guam.
Also slept lightly most of the way on the 5 hour overnight HNL-SFO leg.
So I’m feeling ok, despite having been travelling for 41 hours already.

Side note on upgrades:
I didn’t get upgraded HNL-SFO, though surprisingly there were no 1K status folk above me on the list – with one exception, they were same level as me (Star Alliance Gold) but must have been travelling on higher fare classes (not surprisingly, given my cheap ticket). So there is hope yet for when I hit 1K status.

I did get upgraded on both SFO-ORD-YYZ legs a few days ago, which is surprising (though it was an expensive ticket). Now I see there at least 11 people on the upgrade list for SFO-ORD and only 2 seats left in first class for them.

Seoul: sauna and hot tub details

Very close to the Seoul Station is the Silloam FirePot Sauna (sauna and hot tubs and more). Also called Siloam Fomentation Sauna.
Note the Lonely Planet directions are terrible – check the map on the aforementioned website.

Rating: definitely worth it! Better than a Turkish Bath (hamam), perhaps not as good as a German Bad (spa) since the water parts are segregated.
Cost: W12,000/$10.60 between 8pm and 5am, W9,000/$8 between 5am and 8pm. Open 24 hours. I think your can stay for 12 hours, but no re-entry. (Costs a little less if only doing hot tubs)
No need to bring anything, but consider clean socks and underwear (feels much better afterwards when you are so clean).
I spent 2.5 hours there, trying out the various saunas and hot tubs.

So what is it? A large 5 story building with much more than saunas and hot tubs.
The locker rooms are on the ground floor, where you lock your shoes in small shoe-sized lockers, then exchange your ticket and shoe-locker-key for a regular-sized locker key, as well as loose fitting shorts and a T-shirt, and a towel (a hand towel in the west, but it’s a regular shower towel here in Korea!)

In the basement are sex-segregated hot tubs and showers. There are several hot tubs of different temperatures (inc. cold), using mineral water pumped from 300m underground. Some tubs have extras like jade, wormwood, charcoal or yellow mud (no, it doesn’t stain you yellow). In the middle of the room are showers (no stalls) or Japanese-style sit-down-on-a-stool showers. Swimsuits optional (nobody was wearing them on the men’s side, except for some masseurs – yes, there are 2 or 3 massage tables down there (extra cost)).

Upstairs above the locker rooms are 3 co-ed floors, and they’re the reason you get those shorts and t-shirt. Recall that you can stay for up to 12 hours…
Not just multiple saunas (see below), but also restaurants, snack bars and a cafe; barber shop, laundry service, Internet room, games room, singing room, mats to hang out on, yoga room, a room with exercise equipment, a massage room (extra cost), a sleeping room (with a hundred or so bunk beds), a snoring room (I kid you not) and more.

With that sleeping room, and it being open 24 hours, it’s possible to use it as a cheap hotel of sorts for one night, e.g. if arriving very late or you want to freshen up after having checked out of your hotel.

As for the saunas, there are many different ones 3F (the third floor) with different purported health benefits:

  • salt
  • jade
  • charcoal
  • yellow earth
  • infra-red (for some reason this one had a men’s and a women’s; all the others are co-ed)
  • ice-room (brrr but refreshing)
  • fomentation (steamy but not like a steam bath)

In some cases the materials are in the walls and ceilings; sometimes they are on the floor, e.g. in the salt room you walk and lie down on pebble-sized chunks of salt

There were young and old people, singles and couples; often young couples would lie together on mats in the large “atrium” outside of the saunas watching TV on their phones.

Seoul: DMZ Tour details

There are many tour operators who do DMZ tours; I chose the one affiliated with the local USO office: Koridoor.

Rating: definitely worth it! Very interesting, and you can’t do it without a tour.
Cost: $77 inc. tax
(about $5 more if paying by credit card; less for military personnel)
Duration: Typically 7:30 to 15:30. Sometimes a later departure is available
Sights: JSA briefing and tour (step into North Korea briefly), 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Dora observatory, Dorasan Station

Acronyms (see also this Wikipedia article):

  • MDL: Military Demarcation Line: the actual border line cutting across the peninsula
  • DMZ: De-Militarized Zone: roughly 2km area on both north and south sides of the MDL, across the entire peninsula
  • JSA: Joint Security Area within the DMZ where UN buildings are situated for negotiations


  • It’s about an hour bus ride each way to the DMZ (approx 55km north of Seoul)
  • First stop is Camp Bonifas just outisde the DMZ: you get a short interesting video on the history of the Korean War and DMZ (also showing maps), and then a briefing by US soldiers
  • A drive around the JSA in the military’s tour bus, which includes a few viewpoints such as the Bridge of No Return and the site of the infamous Ax Murder incident over the cutting down of a poplar tree, but most importantly the UN buildings right on the MDL, especially the set of blue one-story buildings that literally straddle the MDL, where negotations are held.
  • This is where you can see North Korean soldiers across the line, and enter one of the buildings where you can walk on North Korean soil (within the building).
  • The Third Infiltration Tunnel is a tunnel running under the DMZ that was built by the North Koreans (4 have been discovered so far). It is accessed via a long sloped access tunnel (built for tourists), after which you can walk (with requisite hard hat) a few hundred meters to the first of 3 walls built by South Koreans to block the tunnel. Along the way, you see the dynamite bore holes and coal painted on the walls by North Koreans as a misdirection (despite the fact there is no coal in the area).
    Oddly, there is also a natural spring fountain in the tunnel.
    Tip: For taller people, the actual tunnel requires hunching over which can make your lower back sore: even though it is roughly 2m in diameter, there is scaffolding which lowers the effective height.
  • The Dora observatory is on top of a little hill and lets you see the area surrounding the JSA, including the fake North Korean town Kijong-dong with a huge flagpole
  • Dorasan Station is a train station and highway checkpoint before North Korea. Some South Koreans do work across the border at factories owned by Samsung (mostly staffed by lower paid North Korean) and at this checkpoint they are required to store things (such as phones, cameras and mp3 players) in lockers.
    The train station is large and modern, with airport-style security for access to the tracks; however, this is virtually unused until reunification happens.
    The slogan here is: Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the north.
  • Fun fact: there is a South Korean rice farming village inside the DMZ which is subsidized by the government: no taxes, guaranteed income (US$80,0000/yr per family), protected 24/7 by military (of course they also have to be in village by sundown and locked in their houses by midnight).
  • Fun fact: the DMZ is now quite an unofficial bio-diverse nature preserve
  • Fun fact: there is a one hole golf course – just don’t go searching for a stray ball in the rough as it is surrounded by mine fields


Dress code: required by military, no tank tops, slogans etc. And wear comfortable walking shoes.
Food: optional Korean lunch at cafeteria at Dorasan Station (quite tasty and filling actually; either vegetarian bibimbap for W6,000/$5 or bulgogi for W10,000/$9) or brown bag it
Tip: Yes you can take photos, just not everywhere. Listen to the guide/soldiers.
Tip: In the JSA, you can’t bring any bags or purses or camera bags (must be left on your bus).
Tip: Remember to bring your passport on the trip.
Tip: Book in advance as tours fill up and don’t run daily. On their website, just because a tour is listed in the calendar, does not mean that the tour has space! For my one week trip, there was only one tour that had space.
Tip: Bring a snack and water bottle as lunch isn’t until almost 14:00. There are drink vending machines and gift shops at multiple stops.

Seoul: fun with language

Unlike other Asian languages that use complicated (to us westerners) pictograms or scripts and are tonal (e.g. “ma” can be pronounced 5-7 different ways in Mandarin and Thai), Hangul (the Korean language introduced in the 15th century) is actually composed of letters that roughly translate to many English letters, with a specific syllabic pattern, and pronounced fairly flatly. Of course pronunciation rules aren’t always straightforward, but you can get reasonably close. The first few sections of Korean Writing System give a good overview.

I can read most of the letters now, which helps for place names and some key words, but obviously if you don’t know the Korean word for something, then you won’t understand the word you are reading/pronouncing.

For example, 신촌 is Sinchon (pronounced Shinchon), the metro station closest to my hostel (and yes, in the metro, maps and signs also list the stop name in English everywhere). I can read the 3 letters inside each of those 2 syllables. My turning point came one day at lunch when I was even able to recognize the Hangul for beer (maekchu), a local drink (soju) similar to vodka, and rice wine (makkolli) on the no-English menu posted on the wall (for food, I pointed at a picture of the dish I wanted).

I may not be able to read much Korean, but I’m pretty sure the sign, locked gate and barbed wire are all saying: “Keep out!”

No entry sign on part of Inwangsan (mountain)

Seoul: Leeum Samsung Museum details

More info on the Leeum Samsung Museum in Itaewon.

This museum has 3 cool buildings of different architectural styles; 2 house permanent collections (inc. modern Korean and foreign art), and one has a temporary exhibit.

Highlights of the museum (IMHO):

  • 2 funky huge spider sculptures by Louise Bourgeois in the courtyard
  • Museum 1: some small but impressive ceramic vases
  • Museum 2 upstairs: a tall thin bronze woman statue (Susan would like this one!)
  • Museum 2 main floor: a shiny smooth blue egg with a pink-red bow on top (sculpture) by Jeff Koons
  • Museum 2 main floor: a large mosaic-like painting of a face
  • Temp exhibit: When I visitied, it was Joseon era paintings, including surprisingly explicit erotic art, as well as:
    a 1760 painting of the Cheong-gye-cheon (canal) being uncovered and cleaned up (recall that this was just done 5 years ago, so history does repeat itself!)

Misc notes:

  • Cool technology: touch-screens that let you scroll and zoom in on digitized versions of some fragile paper art
  • the light in the temporary exhibit was so dim you could barely read the descriptive signs

Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside, but here are the spiders in the courtyard:

Louise Bourgeois’ Spider Statues

Cost: W13000/$11.50 for all 3 museums

Directions: M6 to Hangangjin station x1, go south and then follow signs to “Leeum Museum”

Seoul/Guam: an extra 20 minutes in NRT. And lock trouble

Really? After a 6 hour layover, the incoming flight is late so now we’ll be leaving 20 minutes late. Oh well, I guess that’s 20 minutes less sleeping-in-the-airport time in GUM (or 20 minutes less until the business lounge opens there :-)

The seat map looks like I might score one extra seat next to me by the window (it’s a 2-5-2 seating on a Boeing 777). Out of only 2 empty seats in economy/plus! Some deity is smirking at me, if not smiling, today.

The lounge here is down to maybe a dozen people. Which is surprising, given how full this big plane is.

Side note: I had a problem with one of my luggage locks, which I keep on my carry-on knapsack. It’s a 3-digit TSA-approved combo lock.
Well, it wouldn’t open. And the compartment it locked had my passport.
The agents called for maintenance, but they didn’t bring the right tool. Wihle one maintenance guy went to get a bolt cutter (hopefully), the other one fiddled with the lock and suddenly opened it. One digit had shifted by one position magically. i.e. if my combo was 1-3-5 it was now 1-4-5 somehow! Very weird.
But at least I have my passport to get on the flight!

Update: I spoke too soon. The flight will be full (in economy/plus). I reluctantly agreed to move so 2 people could sit together. I asked if they’d move me to the rather empty business class, and she said no. Sigh.) Good karma perhaps?

Seoul: Flying back, through Tokyo NRT airport

50 hour door-to-door trip with 6 legs: ICN-NRT-GUM-HNL-SFO-ORD-YYZ
Major ouch!
(And yes, there is a non-stop flight from Seoul to Toronto on Air Canada, but that’s besides the point)

Currently I’m sitting in Tokyo’s Narita airport (NRT) in the United Club lounge for this 6 hour layover.
Which isn’t nearly as fancy as the Asian lounge I used in NRT on the way to Seoul last week. In fact it is similar to the ones in the US, but with a much smaller (self-serve) bar. Slightly newer feel to it Noticeably missing is Bailey’s (for my coffee).

When I first arrived in the lounge, it was very full. It’s quite large, but that’s a lot of people. Now (at 18:30 local time) it’s almost deserted – I can see maybe 20 people. Strange. At least the wi-fi is running at a reasonable speed again.

Also while I was sitting here, the guy next to me (we had been chatting about flights) suddenly says “enjoy your flight” – it turns out there was another (Continental-operated) flight to Guam 3.5 hours before my flight to Guam. Perhaps I could have gone stand-by (since my bags are checked through to San Francisco anyways) and gotten some sleep in a hotel there; I checked the flight status seating map on my phone and there were no seats left; in fact, there was one person still on the standby list). Besides, then I wouldn’t have been in a nice Economy Plus seat for the 3.5 hour flight.

Side note: for international connections at NRT, you pass through a security check after deplaning, and there were actually 3 x-ray machines for Star Alliance Gold passengers, and only one for regular passengers. Yeah (since I’m in the former category)!

Seoul: Days 5-6 summary

It seems with each passing day I saw fewer and fewer sights each day…

Day 6:

  • Dongdaemun gate/market/design plaza and fashion district: market overload and it wasn’t even in full swing (busier as a night market!).
    The Dongdaemun Design Plaza’s contest-winning design is a Gehry-esque fluid building and green space designed by an award-winning female Iraqi architect
  • Enjoyed a nice grilled fish lunch (W6000/$5), where the big water bottle on the table was “Kirkland Signature” (i.e. Costco!)
  • Worked for a few hours :-(
  • Kalbi dinner (beef on a table top charcoal grill) with the hostel owner Mr. Kim and one staff member.

Day 5:

  • Inwangsan (mountain): hike up the 338m for shamanist shrines (part way up), old castle city walls and views of Seoul (south towards old part of town and Seoul Tower)
  • Dongnimmun Park with the Independence gate and park
  • Gyeongbokgung (palace): huge grounds with lots of buildings. too many beyond the first few… also a colourful changing of the guards ceremony at the top of each hour during the day.
  • Pork grill on table top hotplate with the hostel owner Mr. Kim, 3 staff and a few guests (going away dinner for a Canadian guy who stayed there for a month)

Also updated the map.

Seoul: unreadable Starbucks name

Supposedly this is the only Starbucks in the world that has its name written in other than English (I don’t mean all of the stores here, just this one location by Anguk metro station)

I can recognize a fair number of Hangul letters but this is in a funky script that is mostly unreadable (to me).

It does in fact say Starbucks Kopi (since Kopi = Coffee)
And yes, it really was that cold outside (I had gloves on too, just not in the photo).

Though it does seem wrong to pay almost as much (W 4600/$4.05) for my grande soy latte as for my filling lunch (W 5000/$4.40 – tax included and no tip here as that would be insulting in this culture)

Starbucks Coffee in Hangul (Korean language)

Guam: 1/2 day

(on my way to Korea last week, I had a one-night layover in Guam)

My hotel was up the hill near the north end of Tumon Bay, a west-facing horseshoe bay with a narrow beach and lined with hotels (about 10 minutes from the airport). I had a view of the water, and fast Ethernet internet access. No wi-fi in the room, which meant I couldn’t use the internet on my smart phone, only on my laptop computer – and here I was beginning to think the smart phone almost made the computer useless!

The road, on the inland side of the hotels with no view and no real breakfast options, was full of high end shopping malls and low end strip malls, bars, massage parlours and strip clubs. And lots of typical American chain stores and restaurants (ABC Stores, Subway, Burger King, Circle K, Outback Steak House, etc.) In other words, not very pretty or exciting once away from the beach. Not surprising, given that Guam is a US territory (and uses US$).

Apparently they get a ton of Japanese visitors, with an increasing number of Chinese visitors. To wit: I recognized the cold Mr Brown’s Coffee cans from Taiwan (recall, that’s the one whose logo reminded me of a Simpsons’ style Mexican caricature).

There were a few public beach access points, and I meandered up and down the beach (only 15-20 minutes to walk most of the length of it, in one direction). The beach wasn’t terribly wide, but adequate. The water was warm, shallow and calm due to the protecting reef. There is some algae, and some rocks. Parts of the beach are better than others.

The native culture is called Chamorro, whose language has a Spanish influence due to 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. You see Hafa Adai (“hello”) everywhere (e.g. at airport and on restaurant menus).

Well, it was a nice break to my long flights. Unfortunately on the way back my layover is 4.5 hours in the middle of the night!

Tumon Bay, Guam