The following is a guest post by Nathan Anderson, an expat and blogger in South Korea. Here are his 7 top reasons to visit Korea.
It doesn’t matter if you go for galbi, dakgalbi, haejang guk, kimchi jjigae, bulgogi, or just some kimbap from Family Mart. Korean food is generally delicious and definitely worth trying.
One of my favorites is galbi, or Korean barbeque. In addition to being tasty and well worth the money, the communal eating style is a refreshing change from traditional Western fare. Your food is brought to you in small dishes and on plates, and a large pot of coals topped with a grill is set in the middle of your table. You end up grilling, cutting, and otherwise preparing your meal (a great idea on the part of the cooking staff).
Once the food is ready, everybody digs in with their hands and chopsticks. Nathan’s Unofficial Galbi Guide: 1) Take a leaf of lettuce. 2) Get a piece of grilled beef and dip it in spicy red sauce and garlic/oil. 3) Add onions, garlic, and other vegetation. 4) Fold into a pouch and… 5) STUFF YOUR FACE! 6) Repeat. Seriously, it’s great fun if you’re like me and never really grew out of eating with your hands!
This is an absolute staple of young Korean culture. Literally translating to ‘song room’, it is a karaoke joint that is divided into small rooms that can be reserved by groups of friends for a night of ear-piercing hilarity. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and it lets you see the wild side of the friends you thought were so reserved. Nothing breaks the ice or deepens a bond like linking hands and bellowing out ‘Hey Jude’ immediately after the quiet member of your group defied your conception of art and beauty with his rendition of ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’. Even if you don’t like to sing, it’s still a must-do. Look for a sign that reads: “노래방”
The former capital of the mighty Silla kingdom- which lasted a millenia and ruled Korea for several centuries – is now a medium sized city that boasts a treasure trove of Korean culture and history. There are 35 royal tombs and many non-royal ones in Gyeongju, as well as museums, Buddhist temples, and museums housing thousands of artifacts.
There’s a reason Gyeongju was declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. If you want to get to know the history and cultural identity of Korea, Gyeongju is an essential stop on your list. Stop by for a weekend; walk in the national parks, visit the museums, wander through the folk village, and check out one of the many festivals that take place there annually. Ones you shouldn’t miss: the Cherry Blossom Marathon in April and the Korean Traditional Liquor and Cake in March.
Established in 1953 on the 38th Parallel between North and South Korea, the Demilitarized Zone is a poignant reminder that the two Koreas are still officially at war. Heavily militarized on either side, this strip of land draws the line between two very different countries. It is possible to get tours of the DMZ through numerous agencies (usually based out of Seoul). Usually costing between $70 and $80, they enable you to see different sites. You can visit one of four North Korean tunnels to see where they planned to invade the South (or mine coal depending who you believe) or visit Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area, where you can cross over for a few moments into North Korea.
Panmunjeom is also the site of the world’s most dangerous golf course. It’s only got one hole, and fetching your balls off the rough is generally frowned upon; on account of all the live mines chilling in the vicinity. Hey, if that’s your cup of tea, go for it. One interesting effect that the DMZ has had on the environment has been the creation of a de facto wildlife preserve along the stretch of the DMZ, home to many rare species that thrive in a largely human-free zone. According to the omniscient Wikipedia, it is one of the most well-preserved instances of temperate habitat in the world.
Many Koreans brag that their alphabet is one of the ‘most scientific alphabets’ in the world. I don’t know too many alphabets (try two) but I know it beats the pants off English! It’s very easy to learn, as there are only 40 characters (20 of which are variations or combinations of other characters, and can thus be sounded out) and each character has a specific sound attached.
There are a few basic rules that are helpful to know (such as the character ‘ng’ being silent if it’s at the start of a character sequence) but once you’ve learned those, it is immensely helpful. You’ll be able to sound out almost anything, which makes ordering food a heck of a lot easier! And we all like to eat… right? Check out http://thinkzone.wlonk.com/Language/Korean.htm for an easy to use chart. I just copied this into a notepad and took it everywhere with me.
Attend an English Club
These run in most of the cities in Korea, it seems, and are one of the best ways to meet Koreans and foreigners alike in a relaxed, conversation-friendly setting. The technical purpose of these is for Koreans to be able to practice their English with native speakers. In reality, people just go to have a good time.
Get outside of Seoul!
There is so much more to South Korea than the massive, teeming metropolis that is Seoul. There are tons of smaller cities, towns, and villages that embody the spirit of Korea and will make for a memorable experience. True, it’s nice to party in Hongdae, eat in Itaewon, and see the museums in Seoul; but your Korean experience isn’t complete without a jaunt or two into the rest of the country.
I have a special fondness for Pohang-si in Gyeongsangbuk-do. A smaller city, it’s still quite large and has a close-knit, friendly foreigner community. You can catch a Steelers’ game at Steelyard Stadium, walk through River Street downtown, check out the craziness that is Jukdo fish market, or stop by and get your very own Korean-style robe made at Oriental Secret downtown.
There’s so much more to South Korea than what I’ve written here. It really is an amazing country with great people, rich culture, and interesting history. Even with the westernization that’s taken place over the last 60 years, it’s still a very different experience than traveling in America. If you want to experience an Asian country that is fun, interesting, and safe, South Korea is a great choice!
Want to learn more about South Korea and the travel adventures that await? Check out Nathan’s blog, The Open Road Before Me.