Delicious coffee, massively popular bands and a visit to a royal palace make Loong Wai Ting’s trip an unforgettable one

THE weather has turned chilly and a light breeze blows in from the coastal area nearby. It’s not the holiday season yet but the surrounding area is already brimming with a festive vibe.

The smell of freshly-brewed coffee fills the air as we get closer to the Gangneung Ice Arena, the venue for the annual Gangneung Coffee Festival. The arena is located in Gangwon-do, about a three-hour drive to the east of Seoul city in South Korea.

Along the way buskers are performing for the crowds which gather under the canopy. There are also rows of stalls selling various coffee paraphernalia and snacks.

Inside the Arena, I let my nose be my guide. Moving from one stall to another, I get to try a wide array of outstanding hand-dripped coffee and other delicious Gangneung specialty coffees.

The annual affair, which was first held a decade ago, has been one of the events most looked-foward to by coffee lovers. Besides serving delicious coffee, it also celebrates up-and-coming coffee chains and other artisan coffee shops with interesting events such as coffee-brewing competitions, coffee bean roasting and more.

By the time I reach the fifth stall, which does not even make up a quarter of all the stalls inside the arena, I’ve lost count of the amount of coffee I’ve drunk. For the uninitiated, Gangneung has long been known for its delicious coffee, thanks to the clean seokgansu or “water that flows between rocks” in the Simsanyugok Valley of the Baekdu-daegan mountain region.

Never leave Korea without trying their coffee.

Back in the old days, coffee was known as a type of tea called gabecha. It wasn’t until cafes became a popular hangout spot for writers in the 1930s that the coffee culture began to bloom in the country.

It spread rapidly and today, you can’t leave Korea without downing a cup or two of its specialty coffee.

Local coffee roasters such as Terarosa, Hanyakbang and Belief Coffee Roasters (popular but hidden cafes in Seoul) have been responsible in introducing the precious “liquid gold” to the rest of the population. Before leaving for our next activity, I manage to pick up a couple of fresh coffee variants to be brewed at home.

FREE K-POP CONCERT

I am no stranger to South Korean culture, particularly hallyu or Korean Wave, and love all things Korean, including a chance to experience an outdoor K-pop concert. It isnottheusualKoreanpopconcertbutone that includes multiple groups, bands, solo artistes, comeback artistes and even indie performers—all performing on the same day under the stars.

An avid fan of Kpop music, I am looking forward to attending my first Music Bank show at the Gangneung Stadium, which is adjacent to the Gangneung Ice Arena. But since we are on the other side of the stadium, it is quite a walk to get to our gate.

Security is tight but that does not dampen our excitement in seeing our favourite artistes take to the stage. After years of watching pre-recorded Music Bank shows on TV and on YouTube (the show airs every week on KBS Channel, where various K-pop stars promote their new singles), I am counting my blessings for being able to catch some of my favourite acts performing right in front of my eyes.

The concert, which starts at 6.30pm, takes almost two hours to end. It features popular groups and solo artistes such as Twice (Fancy, Feel Special), Seventeen (Fear, Snap Shot), NCT Dream (Boom, Stronger), Red Velvet (Zimzalabim), Jeong Se-woon (When It Rains), Baek Z Young (We) and more, setting the stage ablaze, literally.

My favourite moment is when Baek Z Young, the original queen of soundtrack takes centre stage to belt out her heartrending new single, We. Baek, who is known for her powerful vocals, has sung for the soundtracks of TV dramas and movies such as Secret Garden, A Thousand Day’s Promise, Rooftop Prince and Good Doctor.

WORLD-FAMOUS BUS STOP IN JUMUNJIN

The next morning, I wake to the sound of heavy rain splattering against the windows of my hotel room. The temperature plunges and the ground is soggy and wet. We had made plans to visit the Balwangsan Gondola but cancel it due to the bad weather.

While waiting for the rain to stop, our guide suggests that we drop by the world’s most famous bus stop in Jumunjin, about 20 minutes’ drive from our hotel in the Gangneung city centre.

You may wonder what makes this particular bus stop so famous that people from all over the world brave the long queue just to have their photos taken there. Like famous movie locations that you can visit such as the Al Khazneh in Petra, Jordan where Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was shot, or the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England where Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwarts classmates had their dinner, the BTS bus stop is a must-visit for fans of the ultra-popular group.

The famous BTS Bus Stop

If you’re an ARMY — that’s what BTS fans call themselves — you have earned your badge of honour if you have taken a photo at this bus stop. I am not an ARMY but I join the rest of the crowd, who have already formed a long line leading to the bus stop.

While waiting for my turn, I do a quick search on the Internet to learn about the bus stop. By the way, you won’t have trouble finding the place as there are plenty of signages by the roadside that direct you to the bus stop.

As it turns out, this particular bus stop with its steel roof and wooden bench is where the group shot the jacket sleeve for their You Never Walk Alone album. Not only that, a couple of scenes from their Spring Day music video were also shot here.

With some time left before lunch, we head over to Jumunjin Breakwater, about five minutes’ drive from the BTS bus stop.

Remember that memorable scene in Goblin, where Eun-tak (Kim Go Eun) first summoned Dokkaebi (Gong Yoo) by blowing out her candles?

The rocky pier in Jumunjin Breakwater where the two characters stood is so popular among fans of the series that many have flocked to this coastline to re-enact the famous scene. On a good day, when the sea is calm, the turquoise water seems to merge with the blue sky.

But because it had rained earlier, the sea is choppy when we arrive. The local authority has even erected a sign near the coastline warning people not to get close to the water’s edge, lest they are pulled into the sea.

OJUKHEON HOUSE

The universe must have heard our prayers, for the next morning (our last day at Gangwon-do), the sun is shining brightly and the sky is a clear blue. As it is the weekend, Ojukheon House, which also doubles as a museum, is packed with both locals and tourists alike.

It was where Shin Saimdang, an accomplished painter and writer, and her son Yi I, also a scholar and politician, lived during the Joseon dynasty. The house, which was built during the early Joseon dynasty, is said to be one of the oldest wooden residential buildings in Korea.

Over the years, it has been maintained by the descendants of Saimdang. The household complex also houses the Eojaegak (which was built to preserve the inkstone) and Gyeokmongyogyeol (a book written by Yi I in 1577).

Before heading to the museum, we drop by a hanbok rental shop near the public parking lot to pick out our hanbok or traditional Korean costumes, with their elaborate designs and embroidery. The shop allows you to pick out the design that you like.

Rent a hanbok when you visit historical places like the Ojukheon House.

After spending 20 minutes there, we emerge. It’s a complete transformation. From afar, we look like a group of elites who lived during the Joseon dynasty — the women in their beautiful jeogori, the upper garment (like a jacket) and the guys in their equally colourful jokki and magoja, a type of vest.

Everywhere we go, we make heads turn with our colourful costumes. We even imitate the way the elites from Joseon dynasty carried themselves in TV dramas such as The Moon Embracing The Sun and Empress Ki.

Locals who pass us on the street and at the museum commend us for wearing their national costume with pride. And like good sports, we even stop to pose for a couple of photos with them.

MOONLIGHT TOUR AT CHANGDEOKGUNG PALACE

Back in Seoul, we make our last stop at the Changdeokgung Palace for the Moonlight Tour. During the tour (which takes place only a few weeks a year), the palace will open its gates to “commoners” like us for a night stroll in its grounds.

Guards are placed at the main entrance of the palace, one of the five remaining royal palaces. The well-preserved palace has a public area, a royal residential building and a rear garden, the latter a private area only accessible to the Kings.

A man in a red robe plays the flute while seated high in a pavilion.

Named a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1997, the palace was the hub of governance and city life back in the day. It is not often that one gets to visit the palace at night, and we marvel at the architecture and the ancient trees. Although it is deep into the night, the palace seems to have come alive with soft flute music being played in the pavilion by a man in full musician garb from the Joseon dynasty. To help us marvel at the beautiful landscape, we are given a paper lantern each.

The tour takes about two hours. Before retiring for the night, we stop for the traditional performance at Yeongyeongdang Hall and sip on traditional red dates tea. For the next 30 minutes, we are serenaded by traditional Korean music known as gugak, pansori (musical story telling), and a colourful shadow play.


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