OOPA Gangnam Style… Four years ago – has it been that long? – the world spent the summer galloping like fools to the inescapable anthem by Psy, the South Korean K-pop sensation and reigning King of YouTube. But nearly half a decade later, are we any close to knowing what exactly Gangnam Style really means?
For the answer, you might need to take yourself to the capital of South Korea, Seoul, and visit a fascinating city bursting with irresistible contradictions. Slow and peaceful, then disconcertingly fast. Futuristic yet also deeply traditional. Hot and often humid, but still boasting a freezing winter unlike many neighboring countries. Conservative, yes, but – make no mistake – oh-so-wild.
There are a lot of rules here. But fortunately for fun-seekers, many of the rules in Seoul were seemingly made to be broken.
Rule One, most importantly: Sharing is caring. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is this phrase more apt than the East Asian region, where sharing is not just a way to show generosity; it is as ingrained in the culture as the language or the ear-shattering cicada, the unbelievably noisy bugs that you will likely never see but often hear during your stay.
A prime example of rule number one is the Korean approach to food. Dining out at a Korean barbecue is a joyous experience. And don’t worry, nothing you’ll be served will have spent life as a pet. That is, fortunately, an outdated tradition that modern Koreans are looking to shake their associations with, so if you’re seeking an alternative kind of hot dog, you’re, ahem, barking up the wrong tree.
But what you are served, you’ll undoubtedly share. Upon entering a traditional Korean restaurant, a lady will come to your table and provide your group with hot coals (careful!) before presenting you with skewers of delicious raw beef and pork, with accompanying vegetables, spices and marinates, allowing you and your gang to take a DIY approach to dinner. Everyone joins in and shares the food – put it this way, Joey Tribbiani wouldn’t last long – helping create less of a meal and more of an event.
Also shared in most Korean restaurants are bottles of soju, a distilled beverage you drink neat. As Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage, you’ll see – and consume – plenty of this. It can be difficult to tell how much of it you’re drinking when you’re sharing with friends, but rest assured, it’s likely you’ll all be sharing a hangover the next day too. Hic.
That brings us to Rule Two: Always join in. The people of Seoul are lovely, friendly and lots of fun. But you might have to leave your inhibitions at the door – along with your shoes in many areas – in order to get the most out of it.
The locals eat plenty that you won’t have seen at home. When a live octopus is chopped up in front of you in the famous Nryangjin fish market, then served to you raw and still wriggling in one of the nearby restaurants, you might be best advised to close your eyes and just give it a go. (Even if that’s not your thing, you should still definitely visit the vast fish market, which is like stepping into a live-action version of Finding Nemo.) All the traditional food is cheap too, as is getting around the city, so there’s no excuse not to see plenty of what Seoul has to offer.
At night, the city really shows off its personality. Many districts are home to bold and wonderful scenes. Most famous now thanks to the aforementioned song, is Gangnam, with its cosmopolitan, flashy people and Tokyo-esque buildings so bright you need to borrow Psy’s sunglasses just to explore – even at midnight. Itaewon has wild clubs and bars that make Vegas look tame. Don’t be intimidated by the in-your-face venues. Sing along with the karaoke (they have Adele, don’t panic), drink the soju, visit the spas and succumb to the city. Join in, always, and you won’t know where the night went.
But to really fit in, adhere to Rule Three: Be creative. Seoul has one of the world’s most thriving art scenes, and it shows in every corner of the city. A trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art gives a splendid glimpse into modern South Korea’s vibrant creativity, but is not strictly necessary, as evidence exists all around in the spectacular architecture. Awe-inspiring sculptures loom over every street, thanks to requirements by the government that make businesses add their own creative stamp to their buildings.
One minute you’re looking adoringly at a traditional Korean guest house, the next you’re taking pictures of a 50-foot whale carcass sculpture by a skyscraper that is there because… well, just because.
Every building is different as the owner often designs it themselves, creating masses of architectural variety even within one street. Not to mention the world’s longest bridge fountain, Banpo Moonlight Rainbow Fountain, which crosses the enormous Han River.
It’s hard to imagine that just a hundred years ago, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Now South Korea has one of the fastest developing economies, and it shows. With their flair for color, style, fashion and architecture, even the most mundane of streets ends up looking extraordinary.
For these triumphs, you can only really give them your utmost respect. Which ties neatly to Rule Four: Show respect. Respect is more important than anything in South Korea, and you see it most in the attention and love they devote to their culture.
See the beautiful women in their traditional dress among the bonsai trees and tranquil gardens by the free-admission National Museum of Folk. To experience the culture most, stay in a traditional guest house and become part of a family that looks after you during your stay. (But be warned – don’t wear shoes in the house.)
Mountains offer spectacular views but are also, in many areas, where they bury the dead. The elderly are treated like royalty, and as with many Asian countries, refreshingly remain the most important members of society.
But to really show your respect and admiration for the glorious place, immerse yourself in its culture and traditions. The two palaces should be priorities for any trip, with a visit to the stunning Secret Gardens something that no tourist would regret.
Rule Five is the easiest. It is, of course, to enjoy. For those looking for an alternative holiday, hoping to soak up a vastly different culture in an environment that has yet to be swamped by Western tourism, this is the perfect place. It mixes conservative traditions with futuristic and cosmopolitan fun – while somehow doing it all with such style.
Now maybe that’s what Psy was going on about.