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A Practical Guide for a Trip to Korea Posted by on Oct 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

There’s the DMZ, the Blue House (청와대), the temples, and monuments.  You could (maybe should) do that.  But when planning a trip to South Korea, no one would blame you if you wandered among the neon, snacking at street food stands.  Or if explored alleyways and followed the locals for samgyupsal (쌈겹살) or into hofs (호프) for chi-maek (beer 맥주 combined with chicken 치킨, or 치맥).  The fall and spring is arguably the best time to visit the ROK.  Although there is no reason to feel badly about being a tourist in a place where you will undeniably stand out, there is still a way to do Korea like–at times–a local.  And you will need some must-dos for seeking out the day-to-day Korea and some slang words to impress locals, which, if done successfully, will probably lead to a need for a hangover cure.

If you could be in only two rooms (or bangs방) in the entire world, let alone South Korea, it should a jjimjilbang (찜질방) and a noraebong (노래방).  The jjimjilbang is a Korea bath house with separate, fully-nude sections for men and women, along with a communal clothed section.  In the former, it features rooms and pools of vastly different temperature, as well as a person whose sole job is to scrub you with a scratchy washcloth from head to toe, washing off the oils in the layers of your skin and opening up the pores, resulting in a grayish pool of what was you.

The former is the infamous Korean singing room, where you enter one of many private singing rooms and drink while, typically in the business culture, eating plates of fruit in what is both amazing and awkward, and is usually done best when you can’t remember how you met these people.  During the songs, disco-style lights combine with high-pitched acoustics.  But what is even better are the stock videos on the screen that might show anything from a couple running from a black bear to a terribly depressed low-20s Korean woman.

In a way, there is a method for finding these gems in Korea: for where to find the bath house all you need to do in the city where you are is look at the table of slightly drunk Koreans next to you, excuse yourself (죄송합니다, joe-song-hap-ni-da), and ask “jjimilbang?”  For the noraebang, follow them afterwards.

Staying in Seoul for a majority of your trip will not only be an incomplete trip, but not a fully authentic one either.  Korea, which is the size of the U.S. state of Indiana, has separate northern and southern dialects (withing the ROK), foods, and mannerisms, and the KTX ride will allow for some contemplation on how far Korea as come, from the nation that was the first to receive international aid to one giving aid.

Take a train to the south.  You can take this train to the relatively off-the-beaten-path southwest, or go all the way to Busan (3.5 hours from Seoul with a direct connection to Incheon Airport for the way back), where you can take the same regional train to the tea fields of Boseong (보성군), which is better done if you have an extended vacation rather than a day trip during a vacation.

Busan, famous for the beaches of Haeundae (해운대 해수욕장) and Gwangan (광안 해수욕장), have some fantastic fall experiences.  The Busan fireworks (at Gwangan), which earlier this month attracted 1.3 million people, has two nights of internationally coordinated firework displays.  It should be recommended, however, to reserve a local seat at seaside bar or restaurant, which can include bottle service or an all-you-can-drink deal, rather than rough-it on the beach, where personal space becomes anarchy in its full definition.

If you need a Korean meal and had enough street food, a new feature to Busan is the food truck, which is in Busan’s Citizen’s Park, located close to downtown Seomyeon 서면, a park which was formally both a United States military base and a Japanese horse racing track.  (Check out more about Busan’s fall festivals, including the fantastic Busan International Film Festival 부산국제영화제.)

From Busan, even if it isn’t summer, one should take a flight or ferry Jeju.  Apparently, Korean women and men, though, have a differentiating opinion on whether or not it is the best domestic vacation spot.

If you made some Korean friends, even if they have broken English, they will warm up the more they drink.  Using a phrase as simple as dae-bak 대박, will go far.  But there are many more words and phrases you can insert into conversations that will make things more comfortable for both parties.  Since advanced Korea study becomes quite difficult, fake it until you make it when it comes to the Korean language.

However, once you are at this point, and before your flight home, you will need a Korean hangover cure (해장하다 haejanghada).  In Busan, and perhaps nationwide, the most common is Kongnamulguk (콩나물국), a vegetable-based soybean soup.  If you need protein, the best option is Gomtang/Galbitang (곰탕/갈비탕).

For more on what to do in Korea, see the video below.

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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.