Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A waygook's guide to visiting South Korea for the first time

Two months ago I went to South Korea to visit my chingu (friend) Claire who was finishing off her teaching contract. She stayed in the southern provincial capital, Jeonju, about 3.5 hours from Seoul by bus. I was fortunate enough to visit at the start of the cherry blossom season, though sadly I missed seeing the cherry trees in full bloom.

A waygook is a foreigner in Korean, and that meant that anywhere that is not the capital Seoul, I was met with open stares. Though I was only in Korea for eleven days, I saw and experienced so much, and I loved every second of it. Korea is such an interesting and unusual country and is filled with amazing places and people.

Outside Seoul, you may struggle to find people who can understand and speak English, so it helps to have a few phrases handy. I like visiting people in foreign countries so that they can show me around and I have somewhere safe to stay. It really helps when you want to head off in the opposite direction to an overpriced tourist experience.

A few musts that you should add to your "to do" list should you be visiting Korea at any time, include:

  • Try some local cuisine - Koreans have very basic culinary flavours, namely spicy, pickled, plain and sweet. They also enjoy putting seaweed into several of their dishes (even in soup!). Kimchi, which is spicy fermented cabbage, is almost always served as a side dish and eating too much of it can have some interesting digestive repercussions. Serving suggestions: Mandu (very tasty dumplings), bibimbap (quite spicy, signature Korean dish) and bulgolgi (marinaded, barbecue beef).
  • Do a temple stay - there are lots of temples, usually in more remote parts of the country where you will be surrounded by beautiful scenery. This also means it can be a bit chilly, especially while wearing your temple stay clothes. I went for a temple stay at Mihwangsa, in the southern province of Haenam, at a place called Land's End. Temples are very peaceful and you can experience simple, traditional Korean food. Note: be careful what you put onto your plate because you must finish it all!
  • Visit a jimjilbong - these public baths, often called spas, can be found in almost every city or larger town. A flat rate will get you a change of pyjamas and access to saunas, a sleeping area, the public baths, and various other areas. You can stay as long as you like, and can be a good place to spend the night. Note: the women and men have separate bathing areas and everyone is naked in these areas.
  • Jump on a bus and visit local attractions - the city and inter-city buses are very reliable and an affordable way to travel around.  Koreans are extremely punctual and buses depart precisely when they are scheduled to depart. NoteThe inter-city buses also have TVs so you will be treated to the confusion that is Korean television.
  • Visit a tea house - there are so many different kinds of tea to be had in Korea; jasmine, green tea, citrus tea, nutty tea, to name but a few. These teas are also available for purchase in convenience stores.
  • Go to a club or noori bong - Noori bong is Korean karaoke. Unfortunately, on the night we wanted to go, I'd contracted bronchitis and had lost my voice, but my friend assured me it's great fun. Clubbing is a super night time activity, where you will be exposed to KPop (Korean Pop music). Note: it's scandalous to show shoulders and cleavage, and there are scheduled breaks where everyone stops dancing and sits down.
  • Buy changwon socks - these "thousand won" socks make great gifts and can be found in many places. They feature adorable cartoons and crazy characters. Since Koreans take their shoes off in most indoor areas (including some restaurants and schools), it helps to have some cool socks to show off!
  • Find a local mountain and go for a walk - Koreans are concerned about health and well-being so you'll find many friendly Koreans along your hike.
Some interesting things to note about Korea:
  • There's CCTV almost everywhere - including on buses and in taxis!
  • Koreans work extremely hard and children spend most of their time in school or after school hagwons (academies). They are also very serious about keeping up appearances.
  • It's polite to give and receive with both hands, or one hand touching your arm.
  • Be on the lookout for the amazing bridges that can be found on the outskirts of cities, best viewed in the early evening or at night when they are lit.
  • It's unusual for Koreans to do anything alone, and some restaurants will not serve a table of one.
  • Koreans can't live without their cellphones, and these often have antennae specifically so that they can watch TV wherever they go.
  • The western spelling of places and things in Korea may vary.
  • Koreans are conservative but are crazy about outward displays of love. Be sure to watch out for couples dressed in matching outfits!
  • Dog is actually a culinary delicacy.
  • Koreans don't much like foreign cuisine, and outside Seoul you won't find many places selling anything but Korean food. Usually there will be a Lotteria (Korean version of McDonald's) or KFC in the cities if you need something that reminds you of home.
  • The written Korean language, Hangul, is reputed to be the most logical language writing system, and is apparently easy to learn. Read more about it here
There were still so many things I wanted to do and see while I was in Korea. Often I think it is best to leave a place with items on the bucket list left unchecked, rather than departing with a wish never to return. And there are still so many things I would have liked to see, including Jeju island, the DMZ and Busan's beaches.

Mihwangsa Temple

So, until next time, Korea! Kamsahamnida (Thank you)

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