South Korea FAQ
Hi! My name's Melisa! In 2008, I decided to take advantage of my TESOL certification, and teach English in Korea. I have done some traveling around Europe and Central America before, but I had never been to Asia. South Korea is definitely an adventure. When I first pictured South Korea, all that came to mind were huts, and markets, and temples--scenes from SK circa 1930 from "M.A.S.H" Upon arrival, I quickly realized that my common misconception of South Korea is actually more of what North Korea is like.
South Korea is a newly democratic society caught in between it's formerly communist/Confucian ways, and it's relatively recent emergence into the modern world. This combination makes Korea both endearing and quirky to western travelers. Korean's sense of history and pride cannot be explained in words, but is worth experiencing for yourself. Their desire to be a part of the world is huge. Their attempt to do this can be quite amusing at times; however, totally understandable if you put in the time and effort to find out what they're really doing. Korea is worth the trip if only to dispel any stereotypes that you may have, and to share those with the world around you. Korea has so much to offer by way of culture, the people, food, and sites. You will not be disappointed!Getting there:
South Korea is really easy to travel to! The main airports to fly into are Seoul or Busan. Be aware that some travel search engines still use "Pusan" instead of "Busan," but they are one in the same. These days, tickets to South Korea cost around $1000 round trip from the West Coast of the U.S., and the price goes up the further east you are. The main airlines that fly to South Korea from the U.S. are Northwest, Japan Air, and Asiana. Most of these flights have a layover in Tokyo, but there are the occasional flights via China. Recently, Europeans have been taking advantage of direct and relatively cheap flights out of Helsinki.Out on the town:
If you are in one of the bigger cities in Korea, there is always something going on. Even in the smaller towns in the country-side, you will find good food, smiling faces, and people going about their business. In places like Seoul, Busan, and some smaller cities, there are many places to dance, drink, and socialize. You even have your choice of whether you want to see fellow westerners (what non-Asians are sometimes referred to as), or if you want to do it Korean style. In the large cities, there are neighborhoods--usually near the universities--with western style watering-holes and food options--always with a Korean flair of course. If you go to the western bars (as in "The Western World" not "country western"), you could expect to pay about the same prices as you would in the U.S. Mixed drinks average around $7, and beers about $3-7 depending on if they're foreign or domestic.
If you go to a Korean bar you could expect to pay slightly higher prices, or be expected to buy a bottle. Be prepared to order food at these places as well. A Korean night on the town usually begins with dinner and soju, then to a bar, then to a few more bars, then often ends in a nore bong--or singing room. Feel free to belt your heart out to whatever song you'd like, in a room just for you and you friends; and bring in whatever food and drinks you want. There are no closing times at most bars, so feel free to drink, sing, and dance the night away.Shopping:
Shopping is everywhere in Korea. There are plenty of open-air markets where you can buy cheap clothing, accessories, and pretty much anything else you can think of!! Feel free to barter for prices at these places--though, I've never been very good at it. If you are larger than a U.S. womens size 14, you may have trouble finding clothing. There are some "bigger" people stores, but they tend to be pretty expensive. Shoes are everywhere, but if you're larger than a ladies size 10, you may have settle on men's shoes. Often, you will see stalls or carts selling a specific product set up on the side of the road. At first, it seemed a little strange to me, but I've found that you can often find more unique items at a lower cost than in some stores. Something I was delighted to come across is akin to the Dollar Store in the U.S. These are a great place to find dishes, Tupperware, stationary, etc. Grocery Shopping:
Even in the smallest of communities, there seems to always be some sort of convenience store present. These stores are similar to a 7-11 in the states. In fact there are 7-11's in Korea...no Slurpees though
Actually, fountain drinks are absent in general aside from movie theaters and fast food joints. There is usually at least one if not more, small grocery stores near where ever you choose to stay. You can find any necessities you'll need daily aside from deodorant. You can buy fruit, veggies, pork, chicken, noodles, various kinds of ramen, snacks, milk, soda, beer, soju (a very cheap Korean alcohol similar to vodka), water, Popsicles, shampoo--and the list goes on. What you WILL have a hard time finding is good cheese, diet sodas, spices that you may be used to using, deodorant, beef, and most definitely tampons. ALL of these things are available in Korea though--you just have to look for them, and you have to be flexible . They are usually found in the larger chain stores similar to a Wal-mart or Target. I recommend, however, that you save any of your vegetable and fruit shopping for one of the many vendors on the street. The food is fresh and cheap. Make sure you wash everything, and remember that it doesn't keep long, so don't buy in bulk. Other than that, the fruit here is amazing.Dining Out:
Food was one of the most daunting things on my mind before I got to Korea. I have a wheat allergy, and I don't eat seafood, so Iwas scared. I also tend to shy away from what I don't know. That being said, I discovered Korean food is delicious. Koreans eat family style, so you should expect to share all the food placed on the table. Much of Korean meat is served b-b-q style and grilled over a flame or hot coals. You can find places that serve pork, beef, chicken, fish, octopus, etc. Most restaurants in Korea are specialty restaurants--meaning, if you want a certain kind of soup, you would go to that specific kind of restaurant.
Eating a Korean meal is really cheap too. For two people, you could eat plenty, enjoy a drink or two, and still expect to pay between $10-20. I hosted a dinner for 14 at a local b-b-q restaurant, and paid around $100. This meal included about five servings of meat each, plenty of side dishes, and drinks.
For the times that you want a hearty steak meal, or a taste from home, there are a few western restaurants that are much pricier, such as TGIFridays, and Outback Steakhouse.
I don't know much about seafood, since I'm not that interested, but if you like it, Korea's the place for you! You can find almost everything here, and always fresh. Busan boasts Korea's largest raw fish market, where you can sample as you browse. Fast Food:
In the large cities you can find McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, and the occasional Subway. Koreans have their own version of Korean fast food, the biggest one is translated as "Kimbap Heaven," which seem to be everywhere. Here you can find a huge menu of Korean staples at really cheap prices. Finally, Koreans and foreigners alike can enjoy what is affectionately referred to as, "street meat." In many of the dongs, or neighborhoods, you will see stalls or tents set up. Inside, you can stand or sit, and eat various kinds of chicken, pork, seafood, soju, etc. for only cents. Dress Code:
On the street, you can get away with dressing as you would at home. What you should realize though, is that if you do not look like the average Korean, people WILL stare openly at you. It's up to you, if you want to add to the stares by dressing out of the norm. Ladies, you might want to consider covering up the cleavage--it's fairly taboo. I choose to wear whatever I want--cleavage or not--to the western bars, but when I'm on the street, I make sure I'm covered up. Koreans are really funny about the seasonal "rules." For example, once it's technically fall--even if it's still hot out--everyone will wear sweaters and jackets. Leggings or tights with skirts are a must--mainly in the fall and winter. Korean's have an aversion to the sun, so they will always cover up on a sunny day wearing long sleeves, gloves, hats, scarves, and umbrellas. They may be confused as to why you are so crazy as to be wearing a tank top on such a beautiful sunny day... So, they will stare, but you won't get in trouble or anything
I do suggest a more conservative wardrobe for the ladies.Getting around:
The large cities have major subway systems that are very cheap to use. Busan's subway system is smaller, and thus MUCH easier to navigate than Seoul's. Both offer cheap transportation though. Taxi's are available in even the smaller communities, and compared to the U.S. and Europe--they are really cheap. I'm not sure on the mileage of course, but the base rate is now 2,200 won--or about $3. To get from one side of Busan to the other (the second largest city in South Korea), I would expect to pay under $20 for sure. There is a fairly efficient bus system all throughout South Korea, and is also very cheap to use. Once you figure out the routes, it's a decent, albeit crowded way to travel around the city and outlaying areas. Of course you can always walk, bike, or get a motorcycle. There aren't as many bikes--motored or not-- in Korea as in Europe or evewn Japan; but they are around, and used quite often. Watch out if you are walking on the sidewalks, it tends to only be a suggestion
NOT to drive on them. Traveling throughout South Korea and Asia:
South Korea boasts a fast train called the KTX that goes to various cities throughout South Korea. A ticket from Seoul to Busan (North to South) costs less than $50, being the longest route and the most expensive. The fast train takes about two and a half hours from Seoul to Busan. Usually, you do not need to book in advance, except when there is a national holiday. You may want to check ahead of time, so you can plan accordingly. There is a site online in English for the KTX, with time tables and availability. It takes a little getting used to, and the booking online feature doesn't always seem to work. Again, there is always the bus system. I hear that it's reliable, but it's definitely not as comfortable as the fast train. Busses would be a more obvious, and almost only option to travel to the smaller communities and sites in Korea.
If you are interested in a trip to Jeju (a beautiful island off the coast of Korea), China, or Japan you can fly or take a ferry. There are regular ferry routes to China and Japan, at reasonable rates. Though, the prices go up based on accommodation choice.What to bring:
I suggest bringing anything you can't live with out.
For larger men and women, you should keep clothing in mind--that's including underwear and bras. If you have non-perishable food or spices you'd prefer, and plan to do some cooking, you might want to bring them along, or have someone send them to you once you're settled. Good coffee is hard to come by, if you are particular. Deodorant is a must--plan accordingly for how long you plan to stay.
I've done pretty well with what I've found in Korea, but there are still things that I miss. I've been making a mental list for months about what I'm going to pick up when I make my visit home in about a month
Feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions about anything.Tipping:
It's not expected in South Korea! Hooray! I do tip taxi drivers occasionally--especially if they drove me a long distance, or if they were especially nice. Sometimes they won't even accept it though! Language:
The Korean language is "Hongeul." However, South Korea has enthusiastically been accepting English into it's society. In fact, most foreigners you come across will be an English teacher of some sort. Most public places have signs in English, particularly subways, trains, and busses, so never fear. Most taxi drivers can communicate a little bit in English, but it's not guaranteed. It's best to know a specific place or have a map on hand if you can't say the place name very well. The average Korean cannot speak English beyond a few words. Most will be pretty patient with you, but don't be too surprised if someone doesn't want to bother with you for too long. Any attempt to speak what little Korean you know, will not go unappreciated. Just remember to be polite and thankful.Visas:
You do not need a visa to visit Korea as long as you don't stay past 90 days. If you plan on traveling outside of Korea while you're here though, make sure to check the visa status for that country at the time. China is always changing their tourist visa requirements.Lodging:
There are a variety of places to stay, with some cheap options. Busan and Seoul have a few hostels worth looking into. Hotels are readily available for various prices, but the closer you are to big tourist spots, the higher the prices are of course. [A note about hotels: Many hotels offer "Korean-style rooms," and "Western-style rooms." If you have
to sleep on a bed, make sure the hotel offers "western style" rooms. A "Korean room" is often cheaper, and you can pile people in the room; BUT you have to sleep on pads or mattresses on the floor. The rooms are generally pretty nice. I've done this a few times, and it's a cheap option--especially if you're traveling with more than two people.]
Another lodging option is something called a "love motel." Though there is an obvious implication by the name, this is a cheap option, and most are pretty low in price. You can even rent a room by the hour--thus the nickname. I have traveled around, and stayed in a few. Though they are low cost, they are generally clean and well-kept. Use your best judgment, but they are a good option. Another lodging option budget travelers quickly discover is something called a Jinjil Bong. It's basically a bathhouse, but you are able to stay, sleep, and shower there for as long as you want for only dollars. I have never done this, but many people I know swear by it--especially if you aren't particular about where you sleep...Reading the local language:
The Korean alphabet is said to be one of the most efficient in the world. It's actually really easy to memorize, and write. It would behoove you to learn it before you came to Korea. Even if you don't understand all the words, being able to read it will help you with getting around, and reading simple menu options.The Internet:
Internet is everywhere in Korea. Many coffee shops offer free wifi or internet access if you buy a coffee. PC Bongs are an excellent place to go, and they are on almost every corner--just look up. They are identifiable by "PC" in giant letters in glowing neon, and the various video game posters plastered over the windows. The cost is anywhere from $.70-$1.20/hour, and coffee or tea is sometimes offered complimentary. You can also often purchase other snacks, and choose between smoking and non. Currency:
The Korean Won is the only currency. The best place to change your money is at the airport, but a few banks will do the service as well. Bring your passport...they'll want to see it if you're changing money. For the last few years the WON has been about equal to the USD, but the economy has worsened that. Currently, the WON is about 70 cents to the dollar, but it changes every day. Spending is less in Korea, so a trip here is worth the money. Unfortunately, if you come here to make money right now, the living is easy, but it's trying to take it home that isn't quite as worth it. Banks and ATMs are everywhere, so your regular bank card with a Visa or MasterCard symbol will give easy access to money or your average purchases.Postal Services:
Two words: cheap and efficient.Books:
Finding books in English isn't easy unless you're looking for educational purposes. There is a good bookstore in Seoul called, "What the Book," that also has services online. If you plan an extended stay, this is a cheap option for keeping up on your reading.
Korea is a country full of beauty and surprises. The people are happy and generally welcoming to foreigners. They are excited to share their culture with you, and most will bend over backwards to make sure you are taken care of. I definitely recommend a visit, or an extended stay. Remember to come with an open mind, be flexible, and be willing to try something new. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact me. Also, if you have any questions about working in this country, feel free to ask away. Happy travels!!