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Ki Hong Lee Talks Seoul, Korean Must-Eats and the Extraordinary Privilege of Travel

Rising star, Ki Hong Lee’s newest venture is J.W. Marriott’s “Two Bellmen Three.” (Photo: Courtesy of 3 Arts Entertainment)

Ki Hong Lee believes travel is a privilege–one the L.A.-based actor has been lucky enough to enjoy, whether he’s filming “The Maze Runner” in Baton Rouge, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in New York or extending one film shoot in Seoul into another to take on a role in J.W. Marriott’s “Two Bellmen Three.”

When I'm in Seoul I get to reconnect with my roots.

Ki Hong Lee

“It’s a huge blessing that I get to travel and I am realizing now that it’s truly amazing that in one day you can travel halfway around the world and see something entirely different,” Lee says. “Modern technology has made it seem like the world is a much smaller place now, but it also so diverse and so massive that it would take a lifetime for me to see everything, and that’s also what’s beautiful about the world in someway too.”

Ki Hong Lee

Ki Hong talks about being lucky a lot – lucky enough to happen to be in Seoul to join the cast of “Two Bellmen Three” to work with director D. Malakai Cabrera and play Jun Lee, a musician who has to make a choice between following his passion and meeting the expectations of his fiancée’s parents days before his wedding at the JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul. He also counts his Korean heritage as a stroke of luck.

“Korea is my birthplace. It’s my motherland, so I’m lucky that I get to be a part of two different cultures. When I’m in Seoul I get to reconnect with my roots,” Lee says.

Marriott TRAVELER caught up with the rising star to talk about his Seoul, what he loves about L.A. and how he travels.

Ki Hong Lee

What’s the first thing you have to do when you land in Seoul?

Well, you have to call all your relatives and tell them that you are in town and then you have to schedule dinners with all of them. They take it upon themselves to take you to the very best places to eat and have the best Korean barbecue. On my last stay there, we went to this really great grilled duck place. It was really small and outside the city. It really was the best duck I’ve ever had.

I really enjoyed my time in Seoul. I had my relatives to see and I had a friend there and we got a chance to get together. Every place you travel is different and every culture, but it’s about the people that you’re with. I was recently traveling for work and I was by myself and I was like: This is so boring. I’m the type of person that likes to get together with people and do things together. It’s hard for me to go out on my own and explore, so it was fun that I had friends and relatives in Korea to spend time and share this experience with. I think that’s very important when you are traveling.

Travel for me is a tremendous privilege. It's something that I am definitely thankful for.

Ki Hong Lee

I read an interview that said that you like to take your “Maze Runner” co-stars out for Korean barbecue when they come to L.A. Where do you take them? What are your go-to spots?

In L.A.’s Koreatown, you really can’t go wrong. You can point your finger at a map and wherever it lands will probably have really good barbecue. That’s the great thing about L.A. It is so diverse with all of its cultures and great food. It may almost be better than Korea.

Better than Korea? Can you share the differences between Korean foods in Seoul versus the Korean fare in L.A?

It differs in that there is so much tradition around food in Seoul and there are some things you just can’t replicate in L.A. because of the ingredients. There’s the Korean barbecue and ox tail soup that’s done really well in L.A. But on my last trip to Seoul I had this amazing noodle soup unlike anything I’ve ever tasted anywhere and I’m sure I can’t get it in L.A.

What’s your favorite thing that you have to have when you are in Seoul?

I’m a sucker for pork. I have a nice time grilling meat. There’s a spicy tofu dish that I love, soondubu, it reminds me of my childhood. I love exploring different dishes, but the easiest is Korean barbecue. It is perfect for talking and catching up with friends and discussing which piece of meat to grill next. Everyone has their favorite piece. You have a bottle of soju and share anecdotes.

Ki Hong Lee

Where have you been recently that really impressed you?

Recently, I went to Bora Bora and Moorea for my honeymoon and it was amazing. I might be biased because it was my honeymoon but I would go back again. It really is what you make of it. You can sit back and relax or be more adventurous, and rent a car or ATVs, learn the history and get a taste of local culture. I like having the option of having control and choosing my adventure.

What was your most memorable trip?

My most memorable was a random trip to Reno with my friends and it was the worst trip ever. It took 16 hours to get there in the middle of a snowstorm. We had to put snow chains on the tires and we put them on wrong. We stayed in a cheap hotel. It was poorly planned and poorly executed and it is strange how it was the best trip ever. I remember we stopped to get pizza in the middle of this snowstorm and the snow just started coming. We didn’t have time to get the snow chains on the car right, so we skid off the freeway. Our car was literally bouncing up and down and my only thought was: Am I going to die without eating this pizza? That’s always been my favorite trip, even though it was such a miserable trip. But I guess it’s because we got to share in the suffering of what we put ourselves through.

I have an opportunity to see the world because of my work and I think it's something that people should be thankful for because a lot of people don't have the opportunity or chance to.

Ki Hong Lee

How do you travel? Are you a planner or do you fly by the seat of you pants?

It depends. If I’m the one planning the trip, then I plan everything to the T and make sure everything is set and I’m good. If someone else is planning and it was someone else’s idea, then I just coast; I just do whatever the group wants to do. I’m pretty relaxed. I don’t mind chilling or going to a museum or going on a tour, it doesn’t matter to me as long as we’re having a good time and everyone’s good.

What are your travel essentials? What do you have to have when you travel?

I’ve got to have comfy clothes. I always like to have sweats and sweaters and I wear hats because you never know when you’re going to nap and you just want to put a hat over your head. I don’t like to travel with a lot of things. I like to travel light and just put my backpack on and kind of wing it you know. Otherwise, you’ve got to go to baggage claim and you’ve got to wait. I just want to get out.

What does travel mean to you?

Travel for me is a tremendous privilege. It’s something that I am definitely thankful for. I have an opportunity to see the world because of my work and I think it’s something that people should be thankful for because a lot of people don’t have the opportunity or chance to…. I would also like to say this: When you are traveling whether you are on a train, bus or taxi, on an airplane, whatever method of travel, and when you are at your travel destination always be respectful and always be mindful of your surroundings. Never be that rude traveler.

I’ve seen passengers be rude and angry at the world for no other reason than their plane was delayed or maybe they were running late or whatever. I’ve been there too, but you are getting too caught up and not enjoying this miracle of being able to go someplace new and we should be thankful for that. Watch I’m going to travel this weekend and I’m going to be in the worst mood.

Watch Two Bellmen Three, Featuring Ki Hong Lee