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!
My first stop in Seoul – The National Folk Museum in Seoul
First taste of Korean architecture
Straw sandals, too big for me 🙂
A shop display – National Folk Museum
This reminds me of Vietnam 30 years ago
Doesn’t this photo look like a collage?
A mum and her kids relaxing in the park
Wishes in a bubble
A beautiful item in the National Folk Museum
Corridor – Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace – the biggest and most important among 5 royal palaces
Three boys filming the change-of-guards ceremony
Change of guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace
A guard in the traditional costume
A royal guard
Change of guards
A tour guide in the traditional hanbok – Gyeongbokgung Palace
The main hall – Gyeongbokgung Palace
Scars of time
Two monks visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace
Pavillion – Gyeongbokgung Palace
Young girls in traditional hanbok
Royal officers use to stand according to their ranks written on those stone posts
Korean palaces are best seen at 45-degree angle
Huwon (secret) garden – Changdeokgung Palace
It was raining outside
This pond looks like the Korean peninsula from this angle