When my mom told me she was going to Korea on a business trip and would we like to come, my first thought was “Yes!”, my second thought was “What’s in Korea?”
We arrived with only a printed copy of WikiTravel’s Seoul page. We took the bus from the airport and got off too early, so we ended up walking about 2KM. On the way, we had a nice guy give us directions (we didn’t ask) and a woman bought us breakfast (I honestly attempted to refuse). Throughout our 2 weeks in Seoul we’d have this kind of thing happen frequently – everyone wants to help the foreigners no matter how confident you seem in what you’re doing.
Our guesthouse was a very cute house where the owners live upstairs and there are only 4 rooms for travelers. There was a little pond and garden and a teeny, but comfy, living room with sitting table. Mr. Lee, the owner, was nosy but enjoys playing tour guide. Every morning, he woke us up with classical music and cooked breakfast (usually fried egg and toast), included was towels, shower stuff like shampoo, water filter, tea/coffee, breakfast, and lonely planets and other tour books to use. Total cost per night for a nice, double room was $55 for the both of us ($44 for a shared room).
I posted to Facebook/Twitter that I was going to be in Seoul and did anyone know what we should do or anyone we should see. 2 different people (Rusty and Barbara Fried) suggested a guy named Erik. We met up with him and it turns out we know a lot of the same people in SF but probably had never met. His wife, Seon Hwa, is Korean and they were just tired of SF so they moved back here where he teaches English to businessmen.
They were so nice and really fun so we ended up spending a lot of time with them. One day we went to a busan, which is a traditional Korean bathhouse. It was 7 stories of relaxation! There’s the all-women’s naked area with hot and cold tubs both indoor and outdoor, saunas, and a nap room; there’s the all-men’s area which is similar, but doesn’t have the outdoor area; there are 2 restaurants and at least 2 small snack bars; there’s a giant coed area where everyone wears the provided shorts and t-shirt, thus making it look like a cult hangout. The coed area had a big open area with no furniture where people could play games, sit and talk, nap, or eat snacks. From this main area were several hot and cold sauna rooms with themes like the pyramid room, the wood fired hot room, the cold room with ice on the walls, and the rooms you have to duck down to walk into and are so hot you can only last a few minutes. You could also spend money by getting facials, massages, manicures, or time in an automatic massage chair (which I did). To pay for these things, you zap your wrist band and it’s added to your account. We ended up spending the entire day there – 10AM to 8PM! Hedonistic relaxation…
Another night they took us around the neighborhood where we were staying, Honjik University. It had a bunch of little alleys and at night is transformed into a pedestrian shopping/bar/club/restaurant scene. We ate at a Korean place and Seon Hwa ordered for us – it was one of the best Korean meals we had the whole trip!
The coolest, most uniquely Korean thing we did with them though was go to a baseball game! The Samsung Lions versus the LG Twins. Half the stadium is fans of one team, half the other. The half we were on (Samsung), everyone had blue, Samsung blow-up things that you bang together to clap.
When I say everyone, it really was everyone. There was a cheer leader who would start the chants and everyone, I mean everyone, clapped their blue things at the same time and chanted along with him (“ANTA! ANTA!”). The cheers would be printed on a sign that a cute girl held and he would start the song. Everyone paid close attention to the game and cheered at all the right times. It was ridiculously cool if a little cultish.
One day we went on a tour of the DMZ and JSA, which are the military areas surrounding the border of N and S Korea and 2KM on each side. The DMZ was somewhat propoganda-ish, with the coolest part being the 3rd tunnel, a tunnel found in the 70s that was dug by the North Koreans going several kilometers underground from North Korea toward Seoul.
The JSA was a lot cooler – we were escorted by a cute American soldier to see: a UN conference room with a table that straddles the border (we went into North Korea! 🙂 ), lots of South Korean soldiers (to keep us safe), one cranky looking North Korean soldier, and a couple viewpoints where you can see North Korea. Mostly, they gave a lot of history which was interesting, but the getting on and off a bus to snap photos got a little old.
So I mentioned my mom was in Seoul, that was the whole reason we came this far east. Unfortunately, she was working a lot so I only got to see her for dinners, but we did spend all day together one Saturday where we went on a tour. The highlight was definitely the Chogyesa Buddhist Temple:
Other stuff we did was shopping. It’s got to be the national pasttime here. Everywhere you go there are stores: underground, above ground, in the middle of the street, on the sidewalk. And there is so much ridiculously cute and sparkly stuff: my inner cute Asian girl is tingling. The fashion here is shoes. They could be wearing the most boring jeans and t-shirt, but they’ll wear sparkly, 6 inch platform heels with straps all over them. Boring, shapeless dress? Strappy, high heeled gold sandals! Seriously, invest in Korean podiatry and you’ll be rich in 10 years.
Some random Korean cultural things:
- Koreans eat a lot of meat.
- If someone doesn’t understand you, they want you to just go away. I was actually refused cab rides twice because the driver didn’t understand me. Same thing in shops.
- That thing they say about Asians not eating dairy – totally not true here. They are constantly sucking on iced coffees with milk (real milk, it’s actually hard to find soy), eating ice cream, and drinking those little yogurts.
- That thing they say about Koreans eating kimchee at every meal is true. They actually serve it at breakfast.
- Personal space doesn’t exist. You get jostled, run into, pushed around, and squished.
- They walk on the left, escalators are on the left, but they drive on the right.
- Maybe they say something about how Koreans drink a lot and maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but Koreans drink a lot. Frequently you see guys passed out or puking on the streets still in their suits from work. Girls teeter down the subways steps giggling and you don’t just drink a glass of beer, you pour soju into your beer. My liver hates me.
- The homeless are quite proper. They take off their shoes and put the neatly next to them and make a little bed with walls from cardboard boxes. They sleep head to toe along the walls of the subway out of everyone’s way. They wear normal clothes and dont’ smell or have a house full of stuff in a cart. It’s so, well, proper.
In all, I found Seoul a cool place that’s easy to get around. The people are super friendly and it’s clean and pretty. Now go.