I have found that taking the tour bus that lets you get on and off around a town is a great way to get an overview of what there is to see. My friend Diane arrived for just a day and a half before she and her husband headed off on a trip to Vietnam, so I thought it would be a fun thing to do together. She did not have time to really see anything in depth, so this was a good summary.
Here in Seoul the tours are run by the city. Maybe because of that they didn’t seem to be as high quality as ones I have taken in other cities. Our tour began with the bus driver talking in Korean (and maybe Chinese? It all sounds about the same to me.) He did not translate what he said to English, so Diane asked if there was any English translation. He showed us the ear phones that we could put on to listen to an English tour. It turned out that one of the sets where we were sitting was not working, so we changed seats. Then during the tour the recorded English guide would talk about sites without giving us any idea how to find the site. On other tours the guide will say “look to your left for the tall building…..” to give you some idea of what they were talking about. On this tour I found myself looking everywhere and sometimes never finding what was talked about and other times seeing it after it was talked about. The other problem was that the bus driver pretty regularly gave his own talk using the microphone without translating to English. At these times we could not hear what the English guide was saying and could not understand him either.
So, finally we decided to get off of the bus, eat lunch and then pick up another bus in ½ hour or 45 minutes. We just happened to get off at a very interesting place with lots of outdoor art (more about that with pictures later. We had a great lunch and ice cream and got back on. The second tour bus was better.
After the trip it was clear to me that there were a few places I really wanted to see. I wanted to go to the Namsangol Hanok Village to see typical Korean houses. I wanted to go to the North Seoul tower and see the overall view of Seoul. I wanted to go to the Namdaemun Market to look at stuff and maybe to buy some things. I learned that there are 5 palaces in Seoul and thought it would be important to at least visit one. There is a man-made stream that goes through the center of town that I wanted to see. I was interested in going to one of the many museums (art, Korean history, etc…) There might not be enough time to do all of that, but I had a starting place!
The end of the trip was a bit of a challenge. We had been told that we could not get off at certain stops because a demonstration was planned for those places. It turned out that the final stop where we needed to get out of the bus was one of the demonstration places. Because it was their final stop they eventually let us off, but we were stuck for a long time in traffic.
There were lots of people prepared to demonstrate and a HUGE number of police and police busses lining the streets. It was difficult to get a good picture of what was happening because it was behind all of the busses. Later someone told me that the busses were a strategy that the current president was using to keep people from seeing the protests. The busses blocked the view across the street. I heard that the demonstration was about the minimum wage and was labor unions in support of workers.
We were never unsafe since it was a local issue and had nothing to do with tourists. I tried to find information about it the next day, but it was not in the papers.