Korea, May 2019

Silkworm shakes

Asia is our substitute for interplanetary travel. If there is anywhere on our earth where you occasionally feel like you are on another planet, it has to be in the Far East. It is often just in the little things. Picture this: it’s Sunday morning, we have just landed at Seoul Incheon Airport. Ellen checks in at one of the telecom providers to pick up the SIM card we preordered online. The lady behind the counter looks uninterested at the receipt and, without looking at Ellen, tells her she is at the wrong provider. She points to to the general information counter further on. At this counter, we are told that we should be with the competitor – who sits right next to the previous lady at exactly the same counter. The two ladies can literally hug each other. So why did the first one refer us to the information desk, with a steely face? Is she not allowed to pronounce the competitor’s name? Or does she really have no idea who is sitting next to her? Either way, it’s nicely alienating.

We are, now that the travelling-with-small-kids phase is over, slowly turning into backpackers again. Teun carries his own backpack, though still with a one and a half metre stuffed shark crammed between the bag and his back, for that matter. But it has to be said: his travel preparation is spot on. He seems to already be fully aware of the latest K-pop developments. And he knows almost everything there is to know about Korean street food. Over the last few months, he and Ellen have spent at least 50 hours watching YouTube videos on Korean cooking.

We take the train from the airport to Seoul. We won’t stay long in the capital for now. We snack on a burger at Central Station and then change to the TGV, the high-speed train to Busan, at the very south of the Korean peninsula. From there, the plan is to drive back to Seoul by rental car over the course of two weeks, where we will finish our trip off with a few days of sightseeing.


The letters G and V in TGV stand for really fast, and quite rightly so: by three o’clock in the afternoon we arrive at our hotel in Busan. We take a rest – a journey like this takes quite a toll on you. In the evening, we head out for our first Korean dinner. It’s a pretty big deal – food is one of the foundations of our wanderlust after all. After a few sweet potato sticks as a starter, we sit down at a table in a department store, eating steamed beef. It is extremely tasty, the only thing tempering the mood a bit is that Ellen is not feeling too well. But she’ll probably be fine after a good night’s sleep.

Another culinary milestone: our first Korean breakfast. Mr Song, our good-humoured host, has prepared an extensive buffet for us, with cereal and toast and fake espresso, but fortunately also with delicious kimchi and rice and everything you would hope to find in Korea. On the wall is a prescription for putting together your own Bibimbap. It works like this: first you put a layer of rice in your bowl followed by a layer of vegetables, followed by a layer of this and a layer of that – please pay close attention to the order – and then another layer of this and another layer of that and… then you mix the whole thing up! Once we are done eating, we put on some traditional clothes for a state portrait; the photo studio is all set.

Bibimbap falls into the category of easy flavours. But what about silkworm larvae? At the very first market we visit we bump into them. They look like tiny beans, brown and ribbed, they lie steaming in a huge container. When I came across them in a guidebook, I spontaneously got itchy. ‘Silkworm larvae’ – I thought I had landed at the medical calamities. But it really was listed in the section on national cuisine. That said, as a self-proclaimed ecomodernist, I don’t want to dismiss the consumption of insects immediately. Or, in other words: it seems super gross to me, but we’ll have to taste it. So I look moderately interested at the tray of larvae, and consider asking the market vendor if I can taste one. But before I know it, I’ve paid for a whole bag and silkworm is being eaten. By me. Three pairs of eyes look at me expectantly. I’ve seen this look before, during my own fermentation experiments. And…? is it tasty? Is it worth the money? Sure, during WWIII, when the flower bulbs have run out, I will definitely consider it again. This is what you call an acquired taste. Plus, my war reference does not come entirely out of the blue: this eating habit originated during the Korean War. Silkworm was abundant and provided protein to the war diet. These proteins, in turn, explain why the market vendor promised me strength and manhood. Coming soon to your local gym: super-healthy silkworm shakes.

In the same market, we find a snack that does please us greatly: the hotteok. It is something like a flat donut, with nuts inside. Not very exciting but enormously tasty, and sometimes you need that when the thought of an insectoid future hits you. Furthermore, after having a comfort snack like this, you gather courage for new experiments, such as at the fish market in Busan. Just strolling around South Korea’s largest fish market is quite an experience. In front of our feet a beggar with a mermaid fin scurries around on a trolley. It is both tragic and a little psychedelic. We are in a participative mood and are tempted to take a seat at a table in a market stall. In a small basin octopuses are floating around. The market vendor takes one out, chops it up, and places the violently wriggling tentacles on our plate. And she makes it clear: this must be eaten very fresh. Rigor mortis is too late. With her chopsticks, she picks up a piece. Teun is the first one to take a bite, but he can’t manage to swallow the tentacle. It is understandable: a piece of wriggling squid will cling to the inside of your mouth with all its suction cups. And that does not help with the swallowing. My lovely wife manages to swallow a tentacle some moments later. Tessel and I cowardly wait for the remaining pieces on the table grill to stop moving. Adventurous eating can sometimes be just a little too adventurous.

Since it is drizzling, we visit the sea aquarium in Busan. There is plenty of focus on what is generally considered the essence of an aquarium: glass tanks in which fish swim around. However, there is also a fashion section where you can buy all kinds of clothes with an aquatic design. And there is a theatre show. Cinderella’s fairy tale is performed there. Note: completely underwater. You would think that the whole Cinderella theme of chores and cleaning would literally fall into the water – pun intended – because what is there to mop up in a tub of fresh water? Nevertheless, they manage to pull off an amazing feat with their anaerobic pantomime.

Namhae and Boseong

Wednesday morning, we say goodbye to our host Mister Song. We pick up our rental car and we drive to Namhae. On the way, we visit the Boriam temple, which is beautifully situated in the mountains – and in a thick layer of fog. In clear weather, it must be an amazing place. When we continue our drive west to Boseong the next day, we plan to check out the wetlands, but this visit, too, becomes rained out. The wetlands are too wet, it sounds like a bad joke. The children’s mood and ours – action is reaction – begin to suffer. Only one thing will help against this: comfort food. We quickly drive on to Boseong. My plea for a beer-and-chicken bar loses out to another typical Korean “single-issue restaurant”: pork-barbecue. Koreans love barbecue! All four of us sit on the floor at a very low table. In the middle of the table is a grill plate, surrounded by a bowl of bacon slices and all sorts of other foodstuffs like oyster mushrooms, garlic cloves, and gochujang, a slightly spicy sauce made from fermented soya. And of course kimchi, which is always present. The bacon strips are fried and cut into pieces with scissors – knives are so western – then you wrap a piece of meat with the other ingredients in perilla, a kind of lettuce leaf. Our hostess very patiently demonstrates it all. And it’s so freakin’ good that we go back the next day.

In Boseong we sleep on the floor, in a Hanok, a traditional inn. Thanks to the underfloor heating, the ondol, it is quite manageable, although we are a bit stiff when we get up in the morning. Life in Boseong seems to revolve entirely around tea. We visit the tea museum. And we take a look at the Daehon Dawon Tea Plantation. I do wonder what the main product is here: tea, or films and soaps? The plantation is very regularly used for shooting films and television series. As such, it looks very clean and sleek. To complete the Boseong experience, our hostess makes arrangements for us to get free tickets to the local spa, where you can relax your body in… indeed: tea water. A nice idea, although we have to cut our visit short because our dear son unfortunately has no desire to sit stark naked in a teapot with a bunch of Asians. We take a dip, while he grumpily waits in the hallway.


On Saturday we drive on to Jiri-San National Park, a short way inland. Finally, we get to see some good weather. Near our hotel in Hadong there is a small river in which Teun and Tessel plunge enthusiastically. Our children have a passion for water. Or for Korean food, because at the promise of a Korean barbecue, they swim through the ice-cold water to the other side and back again without hesitation.

In Hadong it we hit the jackpot: there is a street fair going on. They are selling delicious snacks, sort of hotteoks in spirals. Interestingly, many stalls display MBA-like diplomas and portrait photos with graduation caps, as if the customer needs to be convinced of the stallholder’s high level of education. Koreans seem to have a slight obsession with diplomas and educational qualifications!

Our hotel in Hadong is a special story. It is one of those typical Asian buildings: once erected with a grand vision, but reality has taken a different turn. It´s a lonely affair, we are the only guests. At first glance, the manager seems to be mostly a bureaucrat, an enforcer of the check-in procedure. When we get home the first evening after dinner at 8 o’clock, the hotel is firmly locked up. We ring the bell and knock on every window, but can’t get in. After 15 minutes, the manager swoops in, apologising profusely: he had fallen asleep. The incident seems to loosen things up a bit; he defrosts. He tells us about his son who graduated in the Netherlands and now lives in Roermond, together with his girlfriend who got a PhD in Leiden. They all have good jobs in the Netherlands but would prefer to return to Seoul. Communication with our host is half in a kind of English, and half via a translation app that he speaks into like a dictaphone. When we get home to the hotel after dinner on the second day, he pulls out a bottle of rice wine and a packet of frozen bacon slices, and starts setting up a pork barbecue for us. What a sweetheart! On our departure, he gives Tessel a beautiful doll as a parting gift.


On Monday morning, we drive to Gyeongju, a city on the southeast coast. Unfortunately, the nice weather is gone: it is raining cats and dogs. It is also busy on the road with a lot of freight traffic. And once in the city, it takes some efforts to find our little apartment. When booking accommodation in an Asian city, I always fear that it might be a box such as Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a battery farm for tourists. Ellen, of course, knew all along that those fears were unjustified. Our accommodation is modern and comfortable, sleek and soberly furnished with IKEA furniture, a bit like the dentist’s waiting room. When we walk out the door, we find ourselves bang in the middle of the lively historic open-air museum. Gyeongju used to be the capital of the Silla kingdom, which at its peak – between the seventh and ninth century – covered much of the Korean peninsula. We visit the Seokguram Grotto, a cave with a famous Buddha statue that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And we take a long walk through the city, past the many burial mounds. There are hundreds of these “tumuli” in Gyeongju and its surroundings. One of the burial mounds has been exposed and turned into a museum. A little further on is an observatory, a “stargazing tower” from the eighth century. In these days of black hole photos and gravitational wave detectors, the tendency is to be unimpressed by such a simple stone tower. Until you realise, that they put those stones together by hand 1,300 years ago, secretly incorporating a lot of knowledge of our solar system and the seasons. All that walking makes us hungry, and fortunately there is a very fine night market in Gyeongju.

Jeongdongjin beach, Haesingdang and Jumunjin fish market

Wednesday morning, we leave for a long drive to Seoroksan, our last place to stay before continuing to Seoul. On the way, we stop at two places that must be doing very well on social media. The first one is Jeongdongjin beach, where a huge hotel has been built on a rock on a cliff in the shape of a stranded cruise ship. The second place falls into the naughty category: we visit Haesingdang, better known as ‘penis park’. The origin of this park is an old fisherman’s legend. Long story short: after the tragic drowning of a young damsel, there was an abrupt scarcity of fish. As quickly as the fish disappeared, they also returned, after a fisherman emptied his bladder into the sea. Ha! Cum hoc ergo propter hoc – correlation does not always mean causation. Nevertheless, it was concluded that imposing male genitalia on a deceased virgin was good for the turnover of the fishing industry. Resulting in a long-standing tradition of phallus worship. And thus this park, that leaves little to the imagination. Many Korean artists have contributed, in all shapes and sizes. The seriously intended theme obviously evokes frivolity, but that does not seem to be a problem. Groups of Asian women of all ages are frantically frolicking around with their selfie sticks. (All penis envy of course, but that’s another topic.) All in all, you could say that this park is a fertile mix of tradition, art and entertainment.

We left the bad weather behind us again; the sun is shining brightly. Near Gangneung – you might remember it from the 2018 Winter Olympics – we take a stroll through the Jumunjin fish market. Tessel pushes her limits by holding a live squid in her hands. Quite brave of her. The black squid ice cream we eat afterwards however is more to our liking.

Seoraksan National Park

We spend two nights in Sokcho, about forty kilometres south of the border with North Korea. Near Sokcho is Seoraksan National Park and the mountain bearing the same name – the country’s third highest. That’s something we like to climb! We hike to Ulsan Bawi Rock, a granite cliff 873 metres above sea level. It’s not difficult per se, but it’s quite a climb nonetheless, including about eight hundred flights of stairs right before the top. We meet a lot of fellow hikers along the way, each stumbling up at their own pace. The reward is a spectacular view. We hike down and to complete the experience, we take the cable car at the bottom, which heads up the mountain in the southernly direction. Energy for another hike is gone, understandably. Tessel sums up the mood when she gives her opinion on travelling: “I like the Netherlands a bit more because then I don’t have to climb mountains.”

In the evening in Sokcho, we eat perhaps the tastiest Korean barbecue of the whole holiday. We sit comfortably on chairs, which secretly helps. Next to us are two gentlemen who constantly share food with us for fun – very nice! While experimenting, we discover that kimchi tastes excellent when grilled briefly.


On Friday morning, we drive to Seoul. Usually when we travel, we skip all the big cities, but Seoul is an exception. We are spending a whole weekend in Seoul before taking the plane home. Before returning our rental car, we drive to “Hanok village”, an open-air museum in the middle of Seoul that had nestled in our somewhat naive expectations as being “a traditional village near Seoul”. Our attention is drawn to a festival-like gathering of people. Preparations are being made for a Taekwondo demonstration by the Korean army. We are keen to see that, with our two children practising martial arts. What follows is a spectacular show, kind of a crossing between military displays of strength, acrobatics, and a touch of K-pop. Towards the end, volunteers are asked to come on stage. Tessel takes the bait. She is allowed to chop through a couple of boards, which she manages quite well with a little help from the board-holder. After the final applause, we think it’s finished. We thought wrong… The Taekwondokas still have to take a group photo together with all the volunteers. “Smile! Say kimchi!” Next, the rest of our family is also asked to join in for a state portrait. After taking another photo, and another, and another photo of the photo-making, a duo arrives with a camera and a microphone and Ellen is asked do do an interview. After exchanging some more photos and extended thanks, we leave Hanok Village.

We return our hire car to its rightful owner without a scratch – which is always a relief. After all, it’s not every day you drive in a city of 10 million people. Our hostel is right in the middle of the red-light district. That sounds worse than it is; this red-light district is not as seedy as in some other countries. And our hostel is totally fine. The four of us sleep unexpectedly well in a small room with two bunk beds. The reception is manned by two young ladies who are extremely welcoming and provide us with information in the best English we’ve heard this holiday.

Seoul lives up to all the clichés. People walk the streets wearing masks because of the smog from China. There are ancient temples alongside modern architecture. The latter category includes the futuristic Dongdaemon Design Plaza and the 555-metre-high Lotte Tower – with a lovely food court. And speaking of food, the Gwangjang Night Market can count on our warm interest. It’s a great way to enjoy food. You stop at a stall for a delicious Korean pancake and a beer or fruit shake, walk along with the crowd again to order something new somewhere else. Eat, walk, repeat – until you are full, or your money runs out.

The real highlight of our Seoul visit is the Buddha Lantern Festival. Ellen knew months ago that our holiday schedule coincided with this festival. Preparations are already underway all over the city, including lots of arts and crafts. On Saturday evening, on the boulevards near our hotel, there is a festive international parade with delegations from all over the Buddhist world. In terms of atmosphere, it is a bit like a Dutch carnival parade minus the drunken people and loud music. It is great, for hours we stand by the roadside watching the parade.

This is how our Korean adventure comes to an end. And there is so much I haven’t told you yet. About the music you hear everywhere, giving you the nagging feeling of being chased by Céline Dion all day. About the honking at traffic lights twenty milliseconds after the light turns green. You wouldn’t dream of doing that in the Netherlands, but out here you know it’s not impatience, but a service from your fellow road users. And speaking of service: it’s just so nice to be served with a smile everywhere, without all the hassle of tipping.

You don’t see many Western tourists here. Only a few times we run in to other tourists. Unfamiliar means unloved, no doubt. And the unpredictable northern neighbour might be a scary factor. If you want to know more about Korea, I recommend reading ‘The Impossible Country’ by Daniel Tudor, a journalist who lived in South Korea for years and writes very well and accessibly about this crazy country.