Two Weeks in Korea

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been in Korea (yes, the South one). I thought I’d reflect back on my trip, and offer a few pieces of advice for anyone who happens to read this and is thinking of heading over.

I lived in Korea back in 2017/2018. Returning now, as a holiday and after a few years away, allowed me to see it in a slightly different light to when I jumped straight into living and working there.

It’s easy to see that Korea is a country that has rapidly developed. From being one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s, it’s now one of the richest - all in the span of less than a human lifespan (especially a Korean one, as they’re some of the longest-lived people on the planet). There are people living in Korea today that were born when Korea was an agrarian society under Japanese occupation. It’s incredible what has changed in that timespan - and what’s surprising, particularly as a European, is that it’s clearly visible.

There are still traditional markets, with old people selling locally-grown fruits and vegetables, and street food stands selling tripe and insects. There are blokes on scooters loaded up with who-knows-what driving on the pavements. Even in central Seoul, a few minutes walk from the main tourist area, you can find streets of small workshops where men are making signs out of acrylic or welding metal. There are small commercial zones for everything - printing, commercial kitchen equipment, traditional Korean medicine. These areas are often named too - there will be a sign saying “chicken skewer street”, or look on a map and it will say “fabric street”.

And yet the backdrop to this is huge, modern skyscrapers, housing some of the largest companies in the world. The subway system is excellent, with wide, air-conditioned trains. High-tech electric vehicles fill the modern roads that have four lanes in each direction. And everything is digitised, a cashless society with bright lights and superfast internet.

I saw an auto repair garage full of smashed up cars next to a Jacquemus store (a French brand selling £1000 handbags).

Want to get some food? You could go to a themed restaurant and order a fusion meal using a tablet attached to the table, or go to a simply-decorated one where you have to shout your order of a traditional Korean meal to the old women running the restaurant. The toilet could be anything from a Western throne-style one with a Japanese bidet that washes and dries you, to a squatty hole-in-the-ground style one shared between a bunch of establishments. Sometimes you can flush toilet paper, sometimes it has to go in a bin.

What about clothes? You could go to a huge shopping mall with all the international brands. You could go to a traditional market, where all the old folks seem to buy their clothes. Or you could go to a street market (either outside or in a subway/underpass), where there are hundreds of stands or small stores selling cheapish fashion items.

There are downsides to Korea’s rapid development. You see a lot of elderly poverty, presumably those who worked hard to make the modern Korea but, in the process, were left behind. Hunched-over grandmas and grandpas collecting cardboard and bottles to get a little money from the recycling place.

England, having developed at a slower rate, does not have this contrast. All the traditional markets, the old workshops, have gone. There are still old buildings, but they’re now occupied by Starbucks and McDonalds. London still has narrow, windy roads. Also, because infrastructure is older, it’s typically worse - hence why the tube is small, hot, and noisy. There is simultaneously less traditional and less modern. But we also have less (visible) OAP poverty.

Seoul prices are typically cheap than London, apart from buying a house/flat and groceries. I liked this; a restaurant meal is a similar price to preparing one at home (£5-£10), so why not grab a meal with a friend? For a fiver you can have a private norebang (karaoke) for an hour. A subway journey was 80p (vs £3 in London), with free transfers, which means you think less of going out and doing something. It’s worth noting, however, that the minimum and average wage is lower in Korea (although high-paying jobs exist for those who are educated and technologically-savvy).

Would I live in Korea again? Yes, I think so. I’d need to improve my Korean, as English still isn’t universally spoken. Working for a Korean company would be difficult, due to cultural differences. But it’s a convenient, interesting, and enjoyable place to live.

I went to Seoul, Daejeon, and Jeju.

Unsurprisingly, being the capital city, and a big one at that, Seoul has so much to do. I spent most of my time there.

Korea is a country of trends. Currently the trending areas seem to be Yeonhui-dong, Inseok-dong, and Seongsu-dong. Lots of pretty cafes for coffee and dessert. Other decent areas include Insa-dong, Yeonnam-dong, and Eulji-ro. There’s also the famous areas of Myeong-dong, Hongdae, and Itaewon - they’re more touristy, and the latter is full of foreigners, so I didn’t bother going to it this time. There were some other places I went, either to meet friends or simply to explore, but none really worth writing about.

There’s the cliche tourist things, like Gyeongbokgung (the palace) and Cheongwadae (the former Presidential home, the Korean “White House”, known as a the “Blue House” (because it’s blue)), and Bukchon hanok (traditional house) village. They’re worth visiting. I also went to Yongma Land, an abandoned theme park - a bit off the beaten path but something a bit different. There’s also the Seoul K Medi Center (Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum) in Dongdaemun-gu - a cool place to learn about traditional Korean medicine and get a relaxing ginseng foot bath.

I went back to Daejeon simply for the memories, because that’s where I lived before. It’s a nice enough city, but not really worth visiting as a tourist. Seongshimdang is the main reason to go.

Every Korean loves Jeju - it’s their little tropical island paradise. I only went for a couple of days. It’s a pleasant place to visit, although in my opinion, compared to Southeast Asia (or even some British seaside areas like Devon and Cornwall), it’s not that special.

I think the reason Koreans like it is because it’s theirs. The Korean mainland doesn’t really have good beaches (apart from perhaps in Gangwondo, but it’s in the north, so can be a bit chilly), whereas the ones on Jeju are nice, and, being quite far south, warm for a longer period of the year. It’s also a cheap flight from the mainland, and everyone speaks Korean, which makes it an easy holiday destination.

One tip - if you’re flying with Jeju Air, wear orange (the colour of the airline and of Korean emergency services). For both flights I got a free upgrade to an emergency exit seat, and I’m sure it was because of my orange (McLaren F1) top.

As for where to stay,,, Airbnb, and Yanolja (a Korean website, only in Korean), all have good options, and I used a combination of all. I felt that Booking and Agoda are better for Seoul (you can find some decently-priced hotels), whereas Airbnb worked better in smaller areas (Jeju and Daejeon) as you can rent out an entire apartment for very little money.

Of course, there’s lots of delicious food to eat. Korean food is typically designed for sharing, and often there are certain ways you’re meant to eat it (often you cook/prepare it at the table yourself), so ideally have a Korean friend to show you what to do. I always like to go to kimbab/bunsik places too, the more traditional lunchtime restaurants with the old women serving smaller single-person dishes for as little as £2.

Would I visit Korea again? Possibly. There’s no one standout thing that would make me want to go back, at least not compared to being able to visit somewhere else. I’d be more keen to live in Korea again than visit I think.