On Saturday I took a rare trip to Gangnam with my boyfriend for a leisurely stroll around COEX Mall, the largest underground mall in the world—nope, sorry, just Asia (darn you, Canada). Short for COnvention Centers and EXhibition Halls, both of which populate its higher floors, COEX also boasts an aquarium, a movie theater, a Hyundai Department Store—with all the food court goodness it implies, as you, dear reader, shall soon see—and a kimchi museum.
Every time I muster up the energy to take the long subway voyage down to COEX (which is not often, given the high density of great shopping and, more importantly, food, elsewhere in Seoul), I swallow a laugh as I remember my first visit to the mall in the summer of 2012. Mistakenly believing that it was “the largest mall in Asia” and (in)conveniently failing to realize that it was underground, I spent an hour wandering around outside Samsung Station wondering why all I could see were a bunch of hotels, some statues, and an exhibition hall. A shameful peek at my tablet confirmed my folly—and the importance of at least Googling a place before you (try to) go there.
We entered from Samsung Station on Line 2, following the throngs of people marching steadily through the labyrinthine tunnels between the subway and the mall proper. Along the way we passed several signs apologizing for the current construction, which had begun last summer. According to a large display near the mall entrance, the building is being remodeled to make it more environmentally sustainable, a process that apparently involves the installation of large, swooping skylights over much of its area. I imagine that these windows are somehow layered and glazed to provide “sustainable” insulation, but the display did not offer that kind of important detail.
Our first stop was Bandi and Luni’s (반디앤루니스) bookstore, a sprawling maze of literature that (almost) gives the Kyobo Mungo (교보문고) in Gwanghwamun a run for its money. I had just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and was looking to escape the empty lost-friend feeling that comes from leaving the world of an incredible story, so I wandered over to the fiction section and picked up 노르웨이의 숲 (Norwegian Wood) and 스푸트니크의 연인 (Sputnik Sweetheart). Even though the latter was a locally published paperback it still cost over 10,000 won. I had forgotten just how expensive some stores in COEX can be, I mused as I sadly put the book back on the shelf.
Outside the bookstore was a small exposition on new games for the Nintendo DS, complete with several rows of consoles loaded with games for trial by the public as well as a large display of Luigi’s Castle trailers being presented by two women with microphones. I tried out a game called 동물의 숲 (Animal Forest), which, at least for me, involved a lot of running through different buildings and hitting townspeople with a butterfly net. Then I played through a level of Mario Brothers 2 DS, with graphics that were almost depressingly better than the original despite being run from a computer about a tenth the size. After a while the swarm of children, mostly boys, pushing and shoving around me started to jostle my activation energy of annoyance, so I managed to tear my boyfriend away from what was apparently a life-or-death match of Mario Tennis and be on our way.
We started to get a bit hungry, so we strolled over to a sign that promised 中国料理 (Chinese food) at a stand-alone restaurant not seemingly attached to any food courts. Surprised at the 6000-won 짜장면 and similarly inexpensive boiled and fried dumplings (水饺/물만구 and 煎饺/구운 만두, respectively) my boyfriend and I took a booth and ordered a bowl of beef noodle soup (牛肉汤面/우육탕면) and dumplings. The beef soup was standard—big slices of meat with scallions and mushrooms, salty, tangy base, noodles cut from dough. The fried dumplings were nothing like the ones I had seen during my nearly three years in Beijing–larger, crispier, and more reminiscent of deep-fried American-Cantonese crab rangoon than the lightly pan-fried Northern fare to which I am accustomed—but still delicious. The food came out with kimchi, pickled daikon, and a bottle of cold water. One of the downsides to eating Chinese food in Korea is that it lacked both China’s complementary looseleaf teas and Korea’s generally extensive banchan services.
After lunch we wandered through rows of small brand-name clothing shops, looking but not thinking to purchase anything. I remembered my dad storming out of a Great Outdoors in COEX the summer before after having seen the 120,000-won price tag on a spandex shirt that could have cost anywhere from $20 to $60 in the United States (and, admittedly, elsewhere in Seoul). The prices in the mall were really hit-or-miss; you could easily be put off by $11 paperbacks and $100+ undershirts, but then, the two of us had just enjoyed a delicious and filling $15 lunch at a clean and comfortable restaurant.
At one point we found ourselves inside Asem Hobby (아셈하비), a hobby store selling puzzles, action figures, and all manner of wooden and diecast model. I curled my lip at a few $50 puzzles, played a bit with a set of (really cool) predatory animal action figures outfitted as some kind of fantasy MMORPG-esque warriors, and marveled at the predesigned do-it-yourself (sort of) model cars, planes, boats, and buildings—and at the swarms of boys, slightly older than the Nintendo DS crowd but still male in depressing proportions, inspecting the merchandise. I thought back to my own childhood days building popsicle stick boats and scrap wood dollhouses in the basement and wondered whether hobby shops in the United States saw a similarly homogeneous demographic.
We wandered a bit more, finding ourselves back at the other end of the bookstore (it really was huge, with multiple entrance points) looking at various non-book items. Hardcover diaries. Pens. An eraser installed into the end of a paintbrush holder for easy handling by artists. Scraps of leather folded into various animal shapes and sold at ridiculous prices. More action figures, this time dinosaurs and unicorns.
We left from a different exit and walked past an external display of discount books (only after crying through a photograph book about rescue dogs) and meandered through a series of cafes and ever-present snack shops—yogurt, waffles, red bean shaved ice (팥빙수/pat bingsu). We stopped briefly to look inside an imported foods shop, where I got overly excited about a package of Rocky Mountain fruit-flavored pastel mini marshmallows (pink, mint green, and white) that I hadn’t eaten since I was about five, as well as about a package of Japanese sweet chewy dried seaweed snacks that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Korea.
We were starting to get hungry again (this tends to happen a lot), so we took a detour to the Hyundai Department Store in hopes of raiding its food court. We were not disappointed. As we traveled down the escalator we were graced with an extensive fiesta of myriad food stations, including several bakeries, dumpling and chicken sellers, salad bars, sandwich shops, cafeteria-style Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and fusion restaurants, and dozens of dessert oases—ddeok, mochi, gelato, cheesecakes, pastries, even a Mrs. Field’s and a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Oh, yeah, and a full-on grocery store. My boyfriend, ever the fan of European-style food (like many of the other pretzel-chowing coffee-guzzling Korean food court guests, it seemed), bought some unprecedentedly soft and chewy whole-grain-walnut-cranberry-date bread at the bakery and a modest sampling of imported sausage and cheeses at the grocery store. I chose a small seltzer water and a bottle of kiwi-kale juice, and we sat for a bit on a cafeteria bench near the Vietnamese restaurant to explore our newfound treasures.
I checked my watch—time to go home. We had spent a thoroughly entertaining four hours inside the mall and had only partially covered two of its four zones. Granted, my boyfriend and I might share a greater affinity to food than the average mall-crawler and COEX is certainly dominated by more than its share of delicious snacks, but isn’t that precisely part of the mall’s charm? Whether you’re a money-laden fashionista, an exposition enthusiast, a book fanatic, movie aficionado, budding marine biologist, or just a window-shopping food-shoveling pig like me, COEX, enabled by its size to offer a high density of attractions appealing to all sorts of different people, is a justifiably recommended destination for anybody with a free afternoon and a thirst for some novelty.
This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange.