Last month, I had the awesome opportunity to spend about a week in Korea (South!) for work. I spent all of my time in Seoul (so my exposure to Korea and Korean culture is limited to that) and it was an incredibly amazing experience. It was my first trip to Asia so almost everything I saw and experienced was new, awesome, incredible, or all three. My ten minute walk from the hotel to the office was full of new sights and sounds (and picture-taking opportunities). There is something incredibly refreshing about international travel, mostly in how the smallest most mundane things can be so different yet make so much sense in their own context. I’m always left feeling that my perspective just got a tiny bit wider and then pondering things like, “Why don’t WE have digital bidets everywhere? And why don’t we serve Coke and Pepsi in glass bottles?” Digital bidets aside, I had enough interesting issues arise (mostly boring logistical issues) on this first trip that I figured I’d share them for anyone who might be interested (and to remind myself for possible future trips to Korea).
- Pork. Koreans LOVE pork. I mean really really really love pork. So much so that I’m not sure a day (meal?) goes by without a pig contributing some part of its body to the nourishment of the Korean people. Pork is to Koreans as lamb is to Arabs (for the record, I rarely eat lamb). I do not eat pork and I wasn’t going to start in Korea. I’ve never had an issue avoiding pork in the US but it was nearly impossible to do so in Korea. I even ordered a “chicken and rice” dish at the cafeteria at work only to find that it had lots of little pieces of bacon thrown in (you know, because everything tastes better with bacon). I think I spent more time that week talking about pork and explaining why I don’t eat pork than I have in my entire life. I received so many quizzical looks over my not eating pork (if you’re curious, read this lovely little bit – although it might ruin bacon for you). For most people, this won’t make a difference so I’m mostly venting here. Bottom line – I was very happy to have brought along plenty of Cliff Bars with me since there were days when they composed the bulk of my nutrition.
- Water. Unlike pork, water wasn’t always served at the restaurants we visited. There were times when barley tea was served in place of water. We did always manage to get water when we requested it. That being said, if you really feel strongly about staying hydrated, make sure to carry your own bottle of water with you (luckily, bottled water was very easy to purchase from convenient stores like 7-11 and Family Mart).
- English . . . or lack there of. Most of my Korean colleagues spoke English but most workers in shops or restaurants did not (the staff at The Ritz-Carlton spoke excellent English). I once tried ordering a chocolate eclair at a bakery by speaking slowly and pointing. My efforts were met with a big smile and a gesturing over of an English-speaking employee who promptly asked, “Can . . . I . . . help . . . you?” In retrospect, I wish I had picked up a phrasebook – if anything, just to point to what I was trying to say.
- Rent an iPhone. Our office in San Jose loans out Korean cell phones for employees traveling to Korea. Since it was a pretty basic phone, I opted to not get one. I took my regular American iPhone and figured I could use it in a pinch. I had also been told about vendors at the airport that rent iPhones to travelers. I didn’t look into it when we arrived at the airport – mostly because I was tired and just wanted to get to the hotel. It turns out that American iPhones don’t work in Korea (due to the different cell phone networks) so my iPhone was totally useless in Korea. Since I was traveling with a group of co-workers, I was mostly OK spending a week without a smartphone (albeit not without a few withdrawal symptoms) but I really wished I had rented one of those iPhones. If anything, it would have been really useful to have access to GPS while walking around the city.
- Don’t get accosted by a random cab driver at the airport. I was lucky enough to arrive in Korea with two of my colleagues, which made the entire experience far less daunting. The airport was fairly modern, efficient, and straightforward. However, after we got our bags and were debating our transportation options, a cab driver kept barking at us, “TAXI? TAXI?” We should have known better but before we knew it, he was rolling my bag and we were following him into the garage. This encounter could have ended very badly but we were lucky in that it only cost us a bit more for a cab ride. Since we didn’t get very far in the airport, I believe there is an official taxi stand elsewhere and Korean Airlines offers a very nice and super cheap limo bus service from the airport to Seoul hotels. I took the bus from the hotel to the airport and was pretty impressed with how nice and comfortable it was.
- Taxis. Be aware that there are two types of taxis in Seoul – deluxe and regular. The deluxe tended to be nicer cars with leather seats (oh and they cost a lot more) – a bit similar to town cars in the US. Whenever the Ritz-Carlton hauled us a cab, it was always the deluxe variety. Elsewhere in Seoul, it was the regular taxi. Both taxis were fine – just be aware that if you’re in a really nice cab, you’re going to end up paying a bit more.
Aside from silly logistical issues, Korea is a beautiful country and I had a blast. I generally struggled with food (the whole pork thing + I’m picky) but Koreans make some awesome French pastries, fruit smoothies, and iced/frozen coffee drinks. I attribute that to their strong cafe culture.
In terms of shopping, I had so much fun buying cute (but super cheap) stationary and Hello Kitty goods. If you love stationary like I do, check out a chain of stores called ArtBox. They have a ton of fun notebooks and most of their goods were made in Korea (rather than China).
Since I was in Korea on business, I didn’t have a lot of time to be a tourist but we did manage to have one day off. We visited Gyeongbok Palace, the Insadong shopping district, and a very large Buddist temple. One of these days I hope to have some more free time in Korea to explore different parts of the country and all of its historical sites.