It is almost the Lunar New Year and what better way to start off than with fresh fabrics, fresh inspiration and a fresh perspective? Dongdaemun, Seoul, Korea is home to the world’s largest fabric and textile market, a glorious paradise that offers the finest that Korea has to offer all under one roof. Many of the businesses welcome retail shoppers, while some are exclusively for wholesale. I am here to bring a portion of this Shangri-La back the shop so quilters and fashion sewists alike can revel in the sumptuous textile delights of the East.
That said, before I delve into the delectable goodies I have been finding, I wanted to share a bit about traveling to Asia alone as a woman. Firstly, it can be a costly venture so saving money on the travel portion will free up cash for spending on more important things. Like fabric. And more fabric (smile). Also, one must be wise when traveling alone so read on for some tips on how to travel safely and cheaply in Korea. For easier reading I have converted the local currency (Wan) to US dollars.
Rule 1: Plan Ahead
Travel savvy readers know that booking your airline ticket well in advance can save thousands of dollars but planning ahead is only half the battle. Being flexible is equally important. I chose to fly with Singapore Airlines from LA and booked my own, seperate ticket from Memphis. I was okay with leaving on a Tuesday instead of a weekend when fares were higher. Buying two separate tickets gave me the itinerary I wanted at substantial savings. The one thing I was not willing to do was ‘save’ a little more by extending my travel time to 39 hours. The non-stop flight from LA was perfect and Singapore Airlines is fabulous to travel with. I paid around $800 for the ticket which is a great deal for a direct flight.
2. Travel Light
Baggage charges can rack up quite a bit. Pack only what you need and if possible, skip the checked bags on the way here so that you can bring more home! Just be careful to declare everything that you bring when you land. But where will you get the suitcase? Glad you asked. More on that in the upcoming Dongdaemun Day post.
3. Stay Small
By traveling light I find that it is easier to get around and I can stay comfortably in a Guest House (hostel). My tiny room has just enough room for the bed, a table to work on, chair and 36″ high mini locker to store valuables. Since I only brought a carry-on and a handpiece the 6’6″ x 7′ room is all I need. More luggage would be uncomfortable in a small space. This saves me a huge amount on the cost of a hotel!
I am staying at Kimchee Guest House in Hongik Station. The place is clean, very affordable (from about $10 USD for a shared dormitory room and $30 USD for a private room). I was pleasantly surprised to discover how helpful the team is with, well, pretty much everything from helping you connect with local tours to setting you up with a SIM card/WiFi egg. There is a charge for these services but the charges are all very reasonable.
Choosing to stay at a Guest House also saves on another of the biggest travel expenses – food. There is a shared kitchen where I prepare my breakfast and pack a lunch, saving time and money. It is also healthier than eating out all the time. Naturally, travelers will want to take in the local (and very delicious) cuisine – more on that later too 🙂
Most importantly staying with other women travelers adds an element of safety. It is easy to meet up with women from all over the world who are also here alone. Hongik University is the premier Arts school of Korea and it attracts students from all over the world. The culture of the neighborhood is very artsy and many of the students speak English. Everyone I have met has been kind and the staff also speak several languages so help is on hand if you need it. I prefer this to a hotel generally because it is not only cheaper but also, remarkably, quieter than any hotel I have ever stayed at. The school is highly competitve and the students here take their studies seriously, rising early and making virtually no noise after 10 pm. A far cry from my road warrior days in the US.
4. Free is a Great Price
There are tons of things to do in Seoul that are either free or cost very little money. For example, one of the key sources of inspiration this trip has been the magnificent architecture of the palaces and shrines, some of which can been seen for free from the outside. Palace tours cost a nominal $2.75 USD and are worth every penny. Other fun things to see and do include visiting parks and traditional village areas within Seoul. There are tourist guides at most major venues who speak several languages and can provide you with free maps and information packets in case you start feeling a little overwhelmed.
5. Use the Subway
You can get to everything within Seoul via the public transit system. The announcements for the stations are made in Korean (Hangeul) and English so you don’t have to worry about missing your stop. It is also the cheapest, safest way to get around. When you arrive, visit any convenience store and ask for a T-money card. This is a pre-paid card loaded with whatever amount you choose. The card is about $2.50 and can be added to in $1.00 increments. The great thing is you can use up any extra funds at convenience stores and other affiliated shopping places. I recommend loading it with about $40 USD for two weeks worth of rides and snacks. Most rides are about $1.25
6. Rent instead of Buying
I love costume dramas, costume fashion and Cosplay! Here in Seoul one can find the Hanbok which are the beautiful traditional costumes of Korea. If you head down to the Bukchon Hanock Village where you can rent a costume of your choice and take plenty of selfies before returning it.
Being able to rent your outfit satisfies the fashionista within without doing much damage to the budget. Rentals start at just $10. For those with the budget and the desire, a visit to Silkpia Hanbok will present you with a treasure trove of stunning choices. This shop is very friendly and will allow you to take photos of the gorgeous frocks, although shopping is best left to the committed. Prices are upwards of $500 USD.
So, if you have a desire to stretch your horizons beyond North America, Seoul is a great place to start. While I am here in the winter, actually the best time of year to visit is Autumn. For those with a passion for fashion, arts and quilting the Seoul Street Arts festival, held annually from the end of September through October is not to be missed!
All in all, traveling to Asia is a joy especially done on a dime! More to come on the fashions, fabrics and fun that is Seoul!