Recently, I visited Seoul on business and, despite a busy schedule, had time for sightseeing on a Friday night. This visit was my first to Seoul - my work usually takes me to Japan. I am embarrassed to say that I know little about Korean culture, but I was keen to explore it during my brief stay.
When abroad, I attempt to be a polite guest, doing what I can to respect local customs and traditions. My efforts often help ingratiate me to the local people and lead to a fruitful experience overseas. I find that, these days, most tourists and business travelers act similarly.
Arriving at Incheon, an excellent airport, I opted to take a bus to my hotel in Seoul. While I was waiting, an elderly airport worker shoved me back behind a line, pointing to a mark on the pavement and then sauntering away. Twenty minutes later, my bus arrived and as I was waiting to board it, another airport employee snatched my small roller suitcase from my hands and gruffly tossed it in a compartment under the bus without a word. I explained that I wanted to ride with my bag because it had fragile equipment and important documents inside. He simply waived his hand and said ‘no’. This refusal seemed odd because many of the passengers on my bus carried suitcases on board with them that were larger than my bag. Nonetheless I boarded the bus without my bag.
Following my meetings the next day, I decided to try bimbimbap for dinner, which my guidebook recommended. The dish came steaming hot and I mixed it as my book suggested and began to eat. However, my waitress told me ‘no’ and grabbed the spoon from my hand and mixed the ingredients in the bowl with vigor for nearly thirty seconds. So I was left with a bowl of rice and vegetable mush, which was apparently the proper method for eating the dish.
After dinner, a Korean colleague brought me to a lively bar comprising Korean and foreign clientele. I snapped a few pictures with my phone, and a burly security guard put a figure in my face, shouting ‘No photo.’ I put my phone in my pocket.
Later, I went upstairs to the bathroom, which was a connecting point for another bar. When I tried to return downstairs, another security worker told me I could not go back inside from where I had come. I assume he thought I had come from the other bar upstairs. No problem I told myself, trusting that I could go through the other bar and reenter at the front again to find my Korean colleague. However, the other bar’s doorman denied me entrance and told me to go downstairs, effectively pinning me on the stairs between both bars. With nowhere to go, I pleaded with the guard downstairs to no avail. Then, I saw my colleague through the door and took a step forward and yelled for him. The guard grabbed me and began to drag me towards the front door, a move I welcomed despite his rough handling of me. Fortunately, my colleague spotted my being kicked out and met me outside.
To end the night, my Korean host proposed we go to a traditional Korean sauna. The sauna, for me, was unique with a variety of bathing options. When I used the bathroom, I retrieved my shoes from my locker and put them on at the entrance of the open-door bathroom area. This was a mistake. An employee approached, formed an x with his hands, and declared ‘no shoes’. So I carried my shoes back to the locker and returned to the bathroom where I walked barefoot to the urinal, trying not to think about the wet tiles under my feet.
The next morning I made the long jaunt to Incheon for my return flight. My night in Seoul was interesting but one I would rather not repeat. Though I am certain my disappointment is because of my own ignorance and bad luck, I could not help but feel that a number of Koreans have an overzealous interest in micro-managing and regulating visitors, a situation that neither helped me gain interest in Korea nor allowed me to enjoy my stay.
I needed to use a public restroom in an underground metro station/shopping center. I go into the stall and there are no sear covers. Eh, I can live with that. I'll just put toilet paper down on the seat....WHAT no toilet paper! I get out of the stall and see a toilet paper dispenser on the wall. Cost is 500 WON. So, I run out to yell at my boyfriend that I need 500 WON when I noticed a toilet paper dispenser (only one) mounted on the outside of the first stall.
Also, my boyfriend told me in the men's room, there were no traditional toilets in the stalls. Instead, a porcelain bowl in which you would need to squat. Don't throw your toilet paper into the bowl, it goes into a trash can located in your stall.
So, make sure you have toilet paper in the stall with you.
Major tourist areas in Seoul (e.g. Myeongdong, Namdaemun, Itaewon, Sinchong Ladies Market, Dongdaemun) can be very crowded especially during weekends. Although Seoul is a safe city, you must still be careful of your belongings because sometimes the crowd is so huge that you will be in close contact with other people. If there is a safe at your hotel, it is advisable to leave your valuable items there.
If you are planning to take the inter-city buses from Seoul to other parts of South Korea (e.g. Busan, Kwangju, Sokcho, Suwon etc), it is very important to know which bus terminal you are taking the bus because there are a few bus terminals in Seoul. The biggest is the Seoul Express Bus Terminal, and even this place has 2 seperate bus terminals next to each other (one is for the Honam Line, and I cannot remember the other one). The best way is to check with the staff of your hotel in Seoul, and then take a taxi to the bus terminal (ask the hotel staff to speak to the taxi driver). Going to the wrong bus terminal can be a big problem.
The people and places in exported Korean dramas are always so beautiful, polite and perfect. The reality is far from it. Most people are rather rude and unfriendly. As for the beautiful scenary, I believe it still can be found in the countryside. Certainly not in the city.
After being in Seoul for more than a month, I finally needed a haircut. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. You see, barber shops in this city are often "fronts" for prostitution. The regular barber pole sign may not always refer to a barber shop but also a massage parlor. In fact, I made a mistake of entering one (while looking for an actual barber) and had to retreat once I did not see any chair but only beds upon entering. Or, the barber may actually offer "extra service".
Fortunately, my colleagues in the office suggested that I try the BLUE CLUB. They directed me to a branch which was just across our office. This had a barber pole sign but instead of the multi colors, it is only white and blue. Upon entering, I was relieved to see a number of barber's chairs and a couple of guys actually having their hair cut. Although my barber could not talk in English, she was able to show me pictures of styles of haircuts. Upon finishing, she did not tidy me up so I wasn't that satisfied when I checked myself in the mirror. But upon arriving at the apartment, my wife commented that she liked my trim. I looked at the mirror and she was right!
I paid KW 6000 for a regular haircut and they allow you to wash your hair yourself after the haircut is done. This was a first for me because that kind of self service is not available in Manila. When I informed two locals that I had used this particular barber, they immediatly commented that this was cheap; because other similar establishments would charge around two to three times. Regardless, I will be going back.
Be careful of motorcycles and cars on the sidewalk. Make sure you walk in a straight line since the motorcycles will be trying to get by you and you might not hear them. If you step aside suddenly you may get hit by one. They usually are very careful but just watch out! And cars are parked on the sidewalk in some areas.
Make sure that you get your visa before going as once you get there you could find your self back on the plane or waiting for a few days at the airport. It takes a few weeks to get the visa if you do it by mail and two hours if you go to get it your self at the local embassy.
A few years ago korean president Kim Dae Jung got the Nobel Peace prize for his "sunshine policy" with the north and has engagement to get in a dialogue with North Korea to stabilize the situation on the korean peninsula.
The picture on your left show the president with pope John Paul II. and with former south african president Nelson Mandela, which also got the Nobel Peace Prize. In my opinion these two men (Kim Dae Jung and Nelson Mandela) really deserve it ....
Both did much for peace.
Just opposite to Cheong Wa Dae is located the Hyojadong Community Hall. It displays former president gifts from overseas as well as memorabilia of Seoul history. And there is also a Cheong Wa Dae souvenir-shop there.
By the way it is the safest place in whole Seoul because of the many policemen everywhere ... :-)
When I was there they also had an interesting exhibition featuring president Kim Dae-jung. On the photo on your left you can see him at the ASEM meeting in Seoul in October 2000 and speaking in front of the UN General Assembly in New York ....
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