I was in Korea for two straight years. Although I lived in Pusan, the second largest city, I did a lot of roaming around the country. Here is a collection of experiences that are not hard to come by, many of which are not usually found in the typical guide book:
While exploring a beach or mountain area, the tell-tale odour of bbondaegi, or barbequed silkworm larva, steaming in the woks, will direct you to these sidewalk vendors. I encourage you to try it once. It’s cheap. I admit didn’t particularly like it. I even tried it on a few more occasions to settle my opinion. For me it was a texture thing. When returning to Canada, I always made a point of stocking up on cans of the stuff from any supermarket to take home with me. They make great Christmas stocking stuffers.
The street food in Korea is amazing. When hungry in most Canadian cities I’ve been to, and with no time to sit down, one can only seem to find hot dogs, shawarmas, and pizza slices. Korea offers a multitude of choices, way too elaborate to describe.
Traditional teahouses are great places to get a way from the concrete jungle. The ambiance is phenomenal. There’s one in Seoul I used to haunt in the old neighbourhood of Insa-Dong where tropical birds fly freely throughout the establishment. One minute you’re sipping your five-berry concoction, then suddenly there’s a little bright red feathery thingamajig perched on your shoulder.
Night hikes were always a favourite. A group of friends would meet in a local drinking hole, have a few cold ones, then we’d stock up with water bottles, snacks and all, and make our way to the nearest trail. This was particularly accessible in Pusan, but a bit more difficult if you happen to live in the centre of Seoul. In the mountains of Keumjeong upon which the city stretches, we would come across secluded Buddhist shrines, hidden away in tiny nooks and caves, detectable by the glow of candles. We’d follow the old fortress walls upon the ridge and arrive at the Pomosa Temple compound at dawn. Water bottles were always replenishable from the natural water springs that everyone drinks from. By morning we’d hop on the subway, and head back home after a night of adventure.
It seemed as if everyone I knew did the three-hour hyrofoil crossing to Fukuoka, Japan at least once. It’s cheap compared to an airplane ticket. In Japanese standards, Fukuoka is a small, peaceful coastal city. It’s a simple way of putting your Asian experience into perspective, by seeing the little (and big) differences of a culture across the sea.
Bath houses can be found in practically every city or town. Some are more elaborate than others. Imagine spending an afternoon or longer, soaking in baths of every temperature and having a waterfall spill on your back from a stone turtle statue. Some are blended with ginseng, jasmine, or volcanic mud. Then it’s great to put on a pyjama outfit and nap in a dark room on a floor mat. Supposedly there’s a healthy sequence for maximum health benefits which I partially learned while I was there. I swear I could feel those yukky junk food toxins escaping from my pores.
Every university neighbourhood has a bunch of drinking holes where you can meet up with some form of an artist subculture. Around Pusan National University they tended to be sculptors, while in the southern tip of the city, I came across a dingy jazz bar, oozing with atmosphere, where a bunch of actors would hang out. It’s good to hear things from the perspective of the margins of society.
You tend meet a lot of fellow English teacher / traveller people, especially since you all stand out in public. Bonding is fast since small talk is minimal. Everyone seems to have stories to tell, along with the traveller’s bug, and you are always swapping similar experiences.
The basic motions of functional life in every culture I know of are very routine. Going into a shop to buy something is dead easy whether you know the language or not. Put down the merchandise, present the money, collect your change. Using a bank machine is the same as anywhere else. Be thankful of having English as your first language, something I underestimated before leaving.
The Korean script (hangul) is one of the most phonetically accurate systems in the world. It takes a weekend to learn, although the grammar structure is much more difficult. Consider learning the language as a step-by-step hobby like learning how to juggle or tap dance or something. After my first six months in the country, there was no personal thrill so great than having a simple conversation with a waitress, some Joe on the street or someone in a corner store, entirely in an Asian language with a completely different word order. Every week learn something new, be it a grammar structure or vocabulary, and have fun experimenting with it.
These are just a few of many pieces of advice I can tell you to make your stay in Korea more enjoyable. Don’t hesitate to give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you may have.
By David Brandreth