Blog Your Backyard: The Best and Worst of South Korea

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South Korea, sadly, doesn’t get the tourist play that a country of its rich cultural heritage probably deserves. People generally overlook Korea in favor of nearby China or Japan and that’s a crying shame. There is plenty to love about the Land of the Morning Calm.

Of course, no place is perfect – and that’s why I’m bringing you the best and worst of South Korea in part two of the Blog Your Backyard contest.

You can find part one here.

The Best of South Korea

History

A shot taken at one of the many palaces in Seoul

Korea boasts a rich and proud history as an independent nation standing against wave after wave of foreign invaders. Korea has been inhabited by some form of the Korean people since earlier than 2000BC – and while a lot of the historical sites and monuments were unfortunately lost during the Korean War – you can still get a great sense of Korea’s history and heritage.

Buddha statues at Daewonsa outside of Gwangju

The country is full of temples, shrines, and other historical sites. While a lot of these were reconstructed after their destruction during the war (giving rise to the adage of “If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all”) – you can still get a remarkable sense of the age of the place while sitting on ancient stone seats in Unjusa or Daewonsa.

Seoul itself, while a bustling hub of commerce and technology, still houses many of the older style homes as well as the beautiful palaces that the Emperors of old once called home.

Then there’s the fascinating history surrounding Korea’s Japanese occupation and the Korean War which followed. Countless museums across the country offer tourists a chance to get in touch with many facets of Korean history – with some of the best being in Seoul, Busan, and Gyeongju. There’s also the Korean Folk Village outside of Suwon and the moving May 18 Memorial in Gwangju.

Food

Delicious ddok-boki, a spicy rice cake sold in the streets served with odeng (processed fish)

Many people around the world have probably had a chance to sit down to some delicious Korean BBQ (dubbed galbi if it’s beef or seomgyeopsal if it’s pork) in their life – but Korean food goes far deeper than sizzling meat served inside lettuce leaves.

Sample the spicy ddok galbi (chicken, spicy sauce, and chewy rice cakes), sweet pot binsu (shaved ice, fruit, and sweet red bean paste), hearty dolsot bibimbap (mixed vegetables and meat served with rice in a hot stone bowl), mandu (dumplings), or the iconic kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) and you’ll understand why I love Korean food so much.

I don’t know about you, but I sure am hungry right about now…

Now, Korea isn’t a vegetarian’s playground, it must be said. The Korean diet centers mainly around white rice, kimchi, and plenty of meat. This is usually beef, pork, or fish. A lot of Koreans don’t really get vegetarians, and so you’ll have a hard time explaining to them that you want your kimbap (similar to sushi rolls) without ham or tuna. I know of at least one chain, dubbed The Loving Hut, that specializes in vegan food and has stores in many of the larger cities.

Korean food is not without its stranger or less appealing options. Boshintong (dog meat soup) is likely to make some people squirm when they hear how the animals are butchered, and I can’t think of many people who don’t feel just a little awkward at the sight of still moving octopus legs being coolly shoveled into Korean mouths.

But by and large, Korean food offers up a lot of great savory flavors. I’m hankering for it right now.

The Night Life

Drunk foreigners at The Speakeasy in Gwangju

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Korea is the country that never sleeps.

I’ve commented on the Korean drinking culture on several occasions in the past. This is a country that knows how to have a good time. Cheap alcohol is available 24/7 at virtually any corner store in the country, bar prices are very reasonable (as little as $3 equivalent for a Scotch & coke), and there are no end of bars, singing rooms, and clubs for revelers to visit.

It’s not all about alcohol though. Korean cafes and restaurants stay open late – as do the larger grocery stores. You can go out at 11.30pm on a weeknight and still pick up a pizza or some bread and milk for tomorrow.

There’s late night coffee houses and noraebangs (singing rooms) as well as video game arcades, batting cages, and even small amusement parks that cater to the late night crowd.

If you’re a foreigner in Korea and don’t feel up to braving a Korean bar, most cities will have at least one foreigner friendly (if not foreigner run) bar for you to frequent. A quick Google search will doubtless turn up a few great places to meet other travelers and have a good time.

Cheap Transport

The Busan Ferry Terminal offers a cheap way to get to Japan from South Korea

Coming back to Australia, I was immediately hit by just how expensive it is to get around here. I pay $4.30 for my ten minute bus ride into the city. A cab home? I’m looking at $30-35 if the roads aren’t too busy. If I want to visit my family in Armidale (six hours inland) – I’m looking at $80 each way for the train.

Korea is a small country and the benefit of that is dirt cheap transport. A half hour cab ride might set you back know more than $10. A bus ride? You’re looking at a whopping $1.30. Even a trip from Busan in the south to Seoul in the North weighs in at around $30 or slightly more if you want to take the super fast KTX.

The super-fast KTX can get you virtually anywhere in Korea in under four hours. Photo by Tony Bush.

This all adds up to making Korea a very accessible country for tourists. The rail network is impressive and the bus network makes it possible to get virtually anywhere without any real headaches. The 2002 World Cup has also left South Korea with a dearth of airports to make flying from Seoul to Jeju or Mokpo to Busan both easy and affordable.

Even a ferry to Japan isn’t so expensive. You’re looking at around $85 to take the fast boat across to Fukuoka. Flights out to China, Japan, or South East Asia aren’t much more expensive either. Korea is a great place to explore on a budget, and a great place to launch off on your next adventure when you’re done.

Winning!

Technology & Internet

The latest model Kia (at the time) on display in Seoul. Photo by Tony Bush.

South Korea is one of the emerging technological hubs of the world. Household names such as Samsung, LG, and Kia all call the country home. As you can imagine, technological gadgets abound and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single kid without a smart phone and some kind of portable gaming device in their bag each day.

Better yet? Korea has some of the best internet in the world. I’m talking 100mbps streaming into your apartment with unlimited data for a measly $30 a month. This is a country where gamers and net-heads are on cloud #9.

Natural Beauty

A view of the famous Sunrise Peak and the beach below. Jejudo.
The famous orange bridge atop Wulchasan is a fitting reward for climbing the damned mountain.

Despite being a heavily developed nation that doesn’t display a whole lot of regard for the natural environment (see below in my Worsts) – Korea still boasts a number of truly beautiful sites.

First and foremost amongst these is, of course, volcanic Jejudo. Boasting a tropical climate, black sand beaches, and all manner of volcanic lava tubes and craters to explore – Jeju stands head and shoulders above the rest of Korea when it comes to natural wonders.

A calm place at Daewonsa

But that’s not to say there isn’t beauty to be found on the mainland. Korea’s many mountains have been turned into hiker’s playgrounds. There are some stunning views to be found atop mountains like Wulchasan, and quite a few remarkable national parks scattered around the country.

Korea boasts four seasons offering up four distinct ways to view the country. There’s the bright and fragrant spring, the contrasting colors of the fall, the snow-drifts of winter, and the humid heat of summer to experience. Visit anytime and you’re going to see some truly beautiful scenes.

 

 

 

 

Shopping

A show of decadence. The water show held in Nampodong, Busan’s Lotte department store complete with classical music and Russian dancers.

Koreans are without a doubt one of the most materialistic people in the world, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to Koreans by applying that tag. Korea is a national of consumers and it’s a shopper’s heaven (unless you’re of larger stature – see below). There are designer clothes, shoes, and handbags on virtually every street corner.

Korea is a nation where the women are most definitely women – so being pretty is a big priority. Salons and make-up retailers and beauticians abound.

In addition to all of the clothes and shiny things, there’s the aforementioned electronic gadgets in abundance and lots of weird and wonderful toys for kids. A special mention also to stationary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many varieties of pens, paper, notebooks, and stickers in my life. Teachers and kids alike are going to love it.

By and large, shopping in Korea runs a little cheaper than it does back home. Obviously you’re still going to pay a healthy chunk of change for your Louis Vutton, but there’s plenty of more affordable options on offer.

Festivals!

A shot from the famous Lantern Festival in Jinju. Photo by Tony Bush.

I’ve waxed lyrical about the dizzying array of festivals held in Korea each and every year. Rather than bore you with the details again here – I’ll instead suggest taking a look at my article on festivals in Korea.

The Worst of South Korea

Racism and Homophobia

It doubtless springs from their history of being brutally invaded and oppressed, but Korea is one of the more xenophobic nations in the world.

That’s not strictly true. The older generation most definitely bear the majority of ‘waygookin’ (foreigners) some ill will for being in their country, but the younger generation have a fascination with all things Western.

The racism isn’t so overt with the younger generations, at least not towards white visitors, but until you’ve heard a student shout ‘Obama is a n***er’ or asked if your South African girlfriend has a spear – you probably won’t completely understand just how pervasive this ignorant racism is. It’s not a hateful kind of racism, but it’s no less hard to stomach.

This also extends to homophobia as well. Despite the concept of skin friends meaning that grown men will wrestle and walk hand in hand – the idea of ‘gay’ is completely alien to Koreans. The official line is that there are no homosexuals in Korea, which will come as a nasty surprise to the many gay and lesbian locals who frequent the aptly named ‘Homo Hill’ in Seoul.

And having been offered a blow-job in a bar in Busan earlier this year by a friendly young Korean gentleman, I think it’s safe to say the official line is absolute bunk.

Animal Cruelty

In addition to the somewhat brutal way in which dogs are ‘prepared’ to be used as meat, there are a few other issues of animal cruelty that animal lovers will find hard to handle. Take, for example, the lives these ‘meat dogs’ lead up until they are beaten to death.

Most, if not all, tend to spend their entire lives outdoors and on a short leash. They may not ever get walked and they are certainly not treated with any affection. And that makes sense in a way. I know my family and I weren’t out in the chicken coop getting to know our chickens that we intended to eat.

But these are dogs. These are animals possessing more than a little intelligence, and to see them grovelling for scraps in the gutter on a rainy day is a depressing sight.

Beyond the dogs – you’ll be hard pressed to find a cat whose tail hasn’t been broken, and I once got into a verbal war with a middle aged Korean woman who I caught pulling the feathers of a caged bird as it tried desperately to bite her finger in self defense.

It’s also evident in the appalling conditions most (but not all, I’m assured) zoos treat their display animals. The lion cubs at Everland, cute as they are, probably warrant better than a small concrete room with a water bowl and a green paint job.

Suffice to say, if you’re not a toy poodle being carried around in a woman’s handbag, chances are you’re not going to enjoy animal life in Korea.

Strange Medical Advice

While it’s true that the affordable medical care available in Korea is a pretty sweet deal, it’s not without its drawbacks. Here are just a few examples of the less conventional medical experiences I’ve had or heard of friends having had in Korea.

  • Sleeping with a fan on in a room with closed windows is lethal. Don’t believe me? Look up ‘Fan Death’. It’s a big deal.
  • Kimchi cures cancer. And most everything else.
  • Got a cold? Stomach bug? Chances are you’ll be prescribed various herbal remedies with a particular focus on ginseng.
  • Sick? Prepare to have a needle IN YOUR BUTT. It’s just vitamins, but it won’t hurt any less.
  • Drinking cold water causes sickness. Drink it warm.

Good times good times.

Garbage & Yellow Dust in Summer

Yellow dust blanketing Seoul by night. Photo by K.M.C.

Summer in Korea is an exciting time for a foreigner. It’s the time of year when you hit the beaches, drink until the wee hours of the morning, and generally have a wild time at events such as the Boryeong Mud Festival.

Fun at the 2009 Boryeong Mud Festival

But it’s not without a few drawbacks.

First and foremost is the dreaded ‘yellow dust’, a cloud of potentially dangerous dust that blows in from the Gobi Desert and can cause all manner of respiratory problems. It’s not something I’ve had issue with personally, but health warnings are generally issued to ensure people aren’t out exercising when it’s particularly bad.

The other big drawback is the God awful stink. All year round Koreans put their garbage in the street to be collected, but in summer this makes for the ripe stink of rotting and slowly cooking garbage. It’s not so bad in busier neighborhoods where the garbage men are quick to step in – but a back alley might go days or even weeks without tending. Not good.

Add this to the year round smell wafting up from the sewers and you’ve got a situation where you’ll end up holding your breath every hundred or so meters lest you be struck down.

Education

Two of my favorite students at Storia bidding me farewell in 2009.

It sucks to be a kid in Korea. Having taught for two and a half years, I don’t think I ever met a student who thought they had it good.

They’re at school six days a week. They’re at academies (private after school gigs) for several subjects after school for five of those days. Then there’s homework. And on their day off? They’ll get dragged on a hike or to visit an elderly relative. Torture!

An average student’s day might read as follows:

  1. Wake up at 6.30am
  2. Eat a breakfast of rice, kimchi, and water.
  3. Go to school at 8.30am
  4. Finish school at 3pm
  5. Go to English academy for an hour
  6. Go to Math academy
  7. Go to extracurricular activity such as Tae Kwon Do, ballet, computers, or art.
  8. Go home and do homework until 11-12pm
  9. Steal an hour on your computer to play Maple Story or chat.
  10. Go to bed at 1am

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s no wonder that Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide in the developed world.

Weight Issues

Koreans are slim. Not necessarily healthy, mind you, but slim.

If you’re not model thin or a lanky lad, you’re going to be told you’re fat. Probably more than once a day. Not always by children either. Every employer I ever had made passing comments about my weight on a weekly basis.

Koreans don’t like fat people. They’ll bully the fat kid in their class and they’ll laugh at the fat guy on TV.

That means it’s difficult to shop for clothes in Korea (why cater to the fat guy?) and you’re going to get some odd treatment come summer. I once near came to blows with a drunk ajoshi (old man) who honked my barely existent man boob while I was posing for a picture with a friend.

It wouldn’t be so hard to stomach were Korea a nation of super fit athletes, but it’s not. A lot of Koreans smoke and very few of them exercise. You’ll be running laps and the young men walking the same track will look at you as if you’re a mad-man. Very few people run in Korea. Power walking is the vogue form of exercise. It’s right up there alongside badminton and the only sport where it’s possible to be a morbidly obese millionaire – baseball.

There’s some bitterness here, as you can probably tell. It was frustrating being a guy who could run a 10k and still have people assume that all you did was eat and sit on the couch at home. Especially when that was exactly what the person accusing you would be doing with their spare time.

Rant over.

————–

This photo as nothing to do with the article, but look at how cute the two girls are!

As you can probably tell, a lot of my ‘worst’ when it comes to Korea aren’t going to be things a tourist has to deal with. The weight perception, the education situation, and the medical stuff aren’t likely to come up on your two week whirlwind tour.

In many ways I write that from the ex-pat perspective, and I apologize if that means I missed some glaringly obvious ‘worst’ about Korea.

All told, I loved my time in Korea. It’s safe to say that I love Korea. Australia will always be my home and I’m not sure Korea will ever feature on my travel itinerary again – but that in no way reflects a lack of passion for the land of the morning calm on my behalf.

It’s a beautiful and fascinating country.

The ‘Blog your Backyard’ Project

Share your local expertise and join the Blog your Backyard project! Become an ambassador for your country (home or adopted) by sharing your experiences and tips with other travelers. Submit your entries starting August 8th on WorldNomads.com for a chance to win one of 20 awesome excursions with Urban Adventures. Plus, if you want to share more of your local expertise or get answers to all of your travel questions, download the FREE ‘Ask A Nomad’ iPad app.

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