I was lucky enough to get the free upgrade from Cambodia to South Korea (perks of frequent flying) with Asiana airlines. Their business class was exceptional – huge comfortable seats that practically laid all the way down, big pillows and soft blankets (better and more legit than the normal airplane pillows/blankets), and a whole kit of things to help with getting through the flight (slippers, eye mask, ear plugs, etc). Not to mention the delicious meal! I am probably less of a fan of airplane food than the average flyer so for me to say it was a good meal is saying something. The flight attendants were also incredibly kind, considerate, and helpful. I still wasn’t feeling my best self on this flight and because we left after midnight I slept through most of it.
I was excited to finally arrive. Although I had an 11 hour layover, I felt stressed trying to rush to customs once we landed a little delayed because I only had half an hour to get through customs on the other side of the airport and find a desk in the main entrance of the airport. Because I had such a long layover, I found a free tour of Seoul that the Incheon International Airport offers to passengers of other citizenships who have lengthy layovers. I power-walked through the airport, to the train for the other terminal, through a quick customs line, and found the tour desk. It’s always intimidating to travel alone, especially with how sick I was feeling, so it felt good to meet an older mother and daughter (about ten years older than my mother and me) who were from America and kind of adopted me for the day. This is one of those acts of kindness that I’m sure they thought nothing of and haven’t thought about since but truly meant so much to me.
We all boarded a big tour bus which luckily had huge winter coats waiting for each of us – it was freezing out compared to Cambodia! I had not been looking forward to the reminder of winter, but had lugged around hiking sneakers the entire trip for the purpose of this afternoon in Seoul so my feet wouldn’t freeze. I was happy I had them even though they were annoying to drag around the past few weeks – many people on the tour had only sandals along. The airport is enough of a ways away from the city that I had time to get a power nap in before we stopped anywhere, but I missed some information (oops!)
Our first stop was Gyeongbokgung – a royal palace from the Joseon Dynasty. It was built in 1395 and is one of the largest palaces from that dynasty. The palace had been destroyed by a fire in the late 1500s during the Imjin War and then was abandoned for two centuries until eventually it got restored. The palace was again destroyed during the early 20th century, but has gradually been getting restored since. The architecture is beautiful and the history behind it makes it that much more interesting.
After looking at the palace, we drove to the Jogyesa Temple – the main temple of Korean Buddhism since 1936. The temple was originally built in 1395. We weren’t allowed to enter because people were praying inside, but we could look through the windows and see how beautiful it looked indoors.
After visiting the temple, we drove to Cheonggyecheon, an 11km long modern street in downtown Seoul. This site was originally the location of a major stream that was later covered over with infrastructure and a highway. In the early 2000’s, the then Seoul-mayor decided to remove the highway, change the buildings, and restore the stream – a project costing about $900 million. Today the area is very popular for both local people and tourists and has gained approval of many despite past criticism over the huge renewal project.
The street is covered in small shops and buildings now:
We all had lunch in a small restaurant. I had a bowl of rice with various vegetables mixed on top with eggs and hot sauce. It was difficult to eat because of my queasy stomach, but I ate what I could. After lunch we had some time to explore the shopping street.
I got to see how a Korean dessert is made from a special honey and corn starch:
We got back on the bus after having time to explore the area on our own. I couldn’t help but fall asleep on the ride back to the airport because I was exhausted from little sleep the past few nights, feeling sick, and having walked around Seoul for a few hours – but I wasn’t the only one sleeping on the bus. The tour guide made an announcement as we approached the airport because almost everyone had fallen asleep.
I had been nervous to have such a long layover by myself in a different country, but after going on the tour, I only had about 5 hours to wait. I found my way to security, which ended up being an extremely long process. Unfortunately the security line was poorly organized with not enough people working and small areas for people to sort their bags/take out laptops/take off jackets/ etc. There were a few hundred people in line when I walked over and it took almost two hours to get through! Because the line was so long, people who had to catch flights kept cutting the line, only making it take that much longer for people who went through the whole thing to get on with it. At times it seemed I was moving backwards more than forwards.
Once I made it through security, I found an Asiana club (another perk of frequent flying) and hung out in there for a couple of hours. The club is great because they have tons of free food, cleaner bathrooms than other parts of the airport, comfortable sitting areas, outlets for charging electronics, free and fast wifi, and even showers for people who want to freshen up.
I was able to video chat with my dad and feel connected to home – always important after a long trip – and catch up on the internet for everything I had missed lately. I ate croissants and pretzels, which tasted extra good. Hours ended up flying by! Before I knew it, the time to go to the gate had arrived.
I took the train over to the other terminal, looked around in some shops, found my gate, and waited for boarding. In that moment, I didn’t know how difficult the flight back to America would be and what a scary adventure was waiting for me!