4 min


Korean nightlife, food and welcoming people

Preparing traditional kimchi in Dongdaemun Market. Credit: Feth

It’s 3am. Red and white lights flash around me while I scream at the top of my lungs. No, I'm not being arrested. I'm partying in a place called a nori bang, or Korean karaoke room, with a mic in one hand and a beer in the other, “singing” along to the lyrics of Lady Gaga's “Born This Way.”

Prancing around on a semi-stage in front of a widescreen TV and an audience of friends, I feel like a singing and dancing superstar — failing to realize that my peers don't share my enthusiasm and are secretly trying to skip to the next song so they can sing. The night carries on with beer, KGB coolers and plum wine, but before our voices scratch out for the night we shout along to Britney, Madonna and Adele.

Better known around the world for its differences with North Korea than its spirited nightlife, distinctive cuisine and friendly people, South Korea remains underestimated as a top Asian travel destination. But make no mistake: political problems aside, this is a country you will not regret putting on your gay destination map.

Although North Korea's ongoing threats to the South and the world have created international fears of a potential war, the average South Korean is not as panicked — it's just another day in the life of a country that has been threatened by the “axis of evil" for more than 50 years. People still shop the streets, kimchi is still made and soju is in abundance and consumed en masse.

If you are a thrill-seeker with a hunger for danger, then take advantage of a tour to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), the world’s most heavily guarded border, dividing North Korea from South. A little over an hour’s drive from Seoul, the capital, it is a compelling addition to your travel plans. At the great divide you can sneak a peak at a North Korean guard and maybe even get your picture taken near one of them. There’s nothing sexier than a man in uniform — plus, a story about being within shooting distance of an armed North Korean soldier will give you a bit of an edge.

South Korea was left in shambles after the Korean War ended, but a boom in the automobile and electronic industries helped make this country filthy rich, and it didn't take long for the once Third World nation to spin itself into a highly competitive economy that is today the fastest growing in the world. For proof, just head to Seoul's upscale Cheongdam-dong district for first-class fashion — it's like Fifth Avenue on speed.

One shopping hotspot in Seoul is the Dongdaemun district, where street markets are open day and night and T-shirts and sunglasses cost less than a cup of coffee. Big shopping malls with independent clothing stores are great places to scout for original styles at bargain prices.

Popular neighbourhoods Myeong-dong, Apgujeong-dong and Hongdae might be hard to pronounce at first, but they will be rolling off your tongue soon enough if fashion is your forte.

After a long day of shopping, I like to wind down with a hard night out. Before the stores close, the bars are already open and lively, and I can hear my friends Hite (Korean beer), soju (Korean liquor) and makgeolli (Korean rice wine) calling my name from Itaewon, Seoul's multicultural hub and nightlife haven. Not only a place where expats and tourists flock en masse to dine, dance and romance, it’s also a meeting place for Korean men who are interested in “foreigners,” or waegukin, as they like to say. That's why Itaewon is home to Seoul’s most popular gaybourhood, centred atop a side street and appropriately dubbed “Homo Hill.” The slew of gay bars and clubs here are bustling with guys and gals on any given Friday or Saturday night, and, in the warm summer months, the party hits the heat of the street and lasts till dawn. (Be careful: bars don’t stop serving alcohol until 5am, and alcohol is available 24/7 at any convenience store.)

Bar Bliss, one of the oldest gay venues and also the most elegant, is a cozy and intimate escape that is decorated with beautiful Asian-esque sculptures, red lanterns and plush seating. Owner Ted Park calls this place home and sometimes hosts drag bingo nights. Ted claims that his mojitos are the best in Seoul — he even grows fresh mint inside the bar! (The status of Bar Bliss is unknown at press time; it was annouced the bar would close, but then a post on Facebook stated the closing was "delayed," but no other details.)  

When I venture to Homo Hill on the weekend, I like to start my tab at Queen, a vibrant bar that transforms into a salacious dance club at around midnight. A stronghold for pretty party-boys and table-dancing bartenders who serve up strong mixed drinks into the morning, Queen is the perfect place to start or end your night.

Just when you think your high is running dry, you will realize that the night is just beginning. For a wild dance party, it’s time to shuffle your way to Pulse, a steamy afterhours club equipped with stripper poles, flashy pink lights, a glowing bar counter and a performance stage that is a breeding ground for a hot mess.

There area few restaurants in the area owned by famous openly gay actor and entrepreneur Hong Seok-cheon, who was the first South Korean public figure to come out on national television, just 11 years ago. Shunned by conservative Korean society for years, he has since reinvented himself as a successful restaurateur, having opened many successful establishments in Itaewon, including My Chelsea, My Thai, My China and My Ex (do you see a pattern here?). Seok-cheon, or Tony (his English name), loves to share not just his food, but also his company, and you might just catch him socializing or taking a photo with a beloved fan at one of his many popular venues.

For a true taste of Korea, I highly recommend the traditional bibimbap (see photos above) — a bowl of mixed vegetables, spice and rice. It's colourful, classy and a culinary favourite. Another option is the classic Korean barbecue — I’m a guy who enjoys his meat, and it's always more fun when you get to play with it yourself. You can grill your own beef or pork over hot coals while downing shot after shot of soju, a traditional and very popular liquor that will help build your vocal confidence for that Korean karaoke showdown.

There are many sights to see and things to do, but the most memorable part of my journey in South Korea was the kind and friendly people; they are the true heart and soul of the country.

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