The other day while clearing out my room, I came across the travel diary I wrote during my first trip to Seoul. The clear out got put on hold, tea was made and I sat down to have a look through what I’d written. Little did I know at the time that that journey would actually be a major pivoting point in my life – the plan to go and study medicine would go flying gloriously out the window and instead I’d end up at university reading Oriental Languages on a path that led me into consulting. How funny the way the world works. Anyway, reading that diary I couldn’t help but realise how better the trip could’ve been if I’d simply known a bit more about the country I was bound for.
Pack flip-flops. And deodorant. And tampons.
In Korea, most bathrooms in apartments and occasionally hotels too tend to be wet rooms so the shower is attached to the wall above the sink. The upside is that this is a much more economic use of space in the jam packed urban jungle that is Seoul however the downside is that everything gets rather wet when you shower. This is why you’ll see that the toilet roll normally has a metal cover over it – smart, right? Speaking from personal experience, it’ll probably take you a few pairs of wet socks to remember to stick flip flops on when you go to the bathroom. Heed the warning!
And deodorant. While it’s definitely much easier to get hold of now than 7 years ago when I first visited, it’s still not easy and you’ll pay through the teeth to get it. It’s almost like being back in Switzerland…
Another one for the women reading this, hygiene products! There is particular chapter in the diary which dramatically describes the horror I faced back in 2009 when I realised I hadn’t packed tampons for my 6 weeks visit – at the time I must’ve figured I could buy some there. Could I find them in Korea? Not a chance. Korea today is a changed place, like the deodorant situation, you can now find tampons (pretty good ones) in most pharmacies and also in Olive Young. The problem is these stores are shut in the evenings and the pharmacies are normally shut on weekends so it takes some planning to actually get them! They’re more expensive than what you get in the UK and much plainer (no fancy applicators or anything like that) so fine in an emergency but I’d recommend bringing your own.
Can I go out at night?
Honestly speaking, I wouldn’t walk around London alone late at night. I’ve done it when required but it’s not a comfortable feeling. That’s not to say London is particularly dangerous but like any big city, you need to keep your wits about you.
Seoul is a weird exception, well not an exception exactly but it’s an odd one. It’s probably because everyone works so late and the fact that the city never seems to really shut down but on previous trips I’ve gone out for runs at 11pm, gone for a wander when I can’t sleep at 2am and staggered home from clubs at 4am (ok, maybe it was 5am) without ever feeling at risk or unnerved.
I’m not saying it’s a good idea to let your guard down completely but from a personal perspective, I don’t think I’ve ever felt safer in a big city than when I’m in Seoul.
At least say thank you
It was my first visit to Korea that sparked my passion for and interest in Asian language and culture. The first time I visited, no one really spoke English and I was wholly reliant on my friend for translation. She did a great job looking after me (and I know how much work it must’ve been having returned to Korea with friends and family since where I’ve been the one translating) however I found it infuriating at the time, according to my diary anyway, because every conversation seemed to go something like this:
Her friend (in Korean): BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH……….
Friend : (in Korean – laughing) : BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!!
Me: Hey, what did she say?
Friend: Oh nothing, it’s fine just something in Korean.
No shit Sherlock.
Now I’m not saying you need to be fluent before you visit and nowadays a lot of younger people can understand a fair amount of English as it’s compulsory in school however, it goes without saying, you’ll be amazed at the doors a simple “hello” or “thank you” can open. Talk To Me In Korean does fantastic introductory lessons worth checking out!
Don’t worry about wifi
It wasn’t quite the same back in 2009 during which my trip to Korea was effectively an internet detox – although it didn’t matter than because my phone only really became an extension of my arm in 2012 by which time the Korean internet had caught up. With the highest average internet speed in the world and the highest number globally of available wifi locations, when you’re desperate to upload that Instagram picture of your trip up the Namsan tower or your performance in karaoke, Korea has your back.
Nearly all coffee shops and restaurants have free wifi, most underground stations have free wifi and you’ll probably just pick it up as you walk around anyway. If you can’t take the risk of not having wifi and the threat of not having your phone to save you from the challenges of human interaction, you can pick up wifi cards at the airport (1GB cost me 26,000KRW on a recent trip).
Bear in mind that internet censorship in Korea is significantly tighter than in other OECD countries – so much so that it’s often compared to Russia and Egypt! Criticism of the government, political parties, politicians, the military and issues related to North Korea is considered cyber defamation and is punishable. The government has been known to take down blog posts and twitter accounts which do not conform to requirements and as of 2008, the government requires internet service providers to force all users to identify themselves when they sign up using their national identity number. Creepy!
“Indecent internet sites” are also all blocked so that includes anything involving gambling, unrated gaming and pornography. Yes, this makes South Korea the only OECD country to block all access to pornography.
Stay a week, stay a year
With over 20 visits to Seoul under my belt ranging in length from 4 days to 89 days, I can tell you now that you won’t get bored by the incredible range of things to do in Korea. A two week stint is a good starting point, spending a week (or just under) in Seoul visiting the palaces and one of the folk villages to get a feel for what life used to be like (even before I first visited all those years ago!), inflicting personal financial damage in Gangnam and the fancy boutiques around Garosugil in Apgujeong and partying like a 20-somethinger in the university districts like Hongdae. That still leaves you with enough time to get out of Seoul and see what else is on offer; Korea’s second biggest city Busan is a great second choice as is Jeju Island (although the latter is more expensive). For something a little closer to home, Gyeongju, the old capital of the Silla dynasty, has some stunning scenery or for the foodies among you, the food mecca of Korea, Jeonju is an easy alternative made even better by the fact that the Government runs free shuttle coaches for tourists (foreign passport required). Check out the shuttle site here!
Just go. You could read a million articles like this and buy all the Korea travel guides you can find and STILL come across things that no one ever thought to mention. So take out your headphones, open your mind and just go. Who knows what could happen…