A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I’ve been back in Australia for nearly two months after returning from my trip to Korea, and unwisely thought life would go back to normal. No way! Every day I’m still reliving Korea, constantly talking about it (god, I miss $1 beer so much) and getting teary and nostalgic when I watch travel videos. My sisters and my mother and I keep in contact with texts and photos, which is simultaneously sweet and amusing due to translation failures. But that’s a post for another day…
I’ve been meaning to write this for a while because some of my friends are visiting Korea soon themselves and wanted to know my expert opinion on cool places to go. I took my time because 1) adjusting back to real life in Australia is hard 2) I needed to obsessively get the Google Maps locations correct. I’ve tried to provide as many links and maps as I can so you don’t get lost (like I did).
In between the insanity that was meeting my birth family, I managed to squeeze in some solid sightseeing while in Korea. So here’s a guide to some of the cool places I visited, and a crash course in navigating Korea.
Hongdae is the trendy university student district of Seoul. It’s loaded with shops, eateries, bars and clubs.
The subway stop for Hongdae is Hongik University, which is on the green airport line. Exit 9 is the one that leads to most of the shops and nightclubs. This is where we went to the Trick Eye Museum, BEER WHOLESALE!, Oktoberfest and the Luxury Noraebang. Oooooh.
Noraebang is a Korean karaoke room. Unlike Aussie karaoke where you serenade an entire pub with your very special rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart, a noraebang is a private karaoke room that you hire with your friends and where you can bring your own booze. They are everywhere, but Luxury Noraebang by far the most, er, luxurious. It also sold ice cream, which was a real treat after shrieking every pop song in existence at 2am.
There are also several cat and dog cafés in the area, where you can pop in for a drink and play with animals.
Wandering up the hill away from the main shopping area is what I call rougher side of Hongdae. Look out for the playground covered in graffiti.
Around this area are hip hop clubs, a roller skating bar (sadly wasn’t open when I found it), live music venues and “Western” restaurants.
63 BUILDING AND THE HAN RIVER
This place boasts restaurants, an IMAX theatre, an observation deck overlooking Seoul and Sea World – an aquarium of sorts with adorable animals. There’s sea lion shows, weird fish, otters, hedgehogs and real life penguins!
Near the 63 Building are the banks of the Han River where you can go on a river cruise and check out the creepy sights of Seoul that I talked about in this post. You can also camp and hire out cute bikes.
GYEONGBOKGUNG PALACE AND FOLK MUSEUM
Don’t miss out on watching the changing of the guards with amazing beards every hour. It’s quite impressive. If you walk around the side you can sometimes see them weapons training with staffs and shields.
The Folk Museum tells the history of Korea from the very beginning to modern times with art, ancient artifacts and dioramas. Korean history is fascinating – ancient dynasties, invasion, Japanese colonialism, war to economic revolution. There’s also a great little interactive exhibit on the Korean language, if you need to go and brush up on your Hangeul.
Insa-dong is a tourist shopping district for all your cheesy tourist needs, not far away from the palace. Amongst the cheesiness are some beautiful traditional art and pottery stores selling gorgeous handmade prints and tea sets.
Itaewon is where the big US army base is and is commonly known as the “foreigner district”. You definitely shouldn’t have a problem with English here. It apparently used to be a notorious red light district, but it seemed okay when I was there. There’s loads of themed bars and clubs to find as you climb around the buildings, plus little cozy eateries with pub food.
Shopping mall on the outside. Insane market stalls inside. Loads of kooky Seoul fashion and great bargains. Beware of the lady who nearly convinced me to try on a dress in the middle of the store. There are private change rooms nearby.
There’s a particular shopping district called the Namdaemun Markets which I talked about here but the whole area is great for your el cheapo shopping and strange Korean needs. Come here for clothes, shoes, crappy souvenirs, beauty products, army gear, cooking utensils and stinky Korean food that is really good for you, like jars of ginseng bigger than your head. There are street stalls surrounding the area with ajummas and ajeoshis cutting up fresh vegies and selling very cheap clothes. This is also where we had loads of amazing dumplings.
Photography nerds – round the corner from the markets is a row of about 5 camera stores in a row. Take your pick.
DRAGON HILL SPA
I do hope MANAGER LEE is on staff when you go to this place. He is an extravagant tour guide in a pinstripe suit who gave Carly and I an Australian discount! 10,000 won gets you a day pass to the Dragon Hill Spa where you can lounge around – even take a nap – in the saunas, ice rooms (which I want to bring to Australia), swim in the pool, use the gym, play video arcade games (!) and use the traditional baths. You can also get massages, facials, body scrubs and all that beauty nonsense, though it costs extra.
I should probably warn you about something. You will definitely see people (of your own gender) in the nude here. The common locker room is right near the baths and communal showers. Even if you don’t go to the bath or use the shower, Koreans are generally walking around in the locker room going about their business sans clothing. But hey, if you get over the public nudity thing, the herbal baths are quite nice.
A theatre show that combines martial arts, cooking, dancing, circus tricks, singing and slapstick comedy. Say hi to the muscly moustached guy for me. Phwoar.
The biggest shopping centre in the world boasts a mammoth food court, restaurants, a cinema, an ice skating rink, art galleries and the awesome dinosaur park on the roof where you can look out and see Busan.
HAE DONG YONG GUNG TEMPLE
A breathtakingly beautiful temple and statues built into cliffs along the ocean. Pray at the temple, rub Buddha’s belly for a baby boy, pray that you do not get run over by a taxi driver at the traffic safety shrine, throw coins at a fortune shrine.
FISHY FUN IN BUSAN: HAEUNDAE BEACH + FISH MARKETS
Hire out an umbrella and check out the view of Busan’s famous beach. You can also visit the aquarium, chill out in the parklands and check out the fish markets nearby.
Speaking of fish markets… I tried to look up the one I went to with the scary squid and ended up finding loads of them around Busan. There are definitely two near the beach but there are HEAPS more, so take your pick.
Get high and check out the view. Near the tower is the APEC building, where you can check out where the world’s leaders sat to talk about worldly matters in 2005. Make sure to have a mighty lol at the photo of George Bush and John Howard wearing hanboks.
Being a pedestrian is a bit scary in Korea compared to Australia. Firstly, stay to the right. And WATCH OUT FOR SCOOTERS. They ride on footpaths, laneways and pedestrian crossings. People may tell you that red lights are optional in Korea. They are not joking. There’s loads of people in Seoul and it’s not considered rude to push through a crowd, so don’t get too offended if an ajumma shoves you out of the way. Ajummas are a bit scary too. Beware of their stink eye and enormous pointy visors.
BUSES, TRAINS AND TAXIs
Koreans use a card system, like most big cities nowadays, called T-Money. Fares are really cheap at less than 3000 won (roughly $3AUD) to get around the inner city. There are loads of Korean subway and bus apps out there to download. Otherwise, most of the signs and destinations are clearly marked in English (in Seoul, anyway) and the train lines are colour-coded. It was surprisingly easy to navigate. The buses are a bit trickier to work out if you’re not sure where you’re going, but good for when you only want to go down the road.
Taxis are very cheap. However, you must pay the price of being driven around in Korean traffic, which I found pants-wettingly terrifying. Sometimes Korean taxi drivers are jerks and will decide not to pick you up because you’re not going where you want them to go.
If you want to travel to another Korean city, you can catch a coach (with funky curtains and disco lights) or the KTX – the Korean bullet train! The bus ride down to Busan was 6 hours whereas the KTX back to Seoul only took 2. The KTX ticket was around 50,000 W ($50 AUD) but it was well worth it. You can get WiFi on the KTX too!
If you feel like popping into my family’s ‘hood on Geoje Island and saying g’day to my Umma, or heading to any other of those little islands around Busan, the only ways to get there is by boat or bus. The bus from Busan to Geoje Island only took an hour. There’s a few intercity bus terminals, check ’em all out here.
Throw your toilet paper in a bin, not the toilet. Disgusting, but true. The sewerage system in Korea is very old and can’t handle toilet paper. And if the toilet overflows, an angry ajumma cleaner will yell at you and it will be AWFUL.
Most young people and business owners in Seoul speak English and most of the signs are in English too, so you shouldn’t have too many issues with language even if you’re a total noob.
There are also a lot of Koreanised English words in common usage. Eg. Iced tea becomes ai-su-tee.
I’d recommend learning how to say “hello” (annyeonghaseyo!) and “thankyou” (kamsahamnida!) though, just to be polite. “I want____” (____ chuseyo!) is a useful one to know too.
My favourite online Korean lessons are Talk to Me in Korean – the first few lessons deal with these basic expressions and you can go on to learn more complicated stuff later.
FOOD AND DRINK
Koreans make the best croissants. No, really. French culture is big in Korea and there are bakeries everywhere.
Most Korean food is spicy. Bulgogi and japchae are your main non-spicy food options. A traditional Korean meal comes with loads of side dishes (including the infamous kimchi) that are to be shared. Korean BBQ is pretty straightforward self-serve affair. If you look hopeless enough, someone will come and help you.
Some of the best Korean eateries I went to were only in Korean and run by older Korean folks, so if you’re feeling adventurous then take a crash course in Hangeul (it’s surprisingly easy) and learn the words for your favourite food and drink.
My personal favourite Korean dishes were:
불고기 Bulgogi: marinated pork
삼겹살 Samgyeopsal: pork belly, often BBQ’d
잡채 Japchae: clear noodles with vegetables and beef
돼지불고기볶음 Dwaejigogibokkeum: spicy pork. The stuff I ate in this post
고등어 구이 Godeungeo gui: grilled mackerel
김밥 Gimbap: seaweed rice roll. Looks like sushi but is cooked in sesame oil rather than vinegar.
빙수 Bingsoo: sweet shaved ice dessert
Most booze is very cheap and widely available. You can buy beer and soju from grocery stores for less than 3,000 ($3 AUD). Hooray! Be careful with soju – it may be weaker than vodka and come in small bottles, but it packs a punch. You may wake up the next day wishing for death and regretting singing all the songs at noraebang the night before. A safer option is makkeoli, a tasty rice wine with a lower alcohol content.
If you get sick of Korean food, there’s quite a few Western (mainly American) restaurants around. You can even get McDonalds delivered to you by a crazy scooter rider! I found Korean coffee a bit weak, so I ended up going to Dunking Donuts for coffee. Don’t worry, caffeine addicts – Korean energy drinks are definitely strong enough to keep you awake.
Korean maps are very poorly drawn for some reason. Try and find a good tourist map in English. Otherwise you’ll end up walking two hours down a huge highway because you thought the shopping centre was around the corner.
FASHION SHOPPING TIP
Although I liked most of the clothes in Korea, there was one big flaw – sizing. Particularly in small stores and markets. Baggy oversized shirts are fashionable and widely available, but a lot of tight-fitting items don’t come in different sizes. There were some shops that didn’t let me try things on, but claimed they were “one size fits all”. Sure. One size fits a tiny, tiny Korean woman who has never eaten crunchy Australian pub-style beer battered chips on a regular basis! I barely squeezed into a pair of pants, and I bought a $5 skirt only to find that didn’t even fit around my bum which was mortifying. So I suggest insisting that you try clothes on or stick to department and chain stores, if you happen to not be a minuscule Korean woman.
Another tip: Korean makeup and beauty products are awesome and make your skin look amazing.
Completely and utterly lost? Look out for the ladies in red cowboy hats. They’re tourist guides who speak different languages, carry maps and are generally super helpful. A recent development in Korean tourism is the Gangnam Style Tourist Police, who can also help you out in tricky situations.
Well, that’s all I can think of for now! If there’s any other stuff you want to know, corrections on stuff that I most probably got wrong or tips of your own, then leave a comment and I’ll endeavour to answer it!
I leave you now with this video of old mate Psy having a whale of a time at Gyeongbokgung Palace: