Reflections from our South Korea trip

Looking back on our trip, we realised that travelling alone taught us much. I’ll try to put down what comes to mind.

1 – Do not underestimate the power of internet connectivity

We didn’t get our SIM cards till the second half of day 2, and we did suffer as a result of not having immediate access to Google Maps. It was troublesome having to connect to public Wi-Fi; even in a highly-connected country like South Korea, it wasn’t long before we walked out of range of a particular hotspot and had to search for another. But then again, as a result of getting lost, we saw more of the country than we would have had we stuck perfectly to a planned path. And that gave a sense of adventure, no?

As much as having no connection to the wider world gives one a (supposedly hipster) primal feeling, the importance of having ready access to the internet before starting a trip proper cannot be overlooked, not just for navigation but also safety’s sake.

2 – It’s one thing to have a budget, it’s another to keep it updated during the trip

Yes, we planned meticulously before this trip. We had shared Google docs and Google sheets to concurrently update, and our budget was split into numerous categories. However, during the trip, small things like ades and overpriced T-shirts started sneaking in as we had fun, and those small things amounted to a significant figure over a matter of days. Thankfully, we diligently kept our expenditure on food low to make up for it, and managed to keep our budget in check!

Of course, having a flexible budget to bend to spontaneous whims is an allowance for true travel, but the point I’m making is, if budget is limited due to one’s financial means, it certainly helps to prioritise the must-haves before the good-to-haves. And the only way to do that is to be constantly updated on the budget during the trip.

3 – A note on souvenirs

While on the topic of budget, be mindful of souvenirs, because some of them actually can be found in one’s local country. And that defeats the purpose of buying the item as a souvenir. Some people buy items found in their home countries anyway because it is cheaper, but I don’t think there are much savings to be had unless it’s a big-ticket item or they’re being purchased in quantities large enough to offset, at least partially, the costs of going on the trip.

Our personal experience – we realised most of the snacks we got from the Lotte Supermarket could actually be readily found in Korean-style marts across tiny Singapore. And here’s the shocker – they might actually be cheaper! So I think it definitely helps (and doesn’t hurt) to do some research in one’s own country first before embarking on the trip.

For our next trip (to Hong Kong), we already plan to skip the souvenirs unless something that potentially can single-handedly evoke the emotions and memories of the trip, and will never be found in Singapore, pops up.

4 – It’s not such a great idea to change guesthouses/hotels once a day

The advantages of doing so are obvious. A guesthouse with unbearable problems would only need to be tolerated till the next day. Staying in a wider range of guesthouses increases chances of stumbling upon a great value-for-money establishment. If a day is to be spent around an area, it makes good sense to stay near the area.

Yes, we stayed two days at the only place we had close-to-major issues with. Yes, we did discover two exceptional establishments (Best Western Haeundae and Star Hostel Insadong). And yes, staying in the area made travelling to attractions much easier.

But it didn’t prepare us for the walking and travelling between the places. Some of them (K-Guesthouse, Doo Guesthouse) were difficult to reach from the subway stations, and it didn’t help that we were carrying all our luggage along. We ended up being exhausted just from transferring accommodation places.

Not recommended to do. Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience!

5 – Learn to read or speak the local language

Even a little bit makes a world of difference. I’ve mentioned this in the very first post, but I’ll give it a mention here again. Communicating with the locals will be so much easier and so will reading all the street signs. Between Clara, who could read Hangeul but not always understand it, and I, who was completely illiterate, it was very clear who had an easier time. Lesson well and truly learnt; I am pledging to raise my standard in Hangeul to a decent level before our next trip to South Korea.

Of course, knowing the language opens up the country in ways nothing else can.

6 – The weather forecast is one’s best friend

Especially where scenery is involved. Busan would otherwise have been a really awesome place (even surpassing Seoul) if not for the thick clouds. Had we consulted the forecast prior to booking the hotel and planning the itinerary, we would have known enough. Comparing our photos of Gamcheon with that of others, we realised that the unobstructed sun really does make it much better. Haeundae, too, would have benefited and shown itself as the world-famous beach that it was. Oh well, Busan – we’ll be back!

Lesson not learnt – we booked tickets to Hong Kong before consulting our good friend once again. We only checked after booking, and it said that for the entire period we would be there, it would only be cloudy or rainy. The weeks before and after were projected to see a lot of sun. For once, let’s hope our good friend is wrong on that.

7 – Expectations only lead to disappointment

Really. I expected too much of Hongdae, Dongdaemun, Banpodaegyo, Centum City, Bukchon Hanok Village, N Seoul Tower … the list goes on. They were nice, but not exceptional places. Or rather, they fell short of what I imagined them to be, and ended up being disappointments – not putting them down or anything. On the other hand, Sinchon – originally meant to be a short stop after our flight – was thoroughly memorable. Ewha (and to a certain extent Myeongdong) turned out to be the best place to shop. Jongno 3-ga, along with Insadong, was charming. Dongbaek island was better than expected. And Gwangandaegyo was stunning.

My point is, it would help a great deal if one went without expecting too much. I read somewhere that it helps to research by reading text, but not by looking at pictures and letting the trip play out in the head. That’s impossible – sometimes photos help in making decisions too. But refrain, as much as possible, from letting the photos kickstart an imaginary trip way before the actual one has even begun.

Most of the time, it’s not what it appears to be.

8 – Don’t let disappointment sour the trip

I have to admit, my reaction to being disappointed by Gureum Cafe and Banpodaegyo was foolish and uncalled for. It left me in a bad mood that seeped into the next day. I felt like our ‘perfect’ trip was ‘ruined’.

In hindsight, I could have chosen to keep positive about it. A major disappointment doesn’t actually ‘ruin’ a trip – it has the potential to be one of its most defining parts. Sometimes, it even leads to a better outcome, a silver lining in the cloud. All of that depends on one’s reaction, which is entirely up to choice.

9 – Places we didn’t manage to see, and will visit next time

Just putting it down for the record.

To be honest, we barely explored the areas south of the Han river at all. Gangnam, Apgujeong, Jamsil, Yeouido – these are important places in Seoul too. But time constraints meant that we couldn’t go there. So, these areas south of the Han river would definitely be on the list.

Secondly, places that we didn’t explore due to their proximity from subway stations or inaccessibility of their subway stations – Gwangjang Market, Iwha Mural Village, Dongdaemun (the gate itself), the further part of Hongdae and Seongsudong.

Thirdly, Haedong Yonggungsa, Beomeosa, Taejongdae, Jagalchi Market, Songdo and Seomyeon in Busan. One day in Busan was never going to be enough, we knew that.

Oh yes, how could I have forgotten Gapyeong? That’s where Nami Island, Petite France, Edelweiss Swiss Garden and the Railbike place are at. Lots of activities to do at the periphery of Seoul.

Other peripheral cities like Suwon, Ansan, Incheon and Goyang. Not forgetting Bukhansan itself. I hope to be able to visit the DMZ one day. It’s probably the only thing that sets Korea apart from other countries. Ironically, definition derived from division.

Lastly, other great cities like Jeonju, Gwangju and Daegu are good to keep in mind too. Our original reason for visiting Busan was to experience more than one facet of South Korea. There are facets in these cities waiting to be discovered as well. And hopefully we’ll get to return to Jeju island one day, together.

And this is it. I hope this sums up and concludes our trip to South Korea proper, and I truly look forward to the next time we’re back in this great country!

 

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