Impressions of South Korea
South Korea is much more similar of the Western ‘First World’ than China, in the sense that it is very modern, has a democratic political system and people seem to show interest in different issues (activism, politics etc.). At the same time, people seem to be very patriotic and proud of their own Korean culture. For us, as short term visitors, Korea seems like a sort of a mix between Japan and China, but then it’s also neither, because it has its own character. For example, traditional Korean houses seem similar to Chinese ones because of the shape of the roof, but are also similar to Japanese houses because of their sliding doors and the fact that Koreans also sleep on mattresses. However, unlike Japanese houses, Korean ones have bedrooms with floor heating (ondol) on which they sleep. I was really skeptical about the effectiveness of this solution, but after having experienced it myself, I must say it works very well. That said, most houses are not the traditional type today, although neighbourhoods with such houses still exist and are being renovated and preserved.
We think South Korea is a very easy place to travel with a family. Cities are clean, well maintained, public toilets are clean and free. Information is relatively easily available, there are many tourist information centers that are effective in giving relevant information and materials. Signage is clear and visible in most cases, making it easy to find your way. Addresses can be tricky sometimes, but navigating with Google maps or asking people around help out in those cases. Websites are also helpful, although that area requires some more improvements, as not all webpages have an English version (I’m talking about websites targeted towards tourists). Museums and sites have many animations and interactive displays which is great with kids, because they learn about things much easier through these then just the plain exhibits. Entrance fees are based on age, and under 6 most things are for free (fees and transport), while older kids pay half price. Credit cards are widely accepted, which was also a big relief after using exclusively cash in China (I’ll write more about that in another post).
Wi-fi is widely available and it is of good quality. We got a Korean SIM card, and the provider offers free wi-fi connection in so many places, that we have hardly used our data plan during our stay here. That said, Google maps is not the greatest here, if used in English. Many things don’t appear and we found that transit information is not 100% reliable. It seems to work very well in Korean though.
Food is good, we like it better than Chinese cuisine. However, we find that eating out is rather expensive, so for the first time we had to resort to Western fast food restaurants more than once (they had some special deals, which made meals more affordable than getting the cheapest options in restaurants). Fast food is not great, but when one meal costs about $25 for the whole family, and we tend to eat three times a day (actually we are now down to two), that adds up quickly. Luckily, the kids’ favourite is gimbap, one of the cheapest stuff around, which is rice rolled in seaweed similar to sushi, but with somewhat different ingredients. Meals in restaurants always come with at least two additional sides of kimchi and pickled radish, and sometimes with other different sides. Cooking ourselves is not always an option, as it depends if there is a kitchen available where we stay. When there is one, we try to buy food in the grocery store and cook ourselves. Grocery stores are more user friendly than in China, at least the name of the product appears in English so that already helps. There is plenty of frozen products available, which are usually easy to prepare is the basic kitchenettes that come with the rooms.
South Korea is a small country, so distances between destinations are not huge. Transportation is quite easy and their transportation card (T-money) is valid all over the country on all the transport system, so it is very practical. We haven’t used the trains so much in Korea as we found them less convenient, but there is an excellent bus system, not too expensive, which can get you to pretty much every corner. It is possible to rent a car as well, and although it can be more effective in some areas (like on Jeju-do), it is still much more cost effective to take public transit. I must say driving habits are much better here than in China; drivers actually stop when turning right and let us cross the street. We really missed that.
People are friendly, they like children and are considerate towards them. The kids often receive food from strangers, on the bus, on hikes, even in stores. It seems to make everyone happy, the kids are always excited, so we don’t mind. On public transport people often get up to have them seated, so they don’t fall (this is also true for China). Koreans are polite and considerate (I think even more towards foreigners — probably a ‘hosting’ issue), they always apologize if they are not able to help. Even if there is a crowd, there is no pushing others and queues tend to form when people are waiting. We never had the feeling we are being overcharged, but usually prices are marked clearly so surprises are rare.
As far as we saw, many Koreans are active; biking and especially hiking seem to be very popular, even among older people. There are many outdoor gear stores with good quality stuff, both imported and local (we got D and N a new pair of shoes). In hiking areas people are completely geared up. In Seoul, D and I went for a swim at the Olympic swimming pool, and the old ladies in their 60s and 70s were sporting gear swimmers wear in competitions (the ones that go to the knees), it was very interesting to see.
On the negative side, we were somewhat disappointed by the fact that the recommended places to hike are so popular. It is not like hiking in Canada, where you might come across some other hikers while on the trail, but it’s rather like walking among many other people, which sort of diminishes the feel of nature around you. Also, many trails are quite heavily developed, so the place doesn’t feel that natural anymore. That said, we didn’t hike that much across the country and we can only access the places where there is a public transit service, so obviously these are the most accessible to everyone.
Altogether, even though South Korea is relatively small, we are far of having covered it (it was not the point of the trip) as we completely skipped on the western part of the country. But we are leaving with a much clearer idea of South Korea.