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Travel & Holiday

My Seoul escapade

A harried mother takes a break sans kids to enjoy herself in the capital - Korean auntie style
The Straits Times - May 15, 2012
By: Clara Chow
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My Seoul escapade Gyeongbokgung, the Chosun-era royal palace, is the main and largest of five grand palaces built in that era. -- PHOTOS: CLARA CHOW

Let's get one thing straight: I'm not a K-drama fan nor do I listen to copious amounts of K-pop.

For me, the appeal of South Korea has always been its production of strong, dedicated mothers of mettle - at least on screen and in print. There is antique gun-toting, finger-chopping Lee Geum Ja from the 2005 film Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, out for revenge on the man who separated her from her daughter. Then there is also Bong Joon Ho's Mother (2009), a woman who would leave no stone unturned to prove her idiot son's innocence.

Most recently, the Man Asian Literary Prize-winning novel by Shin Kyung Sook, Please Look After Mom, has at its heart the disappearance of a kimchi-making, sock-hoarding and ultimately enigmatic mum, borne away by the crowd in Seoul subway station.

So, in a warped way, it made sense to leave my two young sons at home with the husband and flee to the South Korean capital for a four-day girly trip.

As a Seoul virgin - and first-timer in Korea - I went with a girlfriend, prepared to unleash my inner-ajumma. The word means 'married woman' in Korean, but basically refers to any middle-aged woman and is the peninsular's equivalent of the Singapore auntie, complete with all its chattering, excitable and bargain- hunting connotations.

Our choice of hotel could not have been better. Most convenient for any ajumma thinking of perking up her sallow complexion or getting rid of eyebags, the IP Boutique Hotel (www.ipboutiquehotel. com , from 220,000 won or S$242, a night) in Itaewon comes attached with its own plastic surgery clinic.

With fluorescent-lit mirrors hanging on almost every wall in the guest rooms and lifts, I found myself scrutinising my branching crows' feet daily, but managed to stave off the temptation to make an appointment.

The hip hotel, with a lobby boasting contemporary Korean art as well as a row of green swings for guests to perch on, is also in an interesting location.

Known for being expat-friendly and popular with soldiers from a nearby United States military base, the area is a mix of cool bars, clubs and eateries (from Turkish kebab stores to French bistros), shops hawking designer knock-offs and a red-light district dubbed unsubtly Hooker Hill.

It was nice to have good food at our doorstep after a hard day's work of shopping and daubing on free skincare products (more on that later).

We ended up eating twice at a Korean barbecue restaurant called Maple Tree House (www.mapletreehouse.co.kr ) in a lane five minutes' away. Wrapped in a fur jacket, while the yummy marinated beef short ribs smoked on a charcoal grill on the table, I slurped down cold buckwheat noodles in a refreshing, sour, clear soup and sneaked looks at the glamorous single girls at the next table to determine how surgically enhanced they were.

In Korea, any self-respecting ajumma must pay homage to the skincare-lined streets of Myeongdong where the service is mostly provided by friendly Mandarin- speaking, China-born salesgirls and the free samples keep flowing.

Despite my soap-and-water skincare routine, I went wild in shops with names such as Skin Food, Espoir, Etude House, Aritaum and Olive Young (the latter two are like Korea's version of Sephora).

I grabbed 1,000 won facial masks by the fistfuls and rubbed litres of BB creams onto jawline, the back of hands and, when I ran out of space, any exposed patch of skin I could find. It was liberating as customers are encouraged to try as much as they like without being obligated to buy. Prices for skin care and cosmetics in Seoul are also cheaper by as much as 50 per cent, compared to those in Singapore.

And I felt truly encouraged when I saw two handsome, macho young men standing in one shop, deep in discussion over which BB cream, a blemish balm that also offers coverage for the complexion, to buy, like it was the most serious and natural thing in the world. Some Korean youth do, indeed, walk around in a state of readiness to be enlisted into a K-pop boyband.

For the ajumma who likes to shop till she drops, the choices are varied. Those with stamina can hit Dongdaemun Market with its wholesale fashion malls that stay open until 5am.

Indie-inclined ajumma who appreciate avant-garde Korean designs will want to check out Aland (www.a-land.co.kr), a chain of multi-brand stores selling clothes, bags, shoes and stationery. Its Myeongdong main store stocks neoprene, tassled totes in jewel colours, smartly cut and draped jackets by emerging Korean designers and artisan jewellery and has a courtyard heaped with second-hand dresses for 9,000 won.

All shopping and no culture make for a dull ajumma, though. So, accordingly, we alternated bimbo shopaholic activities with some high culture. And Seoul has it in spades.

If you want to indulge in some Jewel In The Palace fantasy and imagine you are in the Chosun-period drama, head for the Gyeongbokgung or Gyeongbok Palace (www.royalpalace.go.kr , 3,000 won admission for ages 19 and above; 1,500 won for those seven to 18 years), the main and largest of five grand palaces built in that era.

The buildings themselves were systematically destroyed by the Japanese colonial government in the early 20th century, and much of what stands on the site today are reconstructions. Still, the grounds are pleasant to ramble through.

Apart from the historical landmark, the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (leeum.samsungfoundation.org , 13,000 won for an adult daypass; 8,000 won for youth, senior citizens and handicapped), just a stone's throw away from the hotel we were staying in, is a must-visit.

Housed in three buildings, individually designed by renowned architects Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas, the museum has a traditional art section, and a modern art collection which includes Jeff Koons' Smooth Egg With Bow sculpture and Damien Hirst's Dance Of Death installation of multi-coloured pills.

An excellent special exhibition by New York and London-based Korean artist Doh Ho Suh, Home Within Home, is on until June 3 and features his ethereal hanok, or traditional Korean houses, sewn out of translucent fabric.

The highlight of the trip for this ajumma, however, is the most over-the-top, fantastic, 24-hour sauna I have ever been in.

The Dragon Hill Spa And Resort (www.dragonhillspa.co.kr/ ) is the kind of place that can suck you in for days before spitting you out a well-massaged, relaxed and quivering mass of pleasured jelly. And all for the value-for-money entrance fee of 12,000 won.

You know the place is going to rock when you are greeted by surreal, larger- than-life statues of deities and mermaids at its gate, followed by all manner of props out of a cheesy period film set.

Once in, you are free to disrobe and try out the various themed saunas, and hot and cold baths with other naked strangers. My friend and I spent an hour shrieking excitedly and rushing around in search of the 'Winter Sonata' steam room and the sauna with pyramids and faux sarcophagi in it, before settling on an outdoor hot bath under a gazebo.

True-blue ajummas would buy raw eggs from a small sundry shop in the changing room to boil in the hot waters of the spa, before languorously peeling them to eat after blow-drying their hair. Then, they might fall asleep on the floor of the communal sleeping rooms, which makes Dragon Hill the ideal cheap hideout if I ever want to go somewhere peaceful where my children can never find me.

Instead of sleeping, however, I spent the wee hours of the morning in the spa singing karaoke in a black box that could hold only four people without suffocating. Food and toiletries, as well as arcade games are also available, which means you do not ever have to leave.

In fact, I wished I had discovered the place sooner and not on the last night of my trip - I would have gladly traded the white sheets and glass interiors of IP Boutique Hotel for this most ajumma- friendly of havens.

Unlike the refined Japanese onsen, or hot spring, there is something wild, slightly bright and chaotic, and ridiculous about Dragon Hill - sort of like Seoul itself. And I loved it.

I finally found the mother of all escapes.

5 things to do

1. Do bring sunglasses. The spring sunshine can be glaring at all times of the day. Besides, a stylish pair might help you to fit in better with the sartorially forward Seoul-ites.

2. Do bring a good moisturiser and lip balm. Seoul weather can be very dry for the skin. If you forget, however, skincare stores line the streets in the city, so do not fret.

3. Do go down interesting side streets in major areas. The best and quirkiest shops are often tucked away in lanes off the main roads such as in fashionable Garosugil in the Sinsadong neighbourhood.

4. Do try the street food such as spicy chicken skewers in traditional souvenir haven Insadong. Particularly cute is the rice cracker shaped like a long curly wand which is addictively crunchy.

5. Do go to Changsindong Toy Street if you want to pick up last-minute gifts to placate the children left at home. The Toy Alley is filled with wholesale toy shops, cheaper by 30 to 40 per cent. To find the street, head to Dongdaemun Station, Line 4, Exit 4. At the top of Exit 4's stairs, head left down the street and turn into the first lane on the right.

2 don'ts

1. Don't take the black taxis if you can help it. Their fares can cost twice as much as those of regular taxis which are orange, silver or white. Black taxis are deluxe cabs and their drivers are certified, but regular ones are just as good.

Regular taxi drivers have no problems taking you to your destination, thanks to GPS systems in most cabs as long as you can tell them or write it down in Korean. An international taxi service for foreigners is available. Book through www.intltaxi.co.kr

2. Don't eat raw fish in a deserted restaurant. Unfortunately, I ignored this rule while exploring upmarket Garosugil and I suffered for it later.

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