Seoul – Know before you go!

Posted on April 16, 2011

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I don’t know why I didn’t think to write this post before- but after some readers asked me for my opinions and tips for their impending trips to Seoul (lucky you!), I thought it’d be the perfect time to write a post dedicated solely to that.

Now, before we start, I should point out that this is going to be an epic post- so maybe go grab a cuppa tea- because I want to pass on to you useful info I learnt during my week-long stay there; similarly, as I’ve only had the fortune to go to Seoul once thus far, I can’t call myself an expert but I hope to at least help you cover the basics! Also, I’ll have to break this post up into 2 posts because of how info packed it’ll be, so please keep an eye out for part 2!

Useful websites

If you’re still planning your trip to Seoul (the flights, hotels and itinerary) then I recommend you bookmark these useful websites to help you with that (click on the website names to go straight to their homepages):

Tripadvisor: I always use this website whenever I plan a trip away; you can compare flight and hotel prices, which is great for the booking process. Also, the best thing is that you can read reviews for hotels and sightseeing sights (amongst other things), written by real customers/visitors on there. I know that everyone has their own standards when booking the accommodation for their holidays (like their own budget, comfort, location preferences) but you seriously can’t go wrong with Tripadvisor’s ratings for hotels, as they are based on real customers ratings!

Visit Korea – If there’s one website that you should check out, for your trip to Seoul or anywhere in Korea, then it must be “Visit Korea;” here you’ll find all the usual tourist friendly info for planning your trip, about different destinations, as well as info on aspects of Korean culture such as Korean food and places to go shopping. It’s also a handy website to have bookmarked because of the occasional Korean related competitions they have and  coupons which you can use during your time in Seoul.

I tour Seoul – a website catered for tourists planning to visit Seoul; here you’ll find more uniquely Seoul specific info, such as information about their transport systems, suggested itineraries, facts about the different neighbourhoods in Seoul and other useful ‘inside’ info about the city.

Seoul mtrOne of the most tourist friendly methods of travelling around Seoul has to be their MTR/Subway system; the lines, stops and nearly every other tidbit of infomation you’ll need to know is labelled in both Hangul and English. This website helps you preplan any journeys you might consider taking, you simply have to enter your starting station and final station destination, then they’ll draw up a map of the lines you’ll have to take and the cost of your journey! You’ll also be able to find other info, such as first and last train times.

Agoda – A website you can use to book that hotel! I didn’t actually know about Agoda until after I had booked my hotel in Seoul, however, I used them to book my hotel for a later stay in Singapore; as a more Asian specific website, I find that you’re able to find a wider variety of hotels through them compared to the other popular Western counterparts which might be less competitive in price as well. The added bonus of using Agoda is that everytime you book a hotel stay through them, you can accrue points which can in turn be used as discounts for any future bookings! I’m not saying you have to book your Seoul hotel through them, but they are worth checking out!

Seoul hotel locations

When it comes to hotels in Seoul,  I’d recommend that first time visitors stay around the landmark tourist areas like Dongdaemun, Myeongdong or Jongno 3, where I stayed at the Doulos hotel (which you can read about HERE); I found the Jongno 3 area particularly appealing because there are 3 subway lines that pass through there and some of the main sightseeing places (like Changdeokgung palace, Jongmyo shrine and Insadong) are all within walking distance. If you want a place where you can live up the nightlife then you could consider the University areas such as Hongdae and Honggik, which I hear, come alive at night.

Some of you might be tempted to stay in the richer Gangnam suburbs of Seoul, but if you’re a tourist who is keen to do a lot of sightseeing rather than upmarket shopping, then I’d say that this location is just a bit too far from those touristy hotspots (it can take up to 40 mins on the tube just to  get from Gangnam to the tourist spots!), so staying amongst the hustle and bustle will save you a lot of commuting time- which can get PACKED during rush hour.

Guidebooks

Currently, Seoul seems to be quite an ‘undiscovered’ land with guidebook makers; I usually go with AA guidebooks whenever I go on holiday, because they provide awesome and on point info about the country- unfortunately they’ve not yet tapped into the Hallyu Market and haven’t created a guidebook for Seoul! I had to visit various bookstores to compare the (limited) guidebooks and found that Lonely Planet’s 2009 guidebook was the better of them- although, I didn’t like their format of pinpointing ‘the best’ things to see in Seoul, I still felt reassured having their  map and info in my back pocket.

One for the ladies

Women generally have it a bit tougher when it comes to travelling since we have to worry about our own safety and sexual harassment. The only uncomfortable things I encountered in Seoul were being stared at by men and club promoters trying to convince me to visit their clubs- at the most the promoters might grab your wrist to get your attention, but most will definitely back off when you throw a load of English at them LOL or ignore them.

Of course, women should always be extra vigilant when travelling, but I’ve got to say that Seoul felt safer then my London home turf. But to ensure you don’t get the wrong kind of attention, I suppose one big thing is to not wear anything too cleavage bearing- Seoulite women can pretty much wear high heels and short skirts without people batting an eyelid because it’s so normal there but, major cleavage showing will probably make that drunk old ahjusshi want to come up to you and cop a feel, you have been warned!

On another note, us ladies will have to look out for something very Asian- squat toilets! They have them in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore (Asian countries I’ve visited) and Seoul (despite the rush of modern life) is no different; to save you the shock of coming face to face with a squat toilet, most should have a picture on the front door explaining that there’s one lurking behind there. I’m no stranger to using such loos and I suppose they’re still used today for two reasons- maybe they’re more hygienic compared to sharing a toilet seat with thousands of users before you and (as my mum thinks) maybe it’s for the elder generation who feel more comfortable using such a toilet? Oh and a few other pointers on this, inside the toilets will be intercoms linking you to the station manager if you have any emergencies, make sure you don’t press that button by accident (like my sister did once) or you’ll have a stranger asking back at you, “Hello, are you okay?” Also, one final pointer on this is the flush for such a loo will probably be built into the floor next to the loo so you need to step on it to flush- don’t touch the button with your hands!

Etiquette

One of my biggest headaches when researching Korean culture, was the possibility of having to tackle different etiquettes and (more to the point) behaviours that might seem ‘rude’ to an everyday Seoulite. Living in London, we have our usual, everyday standards of politeness, but whenever you travel to a foreign country, it’s always nice to know a few of their ‘rules’ so you don’t fall foul to someone’s wrath!

Things to watch out for in Korea include:

Seats on the subway– there are designated areas for the elderly to sit, that us young’uns can’t sit on, otherwise you’ll face the wrath of an ahjumma (THIS clip always comes to mind). Also, for politeness sake, if you’re worried about being shouted at for appearing rude, then it’s probably better to err on the side of caution and just offer up your seat to an elderly person on a jam-packed train… Though this act always seems to be recommended in guidebooks/online, I rarely saw Seoulites acting in this way, so am not 100% sure if it’s an expected, cultural thing! Also, the rules might differ if you yourself are an ahjumma, ahjusshi or pregnant lol.

Table etiquette– don’t blow your noise when you’re eating at the dinner table, don’t pick up your rice bowl when you eat (like us Chinese/Vietnamese might do), eat your soups first before the other dishes, eat food ‘cleanly’ off spoons so that no morsel remains stuck on the spoon and also, serve drinks to elders first before yourself.

Now I should point out that these etiquettes shouldn’t make you feel pressurised to conform to because, y’know what? We’re ‘foreigners’ to Seoul and as a tourist you just can’t be expected to know about these things! So it’s nice to know these etiquettes but if you can’t stick to them all the time then don’t stress!

However, there is one etiquette thing that is universal and which you should always do wherever you go-  you should always at least learn how to say “Hello, Goodbye” and “Thank you,” in their language! It shows that you’ve  tried and it will earn you a bit of respect in the process. Please find below a few Korean phrases/words that are useful to memorize and learn, also note that Koreans speak using either formal/informal speech depending on whom they’re speaking to (which you can research on the Internet if you want to be more detailed about things), but that I’ll just give you the formal phrases just to keep things simpler (pronunciation in brackets).

Hello: 안녕하세요 (“Ahn nyeong ha say-o”)
Goodbye (if you’re leaving): 안녕히 계세요 (“Ahn nyeong he kay say-o”)
Goodbye (to somebody leaving and you’re staying): 안 녕 히 가 세요 (“Ahn nyeong he ka say-o”)
Thank you: 감 사 합 니 다 (“Kam sah hab nee da”)
Yes: 네 (“nyeh”
No: 안 니 오 (“Ahn nee o”)
It’s okay (for example if you don’t want to buy something): 괜찮아요 (“Gwen chan n-eye yo”)
I should point out that this is how I spell and pronounce the English version of these words and that they aren’t the romanized version of the words- which is the format that they’d officially be spelt with-, I’ve spelt the pronunciations how I would read them, because I feel that sometimes these romanized versions are spelt a bit different to how us English speakers might read/pronounce them.

Language barriers

I can say with 100% assurance that most of your time in Seoul, will be stunted by a language barrier if you don’t speak Korean and also because, most Koreans seem very hesitant to interact with us English speakers even if they know a few phrases themselves. Most of the time, this is because they are shy/ awkward and on the rarity, it might be because they don’t ‘get’ foreigners- like one man whom I met who was VERY stand offish as I spoke English to a very polite Korean lady. Although, I hear that those of a studenty age actually embrace the chance to be able to show off their English language skills because they’re in the process of learning the lingo themselves, so it can vary.
As a result of this language barrier, please don’t be surprised if you find it hard to order your meals correctly (even if you point to obvious pictures right beneath the cashiers nose, like I did during my Subway sandwich experience which you can read about HERE), or, if you find yourself a bit helpless in your surroundings. Ultimately, you could always eat at a fast food place (my first meal in Seoul was Burger King LOL) to stave off the hunger, and just sit back and enjoy the whole Seoul experience- don’t get caught up in linguistic details/frustrations because you’ll end up missing the charm and buzz of Seoul!

After all that worrying and planning, you’ll find the time whizzing by and you’ll soon find yourself in Seoul; that’s when you should read part 2 of my post, which I’ll write-up soon- it’s all going to be about your arrival in Seoul and what to expect and look out for!

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Posted in: Seoul