Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Surviving Seoul

Just returned from Seoul for another business trip.  Korea has to be one of the very few countries I constantly feel lost even after a few visits.  So, I decided to put a few pointers that hopefully will help travelers who don't speak Korean to get around (outside the typical tourist spots).

1. SIM card or wifi egg

I have used both.  SIM card could be tricky since you will need to call the service hotline to take your phone off their list every time you change providers.  (Do this before you leave the country or hence you forget.)  Wifi egg may not work outside of Seoul.  Decide after you finalized your itinerary.  Some places (e.g. Airbnb) offer wifi egg to travelers.  Make sure you check.  If you are really cheap, you may be able to survive on free wifi provided by the city, cafes, and restaurants.  Korea has a very good internet network.

2. Seniority

I am not kidding.  You will notice this the moment you land.  Korean has a very deep respect for their seniors, to the point foreigners can find their older men (and women) VERY RUDE.  They will cut you if you are queuing, push you if you are in their way, and they may even kick you if you are in their seat!

Most men go drink (and get drunk) after work and can cause a big scene on buses and subways.  (I have seen this too often already.)  It's very hard to imagine the "oppas" you see on TV and these men shared the same nationality.  Understand it is part of their culture but I actually find those people very repulsive.  (Unfortunately, I had to deal with them quite a bit because of work T_T)

3. Transportation  

Google map does NOT always work.  Your best friend is Naver or Kaokao map.  Actually, I download the whole suite of Kaokao apps... kaokao map, kaokao metro, kaokao bus, kaokao talk, etc.

It is quite a hassle to try to use subway to get to all places.  Forget taxi.  Most of the taxi drivers do not speak English and dealing with some of them is just exhausting.  (Have you watched any Korean drama?  Koreans are very dramatic in real life as well.)

Bus is your best friend.  The unfortunate part of Kaokao map is that you will need the Korean name or address of the place for the app to work.  Otherwise, you need to know the proximity of where you need to go and search the map and find the nearest bus station to use the app to find out the bus number you need.  So, I usually use a mix of Google and Kaokao.

3.  Cash or Credit Card

The credit card rate is not as good as cash but I always prefer plastic.  The best forex exchange shops I know of is in Myeongdong.  I think a budget of KRW100K / week / person is sufficient to cover transportation, eating street food, and occasional spending at traditional markets.  If you are a big shopper, you may need more.  Many boutiques offer a better rate if you pay in cash.  Credit cards, including AMEX, are widely accepted.  Most duty free shop provides extra discounts to certain credit card holders. I always bring my Union Pay with me when visiting Korea because the department stores sometimes offer special rates to Union Pay holders.

4. Duty Free

Korea has one of the best tax refund system among all the countries I have visited.  It's fast and convenient.  Even so, I still prefer to do most of my shopping at Duty Free shops.  Here are a list of benefits:

- True tax free.  Tax refund is only a partial refund.  E.g. you are eligible for tax refund if you spend more than KRW30K at any eligible shop.  However, even though the VAT is 10%, you will only get KRW1.5K back for a KRW30K spending.  So, you save more money shopping at duty free.  Bonus: All transactions are in USD so you don't even have to worry about exchange rate if you are from the US.

- As mentioned above, you may be eligible for additional savings from your credit cards.

- You can pick up your shopping at the airport, after you passed customs.  If you are flying certain airlines that are not very stingy with baggage limits, it means EXTRA stuff you can take home.  I know I am a victim of this.  Every time I go to Korea, I leave as if I live in a third world country.

5. Dinner for one

This is the single hardest thing visiting Korea as a solo traveler.  The Korean portion rivals America and it's uncommon for anyone to eat alone at restaurants.  (Locals here would rather eat ramen at convenient shop / at home than to be seen eating alone in restaurants.)  The dining situation has improved over the years as more and more restaurants started catering to single diners.  Yet, it's hard to eat proper Korea BBQ if you are alone.  Even if you are willing to pay, the restaurant may refuse service.  Or, chances are, you will be seated next to loud and drunk men, and that, could be unpleasant.
I normally go to Majang to get my hanwoo and eat at home.
6. Supermarkets

Because of the aforementioned reason, I ended eating in my apartment a lot.  (A reason I don't stay at hotels when I go to Korea.)  However, the super/hypermarkets are very spread out.  This is quite similar to the American's shopping style. Locals probably go to a hyper mart once a week/month or use delivery service.  (Oh my god, online shopping is so convenient in Korea I am jealous!)  Just be aware that on alternate Sundays, all super / hyper markets (i.e. Lotte mart, emart, Homeplus) are closed.  Make sure you check the website before you go.  (I just go on weekdays evenings or Saturdays.)

I will do a separate post on where I shop when I am in Korea.  It includes both traditional markets and hyper marts :)  I will also do separate posts on restaurants I love, regardless if I have to eat alone or not.  However, I can't promise on timing because I have been ridiculously busy with work these days.  For a food app, try Mangoplate.  It's equivalent to Open Rice in HK, Tabelog in Japan, and Yelp in the US.

7.  Day tours

Perhaps this is more for Chinese speakers but I love joining day tours in Korea.  Starway Travel has well organized tours at a very attractive price.  I have been to 2 of their tours now and I can't be more pleased.  They take good care of you and everything is included in the price.  And before you even ask, no I am not paid or affiliated with this travel agency.  I paid for my tours both times.

8. Seoul is more than just Myeongdong and Dongdaemun.

Get out and explore.  I love Sinsa more than Myeongdong.  Here's an in-comprehensive list of the districts I have explored and my one line description about it.

Myeongdong/Euljiro X-ga - Mongkok of Seoul.  Congested with tourists and filled with mediocre food.  Unavoidable because most duty free shops are here.

Hongdae/Ewha/Konkuk - College town.  Where uni-kids hang out, drink, and party.  Great place for cheap food and shopping.

Hapjeong/Mangwon/Seongsu - old neighborhood undergoing urban revival.  Lots of quality coffee shops.

Anthracite @ Hapjeong

Onion @ Seongsu

Dongdaemun - Sham Shui Po of Seoul.  Great for wholesale Korean fashion.  I go there for chicken and DDP.

Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dakhanmari(陳玉華一隻雞)
The LED roses in front of DDP.
Not sure if they are still there.
Seoul Station - Lotte mart.

This Lotte Mart at Seoul Station in particular is filled with tourists.
Seoulro 7017 is now opened!
Gyeongbokgung/Anguk - where the palaces are.  If you are a tourist, you will go here at least once.  Don't miss Tosokchun.  I love their radish kimchi.

Cheongdam - mid-levels of Seoul.  Lots of really expensive shops and restaurants.  Highest chance for you to see a k-pop star.  (My office is nearby but I have yet to recognize one.)

Jungsik, a one-michelin star restaurant in Seoul.

Samseong - dead after 6PM

Sinsa/Nonhyeon/Sinnonhyeon - Causeway Bay of Seoul.  Great shopping and restaurants.  Not as crowded compared to Myeongdong/Hongdae.  Mostly locals.

Hangangjin/Itaewon/Noksapyeong - my recent favorite. Lots of cute shops/restaurants, very westernized.

Yeouido/Seoul Forest - picnics and people exercising.

Well, that's it for now.  I will write more when I have time.  /Peace  :)

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