- Travel Topics
We spent ten days in Korea. Here is a collection of our impressions, travel tips, and the cost break down.
Korea was our second Asian country and, therefore, it’s a little difficult to NOT compare it to Japan, especially since the two were very different in my opinion. Whereas Japan was very peaceful, orderly, and tourist-friendly, Korea was, and I hate to say it, somewhat worse on all fronts.
In contrast to tranquil Japan, Korea tended to be a lot more bustling. Cities were louder, cars drove faster, not yielding as easily to pedestrians, and people moved faster and did not attempt to move out of the way to avoid a collision. There were literally times when we were body checked on a busy street. In some respects this actually was preferable, in that, thinking back, Japan was a little bit “boring” in its own safety. In Korea, just a little bit more, you had to be on your toes. The cities and the people truly feel fiery and alive. There was a constant feeling of “what will happen next?”
In Korea, we also felt that we were exposed to much more. While in Japan, nothing really struck us as out of the ordinary, in Korea, we might walk into a restaurant, have to stand up to a menu on the wall and point to a random dish in front of everyone, and end up getting chicken feet for dinner with a side of silk worms. Or there was the time we saw eels systematically skinned alive at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan, only to be thrown into a bucket still wriggling with the pink flesh vibrant. In Busan we were introduced to many foreign sea creatures we had never heard of before and also the concept of truly fresh fish. At the restaurants there is usually fish tank present and you literally select the fish you want, they scoop it out, carve it up and serve it to you raw – and at times possibly still partially alive.With numerous street vendors crouched over buckets with various crustaceans I felt like we were let into the backdoor of the fish industry operations, yet this was all out in open streets.
Don’t even get us started on the hiking attire in Korea. These people were all decked out in colorful and professional looking sports clothes, fully equipped with hiking gloves, ski poles, backpacks and sun hats. This is how they got ready for the coastal walk along the beach in Busan. While hiking up the mountain this seemed slightly more appropriate but for a walk along the beach this was sheer comical. Actually, this is all part of some sort of Korean “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality, whereby they spend tons of money on fancy clothes and items as a way to show off their wealth earned from hard work. It’s not wonder golf, the stereotypical “rich” sport, is very popular in Korea!
Let’s talk food.The food is Korea is completely different from the food we sampled in Japan. Hello kimchi. This is a culture that is so committed to these fermented veggie dishes that each family has its own kimchi fridge – where the supposed secret is to keep the kimchi at 0 degrees C. Over the 10 days we ate a lifetime’s worth of kimchi. It accompanied our every meal in a manner of many different small and free plates, with the complimentary part always a plus. As is expected in Asian cultures rice is huge here and also a big component of the meals. We found the food to be spicier than the food in Japan with the Koreans having their own red pepper paste and powder which is liberally added to soups, stews and various other dishes. Over our stay we never had any problems with food poisoning and generally found the food to be delicious overall (though Dave was pretty sick of kimchi by the end). With bulgogi – thinly sliced and stir fried beef, bibimbap – rice topped with a fried egg, kimchi, red pepper paste, etc, Korean barbecue – where you cook your own meat to roll up in lettuce leaves with numerous sides and soondubu jiggae – tofu soupy stew – how could we complain?
One of our couchsurfers described Korea as “Japan 20 years ago”. We can’t really comment on that, but it certainly seems plausible. The cities seem somewhat dirtier, the transportation less efficient and the people rougher around the edges. We actually kind of grew to like it.
Best food: Our Seoul host, Chelsea took us out for Korean barbecue with her friends. They bring you a slab of sliced pork that you grill yourself and snip into smaller pieces before creating lettuce rolls with the meat, various kimchi and other side dishes. The final result is amazing and you will not be able to limit yourself to just one. This feast of food with beer only cost us $8 a person – a steal I would say.
Worst food: On our last night in Seoul we decided to same some of the street food options and though it didn’t even look desirable I knew I wanted to try the Tteokbokki – cylindrical rice cake with fish cake and green onion all in a fiery red pepper paste sauce. The texture and consistency just wasn’t all that good. Maybe with more rice cake and green onions it could be better but I ended up with numerous mouthfuls of spicy rice cake – not exactly up my alley.
Best deal: Starcraft Tournament – free, exciting, and hours of fun for everyone (or just Dave). It’s also a nice way to see some authentic Korean culture in action.
Worst rip off: We hate to say it but it was the DMZ tour. Though we highly enjoyed the tour and would recommend a DMZ tour to anyone passing through Seoul this was our most expensive activity coming in at $108 a person and frankly this was an incredibly expensive activity for us. Unluckily the USO tours for 80,000 KRW were all booked up so we had to go with a different tour company which ended up being more expensive.
Bucket List Activities: While Japan is generally considered the kingdom of karaoke, Korea has it’s own culture called Norybang, which both Vicky and I tried in Seoul with our hosts (sorry, no videos).
As usual, we strongly urge people to leverage convenient stores and grocery stores to buy important items like water. It’s significantly cheaper. The best places are actually supermarkets, but not nearly as easy to find as your local 711.
Everywhere we went had ATMs either in banks or convenient stores like 711. The biggest problems we had were
I think our success rate was about 50%, so take out double of what you think you are going to need in cash.
The bus and train terminals, like in Japan, had places to store bags. That said, there were always less options and this wasn’t true for the metro stops. Luckily, our couchsurfing hosts were always around and we could leave our bags with them, so we were never with them for too long.
We found these fairly often, good for a map and some directions.
One thing we did differently in Korea, per recommendation from one of our hosts, was to get a bus/metro pass. This is essentially a rechargeable card that you can use on local buses and the metro, so you don’t have to fumble around with getting exact change. It costs about $6 and can be filled at any metro station and I think convenience stores. The bus in Korea is a bit of a hustle, so it was really nice for both of us to have this. Moreover, if you have to transfer buses, you can get out of paying the extra fee if you do it in under 30 minutes, so a nice money saver there. Overall, it was definitely worth it for the convenience alone. It worked in all the cities we visited.
We only took a cab once on our way to the airport, like most things in Korea, it was cheap ($20 but it was on the other side of Seoul), and the driver used the meter.
After not being very diligent in Japan about our deet Vicky and I put it on for Korea when we were in the forest. It was also getting colder so we were mostly covered with pants and long sleve. Korea does not have malaria but it does haveJapanese Encephalitis, but all the same, be careful.
Came in handy a few times, most notably the ferry ride over from Japan (who would have thought we’d get $20 off for being students riding a ferry).
While Korea did not have as many public facilities out in the open as Japan, it still did have some in the parks and at the temples, but be prepared to squat.
Despite having at least 10 years of English in school, most Koreans couldn’t speak it at all. When they learn languages they learn very formulaic, from a text book, with little speaking practice. This is a pretty terrible way to learn languages. Moreover, many places we went to did not have English signs and many restaurants did not have English menus or even picture menus. Ironically, there is a large population of foreign, English teachers which the government appears to be throwing money at simply to have foreigners teaching their kids. I’m not sure how long they’ve been doing this, a few years I think, so it’s going to be awhile…
Unlike Japan, we did not have any issues when the credit card was accepted, that is, if they accepted Visa, it worked, and was not mysteriously rejected. Still, not everywhere accepts them so bring cash (Korean Won).
On the one hand it was easier to find couchsurfers, despite the fact that we were traveling during a famous Korean holiday (what they call Thanksgiving, but not really). On the other hand, it’s mostly a lot of foreigners. We only stayed with 1 Korean couple out of our 3 couchsurfing hosts, and most of our accepts were other foreigners as well. If you want to know the exact details, we kept track of all our requests and the results.
Korea for us was another expensive country, by Asia standards. We budgeted around $45 per person, per day (part of the reason we only spent 10 days there was due to the cost). As usual, we did a lot of couchsurfing, with our big splurges being the DMZ tour as well as the Haeinsa temple stay. We kept track of every cost we had down to the purchase level and categorized it into 5 groupings:
So where did we end up?
$41 per person, per day. (NOTE: This DOES NOT include our ferry over there, which was $231 total from Japan)
Our major cost in Korea was visiting the DMZ. That was $108 per person, and without that we would have been significantly lower, but unfortunately, what is a trip to SK without going to the DMZ? Had we booked farther in advance we could have got a cheaper tour, but not by much ($75). Other than that, it was pretty standard travel, though I suppose one might argue the temple stay was a bit pricey, but it did include breakfast lunch and dinner!
The other cost that I DID NOT include was the ferry from Japan ($231), because in some sense it does not accurately depict how expensive it is to actually BE in Korea, but you know, you have to get there somehow!