I've traveled to many places, in the really off the beaten path destinations in the Philippines to as far as Northern Thailand and West India. But never have i felt so novice as when i went to Seoul. I've always been used to macro-planning (destination, time and money). That's it. Well, to my surprise, i have to say my trip to South Korea was the most difficult. Here's how i experienced it.
1. People don't speak English.
The biggest irony of it all. Everywhere you go here in Manila, and other key regions in the country, you will see young Koreans studying English. Well, what's left in Korea are those who're unfamiliar with the language. Imagine myself with no sleep at all, and early in the morning trying to find this particular hotel, that i never found anyway. I saw this woman whose probably a working professional. Asked her if she could help me find this particular hotel from my guidebook. She signaled she needed to call a friend. Fantastic! After putting down the phone, i got very excited, finally a sign that she knew the place. She looked into me and said, 내가 있을 곳이.를 하는 것처럼 바로 바로 켜고 산기슭에 가려져 이 호텔을 찾으실 수 있다는 것을 알고 있습니다.
2. How much do you love Kimchi?
I love food. I like rice. I like a little bit of spice. I even love vegetables. Put them together, Kimchi, that i don't like. If you're like me, you're in big trouble. I got so suppressed with food, that i think i lost a few pounds on my way back to Manila. Everywhere i go, Kimchi is always the cheapest and fastest to prepare within Seoul (except fast food chains). How can you not order it when you've been walking for hours, and is dead hungry.
3. Book your hotel in advance.
Whether you book your trip during summer, spring, winter or fall, chances are you really, really, really need to book your hotel in advance. And i say this with full exaggeration. Being in a not so touristy destinations, affordable hotels are hard to come by. Imagine yourself riding a taxi stopping at every corner of the main highway, or the alley way, and even on the outskirts only to find out the hotel is closed, fully-booked, or too expensive. Once you found the only remaining hotel or motel, you get out of the taxi cab, and find out you have to pay about $40-50.
I puffed a ciggie, sat at a bench and said to myself... "Oh, well. Shit happens!"
4. Plan your shopping spree ahead of TIME.
Save some money for you'll surely have a grand time shopping. Boots, scarves, trousers, bags and anything that looks fancy - you'll find it in Seoul. And yes, they're at a bargain. What time? That's the more important question. Went for about an hour of travel time to get to this night market, only to find out, the stores are closing down at 8PM. I found this shop still open, got inside and vowed never to return again.
5. How do i look?
After downing a couple of Soju shots, and roaming around Yeouido Park, i saw this father-daughter artist sketching. I reckon, a portrait would be a great souvenir. No, this is not a con-story. The two are actually pretty honest and kind-hearted people. They told me their story, how they both loved art and how they want their business to grow. A few minutes later, and after bargaining for a good price for the sketch with frame, which they both agreed, The two handed me their work of art. It was beautifully drawn, the shading was great and lines were subtle but apparent. The problem is, the man in the drawing doesn't look like me. Wow!
6. Get a ride of your life at a theme park.
After getting lost, and trying my best to understand that nobody understands me in South Korea, the least that i could do was try to have fun or look for one. There's no happier place anywhere than in a theme park. Whether you ride a roller coaster or get goofy in front of a photo booth, chances are you're afternoon will be spent with a lot of fun. Unless... the theme park is sadly, closed. Like what happened to me, I went all the way to one of South Korea's biggest theme parks (after a train ride, two bus rides and a taxi cab, i realized my destination of choice is actually closed... on a Sunday! Who closes a theme park on a Sunday? Awesome!
7. Ask before you buy!
To be honest, i'm not as exploratory with food as i am with my destinations. I know it's part of traveling, and believe me I'm still learning to eat just as the romans do. And so i did that when i was in Seoul. After finding none of the shops at the night market was open, i went to buy food. When you've been watching too many Korean dramas, it's always a fascination to see the actors stop by to grab street food. I ordered this and that, a rice cake and even an Eel. (Yes! I ate an eel in Seoul but not in Fukuoka) For those who're familiar, Fukuoka is the Eel capital of the world. Because I was just simply eating street food, i was thinking my orders would not be as expensive. I paid for three orders of grilled barbecue in assorted fashion and a couple of Cass beers all for a whopping $45 USD. I got closed down by a shop, and now i paid for street food that cost as much as my plane ticket to this country.
Don't get me wrong. I still love Korea! How can i not love this nation? Amidst all the troubles that i went through to experience the best of this fascinating country, i vow to one day come visit again and be at my best foot next time around. I actually have 7 solid reasons why i am booking that red eye flight to this lovely country in winter very, very soon.
다음에 봐 (Da-Eume Bwa)