5 Things I Regret Most About My Trip to South Korea
3rd March 2019
Do you scrupulously design your trips or travel without a plan?
I usually try to mix both, planning in advance with spontaneous exploration as I go. And so I did last year when I bought tickets to South Korea on a whim and then started careful preparation.
I devoured two book guides, subscribed to a bunch of vlogs about Korea, and bookmarked dozens of travel articles on Pocket. I was psyched and ready for it!
Why Travel Plans (Sometimes) Suck?
Yet, while you can plan to your heart’s content, you cannot predict everything. Though altogether my experience in South Korea was tremendous, I still made a few mistakes that largely affected my stay.
What were they? Read on to find out and avoid them in the future if you’re thinking of ever heading to ROK.
1. Visiting South Korea in winter
It’s not so much that I REGRET coming here in winter but given another chance, I’d prefer to drop by in another season.
Despite the cold, you can still enjoy numerous attractions; visit the Gangwon-do province, east of Seoul, famous for hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, admire the rich Holiday Season’s decorations in the streets of snowbound Seoul, or take a trip to one of the trendiest winter spots, Nami Island.
However, it’s hard to fully appreciate magnificent open-air temples, gigantic palace complexes, and seaside resorts while you’re chattering your teeth from cold, desperately looking for a place to buy a hot drink. Aware of that, we decided to skip out on stunning Jeju Island and Muuido.
While winter time in Korea has its charm, I will definitely return when it’s warmer next time.
2. Not eating meat
What is the best way to immerse in a foreign culture? Books, movies, museums? For me – all of them alike. Plus food.
I am a hopeless foodie, and spend about the same amount of time sightseeing as stuffing my mouth with local delicacies.
Kimchi, bulgogi, bibimbap, japchae – Korean culinary art is widely acclaimed for its complexity of flavors and a variety of textures. No wonder I couldn’t wait to tuck in into those gorgeous delights. Except, it didn’t quite work that way.
However, although extremely rich and sophisticated, Korean cuisine relies quite heavily on meat. There’s an abundance of beans and vegetables, too, but a great number of dishes either include meat or fish or are based on stock, thus being unsuitable for vegetarians.
Surviving as a veggie might get pretty challenging especially in remote areas where people stick to more traditional menu and don’t speak English. Based on that, I’m still skeptical about the meal my fellow traveler got in a small bistro in PyeongChang. Was it a ‘duck’ or was it a ‘dog’ 😖😖 Glad I didn’t eat it.
3. Failing to stopy by any wacky museum
I don’t know about you, but I always check in on some museums when abroad.
I am particularly fond of bizarre, outrageous museums paying weird tributes to local peculiarities. The Pathological-Anatomical Museum in Vienna, Voodoo Museum in New Orleans, or Haw Par Villa in Singapore, that’s my sort of thing!
In Seoul, I got a chance to visit the spectacular National Museum of Korea and Hangul (Korean script) Museum, though they hardly count as ‘oddballs’, ‘unorthodox’ or ‘plain weird’.
Another great museum experience was the National Folk Museum on the premises of the mighty Gyeongbokgung Palace. It is a kind of a skansen, demonstrating how people in Korea used to live in the past. It felt like going back in time!
But coming back to regrets, here are a few museums I DID NOT get to visit, and will surely have to make amends for that next time:
- Museum of Kimchi – although kimchi does not appeal to my tastebuds (I very much prefer the Polish sauerkraut;), I reckon a visit to a three-storey museum dedicated to that only dish that brings instant association with Korea could be inspiring http://english.visitseoul.net/attractions/Museum-Kimchikan
- Toilet Museum – going straight from food to poo seems a bit off… or just about right. Another place that appeals to me with its wackiness is this theme park dedicated entirely to toilets and excrements https://kotaku.com/
- Jeju Love Land – as mentioned above, due to the hostile season I missed Jeju altogether but the love theme and uncanny resemblance to Singapore’s Haw Par Villa, which I adored immensely, will definitely bring me to this museum next time https://english.visitkorea.or.kr/
4. Getting on a half-day tour of DMZ…
…instead of the full-day option.
This was one of the highlights of our entire trip. I had planned it MUCH in advance but unfortunately, the DMZ was closed to the public for a few days (some ‘random’ military training going on at the border), and the whole-day tours for the remaining days were already fully-booked. We were only left with Trip number 1 – The 3rd infiltration Tunnel Tour + Dora observatory.
As a result, we weren’t able to see the room where the actual talks are held between the two Koreas, and where the border runs. However, even our short trip was one of the most moving and thought-provoking travel experiences in my life. Highly recommend!
DMZ Tour Itinerary
We set off from Seoul to Imjingak Park, in the last village before the De-militarized Zone. The tour guide gave us a quick rundown on the history of the Korean conflict (the South Korean version of it, at least), and then we got some time to explore the area and see the depressing remnants of the war – a damaged old bridge that was used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning from the north, a barbed fence stretching in every direction, and a bullet-ridden locomotive destroyed in 1950.
Next stop was the Infiltration Tunnel, the most famous (or notorious) of several tunnels that have been discovered so far, believed to have been constructed by the North to conduct a surprise attack on Seoul. This attraction was not for the faint of heart – in every sense of that expression.
The tunnel is miniscule (2 meters high/wide at best, probably around 1.7 high in most sections) and stretches for about one mile deep under the ground. Small children, elderly, and people with heart conditions may not be allowed inside, and rightly so. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed in the tunnel.
South Korean border
Then we arrived at the border. Or near the border, to be precise. Dora Observatory is an observation deck looking across the Demilitarized Zone on the “other side”. If you’re lucky (and bring your binoculars on), you can see the entire Peace Village (or as they say in the South, ‘Propaganda Village’), together with one of the world’s tallest flagpoles (at 160 meters). If you’re twice as lucky, you may be able to discern a massive Kim Il Sung statue in Kaesong, the ancient Korean capital (see some pics of the town on this blog).
A quick detour to Dorasan Station, the last railway station before North Korea where freight trains used to cross the border for a brief moment, and our memorable trip was over.
5. Eating ice-cream in the cold
My last regret seems silly, but it got very real. While looking for some information about ‘what to do in Korea in winter’, I came across a few articles that listed ice skating, ice fishing, and… eating ice cream outdoors.
The last activity seemed to be quite popular among Koreans, and I adore ice cream. I enthusiastically decided that would be my ‘thing’ for the trip. Ice cream outside every single day.
And indeed, despite the freezing cold, all corner shops were full to the brim with ice cream, sorbets, ice coffe, frozen yoghurts, and sundaes.
So I started from day one and… below is a picture immortalizing the last time ever when I am indulging on a (delicious) chocolate ice cream cone in the cold. Two days later I was already down with super acute bronchitis!
Long story short, this idiotic challenge brought me to another ‘real-life’ experience in South Korea. By the time we reached Busan, I could barely breathe and walk, so I headed to ER.
And even though the quality of medical care in Korea is superior, I still had my moments of fear as I stepped (or tripped) into a random hospital in Busan, and the doctor plonked a face mask around my mouth before I could breathe out ‘hello!’.
To add drama to injury, when the nurse was frantically trying to draw my blood with shaking hands, she dropped the needle, my blood spilled all over, and she apologetically admitted she’d never treated a non-Korean person before.
This immediately brought to my mind all Korean horror flicks I’ve ever seen (my personal recommendation – “Train to Busan”, what a coincidence!). And it was kind of horrid as my treatment altogether lasted for two months – I recovered for a while, and then ended up bed-ridden and hallucinating back in Poland. All in all, it ended well and every cloud has a silver lining, I’ll always remember not to eat ice cream in sub-zero conditions. Which I recommend to you, too.
Visit South Korea , even if you’re going to have your own ‘regrets’
As you can see, in some respects my visit was far from perfect. But… South Korea still remains one of the places that impressed me most, for various reasons.
Unlike Japan, Korea is not yet overcrowded with tourists; on many occassions we were the only visitors. As such, it remains pretty unspoilt by common tourist ailments – overcrowding, price gouging, customizing local experiences to suit visitors, and so on. The people are lovely – kind, polite, and helpful, although timid. The great food is there, entertainment is there, as are wonderful sights and relax spots, together with modern technologies and high-tech innovations. It’s a truly fascinating mix!
So despite my regrets, I’ll definitely come back to South Korea in the future and learn from my mistakes. Which I recommend to you as well;)
PS You still have some time to book your tickets for March/April. The cherry blossom season is fast approaching!