I spend my working life being involved, so when I can escape, my great joy is being a travel voyeur. I absolutely love people-watching. I am fascinated with everyday scenes on the streets, in the markets, in restaurants - anywhere there is something I don't see, do or hear every day. Maybe that is why returning to South Korea was so appealing to me.
Seoul and the surrounding areas are a sensory feast. And no place on earth is more so than at Namdaemun Market. This outdoor area encompasses approximately 18 city blocks and literally miles of back streets and alleyways. Every corner you turn is a wonder that cries out to be explored. The colors are vivid; the aromas distinct. There is enough steaming and squirming street food to keep Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern busy for an entire season. Like string cheese, there was string fish that was absolutely wonderful. I even saw children eating chopped Fish on a Stick. Miso, vegetables, noodles and - yes - more types of Kimchi than I thought was possible, including chocolate covered! Wow. There were beautiful woven baskets, embroidered mats; clothing - so much clothing; hats, fans, shoes, knickknacks and more "whatchamacallits" than I have ever seen. If I had been given an extra six days, a lot more won, and about two more suitcases (which I could have purchased at the market, by the way), I would have been able to take care of all holiday, anniversary and birthday presents for the next 10 years.
But to me, even more interesting than the products were the vendors and the shoppers. Sure, we have flea markets and farmers' markets; we have mall warriors who relentlessly shop for deals. What we don't have is the massively organized chaos of this place. People cooking, people haggling over prices; people fingering fabrics and trying on clothes. Small children pulling mothers from one visual sensation to another. Motorcyclists wending their way down the mostly pedestrian walkways at breakneck speeds delivering everything from riders to radios and TVs. Oblivious shoppers whose sixth sense seem to keep them from getting run over. Everywhere you turn there is another human interest story playing out in short stories and snapshots of time and trade.
Namdaemun is first-rate "eye candy." It speaks to my soul and sensitivities like no other place I have ever been. I want - no, I need - to return, explore and experience more; preferably not in the oppressive heat and humidity of a South Korean mid-summer, but at a time where I can get lost in the sights and sensations for hours on end.