Last summer, Korea started singing along to “Gangnam Style,” by the K-pop star Psy. By October, my nephews in Maryland had joined the chorus. A couple of months ago in Chongqing, China, I saw women exercising by doing its signature horse-riding dance in a public square. In February, Psy performed before thousands at Brazilian Carnival.
The thoroughly global hit (its video is currently YouTube’s most watched video ever, with over 1.3 billion views) has made Gangnam, a 15-square-mile district of southeast Seoul known for packed nightclubs, pricey boutiques and ubiquitous plastic surgery clinics, into a newly magnetic destination.
I normally avoid such spots — a matter of both budget and preference — but during a recent trip to South Korea, I couldn’t resist the challenge: Would it be possible to spend three days in a district defined by opulence without hyperextending my budget?
Not only was it possible, it was easier than pretending to ride a horse. And if you take the time to deconstruct the song, you’ll realize why: this is an upscale neighborhood where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a tube of lipstick, you can spend an afternoon pretending to be rich. In the video, Psy pokes fun at the poseurs who arrive from more humble neighborhoods. But because they are there, businesses have responded. Yes, there are expensive restaurants and high-end boutiques beyond a normal person’s means. But there are also plenty of opportunities to eat, drink, dance and shop for very little. Call it Gangnam Frugal Style.
My visit coincided with the Lunar New Year, which Koreans tend to spend with family; that reduced crowds but left some attractions, like the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum, closed. (“Who cares,” said Youngpo Hong, a student and one of my local sources. “I have a kimchi museum in my…