You know you’re in South Korea when:

  • People say ‘kimchi’ instead of cheers when taking photos
  • Half of the cars on the street are Huyndai, most of the rest are Kia
  • 95% people use Samsung mobiles, and 3G smartphones are the norm, even grandpas and grandmas use them
  • Internet is available everywhere from down in underground metro to up on the top of the country’s highest mountain
  • Taxis are equipped with translation service. But 70% taxi drivers don’t actually know the roads, they have to rely on GPS.
  • The term ‘side dish’ reaches a sky-high level of variety and sophistication, which makes each meal a feast for both your eyes and stomach
  • Girls proudly walk around with post-plastic surgery plasters all over their faces

Welcome to the land of morning calm!

To be honest, I did not know what to expect of Korea. Even though the K-pop tsunami has swept a lot of Asian teenagers and housewives off their feet for the last few years, I am a total idiot when it comes to Korean drama, boy bands and girl bands, and Korean fashion. I blame it on ignorance and my general anti-social attitude 🙂 But South Korea really surprised me with its beautiful scenery, rich culture, mouth-watering cuisine, and warm-hearted people.

Somehow South Korea is off the radar of many travelers, especially those from the West. When it comes to Asia, mighty China and Japan, and vibrant Southeast Asia are often top-of-mind destinations for Westerners. South Korea, which is neatly squeezed in the middle, just falls through the crack. Even in Seoul, the sights of foreign tourists are rare. Or it is simply because most tourists in Korea are from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and to me they all look like Koreans 🙂 But that is actually a bless for those who makes an effort to reach out and dig deep into the soul of this country.

Dig deep to see how Koreans treasure their traditional ways of life despite a long history of turmoil and invasion. Dig deep to see how Koreans touch your heart with their silent mourning during tragedies. Dig deep to see how Koreans go extra miles to help you despite language barriers. Dig deep, and you see how wrong many of your presumptions about South Korea were.

My presumption #1: South Korea hate North Korea the most

Wrong, actually they hate Japan the most. If you take a guided tour while visiting the royal palaces in Seoul, the one thing that you’ll hear the guides stress again and again and again is how Japanese invaded, occupied, and destroyed Korea. The turbulent history between the two countries is like a deep scar that never heals.

My presumption #2: South Koreans are loud and cold (this is the impression I got from a few glimpses of Korean dramas, so it was fictional in nature)

Wrong, all Koreans I met were so gentle, polite, warm, and helpful. My three lovely and artistic hosts at BnB126 Mansion in Seoul gave me a free lunch just because I arrived early in the morning and could not check in immediately. Their mother got up every morning and cooked breakfast for all the guests. Once I left Seoul and traveled to other places in Korea, it was her legendary home-made Korean-style breakfast that I missed most. My host in Jeju is the most vivid and helpful girl. A handful of people helped me call my guesthouse in Gyeongju for directions when I got lost. And a countless number of Koreans just stopped their cars and gave me a free lift while I was wandering in the middle of nowhere, without me asking.

My presumption #3: Koreans eat a lot (also from Korean dramas)

It is true in a way when you look at the number of plates and bowls in a Korean-style meal. But Korean diet is so healthy, with lots of veggies, and a head-dizzy array of that world-renown kimchi which actually aids digestion. Splitting a meal into many small portions of kimchi, fish, meat, and soup actually forces you to eat slowly, making you feel fuller. After every single meal, I thought I would not need to eat for the next 3 days, just to find myself savoring more and more new dishes in the next meal.

My presumption #4: Koreans are good at English

Despite a close relationship with its ally USA, most people in Korea cannot speak English very well. But they will do anything to help you even though they cannot understand a single word you say, and vice versa. Body language and smiles are truly the universal language.

My presumption #5: Korea is expensive

Actually traveling in Korea is surprisingly cheap. For $10, you can have a presumptuous Korean-style meal. Buses, trains and local flights are relatively cheap. Hotels are expensive, but BnBs, guesthouses, and hostels are reasonably priced, very clean and comfortable. Most will provide you with towels, shampoos, body wash, toothpaste, and even hairdryer. Bingo!

National Folk Museum - Seoul

My first stop in Seoul – The National Folk Museum in Seoul

National Folk Museum - Seoul

First taste of Korean architecture

National Folk Museum - Seoul

Straw sandals, too big for me 🙂

National Folk Museum - Seoul

A shop display – National Folk Museum

National Folk Museum - Seoul

This reminds me of Vietnam 30 years ago

National Folk Museum - Seoul

National Folk Museum - Seoul

Doesn’t this photo look like a collage?

National Folk Museum - Seoul

A mum and her kids relaxing in the park

National Folk Museum - Seoul

Wishes in a bubble

National Folk Museum - Seoul

A beautiful item in the National Folk Museum

National Folk Museum - Seoul

Miniature figurines

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Corridor – Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace – the biggest and most important among 5 royal palaces

Changing of guards - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Three boys filming the change-of-guards ceremony

Changing of guards - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Change of guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Royal guard - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

A guard in the traditional costume

Royal guard - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

A royal guard

Drummer - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Drummer - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Drummer - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

A drummer

Changing of guards - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Change of guards

Tour guide in traditional hanbok - Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

A tour guide in the traditional hanbok – Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

The main hall – Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Beautiful ceilings

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Scars of time

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Monks - Seoul

Two monks visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul

Pavillion – Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul
Gyeongbokgung Palace

Young girls in traditional hanboks - Seoul
Young girls in traditional hanboks - Seoul

Young girls in traditional hanbok

Seoul

Bandaged trees

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Royal officers use to stand according to their ranks written on those stone posts

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Korean palaces are best seen at 45-degree angle

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Beautiful beams

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Huwon (secret) garden – Changdeokgung Palace

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

It was raining outside

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

This pond looks like the Korean peninsula from this angle

Secret Garden - Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Spring colors

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Changdeokgung Palace - Seoul

Advertisements