Author Topic: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai  (Read 6014 times)

Offline ZCN

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ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« on: May 15, 2014, 03:00:46 PM »
Introduction:

Having previously been to Chiang Mai, my wife and I were intrigued by Ko Samui, specifically the Conrad Ko Samui. We also wanted to visit South Korea and the DMZ, as well as Beijing, but we only had 10 days of vacation days to use. With that in mind we decided to spend most of our time in Ko Samui, and on the way there have a quick 1 day stop in South Korea along with an 8 hour stopover in Beijing that would allow us to at least see the Great Wall of China. We scheduled 4 days in Ko Samui, including Shabbos, where we could enjoy the benefits of the Chabad there.
After we had booked our ticket, I started reading about Dubai and it sounded really amazing so we decided to stop there for a day. With lots of HUCA with United, we were able to get an agent to add a stopover in Dubai, even though since we stopped for more than 24 hours it was legally an actual stop and not a stopover. In the end, we had a round trip ticket in Business and First with 4 different airlines, and we had 2 stopovers, along with a couple of stops that were less than 24 hours.
We flew First and Business class using United miles, and for hotels we stayed at mostly Hyattís besides for the Conrad Ko Samui. For the Hyattís we transferred UR points to our Hyatt account and for the Conrad we used the 2 free weekend days that we got from our Hilton credit card. Since we were planning on staying at several Hyattís throughout the trip my wife did a Hyatt Diamond challenge, which gave us Diamond status right away. Our hope was that we would get complimentary upgrades to suites when staying at Hyattís, however for all the Hyattís we stayed at we only got upgraded to slightly better rooms.
 A big part of our vacation is flying, which includes trying out different airlines and products.  We had a long list of things we wanted to try including flying on the 787, as well as Thai First class which we hadnít had a chance to do the last time we flew Thai. We also wanted to try out Asiana, and of course we wanted to fly LH F and go to the First Class Terminal again;). We managed to get all of those done. Here was our flight schedule:

DTW-DEN   Biz  CRJ-700
DEN- NRT    Biz   787 (United)
NRT-ICN      Biz    747 (Asiana)    STOP
ICN-PEK    Biz     A321   (Asiana)   6 hour stopover
PEK-BKK     First    747    (Thai)    (Overnight stopover)
BKK-USM   BIZ      737    (Thai)    STOP
USM-BKK   Economy   737   (Thai)   (6 hour stopover)
BKK-DXB    Biz      A330     (Thai)    STOP
DXB-VIE     Biz      767        (Austrian)
VIE-FRA      Biz     A321      (Austrian)
FRA-DTW   First   A340     (Lufthansa)

Part of what made this trip different than ones we have taken before was some surprises we had along the wayÖ.not going to give it all away, youíll just have to read through the TR :)

Iím going to break up this review into smaller parts and go city by city so that this can be posted in the appropriate destination cities. Iím also not going to go into that much detail in cities where there is a lot written already, such as Koh Samui, however I will spend more time on less covered areas like South Korea. I have the first few parts of this TR written already so Iíll post those pretty quickly, and I hope to write about 1 city per week after that. As always, feel free to ask me any questions you have!
« Last Edit: May 15, 2014, 04:36:29 PM by ZCN »

Offline Marco Polo

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #1 on: May 15, 2014, 03:07:43 PM »
What was the mileage redemption for the flights? Pre devaluation i am assuming.
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Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #2 on: May 15, 2014, 03:13:59 PM »
What was the mileage redemption for the flights? Pre devaluation i am assuming.

Correct. We paid 130K per person IIRC (one way in business class, the other in First).

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #3 on: May 15, 2014, 03:15:28 PM »
Correct. We paid 130K per person IIRC (one way in business class, the other in First).
Nice bang for your buck mile.

How did you book LH F? Waited until space opened?

ETA: NRT-ICN      Biz    747 (Asiana)    STOP
        NRT-PEK    Biz     A321   (Asiana)   6 hour stopover

You went back to NRT? Are you missing a leg?
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Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #4 on: May 15, 2014, 04:39:06 PM »
Nice bang for your buck mile.

How did you book LH F? Waited until space opened?

ETA: NRT-ICN      Biz    747 (Asiana)    STOP
        NRT-PEK    Biz     A321   (Asiana)   6 hour stopover

You went back to NRT? Are you missing a leg?

Yes, we waited until 14 days out to get LH F, before that we were in UA F.

Your right about the NRT-PEK, I meant ICN-PEK and I updated my original post.

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #5 on: May 15, 2014, 05:15:33 PM »
The 787, Narita, and the Park Hyatt Seoul


We started off in Detroit and our first flight was on a CRJ-700 operated by United Express. With these kinds of planes the first class seat is only marginally better than an economy seat, although we were able to grab the bulkhead seat so we had lots of legroom. As an aside, the 2 flight attendants working the flight got into some disagreement which they proceeded to settle in the galley which was right in front of us. To their credit they spoke in low voices so I wasn't able to tell what they were discussing, but I was impressed that it was only the first flight of the day and they already had an argument :). As far as the service, about the only difference between first and economy was that our coats were taken from us and hung in the closet, and we were offered pre departure beverages and snacks during the flight. The flight time was about 3 hours, which is pretty long to be in such a small plane, but we napped and read and before we knew it we were landing in Denver.

After exiting the plane we headed to the United lounge (my wife has the United Club card) and we finished making important phone calls and emails before our flight to Tokyo. After about 1.5 hours we headed down to the gate for our 787 flight to Tokyo.
As we went down the separate business class jetway which was empty, we stopped to take some pictures next to the 787 markings on the plane. Then we entered the plane and took our seats, 1A and 1B, which were right by the front door. As we got settled in, things got pretty busy. We stored our luggage in the overhead bins which were much larger than an ordinary plane, and then began to examine the seat and all the extras, like the amenity kit and the headphones (for the record this was our first time in United BusinessFirst).  While we were doing that we were offered hot towels and predeparture beverages by the flight attendants. We then called over one of the flight attendants to confirm that our kosher meals were on the plane. Thatís when disappointment struck.

First some background: Last year, we flew United in economy to Shanghai (a 14 hour flight), and while we had ordered Kosher meals for both of us, they only had 1 meal for us. Thankfully, we had come prepared for such a case, and we had extra food so we didnít go hungry. With that experience in my mind I called about 2 weeks before our flight to Tokyo and requested kosher meals for both of us. The agent noted the request and assured us our meals had been ordered. I called back a week later and went through the same process, with the same assurances of the agent. I then made a last phone call 48 hours before and was again assured our meals had been ordered for both of us. I had been reading on FT about Unitedís troubles with operations, and somehow I didnít feel that comfortable relying on United having our meals on the plane for us, so we made sure to bring some sandwiches just in case.

Back to the plane: When I mentioned the kosher meals to the flight attendant she got a confused look on her face, which gave me a sinking feeling. She went to get the purser, who after consulting with his list of special meals informed us apologetically that there were no kosher meals for us on the plane. None at all. For a 12 hour flight in business class. Like I said before we had food, so I wasn't that concerned about being hungry, but I was still not pleased, to say the least. However I didn't want to start our vacation off on the wrong foot, plus we were really excited about flying the 787, so we maintained our composure and said we would manage (BTW after complaining to United we were refunded 15,000 miles each).

Aside from the kosher food issue, we found the flight to be very comfortable. The seats were pretty new, and the entrainment system was pretty loaded with movies and stuff to watch, so the flight went by pretty quickly. 2 things I want to mention in particular: Iím 6Ē5 and I was able to nap quite comfortably without being squeezed for room. As far as the new electronic window shades on the 787: I was at first really excited by them, but by the time the flight had landed I was sick of the new window shades and preferred the traditional ones. With the electronic shades, even when it is on the darkest setting some sunlight does get in, so when I was sleeping for example, I had to wear an eye mask. Itís not sunlight that gets though because the shades are pretty dark, but itís this strong light which is definitely annoying.

   After we got off the plane in Narita, we made our way to the ANA lounge. I knew that United had a large and pretty good lounge in Tokyo as well, but I wanted to try out a foreign carrierís lounge. Before we got to the lounge we were directed to the transfer desk of Asiana, where we were told we needed new boarding passes. We were flying on a 747 in business class, which on Asiana is upstairs, however they decided to upgrade all the business class passengers to first class on the bottom deck. Having flown only once before on the upper deck (in LH F) I told them I would prefer to stay in business class upstairs, but they told me that wasn't an option, as they were closing the upper deck. Although I was disappointed, I couldn't argue with being upgraded to first class.

I found ANAís lounge to be ok, but nothing special. It was pretty crowded, and one of the more surprising things was how well kids are tolerated. There were several young kids in the lounge, a few of whom were crying pretty loudly, yet no one seemed to mind. Being tired and jetlagged it wasn't something that we really enjoyed. One of the reasons I wanted to check out the ANA lounge is that they have beer machines which dispense beer like a soda machine here in the US. For some reason I had assumed the beer they would serve would be kosher, however upon examination I didn't recognize any of the brands so I didn't end up taking any.

After about an hour in the lounge we headed to the gate for our flight to Seoul. Upon boarding the plane, we were welcomed aboard by 3 flight attendants and we turned left into the first class cabin. The first class cabin was nice but nothing special. It was more like a solid business class, as there was ample room by each seat but they had these standalone flat screen monitors at the end of each seat that didn't look too high tech to me. On the other hand the seats were comfortable, and the service was very good. We ended up being assigned seats 4E and 4F which are the worst 2 seats in the cabin IMO, as they were middle seats towards the back of the cabin. These seats had the least privacy and room, and since every seat was occupied we weren't able to switch. I thought it was very unprofessional of the Asiana ticket agents who gave us new tickets that they didnít inquire which seats we wanted, yet after stewing a little I settled down and enjoyed the 2 hour flight. As I mentioned the cabin was full and we had about 4 flight attendants serving the first class cabin, and we had very attentive service. The flight to Seoul was only 2 hours, and after eating dinner (yes, a kosher meal), we turned the seat into the bed mode and got some sleep. The meal was OK, it was Hermolis and served in the box, but the main course was fish, which both if us don't really like.


We landed in Seoul at around 9:30 PM, and after grabbing our luggage, we headed over to the left baggage claim to drop off some of our luggage. After a few minute wait we were attended to and we ended up leaving 3 of our bags there. They charge based on the size of the suitcase, and we ended up paying about $8 for our largest suitcase, and about $5 for the smaller one.

With that done we headed to the bus area. When looking into transportation options from the airport to Seoul, I found that although there is a train from the airport to downtown Seoul, buses are usually the best way to get to and from the airport which to be honest sounded counter intuitive to me. One thing to realize though is that the buses take you directly to the most popular hotels which definitely saves you time and money over taking the train. The main bus company that offers bus service is KAL limousine bus service (the nicer buses are called limousine buses there, not sure what a standard bus is). We went to the information desk in the airport to help us figure out where we should wait to catch our bus, and they were very helpful. As we stood outside waiting for our bus, a guy in a KAL jacket seemed to tell us we had to buy a ticket from a machine or from him before we boarded the bus. Unfortunately he didn't speak great English, and from the research I had done I was pretty sure we could buy a ticket on the bus, so we pretended to not understand him. Fortunately I was correct and we had no problem buying tickets from the driver, which were about 15,000 Won (about $14). We had 2 small suitcases with us and the driver took our bags, tagged them, and put them underneath the bus. They give you a receipt for your bags which you have to hold onto to claim your bag so make sure you donít lose them. In terms of the bus, it was nice with leather seats and decent legroom, a bit more than a coach bus in the US. This being the last bus of the day, there were only 5 passengers, including us on the bus. There was no traffic and IIRC we made it to the Park Hyatt in about 45 minutes. Keep in mind the bus makes several stops at different hotels to let off passengers, kind of like a sherut in Israel. The bus wasn't able to drop us off directly in front of the Park Hyatt so we had to walk underneath a large intersection to get to the Park Hyatt.

Upon reaching the Park Hyatt we took the elevator up and stepped out to the reception area. As I mentioned in the introduction, my wife had done a Hyatt Diamond status challenge, which gave her Diamond status right away and we were hoping to be upgraded to a Suite. Sadly, we were only upgraded to a deluxe room, and when I asked about a Suite, the lady told me we had already been upgraded! Oh well. The receptionist took our suitcases and escorted us up to our room. The room was very nice, and consisted of a bedroom and large bathroom. In the bedroom there were wood floors and floor to ceiling windows, which looked out to a nice view of some of the main streets in the area. The bathroom consisted of 3 areas: a toilet with a door on one end, a main room with a sink, and on the other end, a rain shower with a separate bathtub. In between the bathroom and bedroom there was a large closet, which if opened allowed you to see into the sink area of the bathroom. The shower was amazing with great pressure, and the bath amenities were very nice as well (I forgot the name of them). The toilet was fascinating: it was a Japanese toilet with all the accompanying buttons and dials, and even better, it had a seat warmer!! Letís just say we took longer than usual in the bathroomÖ.

Offline sky121

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #6 on: May 15, 2014, 05:21:04 PM »
Great TR so far. Will you be including pics?
"Not all who wander are lost"

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #7 on: May 15, 2014, 05:32:12 PM »
Great TR so far. Will you be including pics?

Yup. May take some time though, as I have to resize them.

Offline Marco Polo

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #8 on: May 16, 2014, 09:08:05 AM »
Great write up so far. Looking forward to the rest.
Quaerite et Invenietis.

Offline tuvz

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #9 on: May 16, 2014, 01:21:30 PM »
How was the Conrad Ko Samui?
I assumed you stayed there over Shabbos, any issues?

Offline Marco Polo

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #10 on: May 16, 2014, 01:29:54 PM »
How was the Conrad Ko Samui?
I assumed you stayed there over Shabbos, any issues?
I was there as well over Shabbat. I ordered food from Chabad and had the hotel warm it up for me. The villas are built into a hill with the main pool being lower down. It will be very hard to walk all over, so ask to stay on a lower level if you go.
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Offline jaywhy

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #11 on: May 16, 2014, 01:30:50 PM »
Awesome TR. Keep going. :)

Offline SavingsBigtime

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #12 on: May 16, 2014, 01:49:31 PM »
+1 on the tr , please trow in some picks. looking forward for the rest !

Offline smart brit

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #13 on: May 16, 2014, 02:11:25 PM »
Great TR!
Keep em coming please with pics

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #14 on: May 18, 2014, 12:41:25 AM »
Here are some pics, though I have to do them separately. I'll have more and better pics of the DMZ tour next.

1. 787

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #15 on: May 18, 2014, 12:42:35 AM »
2. OZ F

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #16 on: May 18, 2014, 12:44:13 AM »
View of Seoul from Park Hyatt Seoul

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #17 on: May 18, 2014, 12:47:29 AM »
Our room at the Park Hyatt Seoul

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #18 on: May 18, 2014, 01:09:08 AM »
Seoul, the DMZ, and Chabad.

The next morning we woke up and asked for our breakfast to be delivered to our room. As a Hyatt Diamond member we were entitled to receive a free breakfast, and I had emailed the hotel beforehand to ask if they could get us a kosher breakfast, which they agreed to arrange. They got us a very nice breakfast, which was prepared by Chabad in Seoul (more on Chabad later) which included eggs, danishes, and fruit.

After davening and eating breakfast it was about 10:20, and our plan was to first go to Chabad in Seoul and get sandwiches for our day trip to the DMZ and then go to the DMZ tour, which was supposed to start at 11:30 AM.  However, when checking out we were told that Chabad was about 30 minutes away, and the place where the DMZ tour starts from was about 40 minutes away. After some quick replanning we decided that Chabad was out of the question, and we needed to get over to Camp Kim (where the DMZ tour leaves from) ASAP. We asked the hotel if we could leave our suitcases there and pick them up later that evening, which they agreed to do for us, and we hurried downstairs to get a cab. The Park Hyatt has a special area where taxis pull into, and typical of the hotel there are heaters there to keep you warm while you wait. Unfortunately, it took a few minutes for a cab to arrive, and by the time we were in the car it was 10:50. In addition, the driver told us that because of traffic the trip would take about 45 minutes, which would mean we would miss the tour. The tour bus leaves 11:30 sharp, there are no refunds given, and we didnít have anything else planned for the day so we were a little stressed as our chances of making the bus didnít look that great. The driver didnít understand much English, but we were able to get him to understand that we needed to get there ASAP. Thankfully, we got to the street corner from where the bus was parked at 11:25 and we ran as hard as we could. BíH the tour guide saw us running and knew that they were short 2 passengers, and we ended up making the bus! Certainly not the way we wanted to start the tour but we were just so thankful to make it as we found the last 2 seats on the bus and the bus pulled away.

Some background about the DMZ tour: First, the DMZ is the area that runs in between North and South Korea, who are technically still at war from the Korean War in 1956. The area is a Demilitarized Zone, hence the name DMZ, and that means no major weapons like artillery guns are allowed there. Itís a fascinating place to visit because you get to see up close 2 countries and their soldiers who are still at war with each other, and you get to see North Korean soldiers from a county that is one of the most closed to the outside world. There are a bunch of companies that run tours to the DMZ but there is only one company-Koridoor tours- that takes you to the JSA (Joint Security Area) where the North and South Koreans interact. There are other places that all the tour companies visit but the JSA is THE highlight and only Koridor is allowed to take tour groups there. It is expensive- about $80 per person- but well worth it IMO.

Back to the tour: We left Seoul and started driving to the DMZ, while our tour guide got on the microphone and gave us some background about Seoul and then the DMZ. At the end of the tour they stop at a restaurant near the DMZ so people can eat a late lunch, so the tour guide asked everyone to decide if they wanted a rice meal or meat meal so they can call ahead to the restaurant so that the food would be ready for everyone when we came. Of course that wasnít applicable for us and she didnít notice or care that we didnít make a selection. It was interesting that once we left Seoul we were driving on a major highway that was right on the border with North Korea- there was barbed wire along the edge of the highway and small Army posts every couple of hundred feet. It certainly gave us a new appreciation about the significance of the conflict with North Korea and a taste of what we were going to experience.

Our first stop was the main DMZ tour center area. We parked among a bunch of tour buses and went inside a building to watch a short 10 minute movie about the Korean War and the state of things between North and South Korea today. Personally I was a bit taken aback at the movie, because there was a scene where bombs where falling and a little girl who was completely undressed was going crazy about someone who apparently had died. I thought that was a bit heavy for a movie that was aimed at a general audience. Also, the narrator sounded jaded and very matter of fact, yet the whole war and everything that followed is pretty sad. Other than that the movie was good, and afterwards we went to the next room where there was a small museum with several artifacts from both sides.

After that we headed over to the other side of the area where there is a tunnel the South Koreans discovered that allegedly had been dug by the North Koreans into South Koream territory. The theory is that North Korea dug these tunnels so that they could launch a surprise attack into South Korea with soldiers and even tanks. In order to go into the tunnel you have to go through security, and they do not allow cell phones and cameras IIRC. There are a bunch of lockers by the entrance that you can put your stuff in for no charge, and almost everyone was putting stuff in, including us. Now, I need to say that I do NOT recommend doing this part of the tour, as the ramp down to the tunnel is extremely steep and very long. In addition, once you get down to the tunnel area the roof of the tunnel is very low, there is water dripping everywhere, and to be honest you donít really see anything, just the tunnel and the place where they sealed the tunnel. To give you an idea of how steep the ramp to the tunnel is, if the ground was not made of dry cement and was instead made made of mud it would be impossible to walk down there. I should note they do have benches every 500 feet or so to rest on. When I got back up from the tunnels I was sweating so much it took me about 15 minutes to cool down- and it was about 40 degree outside. So IMO there isnít really much to see, and itís not worth the effort. Of course if you want to get some exercise it doesnít get better than this;)

With that in mind after you clear security you grab a helmet that is on the wall (to protect your head from the low hanging roof in the tunnel) and start heading down this very steep and very long ramp to the tunnel. Once there you walk several minutes in a narrow and damp tunnel to the end to a window where the South Koreans stopped up the tunnel when they discovered it. Itís worth noting that we didnít go through the tunnel or ramp in an organized group, we kind of did it at our own pace, and we just met our tour guide when we came up from the tunnel.

After cooling off for a little were given about 15 minutes to wander around and take pictures by some DMZ signs and then we got back on the bus. Our next stop was the Dora observatory, which is a place that overlooks into North Korea. It was very cool to see into North Korea for the first time, although soon we would get a much closer look into North Korea. They are very strict about not taking pictures past a certain point which means that you canít get great pictures of North Korea. They do have binoculars which you can use to get a close up look at some of North Korea.

Our next stop on the tour was a train station that was the last stop on the train line before North Korea. The station was built several years ago when things were more peaceful with North Korea and there were several trains that actually traveled back and forth between the North and South. Since then the trains have stopped due to tensions between the 2 counties, however there are quite a few soldiers at the station, probably due to its proximately to the border. The station was pretty new and modern, and after showing us the inside of the station we were offered the opportunity to go down onto the station platform for a small fee (IIRC it was about $3 per person). I paid and we headed outside and we actually saw one of the few daily trains that go from the station to other cities in South Korea. It was pretty cool seeing the sign Pyongyang that indicated North Korea. I would recommend paying the small fee and going down to the tracks, as itís a good spot to take pictures and look into the distance in the direction of North Korea.

After some time we got back on the bus and headed over to the main part of the trip: Camp Bonifas and the JSA. Camp Bonifas is the US military base right near the border (the JSA is patrolled by both South Korean and US soldiers), and we could sense a greater level of security and tension already. Our bus pulled up outside the base and we waited for about 10 minutes for soldiers to come onto our bus and escort us into the base. When the soldiers arrived they first went through the bus asking everyone to show them their passport and checking passportís to faces. After that was done they got onto our bus and we drove a few minutes to a large building that contained a briefing room in Camp Bonifas. Again, there was a definite increase in security and tension here, and for the first time we saw soldiers walking around with guns. There was a nice sized auditorium and we watched a short video on the JSA, including the highlights of what we would see, as well as what we were not allowed to do. Specifically, we were not allowed to point at anyone or thing on the North Korean side of the border, as that can be construed as a threat by the North Koreans. We were required to sign a consent form that we agreed to all the rules and conditions, and IIRC we also signed a waiver of responsibility in case something were to go wrong. We were also told to obey any order the soldiers escorting us would give, and we were given large badges that we wore around our necks and identified us as tourists. I want to make sure I give the right impression: I didnít feel freaked out like we were going into an active war one, I did feel secure and safe, yet I was definitely aware that we were going to an area where there was a heightened degree of danger.

After we were done with the briefing, we went outside to a special bus that is used for driving around the JSA. I couldnít tell much of a difference between this bus and the tour bus we came on but I guess it has some special security measures on it. We climbed on with our soldiers who were our escorts and after driving a few minutes we stopped outside a large modern building. We got off the bus and were told to line up in a single file line inside. As we lined up I noticed what appeared to be a statue of a soldier all dressed up standing to the side. I thought it looked like a statue because it didn't move at all, like a mannequin. For some reason I kept on watching it, and after a few minutes I noticed one of its fingers move slightly, which freaked me out. I wasn't quite sure why he was standing there like that but I thought maybe they were observing everyone to see if someone had a plan to do something crazy in the JSA area. One of the things that was really striking was how this South Korean solider was standing, as well as how he was dressed. He was dressed in full official uniform, complete with gloves and sunglasses, and he had a very aggressive stance, like he would strangle you if you got too close to him. We saw these South Korean soldiers throughout the JSA and in fact these are specially trained soldiers who operate in the JSA. They are trained in the art of tae kwon, which basically means they can rip someone to pieces with their bare hands and they stand the way they do because of this training. Itís also interesting to note that all the solders in the JSA wear sunglasses, which they claim helps the other side from determining what they are looking at.

Back to the tour: after lining up we climbed a staircase and went outside, where we stood across a small road from the famous blue cabins. These blue cabins are where the 2 sides meet and half of each cabin is in each country. We gathered around and listened to our soldier escorts give us a brief explanation of the blue cabins and the border. We were also told that we were being photographed by the North Koreans in the building directly across the border from us, which was kinda weird. We were warned again not to point at anything on the North Korean side or at any North Korean soldiers. I've attached a picture looking across the road to the cabins to give you an idea of the intensity and paranoia that exists here: youíll notice by the end of each cabin there are 2 soldiers standing guard, and they are half hiding behind the cabin, We were told that they stand this way so that in case the North Koreans open fire at them, they have less of a chance of getting hit. Keep in mind they have had this border for more than 70 years, and at the time we were visiting there was no specific tensions or threats between the countries. And the soldiers man their positions this way 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After being allowed to take pictures of the cabins from this point, we were allowed to cross the small road into one of the cabins, while being escorted by US soldiers. Inside were several conference tables, as well as 2 South Korean soldiers, one standing by the middle of the room which was the official border of North and South Korea, the other at the other end of the cabin to make sure no one walked into the North Korean side (although that side was already in North Korea territory). The US soldier spoke to us briefly, explaining the purpose and history of the room, and he also told us there were microphones on the tables that were placed there by the North Koreans, and everything we would say would be listened to by the North Koreans. He also warned us to stay at least one foot away from each of the South Korean soldiers who were on guard, although we were allowed to take pictures standing near them, as well as pictures of the room. We were only given a couple of minutes to look around and take pictures, then we were told we were leaving. On the way out I did manage to convince the soldiers to allow me to take a picture of the now empty conference room. After this we headed back to the bus and we drove on a road that went right along the border, which gave us better views into North Korea. We then headed to a deserted spot along the border where the US has a listening post. Since this location is elevated we were able to see into North Korea, including Propaganda Village, and we were able to see the spot where the axe murder incident took place (google ax murder South Korea). It was a little spooky being at this particular spot because this area is surrounded on 3 sides by North Korean territory and is only about 200 feet from the border, and in fact I saw 2 North Korean soldiers walking a few hundred yards away. We were allowed to take pictures here as well, although not of the US listening post. After this we got back on the bus and we stopped by the Bridge of No Return, which goes to North Korea. We weren't allowed to get off the bus but we were able to take pictures of the bridge from the bus. The same thing happened by the spot where the ax murder incident took place and we then headed back to the building that contained the briefing room where we had left from. Here we returned our badges and were given about 20 minutes to browse through a gift shop that was there, as well as use the restroom. My wife brought a cool DMZ magnet, while I schmoozed with the soldiers who had escorted us. They told me there was a small museum upstairs, which I went up to and watched some short videos until it was time for us to leave.

We climbed back on our tour bus and headed to the restaurant which was about a 15 minute drive, and was located in a very large office building. Since it was already 5 PM the building was deserted and I was able to daven Mincha without any attention. Afterwards my wife pulled out some food we had brought along and we ate a late lunch. We headed back to Seoul and after being let off by Camp Kim we grabbed a taxi and headed to Chabad. I had gotten the Park Hyatt to write down the address of Chabad, which I now gave to the driver, and about 20 minutes later we were there. Or so we thought.

We began an hour and a half ordeal to find a simple address that was almost impossible to find. The Chabad house is located in a quiet residential neighborhood with narrow one way streets, and for some reason it is very difficult to find the house where itís located. After asking several people walking around who very nicely tried to help us find it, we actually flagged down 3 taxis to help us find the place, even though we knew we were only a 2-3 minute walk from it. However the taxis couldn't find it either, even with a GPS! We even had the phone number for Chabad and the taxi drivers called them to get an idea of where they were but even after the Chabad Rabbi explained where they were the taxi driver still couldn't find it! It was crazy, I have never experienced something like this. We seriously considered giving up looking for it and eating a meal mart meal we had brought along for such an eventuality but since we had preordered supper with Chabad we felt bad and tried to make it work. We eventually made our way to the Grand Hyatt which is about a 5 minute walk from the area of Chabad and they were able to help us by telling a taxi exactly where to go. After 1.5 hours of looking for the Chabad house we finally found it.

We were welcomed into the familyís living room and the Rebbetzin began to bring out the food she had prepared for us. The Chabad rabbi told us people have a hard time finding them for some reason due to their location and address. We had emailed the Chabad house about a week before we left to order supper, which cost $35 per person. It was a bit expensive but I figured it would be worth it since it would be fresh food, especially after we had been out for so long during the day on the DMZ tour. The food was good, but I was disappointed that one of the dishes served was made of fish when I had told the Rebbetzin beforehand we donít like fish. All in all, it was nice to have a freshly cooked supper and see other Jews, as well as support a kiruv place, even though I felt it was a bit overpriced. They also had a small grocery store with lots of kosher products for sale, although we didn't buy anything because we had adequate food we had brought along.

After our meal we hailed a taxi and headed back to the Park Hyatt to retrieve our luggage which we had left there. We had an early morning flight to Beijing the next morning so our plan was to stay at the Hyatt Regency Incheon that night so we could sleep a little later the next morning. After getting our bags, we asked when the next limousine bus was leaving to the airport, but we were told that the buses were no longer running (it was only 8:30 PM). They told us the cheapest way to get to the airport was to take a taxi to the central train station (about 20 minutes away) and take a AREX train to the airport. We ended up doing just that and the total trip took about an hour and was fine. When we arrived at the airport, we grabbed the free shuttle to the Hyatt Regency which was a 5 minute ride away. Again, we were not upgraded to a suite when checking in, but the room we got was nice and was perfect for the overnight in Incheon.


Some observations: I would recommend staying at the Grand Hyatt instead of the Park Hyatt. First, like I said before we were not upgraded to a suite even though my wife was a Diamond and made the reservation. Second, itís closer to things like the DMZ tour and much closer to Chabad than the Park Hyatt.
I wore my yamukua around without any problems or looks, the only time I got extra attention was at the train station on the DMZ tour where some South Korean soldiers respectfully asked me what I was wearing.
As far as taxis, I found them to be reasonable. I donít remember the amounts we paid but I didn't find them to be expensive, yet not cheap like taxis in Thailand.
In general I found South Koreans to be friendly and polite people.
I would highly recommend doing the DMZ tour, as my wife and I both really enjoyed it and found it informative. Itís a very unique place to be able to go to, given the tensions that exist between the 2 countries, and it also gave us a whole new perspective and appreciation of the conflict. Before we went we didn't know that much about the Koreaís, now when we hear that North Korea is testing nuclear weapons it means much more to us given what we experienced.

 

Offline ZCN

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Re: ZCN's TR: Korea, Ko Samui, and Dubai
« Reply #19 on: May 18, 2014, 01:13:46 AM »
1. DMZ sign at first stop of the tour.

2 and 3 - Dora Observatory.
« Last Edit: May 18, 2014, 02:49:38 AM by ZCN »