Overall, I had a really great time. Since this trip was just a cursory introduction to South Korean life, I definitely plan to visit it again in the future. I brought back lots of maps and brochures to share with you guys, so check back in the next few days as I update with more detailed posts.
For now, here are my 7 general reflections of South Korea (mainly Seoul):
- Traffic is really bad. Seriously, if you plan on driving or taking the taxi, prepare yourself to be stuck in the car for longer than expected. Traffic is especially bad near the Myeongdong area and it seemed to be like that for the whole day, rush hour or not. So even though basic taxi fare is cheap (compared to Japan, Taiwan, and China in my experience), if you are going to use taxis for the majority of your transportation, remember to factor in bumper to bumper time.
- You don't have to know how to speak Korean to travel by yourself in Korea. If you plan to be in Seoul, you don't really need to know much Korean, as long as you know English. Of course it will help a lot to know some Korean phrases, but Seoul is very westernized and most signs are in both English and Korean. I do think it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with basic Hangul, that way you can at least read Korean even if you don't know what it means. It'll make it easier to spot shops when their names aren't written in English. Even if the shopkeeper doesn't speak any English, chances are someone nearby will know how to speak it. Just ask around. I'm sure you will be able to find a willing translator. Most shops and restaurants, especially in the touristy areas, can handle basic phrases though. And if no one knows how to speak English, there are a bunch of very convenient, helpful, and free Tourist Information booths scattered around the city. However, when I went to Seoraksan in Sokcho, barely anyone knew any English. So if you are venturing to less urbanized areas, a Korean phrasebook will be your best friend. I actually had my friend send me some handy Korean phrases to print out and show to bus drivers, ticket booths, etc to make sure I was going the right way.
- Things in Korea cost more than you think, especially fruit. Before I went to Korea, I was under the impression that everything there would be cheap. Cheap clothes (as in around $10-$20), cheap souvenirs, and cheap food (as in around $1-$3)! But, alas, that was not the case. I'm sure you can find really inexpensive things, like near the universities, but the trade off is poorer quality. I'd rather pay a bit more for clothes that will last longer or for food that is prepared in a more sanitary environment than save a few bucks. Then again, maybe I didn't go to the local watering holes. Or maybe I am just picky? Expensive or cheap is relative though... We'll see when I visit next year and do more exploring!
- Shopping is absolutely overwhelming. If you are a woman (or love to shop), you will be in heaven. If you are a man (or hate to shop), you will be in hell. For me, I was in heaven. My eyes lit up at all the trendy styles and rhinestone encrusted accessories. Then 30 minutes later, the huge crowds and overwhelming amount of selection gave me a headache and sent me straight to hell. The thing is, if you are visiting Korea for the first time, your time will be split between sightseeing and shopping. You can't do everything at once and shopping will for sure take a few hours. If you do plan to go shopping, make sure you decide which places you want to shop at before you go. You don't have to hit all the department stores or all the shopping areas. More often than not, they will have the same stores. Dongdaemun market is the best for the most "a little bit of everything" shopping. Also, it's a good idea to make a list of potential things you want to buy, so you don't waste your shopping time doing a whole lot of aimless wandering.
- Food tasted pretty similar everywhere in Korea. I was expecting food in Korea to be really good since, in Korea, bulgogi has got to be more authentic than the bulgogi at the Korean restaurant I frequent in Houston right? Well, either that restaurant serves some really authentic food to begin with or my expectations were just too high. Don't get me wrong. I love Korean food and found food in Korea to be absolutely delicious. It just didn't blow me away like I thought it would. Take Gogung Restaurant, for example. Gogung in Seoul is famous for their Jeongju bibimbap, but honestly, I thought it tasted more or less the same as the bibimbap I had at other places. I actually think the dolsot bibimbap in Taiwan tasted better than the dolsot bibimbap in Korea. Maybe because Taiwanese food focuses on more intense flavors? Or it could be that Taiwanese food is always served hot (temperature-wise), while food in Korea was often just warm. For me, hot food tends to take mediocre food to the next level and since it was kind of chilly when I visited in October, hot food and hot soup would have made my belly much happier. Kimchi, however, is hands-down the best in Korea.
- You won't be running into any celebrities. My dream of meeting Rain, him doing a double take and then instantly falling in love with me, unfortunately, did not come true. Unless you mean billboard ads, you will be hard-pressed to run into any Korean celebrities, even though they all live in Seoul. I read online that the best place to meet Hallyu stars was at the Apgujeong and Gangnam area, but I didn't spot anyone famous there. Not that I was doing any stalking or anything... Alternatively, you can wait outside recording studios like KBS or entertainment companies like SM, but it seems like there'd be better things to do while you're in Korea than wait for a K-pop star to maybe or maybe not show up. If you can't meet them in person, at the very least, you can get your fill by buying their photo books, picture cards, and other memorabilia. SM Entertainment has a whole store in Myeongdong devoted to promoting Girls' Generation, Super Junior, and SHINee!
- Seoul is very East meets West. It's an indescribable feeling to be sandwiched simultaneously between two cultures and two time periods: East meets West and Old meets New. I really liked how in Korea, there would be a huge row of skyscrapers and then nestled in between them would be an old temple or something. Or how some places would add cheese to their tteokbokki or kimchi to their pizza. It's also interesting to see Asian architecture and Asian statues dotted around such a modern city. I don't think you can find any other place that is as unique in this aspect as Seoul. Since I grew up in the States and now travel back and forth between the States and Asia for work, it was especially surreal to experience such a collision of cultures and time periods.