Updated 12 July 2017 - Imagine someone giving up their subway seat so two friends can sit
together. Or leaving your room unlocked or your luggage
out of sight on a train - without worrying it might disappear. Or a bus driver bowing before driving off – and he’s wearing white gloves.
You'd be in South Korea, of course, and what follows are the highlights of my two-week Korea itinerary in a land of near-unbelievable contrast.
Just decades ago Seoul was still suffering from the aftermath of the Korean War of the 1950s. Today the capital Seoul is one of the world's most sophisticated cities (photo Pixabay)
However modern and forward-looking, Koreans have as much respect for the past as for the future, as seen in this renovation at a Buddhist temple
Built on the rubble that was once Seoul, the capital is now a world-class metropolis. Much of South Korea’s success today – Hyundai, LG, Samsung, Daewoo – dates to the aftermath the Korean War, which killed millions and destroyed the country’s infrastructure, leaving it one of the world's poorest countries. It’s hard to conceive of Seoul as a flattened city, from which 90% of the population fled and whose remaining 10% often scavenged for food.
An aged Korean woman pauses in her search for salvageable materials among the ruins of Seoul, Korea. November 1, 1950. Capt. C. W. Huff. (Army)
Korean women and children search the rubble of Seoul for anything that can be used or burned as fuel. November 1, 1950. Capt. F. L. Scheiber. (Army)
If it weren’t for the unpredictability of North Korea and Donald Trump, this would easily qualify as one of the safest destinations for women – anywhere.
But the near-daily threats, missile tests and hard talk makes it difficult to forget that South Korea's sworn enemy, North Korea, lies armed to the teeth just half an hour away and to the South, even more heavily armed, is South Korea and a strong US military presence.
My first brush with the modern miracle that is today's Korea was at Incheon Airport. Huge lines advance smoothly, everyone stepping up in orderly fashion, fitting their soles onto the footprints thoughtfully painted on the floor for you (in case you might be tempted to jump the queue into the arms of the border police).
I arrived in Seoul towards the end of March, possibly the best time to visit Korea, during cherry blossom season. I planned a two-week Korea itinerary and I’d decided to split it between the capital and the rest of the country. That isn’t as farfetched as it seems: South Korea is the size of England, or of Kentucky, whichever means more to you, so you can see much of it quickly. I had one goal in mind: hunting down cherry blossoms because it's a season I've never experienced.
Cherry blossoms were everywhere in Gyeongju during my stay - in the trees, or whirling to the ground
Places to visit in Seoul
For some reason, people recommended two or three days in Seoul at most. I disagree with this recommendation; I was in Seoul for six days felt I had barely scratched its surface. The crowds, traffic and skyscrapers are easily counterbalanced by the high energy, contrast and headiness of the city.
Physically, the city sits in a bowl surrounded by eight mountains and bisected by the Han River. Most walking takes place on hills and my apartment in Seoul required me to walk up a steep hill, climb 50 or so steps, walk up a smaller hill and gasp my way through another three flights of stairs. Calf muscle issues? Visit Seoul. You’ll be Wonder Woman in no time.
I roamed, hopping on and off buses, exploring distant subway stations and discovering neighborhoods.
If you need more of a plan, here are just a few of the things to do in Seoul on your own (this list is anything but exhaustive):
Myeongdong Market is my idea of the perfect street market, clothes and shops in daytime and foodie fair as soon as the sun begins to set. The market is known for its cosmetics shops (Korean cosmetics have a worldwide reputation and draw local and foreign shoppers.
Namsan Seoul Tower, also known as the N Tower, is the highest point in the city and is best visited at night, after a quick cable car ride. The mountain it caps has been ringed with walking trails and during the day the hike is well worth it. Partway up is a wonderful traditional restaurant which serves magnificent scallion and squid pancakes.
The House of Sharing is part-museum and part-retirement home for "comfort women", kidnapped or forced by the Japanese into military brothels during World War II. Now elderly, the handful who remain keep the memory of their tragedy alive, waiting for a proper apology from Japan.
A tour to the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is the one adventure I hugely regret not having. The DMZ splits Korea into North and South and has been called the world’s most dangerous border. I had reserved well ahead of time, but at the height of the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang, the military administration cancelled all visits at the last minute that day. I was refunded, but hugely disappointed.
Noryanjing Fish Market is one of Seoul’s signature sights, with fish so fresh it is still – alive. Go around lunchtime or you’ll be in the same boat I was: eyeing raw fish for breakfast. I love it but even I couldn’t face it pre-coffee… Just wear good shoes because the floors are wet and slippery.
Itaewon is an expat enclave so international you feel you’re crossing a border each time you cross a street . Its Muslim Quarter's halal eateries and pilgrimage tour agencies “approved by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” give it a powerful oriental atmosphere but down the hill, other familiar smells fight for attention - pizza, burgers and fried chicken.
Bukchon Hanok Village – hanok are traditional houses – is one corner of Seoul which has been painstakingly restored. Hundreds of houses line the streets of Bukchon and many are still inhabited. Until recently, the streets would have been clogged by Chinese tourists but since Beijing banned organized tours to Korea because of Seoul’s escalating military defenses, tourism in Korea is hurting and many sights are nearly empty.
Korea Food Tours is a small company with several tours – I ate an extraordinary BBQ (and a few other delicious things) on Jasmine’s Gangnam Secrets, which took me behind the ritzy glossiness of Gangnam but they also run a Temple Cuisine tour which I'd love to try next time.
Getting around Seoul is easy, but time consuming – it’s not a small town. A rechargeable T-money card, which you can purchase at any convenience store or station, whisks you into subways and buses. Stops are (usually) announced in English and, bless them, subway stations have toilets, cleaner than those of most Western department stores.
The transport networks are extensive and rarely will you be beyond public transit’s reach. Just be forewarned: you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Seoul is built on hills and while there are plenty of subway and bus stops, you may still be blocks away. I walked an average of 12km a day in Seoul, without trying.
Communication is as important as transportation and without speaking a word of Korean, you’ll need all the help you can get. My help came in the form of the Google Translate app, without which I would have been sealed in a bubble throughout my trip. I either spoke into my phone or typed my questions but the Korean output was perfect – at least I got what I needed and no one looked insulted by what appeared on the screen.
Here’s a tip: whenever you leave a place, get someone to write your next destination in Korean on a piece of paper you can hand to a cab driver (taxis are inexpensive, I took many of them) or a person on the street – simple things like “intercity bus station” or “where is the restaurant” …
And no, I didn't see any cherry blossoms in Seoul - I was perhaps a week early, and the weather had suddenly turned cold.
Bukchon: A Hidden Village by Rebecca Biage
The main attraction tucked away in Samcheong-dong neighborhood is Bukchon Hanok Village - hanoks are Korean traditional style houses. The village dates back more than 600 years, when high-ranking officials of the Joseon Dynasty settled here.
Hanok architecture consists of smoky gray tiled roofs, slightly curving upward at the outer corners. Many of the homes are painted a bright white, decorated by wooden beams or layers of brick along the bottom halves.
Bukchon is located uphill so the legs definitely get a workout, but one that's much better than the gym. There are numerous alleyways to get lost in. (Besides, the added bonus of getting lost is that one usually stumbles upon a good photo opportunity!)
Bukchon Hanok Village can easily be found by taking subway line 3 and getting off at Anguk Station. Look for exit 2 as you make your way out of the station. When you reach the top of the stairs walk straight for several minutes. There are also signs that will direct you towards the village.
In a metropolis filled with neon lights, lofty office buildings and haggard workers, wandering through an area like Bukchon reminds me of simpler days in Korea's past.
Beyond Seoul: Places to visit in Korea
Planning an itinerary in South Korea can be a challenge for those of us not familiar with Asian languages. Korean names can sound remarkably similar, and were it not for a common English spelling of place names, I would probably have ended up on the wrong train often.
In addition to six days in Seoul, my itinerary took me to three Korean cities in eight days, as I prefer to see fewer places but see them in greater depth. I kept noticing the mountainous nature of the country and the resulting population density in the lowlands. Korea is crowded!
Heading south from Seoul on the bullet train to the coastal city of Busan, highrises appeared to leap out of the fog, there one minute, gone the next. The train ride, by the way, is far smoother than those of its European counterparts. It’s also better protected, with safety barriers along the route: worse view, but better security.
Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, stunning in its beachside setting and the subject of glorious photographs. I was there in the rain, which in no way altered my enjoyment. I just visited it differently: I walked in the rain (and searched in vain for cherry blossoms). I visited the world’s largest department store, Shinsegae Centum City, and spent the afternoon lazing in Spa Land: 22 spring-fed pools of different temperatures and 13 types of sauna. I sampled them all – naked, as one does in Korea (but beware - the sign says no tattoos allowed!)
Next stop, the historical city of Gyeongju, also known as the ‘museum without walls’ and famous for its unusual tumuli, or tombs shaped like grass mounds. These are disconcertingly spread throughout town, with streets winding around them. I enjoy temples and spent time at the fabulous Bulguksa, climbing its many stairs. One evening I walked to nearby Anapji Pond. I’d heard it was ‘pretty’ but nothing prepared me for the slow settling of dusk mirrored against the bright pink of the spring cherry blossoms - yes, bountiful blossoms at last. Clearly this was a famous sight, as romantic couples and entire families jostled one another for selfies against the flickering lights.
My final stop was the city of Jeonju, a UNESCO gastronomic city so of course I spent several days there, ‘sampling’. Its centerpiece is a traditional hanok village but unlike Bukchon, where people still live, Jeonju’s have become guest houses and restaurants. I enjoyed staying in one – the room was smaller than my closet at home and I slept on a mat on the heated floor. Falling asleep was wretchedly painful (I found beds generally uncomfortable everywhere) BUT I woke up more refreshed than ever after the mat episodes. I have no idea what magic occurs down on that floor, but it works.
Jeonju’s food kept its promises except for a single plate of overly doughy fried squid. As for the rest, I leapt from dumpling to dumpling, noodle soup to noodle soup and skewer to skewer. Time flew.
At Shinsegae in Busan - the world's largest department store. I stood in the center of the atrium, and looked up...
Bulguksa, in the mountains near Gyeongju, is a noted Buddhist temple protected by UNESCO and dates back to 751 CE. It has been renovated, burned, rebuilt - and finally in the early 1970s it was restored to its former splendor, as it stands today
In the evening, I watched the lights turn on at Anapji Pond in Gyeongju, once an important city in the historic Kingdom of Silla. The pond was built in 674 but later abandoned - and rebuilt in the 1970s
In Jeonju, the gastronomic city, this small dumpling shop was my delicious breakfast standard - but everything I ate here was delicious
Street food in Korea
There's such variety in the street food that after two weeks, I still hadn't tested everything (though I did try!)
Walking the streets of Myeongdong Market was an education in Korean street food.
The world's longest French fry? Try the Tornado Potato, a healthy (not) deep fried delight with cheese on top
Bungeoppang, or fish cake, is a doughy bread which usually has red bean filling - but as you can see, experiments (cheese!) are allowed
This one needs no translation, right??
Koreans love sugar, which manages to find its way into everything, including unusual dishes like pasta or egg salad.
Cheese, too, is hugely popular and goes on everything from lobster tails to…
Stopping off at a Japanese conveyor belt - for cheese and shrimp sushi (and no, I didn't try it)
Much as I love street food, I also enjoyed sit-down meals. One of my favorites was bulgogi, a pork hot-plate with hot spice and vegetables – and a bit of sweetness. Seafood is plentiful, as you'd expect in a country bordered on three sides by water. Gwangjang Market in Seoul is known for its silk goods and vintage clothes during the day, but in the evening it turns into seafood city, with raucus communal tables filled with laughter and conviviality.
I was relieved to discover coffee is a local addiction with a café on every street corner. I was less relieved to get the bill: between $4-$11 for a cappuccino, depending on whether I was desperate for that extra shot or not.
Korea lacks a tipping culture and you’re often asked to pay beforehand, which can be disconcerting when you sit down for a meal and the bill comes before the food. It also means you don’t have to chase the miraculously disappearing staff for your bill after you’ve eaten.
Korea's answer to sushi is kimbap - surprisingly tasty! The left row is made of Spam - absolutely delicious, to my surprise
Jokbal - not something I would EVER have considered but... pigs' trotters - and one of the most delicious things I've eaten: garlic, soy sauce, ginger, rice wine... (eaten at Myth Jokbal)
A few more facts about South Korea - culture and traditions
Understanding any aspect of Korean culture was sadly a superficial exercise: I don’t speak the language, and I had no local Korean friends to put things into context for me. Still, there was plenty to observe and some obvious traits that required little translation or explanation:
I found Koreans to be considerate, always thinking of others. All I had to do was stand around with a map looking a little lost and someone would inevitably stop to help. People gave me their seats on public transport, possibly because they sensed I was older, and they appeared to be constantly scanning the crowd to understand everyone’s place in it. It’s as though people want to take care of you and make sure nothing goes wrong. At a table, it’s not unusual for a neighbor to lean over and offer you a piece of food or a glass of rice wine.
Koreans’ traditional Confucian respect for older people (see above) manifested itself in many ways. The most striking was during a demonstration, when an older man began yelling at an armed policeman who strode over firmly, making me cringe. I expected at least a truncheon but no: the younger officer gently took the man by the arm, smiled at him and began talking in a soothing voice. He slowly directed him away from the crowd, calmed him down, and eventually steered him towards a subway entrance. I was amazed and elated at this absence of force.
Koreans give a strong impression of being perfectionists and that may prevent them from admitting they speak English unless they speak it perfectly. Over and over I met people who claimed not to speak it or very little – yet they were nearly fluent. A bit shy about their language abilities, when approached in English their initial reaction appeared abrupt yet once we established contact, words flowed.
If there’s one cultural quirk that really turned my head it’s the addiction to anything ‘cute’. Dogs are dressed in frills, large stuffed toys sit on serious bank or legal desks, couples wear matching shoes or T-shirts, and pink is greatly in favor, all part of a new and extremely lucrative ‘Kidult’ culture.
This kind of clothing for dogs is not unusual
A disconcerting trait is the emphasis on physical beauty – and not just women. There is plenty of mirror-checking and iPhone camera gazing (with the camera turned around to face you, of course). It’s no surprise Seoul is the world’s plastic surgery capital, and as many as half of women in their twenties having had something done to their faces. This phenomenon might explain why there are so many face masks around – for health and pollution, certainly, but convenient for hiding those telltale bruises. About 15% of surgery patients are men, who also make up a large proportion of those who buy beauty products.
It’s also apparently acceptable – or at least tolerated – for men to visit high-end ‘hostesses’. A hotel parking lot near my room in Seoul was filled with expensive cars at lunchtime. More telling, their spa was closed to female guests, who visited another one next door…
I noticed students rushing to class at all hours, from dawn until well past what should have been their bedtime. Emphasis on education is immense and parents will do almost anything to make sure their offspring get into the right schools, which lead to the right jobs and spouses. The poverty of the past is very much present in people's minds and getting ahead is the answer to leaving all that behind. Some believe the country's suicide rate - one of the world's highest - may be due to this pressure to excel intellectually and socially, and to physically conform to norms of beauty.
What to wear in Korea
Women in South Korea dress conservatively on top, with not a bit of cleavage to be seen. That said, you can wear the shortest micro mini-skirt and no one will bat an eyelash.
City dwellers sport an urban look, like that of any city but perhaps fluffier and frillier than in Europe or North America. More girly.
Designer clothes are common, as you might expect in a wealthy country that values appearance. Watching a group of mature Koreans head out for a Sunday of hiking is an exercise in logo-spotting.
To give you an idea of the country’s wealth, South Korea places #18 on the Human Development Index for 2016 – ahead of France, Belgium and Finland. It’s come a long way from its deep poverty just six decades ago.
Some final things to know when traveling to South Korea
The country is changing rapidly but is intertwined with its traditions. Women, for example, have more rights than they could have imagined a generation ago yet respect for families, especially older male relatives, still governs many interactions. While traditions are strong, Korea is more modern every day - its connectivity and recycling policies could put many countries to shame.
Yet the one constant that permeates Korean life is history. Old people still talk with anger about the Japanese occupation a century ago, yet few pay much attention to the nasty words bandied about between North Korea and the US, even though Seoul is right in the line of fire.
They've heard it all before.
Street art memorial to the leader of the Korean resistance during the Japanese occupation - she was captured, tortured and killed. Memories of the Japanese remain vivid, especially among older people, even though the Japanese left in 1945
And please - don't forget your travel insurance before you go! I use World Nomads whenever I travel. Click here to get a quick personal quote.
South Korea travel resources
The Seoul Pass gives you access to 30 attractions and several discounts. You'll definitely save money on individual sights but when I visited, the pass was only available for one day. Given the distance between some of the sights, you'd need at least two days to see them. I was told a two-day pass was in the works.
The city offers some free walking tours - and they were brilliant. Volunteer guides really know their stuff, and often, because of their language capabilities, they may present your only opportunity for in-depth conversation with Koreans.
Like most cities these days, Seoul has a hop-on hop-off bus. I took the tour but wasn't particularly impressed. Traffic doesn't always make it easy to get around, the commentary isn't particularly informative and many stops were cancelled because of demonstrations (alternate stops could have been added). If you're only in Seoul for a day or two, it might be worthwhile for a quick overview. Otherwise, get a guidebook and a T-money card for the bus and subway.
Speaking of which, I used the Lonely Planet guides to Korea and Seoul and they were both useful. I usually don't follow guidebooks though so I used them mostly for quick background.
Download the Google Translate app: it's indispensable. There are probably others just as good but this one worked for me.
Korea food tours provides a great introduction to local Seoul foods and eateries, and the stories behind the food. Take at least one during your visit.
Koridoor's DMZ Korea tour has the best reputation, even though I wasn't able to try them due to my tour's cancellation. Correspondence with them was excellent, I was kept informed every step of the way, and the refund was immediate.
I bought a SIM card at the airport as soon as I landed. There are stalls all over the place. I paid for unlimited data for $75 for a month but there are far cheaper options. Data speed is high so the investment was well worth it.
I found prices in Korea to be moderate - not as cheap as Southeast Asia but vastly cheaper than Japan. I stayed in an Airbnb in Seoul, a backpacker hostel in Busan, a guest house in Gyeongju, a hanok in Jeonju (the Happiness Full) and a cheap hotel near the airport. The hanok was by far the smallest - and the best - of the accommodations.
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