Top 10 Things to do in Korea

OK ladies and gents – I don’t know about you, but whenever I go somewhere new, I constantly look for Top 10’s. Top places, to see, go out and have a unique experience. After living in South Korea for a year, I can safely recommend the following fun-filled experiences:

10. Eat Sushi – I don’t mean the roll kind I mean the kind that’s still squiggling. If there is anything Korea is known for it is its assortment of crazy food. Have you seen those restaurants with lots of things swimming around in them? Well go to them and order one of the octopuses. Koreans love to know their assortment of seafood is fresh – and it will be. Your lovely sushi will literally still be moving around on your plate. Yum…(said no American ever, but you really have to do it)

9. See the changing of the guard at the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul. Entrance is free and the show is nearly every morning. Absolutely worth seeing.

More information:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_2_1.jsp?cid=292853

Preview courtesy of youTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdDzWa3aNNE

**A NOTE ON PALACES & TEMPLES in KOREA: Once you have seen one, you have seen them all. Take my word for this and save your time from going to every temple and palace in Korea. They all were destroyed like 5 times between the Japanese, their Dynasty wars and the Korean War. So while the temple may be ‘from 550’ it really is the place of the former old temple and only about 20 years old.

8. Take a tour in Gyeongju. Gyeongju was the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, one of the 3 major ruling dynasties in Korean history. The Silla dynasty ruled 2/3of the Pen from the 7th-9th century and left some of the few relics left in the country today.

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=255885

7. Party until the sun comes up – because in Korea the bars don’t close until you do. Well of course this is a given, but where to start? As a foreigner I’d recommend the following itineraries:

Seoul – Start off in Itaewon. Tell the cabbie to drop you off at the Hamilton Hotel and just look around. There are a slew of bars filled with expats and particularly military from the post down the road. Anywhere is really great however, my favorite was always just walking behind the Hamilton for the collection of little bars and pubs.

From Itaewon (which would begin around 9 or 10) you can head to either Hongdae or Gangnam. Both offer you two different crowds. Hongdae is located right next to Hongik University in Map-go. This area will give you mostly college students and probably more westerns. Gangnam is the posh area of Seoul. If you are looking to mix up your evening, I would recommend progressing to one of the many electronic clubs there. Out of your choice in Martini bars and house venues, Club Eden was one of my favorites to dance the night away.

http://www.seoulgrid.com/blog/club-eden-seoul/

 

FYI: To any of my hip-hop lovers, your best bet for this type of music will be in Hongdae. Most of the club scene is fairly European and contains mostly lasers and loud beating music. Regardless, I’d encourage you to give it a try. There is something mesmerizing about swaying with the beat filled with  tanqueray.

BUSAN: This is the best place to go in the summer. Skip Seoul, go to Busan if it is warm outside — and be prepared to be stared at if you put on a skimpy suit. Koreans don’t believe in sun exposure of any kind.

Where to stay — don’t book any kind of a room. Get a cab to drop you off at the Busan Aquarium. Cross the street and walk behind the BMW dealership. Look left down the alleyway. There you will find a smattering of Love motels. Basically Korean hotels that don’t require anything but to pay in cash. Do it – you won’t regret the experience.

Start your night with Wolfhounds or the Rock n’ Roll bar, both within walking distance of eachother and in the same square as the love motels. Both cater to expat clientele but you may make some local friends there as well. After you have had your fill of beer, head to club Maktum. There is a cover, but it will get a drink and an evening full of fist-pumping dancing.

http://www.facebook.com/clubmaktum

Don’t think this is the end of your night. An evening out in Busan is not complete without a late night swim and watching the sunrise on a new day (or the end of a really awesome one).

6. See a traditional Korean dance show. There are a ton of free shows held throughout random festivals in Korea, however, if you want to see quality, go to the Korea house. They offer dinner and a show in a small intimate room all within the bustling city of Seoul.

Korean tourism website:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=268146

Korea house website:

http://www.kangkoku.or.kr/eng/index.html

5. Seasonal – if you are lucky enough to hit four seasons in Korea (or are just in the country for one), these two are a must. Summer – go to the Boryeong Mud Festival. Winter – Go Skiing.

2nd-3rd week of July: Boryeong Mud Festival marked my first weekend in Korea. Little did I know this event was most of my friend’s top event to go to in Korea. Just think water park, except the water is replaced with Mud and nearly every westerner is drunk.

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_2_1.jsp?cid=697135

Dec-Mar – Skiing in Korea is fairly good. The best slopes are in the north, about a 5 hour drive from any major city. Yongpyong  resort will host Alpine skiing in the 2018 Olympics. Most of the resorts get booked completely fairly early so don’t wait if you want to stay on the resort. However, a cheaper option is to just stay at a local spa for 10,000 won ($10) or Love motel just outside the resort, which is what we did when skiing in Yongpyong. The below website has a listing of the resorts and their locations:

http://www.lifeinkorea.com/travel2/skiing/

4. Hike. Really you could go almost anywhere – Korea has an array of well-preserved hiking trails Korea’s extensive tourism website has loads of trails. The most famous is Seoraksan national park up in the northern part of the country. Worth a trip during the fall when the leaves are changing all kinds of lovely colors.

http://www.hikekorea.com/

3. Do a TEMPLE STAY. Absolutely worth it. Honestly, there is no better way to experience one of the most influential things in Korean culture. My previous post on temple stays should be a good intro, but simply look up temple stays on the Korean tourisms website  and you’ll find a listing of options all over the country.

2. Norabong it – aka make it a Karaoke night. First, make sure to bring a big group of friends (if you have Korean friends, even better) and be ready to belt your heart out. Whats better, is if your singing skills are as good as mine (terrible) you will be in your own separate room, so your friends will be the only ones to laugh at (or with) you.

1. Go to a Jimjilbang (aka Korean Spa). Everyone is naked. The pools are ridiculously hot and you can sleep in the facility for only 10,000 won (about $10). There are a ton scattered around the country, but my favorite by far was located in Busan in one of the largest department stores in the world, Shinsegae’s Spaland:

http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/ShowUserReviews-g297884-d1625598-r122860635-Shinsegae_Centum_City_Spaland-Busan.html

 

Be Like a Monk

Korea’s religious history is rooted in Tongbulgyo Buddhism, an interpretative form of religion unique to the peninsula. Of the roughly 50% of Koreans that claim to be religious, half of them follow this form of Buddhism.

One of the most unique ways to experience this side of Korean culture is to do what is called a ‘Temple Stay’ where foreigners (or Koreans) can spend the night at a temple and learn the daily life and believes of the popular religion. Lonely Planet refer’s to this retreat as ‘Buddhist boot camp’ and I can say, they are not far off on their interpretation.

Showing up in heels (under the assumption that I would receive a change of clothes), I did not come prepared for the journey I would encounter in 12 hours. This started out literally – up the mountainside.

Luckily my interpreter, who is probably the friendliest person I have ever met, lent me a pair of hiking shoes and we proceeded to hike to Geumsansa temple, a peaceful place set on the side of a mountain rich in greenery. After an hour, I changed into the temple stay uniforms, an ugly baggy, but comfortable, blue set of sweats and ate a very healthy vegetarian fare for dinner.

The program followed at this temple was fairly simple: gong ringing, evening prayer, tea with the Monks, 3am prayer, 108 bows (which they absolutely did not warn me about!), meditation, hike (they seem to be big on this), and prayer beads. Image

Everything that the Monks do have meaning and are in service, not just for mankind, but for all living things. 4 different gongs are rung 36 times in the morning and in the evening. 36 times for all the sufferings of the world, 4 gongs for land creatures (represented by a turtle gone laid with cow hide), creatures of the sea (represented by a wooden fish), creatures of the air (represented by a metal cloud) and mankind (represented by a large bell, pictured above).

Prayer is a set of chanting songs followed by full bowing. Morning, evening and afternoon prayer is called “Yebul” and lasts for about 30 min.

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Getting up at 3am to pray is not so bad, but the 108 bows! – those sucked. By the end I was drenched in sweat and feeling kind of inadequate as two children who had also accompanied their father for the 3am bow session, seemed fine and had managed to not mess up their mats with sweat drips.

Monks do 108 bows as a prayer for the sufferings of the world. 36 sufferings x 3 lifetimes (past, present & future) = 108. These bows are full body. You start with a half bow keeping your hands in a prayer position (this represents you being one with the universe), going to down to your knees, placing your forehead to the floor and hopping up again.

Following this session, we meditated. This was another first for me and I was unsure if I would be able to stand being still for longer than 5 seconds.

Image

I learned that I could actually meditate and while it was difficult to stop thinking at first, attempting before dusk in the middle of the mountainside is probably the best place for beginners. I also learned that the above form of meditation is saved for those that have achieved enlightenment or are very close to it. The proper way for a newbie is to place your hands over one another in a cupped position at the base of your belly.

After cleaning off, eating more vegetables and rice for breakfast, we started for prayer bead making.

I was in for another surprise with this activity. Instead of just sitting there and peacefully stringing beads onto a strand, we were to bow every time we put a bead on the strand. Guess how many beads there were? 108. For 108 sufferings.

While I was dreading doing this again, the Monk reminded me of something, with each bead you are supposed to pray for someone or something. 108 bows are a small price to pay to try and help the sufferings of the world. It takes an hour to complete, but the people you pray for live their lifetime in agony. Is it really that much of a price to pay?

Needless to say I completed the prayer beads and the experience with a newfound understanding and respect for the Buddhist religion. They are understanding, care for all things regardless of who they are, they could care less what religion you choose to follow so long as you try to help others (which I particularly appreciate) and truly dedicate their lives to the good of all.

Can all religious traditions with the same history say the same?

If interested, the Korean tourism website has loads of information on programs throughout the country:

http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/ena/SI/SI_EN_3_4_5.jsp

Program I went through:

http://www.geumsansa.com/xe/

Embrace the nakedness

If there is anything about Korea I am going to miss, it will be the $5-10 spa’s with head to toe soaks, oils and massages. Some contain over 15 different types of sauna’s offering every type of hot remedy from laser lights to steam rooms and relaxation halls.

These “jimjilbangs”, as Koreans say, are a must if going to Korea; however, the shy should be weary. These places are entirely naked and include a range of ages. While you are separated by sex, seeing so many naked bodies may take a little getting used to, even for the boldest of people.

Aside from the massages (which do come at an extra price but are entirely worth it), the spa’s also offer a full body exfoliation for about 15 bucks, $25 if you want to add oils to it.

Feeling especially adventurous, my friend, Ran, and I decided to try it out. Although the spa is naked we didn’t really think about the repercussions of a potentially naked full body exfoliation. However, that is exactly what we signed up for: two old naked ladies (aka adjuma’s…the word for grandma in Korean) scrubbing as hard as they could – literally – all over our bare bodies.

The best part of this weird experience was the communication barrier. Koreans are not particularly smooth with their movements as it is and it is even worse when there is no word warning for their actions.  So I found myself being slapped to turn over, water splashed on my face, and finding my masseuse on top of me stretching and contorting my body in all kinds of unnatural positions. At one point my friend and I were both on our sides facing each other (because of course there are no separate rooms for these things) and just started laughing because the entire situation was just ridiculous. I was being scrubbed by an elderly naked woman in the middle of a steaming naked spa with my feet dangling off the table as it was clearly made for a much shorter Asian.

But was it worth it?

Yes, turns out that a Korean jimjilbang exfoliation experience is completely worth it. Your skin will be baby smooth for several weeks  – all you have to endure is a naked show down between you and an adjuma.  If not for the smooth skin, than simply for the absolutely ridiculous experience of naked exfoliation!

Songtan Sally

There is a legendary figure in the town of Songtan, her name is Sally.

She is famous not for her conversation, singing ability or charm, but because she propositions every male that crosses her path (and mind you, she is not particularly attractive).

Yes, ladies and gentleman, she is a prostitute. One of many, I am sure, in Korea.

This brings up an interesting point/ thought. There are examples of prostitution literally everywhere in Korea (of course not advertised). Yet, there are huge campaigns that advertise to ‘stop human trafficking’ on billboards and radio spotlights. The interesting thing is, I wonder if people connect the two; real life and our conventional thoughts of human trafficking are often at conflict with each other. We think abuse/ human trafficking will be obvious to spot, because, obviously no one can possibly believe in supporting such a practice. But the reality is, it’s everywhere. Sally just being one example.

A thought – keep your eyes open. Often times, situations are all about perception.

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Teaching ROK ROTC

As an attempt to do something besides work, drink and constantly be around American military, I have picked up teaching military English to a group of ROK Army ROTC students.

The class has 35 boys of whom, act exactly as you would imagine a group of Junior level University students full of future male army leaders. They are goofy, don’t understand what I am saying half the time and try their best to get the whole class to crack a smile (including myself) during any activity.

Through the few short weeks that I have taught the class, I have learned more things about the Korean culture than I did struggling to get some sort of international experience cramped into my studio-dorm on base.

For one, they refuse to let me drive to the class myself instead making me take the taxi provided for by the University. Second, they always give me an escort to and from class and third, they practically force food down my throat at the end of every teaching session.

This was a pretty funny experience the first day of class.

My escort (who’s English name is John) asked if I was hungry. Although it was almost 8pm, was starved having not had time to eat prior to class, I promptly said ‘no, I am OK’, the polite American response. Well, John, not to be discouraged by my response asked, ‘Do you like Hamburger’?  ‘ Well, yes its OK’ said I. ‘OK we go to McDonalds’.

Let me preface this with the fact that I do not step foot in McDonalds in the states and absolutely refuse to do so when traveling.

We then got into a polite dance of ‘No I am really OK’ to ‘OK fine if you have to feed me, take me to your favorite Korean restaurant’. Which they did. Much to my surprise though, after sitting on the floor and taking off my shoes, them offering me a fork (another thing I refuse to do) and then ordering Bulgogi (the one Korean food that every American loves) – I noticed none of them were eating!

Then I felt especially rude. I had made them go to a Korean restaurant only to find out that it was polite in Korean culture to feed me because the class made me miss dinner (time is 5-730pm); they were trying to give me fast food and I was trying to get a cultural experience. To top it all, I was also not allowed to pay.

I still smile when thinking about it; everyone is doing their polite dance in an attempt to not be rude, but instead we are misunderstanding the etiquette of the other.

Hanji, Hanoks and the town of Jeonju

Neighboring the town of Gunsan, is Jeonju. A glittering city – honestly looking very similar to Gunsan and every other middle sized Korean city, save for one quality: its hanok village.

Hanok’s are traditional korean style homes. While many cities have communities of them, Jeonju’s village was home to the Yi royal family under the Joseon Dynasty. Distroyed like much of Korea, this village has been rebuilt into a pleasant community of crafts, medicine markets and a tribute to the traditional Korean art of Hanji.

Hanji is all things paper. There are Hanji cards, hanji ties, hanji plates and a hanji museum. It is a wonderful art and quite amazing what can be done with simple paper.

A getaway only 30 minutes away, Jeonju is often a hidden secret to Gunsan residents who mostly relay on Seoul and Osan to entertain them on weekend getaways.

love motels

The hidden gem of Korea.

Believe me, at first I was sketched out at the idea – these places do not let you book ahead, only the night of and offer rates by the hour. They are glittered all over major cities and usually have bright lights associated with them. At first I refused to even look at them, wondering why more people here do not just stay in hostels for easy, cheap accommodation.

Then I went to Busan.

A coastal city mostly known for its beaches, somehow every hotel that popped up on google searches was booked. Then I cam accross this lovely web site:

http://briandeutsch.blogspot.com/2010/07/haeundae-motels.html

Which convinced me with its reasonable pictures and descriptions to try it out – and I am never going back to a regular hotel again.

Staying in the VIP suite atop the Wu Motel overlooking the beach, we could have easily held a 20 person party comfortably in our suite which slept 5. For $120 we drank champagne, DJ’d on two room computers and celebrated being young and in South Korea.