6 Interesting Observations about South Korea
When we decided to travel around the world back in 2018 we came up with an elaborate plan which included a list of all the countries that we wanted to visit. It consisted of more than 30 countries in 5 different continents, however, we never thought about travelling to South Korea. With a bit of spare time in a paradise island of Malapascua in Philippines this April we came up with an idea that South Korea should also be included in the itinerary. The reasons were simple –we wanted to find out how South Korean food is different from other Asian countries. Also, we did not know much about its culture apart from the fact K-pop is a major thing and we were curious, plus it was on our way from China to Japan so we could tweak our flights easily to include a short stay in Seoul.
The fact we later on ended up accidentally missing the flight we initially bought, nearly got in trouble twice* at the airport in Beijing meant we could have saved a lot of money and nerves if we did not go to South Korea. Nevertheless, we are glad we still did. In this short post I want to talk about 6 interesting things we observed in Seoul.
*Arrived for our flight 24h late (oops – wrong date!) and barely managed to make it out from the country before expiry of our 144h visa exemption allowance AND did not register with the tourist police while in China. The later meant we were threatened to not be allowed into the county should we do that again but let go without further damage to our pockets.
So let’s get started!
1. Nobody speaks English unless you are in central Seoul.
The nice thing is that our arrival in South Korea was a whole lot smoother than departure from China! We managed to find a person on couchsurfing who agreed to host us for a few days. As we got to know each other we realized he was not only a Cambridge Graduate and previously a university professor but also at one point an English teacher of Dalai Lama! Unfortunately, this was pretty much the only time we had a conversation in English in the area (a residential area, which was more than 1 hour away from central Seoul).
When we went out to have lunch all we could find were local eateries where people did not speak a word in English, menus were in Korean and there were no pictures of meals we could point at! We ended up somehow getting our hands on a few plates of pork dumplings but that was not easy. Our ignorance and inability to learn even a few basic words of Korean is to be blamed, but as a traveller you should be prepared for a language barrier if you are ever out of town.
Tip: There are plenty of willing and kind hosts in Asia on couchsurfing. It saved us A LOT of money and if you put a bit of effort into creating a decent public profile and send personalized requests to hosts it might do for you too!
2. Eating out is cheaper than buying food in supermarkets.
Continuing with the topic of food in Seoul it only makes sense to eat out. For someone who lives in Europe, Australia or the US this will sound unbelievable but meals bought in budget restaurants will end up costing you less money and, of course, time than cooking.
Food in eateries in really affordable and tasty so during our stay it did not look worthwhile to buy expensive ingredients in shops and waste time cooking. Dumplings (gyoza) and sweet street snacks were my favourite, but make sure you try as much of different things as possible. Also, make sure you re-read No. 1 to be sure you can order a meal!
Tip: Try Mung Bean Pancakes at Gwangjang Market – these pancakes are one of the most popular street food in Korea.
3. Loneliness in South Korea is a problem.
This is not really something we measured ourselves or observed to a great extent but rather was a statement from the locals which left me thinking why that might be case. After further research I learned that South Korea, similarly to Japan has a quickly aging population. Another similarity is that working long hours is a norm which leads to people dating less and having less children.
In turn this leads to not only an aging but also a lonely population. Interesting (and sad) fact is that single households as well as restaurants which cater for single people are on the rise in South Korea. In recent years South Korean government has launched a number of social initiatives to reduce loneliness of people by arranging visits to people who live alone and handing out vouchers for public baths or other social activities, however the situation does not seem to be improving a whole lot.
4. Seoul is not as futuristic and techy as you might think.
Despite the fact using metro in Seoul is super simple with a T-money card and really affordable, most of the trains looked a bit dated and appeared to be slower than in other major Asian cities. It took us more than 1 hour to travel to central Seoul and if we were on the other side of the river, the journey home lasted almost 2 hours. This gave us plenty of time for reading books and chatting to locals but we would have rather spent our time exploring or resting.
We went to Seoul thinking it will be like stepping into the future – neon lights everywhere, efficient public transport system and technology applied in new ways we have not experienced before. The truth is Seoul (in terms of technology and overall flashiness) is still far behind megacities like Tokyo or even Hong Kong and Singapore.
Despite the fact that South Korea is the 4th largest economy in Asia, the city of Seoul is a fairly modest capital. We actually found a lot more cultural heritage sites scattered around the city than modern high-rises and flashy neon screens. But that must only be a good thing.
Tip: T-money card can be purchased in many stores and stations and is super easy to use and top up. At the end of your visit you can return it and get the unused money back (minus a small fee). We handed our in at one of the shops at Incheon International Airport.
5. There is a whole different world underground.
Seoul might not be the flashiest of cities above ground but as we were exploring this city we discovered there is a whole new world underneath. Metro stations underground merge with shops, restaurants and supermarkets to form this hidden network. If you know your way around it you might be able to go to town, go about your things and come back home without seeing daylight. It is really that extensive.
I absolutely hate bad weather so this would certainly work well for me if I lived in Seoul!
6. Plastic surgery for males is a thing in South Korea.
Frankly this one shocked me when I found out about it. I would never have thought as much as 15-20% of males in South Korea (The Korean Association for Plastic Surgeons) would resort to plastic surgery to improve their looks. Most popular procedures include facial contouring, rhinoplasty or eyelid surgery but other even more drastic procedures such as male breast corrective procedures to achieve the perfect looks are becoming popular too.
It is though that pretty-boy looks of male K-pop (wildly popular music genre in South Korea) stars inspired men to turn to plastic surgery to look more like their idols.
Overall, I feel that we learned a lot about the history, food and culture of South Korea during our visit. There are definitely more than just 6 things that you will observe and find interesting yourself when you go, but these seemed to be the most unexpected and unusual to us. And I did not even talk about K-pop which could easily lead me to another story. But let’s leave it for another time.
Got any other cool observations about South Korea? Let us know!