Korea opportunities Party hard and discover what these city streets can offer up when night falls
Home to ten million people, Seoul is a mysterious city with intriguing cachet. For every diehard fan, there is a glib sceptic tsk-tsking, ‘Seoul has no soul’. As for me, well, I was sick of admitting I’d never been. So one day, reflecting on how I was soooo over Singapore’s unrelenting rain, I packed my bags for the land of a far more appealing type of Rain. We are at the W Hotel (21 Gwangjang Dong, Gwangjin Gu, +82 2 465 2222), the least pretentious and perhaps most stylish of Seoul’s upscale hotels. Whimsical luxury, they call it (everything starts with a ‘w’ at the W). It’s 10pm on a weeknight and people in Seoul seem to keep to relatively sane drinking hours, on school nights at least. Except, our local guides advised, in the university neighbourhood of Hongdae, where one might find students cavorting on the streets well into the wee hours. A half-hour subway ride later, we are walking through the buzzing streets of Mapo-gu near Hongik University, looking for a place to park ourselves.
Then someone spots a busy, open-air roof café, OK Sang (365-17, Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, no phone). We make a beeline for it, squeeze ourselves up a harrowing flight of super-skinny stairs and make it to the top unscathed. The clientele is an eclectic mix of young, beanie-topped youngsters wearing sunglasses, and white-collared businessmen. We sat beneath equally contradictory decor – iridescent, violet curtains and pretty glass chandeliers hanging from a corrugated tin roof. Three bottles of soju and a plate of flaming kimchi later, we are ready to dance.
We skip over to Club Catchlight (364-26 Seokyo-Dong Mapo-gu, +82 2 320 9393) on a nearby street. Someone who looks like a student hands us a flyer and ushers us into an elevator full of attractive party-seekers. The KRW15,000 (S$17) cover charge is steep, but the beats sound decent enough from the door. We fork over the cash and duck inside. The dance floor is sparsely populated but cosy. I bounce along to Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake with a dark-eyed Argentinian and a hipster Malaysian. But it is the blond-haired Japanese rapper who catches my eye. Finally, he slides up to me. I turn around, and move in closer. We dance to Usher and discover neither of us is Korean. As the song ends, he grabs my hand, leads me to the bar and scribbles down his phone number on a neon-green Post-it note. ‘I’m here until Saturday,’ he says in English. ‘Please call me.’ I tell him I defi nitely will, before my friends whisk me off towards the exit.
Left: W Hotel shines bright. Right: Chow down some kimchi
The following morning brings a big, fat hangover. We decide to hit the W’s Away Spa
(21 Gwangjangdong, Gwangjin-gu, +82 2 2022 0450
), which serves up a variety of body massages, Korean body scrubs, aromatherapy and even a back mask. My pores have been looking extra crater-like lately so I opt for a Vitality Facial treatment, and bliss out for 70 minutes. With my body relaxed, I head in search of relaxation for the spirit. The answer is Jongro-gu, the centre of Seoul’s buzz-worthy contemporary art scene. It’s a neighbourhood of brick paths and traditional houses, where art galleries exist alongside old printing shops and hardware stores. Well-to-do ladies with large sunglasses cruise these streets looking for the next young Korean upstart to snatch up.
I almost buy a piece myself at the Art Link
gallery on Anguk-dong (17- 6 Anguk-dong, Jongro-gu, +82 2 738 0738
). The most interesting space, however, is to be found at the Songwon Art Center
(106-5 Hwa-dong, Jongro-gu, +82 2 735 9277
), where one passes through a small tea garden before entering a room where every surface from ceiling to floor is wallpapered with bright pink daisies. I then while away an afternoon floating in and out of the galleries of Jongro-gu, inspired and amazed. PKM Gallery
(137-1 Hwa-dong, Jongro-gu, +82 2 734 9467
) showcases the Korean and foreign artists you might find at the Guggenheim or the Venice Biennale.
Art senses sated, my K-pop fix is still unfulfilled. That night, I wind up at the chic S Bar
(83-15 Cheongdamdong, Gangnam-gu, +82 2 546 2713
) in an attempt at celeb-gazing. A Korean friend tells me there are some TV soap actresses at the far end of the room but their faces don’t ring any bells. I sip a delicious strawberry martini and check out the wannabe crowd. I waited all night, but ultimately there was no sign of Rain or his good-looking hangers-on. But hey, at least I wasn’t getting rained on in Singapore.