Remember the song "Gangnam Style"? It was that impossibly catchy tune that came with its own little horsey dance; the one whose video still holds the title for most watched on YouTube. That song, penned by S Korean rapper Psy, is about Seoul's ritziest neighborhood and the trendy folks who hang there. That alone is not enough for me to want to visit Gangnam. Streets lined with all the high end stores-the ones I can not afford but would not shop at even if I could- don't really call my attention either. But you know what does peak my interest? A giant Gangnam Style monument, that's what.
Built at a cost of $366,000, the 27x17 foot bronze monument is supposed to have a motion detector that flashes lights and plays the song whenever anyone approaches. Its location, in front of the heavily trafficked COEX convention center, where parts of the video were filmed, means that this thing must be going off constantly. Alas, during my visit, the crossed fists were the very picture of silence. I imagine this came about as a result of (a) tearful pleas from local residents (b) a mild-mannered man pushed beyond his limits, wielding a hammer while yelling "Oppan Gangnam this, motherfuckers!" or (c) it was unplugged for the prior day's Cultural Festival. Based on the number of workers removing tents and banners, I'm leaning towards C.
When I asked a woman on the subway about the Gangnam monument, she seemed surprised that such a thing existed but gamely helped me locate it on my map. She then tactfully pointed out the there were things of actual importance I should see while in the area, namely the Bongeunsa Temple.
This Buddhist temple, dating back to 794, has survived war, fire and the banning of Buddhism during parts of the Joseon dynasty (in favor of Confucianism). Today it is very much an active temple as well as a tourist attraction offering overnight stay programs.
A week prior, they had celebrated their annual lantern festival, making for a spectacularly photogenic visit.
|A service taking place within the Main Hall|
One of the highlights is the 91 ft tall statue of Maitreya, making it one of the tallest stone statues in the country.
The temple was spectacular but what Gangnam is known for is conspicuous consumption. That and K-pop, the bouncy S Korean bubblegum pop music that has attracted listeners all around the world. On K Star Road, you get odes to both of those things. Along with the usual Gucci, Prada and Chanel, you find brightly painted bears (or mice, who really knows) celebrating artists whom I'm assuming are quite famous.
I chose to get off and take a stroll along the Han River. I'd been wanting to take a river cruise but seeing that all the brochures show pictures of night time outings, when all of the city is lit up, I got the impression that this is the way to go. Since it was much too early for that, I just sat back and watched all of Seoul's young couples enjoying the park.
While walking around some of the funky stores, I saw an ad in one of the alleys that immediately called my attention. It had photos of happy little meerkats, a simple map and the words "Meerkat Cafe". The rest of the sign was in Korean but I knew that dog and cat cafes, where you sit and play with said animals, were popular so it stood to reason that maybe they had expanded the concept to meerkats. At few points in my life have I so rued my difficulty with maps. The street names being written in Korean were not helping. I could not, for the life of me figure out where this was, but I wanted in so so badly. I started dragging people from off the street, over to the sign in the alley, while showing them "Where is this?!" on my phone. Eventually, I found a guy who told me, in perfect English, "It's right there, you are just on the wrong the side of the building. Go around the block, go upstairs and you can't miss it." It took a lot to keep from hugging that man.
I did as I was told and soon found myself being asked to remove my shoes and purchase a drink in order to enter this magnificent place. In the middle of the spacious room, there are two glassed-in playpens, each full of squealing meerkats. Oh yes, the squeal. And squeak.
Outside the play area, there are a bunch of tables so I sat down with my drink to try to take this all in. A regular house cat ran by. Ok, so they don't discriminate, nice. Then as I was focused on the meerkats, a dog ran under my table. While still watching the meerkats, I leaned down to pet the dog, only glancing at him at the last minute before blurting out "You are not a dog!!" He wasn't. He was an arctic fox... and why wouldn't he be in this multi-species tea party I had wandered into.
I didn't know what else was roaming around the cafe but I was there for the meerkats so I asked about entering the pen. I was promptly given a blanket to put on my lap (much like Russian hookers, meerkats have no problem peeing on you) and some hand sanitizer.
As soon as I sat down, they ran onto my lap. My bracelet, which has some dangling bits, proved irresistible to my new little buddies.
I asked the meerkat minder, who was in the pen with me, what all those noises meant. She explained that they were like little babies and were trying to say "Look at me! Pay attention to me!!" I don't know if that is true but I do have video proof that when happy, they purr like contented kittens.
With any animal attraction, there is always a concern that their wellbeing is being sacrificed in order to make a buck and although I know next to nothing about meerkats, this group seemed quite happy and healthy. You are not allowed to grab them or pick them up so any interaction is solely on their terms. If they want to come hang with you, they will. If not, you are still sitting in the middle of meerkat playground!!
While I was in the meerkat enclosure, I saw something hop by. "Is there a kangaroo out there?!!" "No, no kangaroo. It's a Wallaby" as if this was the most natural response in the world.
Also residing in the cafe, there was a genet, who was fast as lightning and preferred to hang out in the screened in outside patio and a raccoon the size of a smart car.
Suffice it to say, when you have started your day at a Gangnam Style monument, visited a temple a week after a lantern festival and hung out in a pen full of meerkats, there is no way you are going to top this. The only sensible thing was to head back to Pangyo, where my friends were on day 3 of their struggle to conquer the Korean Barbecue. (Spoiler: They never did but we did learn that the women who work there will not hesitate to snatch away your cooking utensils if you are screwing up).
The next morning we left South Korea, continuing on to Japan. Looking back at this trip, where we visited Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo and got to experience so many wonderful things, I can honestly say that getting to know Seoul better was the most enjoyable of all. I mean, how could it not be? They have freaking meerkats!!!