So where am I going? Taiwan and Korea! Taiwan? Who goes to Taiwan? (Good question.) Korea? South Korea, right? (Yes. Well, mostly.) People are always asking how I choose my destinations. So just like I did when I planned my trip to India, I’m going to let you inside my brain and let you know how I wound up heading to Taiwan and Korea.
First and foremost, the primary destination of my trip is Seoul. Seoul is not just the capital of South Korea. It’s one of the world’s largest cities and one of the world’s hugest metropolitan areas. Seoul’s profile on the world stage got a big boost when it hosted the Olympics in 1988. South Korea will get another boost in a couple months when it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, an area not too far from Seoul. Seoul and South Korea are booming economically and technologically. Taking all that into consideration, it should be little surprise that I’d be planning a trip to Seoul.
But going to just Seoul wasn’t enough for a trip across the Pacific Ocean, and I wanted to see some other major Asian cities. I’ve been asked why I didn’t also include Japan. Well, Japan has a number of major cities worth visiting. It makes most sense to me for a tour of Japan to be its own exciting trip with lots and lots to see and do. And I had spent some time in Japanese cities, including an evening in Tokyo, when I was in the Navy. So then, where else to?
The nearby very major Asian city I hadn’t been to yet? Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. But really, you don’t hear much about Taiwan being a major tourist draw. So one more city would do the trick: Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I spent a night at a hotel Manila when I was in the Navy, but saw nothing of the city. Otherwise, my Navy time in the Philippines was spent in Olangapo, a small city with a large Navy base. So, Seoul, Taipei, and Manila. There I had what I initially decided to call my Far East trip.
However, I learned that Far East, like Middle East, is a Euro-centric term, defining regions of Asian in terms of where they are located relative to Europe, rather than within Asia. So I figured I’d have to go with East Asia. This caused me some consternation as the Philippines is considered to be part of Southeast Asia, both geographically and culturally. But what are you going to do? Well, the bulk of the Philippines is actually located further east than Taiwan. So I was able to rationalize including the Philippines in East Asia (for purposes of my trip). Okay, so I was all ready to start planning my East Asia trip. I figured 5 days in Seoul, 4 days in Taipei, and 3 days in Manila. After all, going to Seoul was the whole point of the trip. And Taipei and Manila aren’t really tourist hotspots. I mean, who ever dreams about going to Taiwan?
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the Orient. (Oops, there’s another Euro-centric term.) The more I looked into Taipei, the more surprised I was about how much there was to see and do there. For starters, Taipei is home to the world’s most spectacular museum of Chinese artifacts. (There’s a historical reason for this, which I’ll get into in another post.) To be safe, I decided I should allocate an entire day of sightseeing to this site. I also ready about a dramatic gorge on Taiwan’s east coast that is Taiwan’s top tourist site. Taichung, a city on Taiwan’s west coast grabbed my attention. It is home to some of Taiwan’s premier cultural institutions, as well as beautiful green spaces. (Taiwan, itself, is quite small. Add in high speed rail linking all of Taiwan’s major cities, and no place in Taiwan is too far from Taipei.) Taipei itself is home to a mountainous national park within its city limits, on the northern side. (Seoul also has a mountainous national park on its north side. Both cities also have rivers than bisect the cities into north and south. For these reasons, I have constantly gotten the 2 cities mixed up when doing my planning.) 4 days in Taiwan was quickly looking insufficient. Even just 5 was pushing it
Looking at everything I wanted to see while I was in Seoul, I was no longer sure 5 days would be sufficient there. I figured 4 days to cover the city itself, including the mountainous national park. But no trip to Seoul could be complete without a visit to the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea). A comprehensive DMZ tour covers most of an entire day and includes (depending on which tour you sign up for) a visit to the Joint Security Area–where, believe it or not, you can cross into North Korean territory. (This is why I’m happy to say I’m going to Korea, not just South Korea.)
But that’s not all. South Korea is hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics in February 2018. The site of the games is Pyeongchang, which is a county (not a city) located about 110 miles east of Seoul. In addition to winter sports facilities, the area has historic Buddhist temples situated in a mountainous setting (located in yet another mountainous national park). The icing on the cake is high-speed rail that has been built to make the area easily accessible from Seoul. So really, how could I not plan on going? (My trip is in the spring. So the Olympic activities will be done by then, but the region and the modern transportation to get there will be fully ready to host Western tourists, like me!
Bottom line, I was realistically going to need 6 days each in Seoul and Taiwan. In order to stick with my original total of 12 days for the trip, I was sadly going to have to cut out Manila. Ah well, now I’m thinking of adding on Manila to a trip to Indonesia I’d love to take one day. That would be a Southeast Asian affair. And now, with only Korea and Taiwan as intended destinations, I could proclaim my upcoming trip to be wholly East Asian with no hesitation! (And that’s what really matters, right?)
East Asia on the Cheap
Let me be honest with you. Technically, I shouldn’t be doing a lot of international travel given the state of my credit card balances. Technically. But because I can’t stop myself from heading overseas on a semi-regular basis, I was at least determined to make this trip as cheap as possible. And I succeeded! Well, I just about succeeded!
While I was still originally planning on going to 3 destinations, the airfare for a decent set of flights was under $1,500. That’s not a bad price, but certainly more than I really should be spending. (It was funny how the airfare would vary drastically depending on the order I put the 3 cities in.) I checked my airline accounts and I saw that I had almost 70,000 miles in my United account. That would be enough to get me across the Pacific and back. But the additional airfare to get from city to city to city cost many hundreds of dollars. That would still be much less than if I paid for the whole set of flights outright. But it didn’t seem worth it to use up 70,000 miles and still have to pay a large additional amount for airfare.
Well, it was a whole different story once I decided to drop Manila. I found a flight from Taipei to Seoul for about $100 dollars on Scoot, a discount Singaporean airfare. For a just about $25 more dollars, I paid for additional carry-on allowance so I wouldn’t have to worry about being forced to check a bag. (Many of you know, my philosophy is to avoid checking bags at all costs. In this case, the cost was $25. Well worth it.)
So, I purchased the 3,000 miles I needed to get to 70,000 and booked my reward flight. The total price for the additional miles and the fees you always have to pay for your “free” flight added up to just over $150. Total cost to book the entire trip? Well under $400!
Ok, now it’s on to accommodations. I wanted to try something different this time to save money. Something I’d never considered doing before. I decided to try a hostel. (I had thought about it before. But I honestly didn’t think India was the best place to experiment with hostels.) I could never go for staying in a dorm-style room, but I read that some hostels have private rooms, some even with private baths. I quickly found a highly recommended hostel in Taipei that had a private room that shared a bath with one other private room. I could deal with that. It was $35 a night. You know what? I’m going to stay in a hostel in Taipei!
If I could find a similar place in Seoul at a similar price, I’d have it made. Well, before I checked out hostels, I found a B&B I was really smitten with, in a good location, not far from the subway. I checked out some hostels, but I really liked the B&B. Totally Zen (whatever that means). $60 a night. Sure, I could have gone cheaper with another hostel. But the B&B looked really good and $60 a night still sounded a pretty good deal for a good room in Seoul.
East Asia on the cheap. Done.