Common Mistakes Tourists make when visiting Korea (part 1 of 2)

So I’ve been a tour guide in Korea for a while now. During these years, I’ve seen a common pattern of tourist behavior. There’s the good, the ugly and then the totally innocent mistakes. I have jotted down what I believe are the top 10 common (and honest) mistakes they make when coming to Korea.

We all have our share of honest mistakes we do when going overseas simply because we are not privy to the local culture. We may or may not even be aware of them because they can be so subtle.  Hopefully there can be more of these posts to pinpoint faux pas in other countries. Here I list out the first of five in no particular order. The second 5 are here.

    1. The bill – Many times on tours, I’m at restaurants eating with the tourists. At the end of the meal, there’s always this awkward silence. At first I’m thinking, “Do they not like the food?? Or are they suggesting to split the bill? Then I think oh man, “I forgot to tell them! They don’t know about the bill culture in Korea”. Call it part of our culture or just call it the way things are done here. In restaurants in the western world, the waitresses will bring the check to you. You then pay at the table. In restaurants in Korea, you pay for the bill at the front counter from where you came in. Tourists not otherwise knowing will wait to pay the check at the table…and they will sit there all day.

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      Don’t just sit there…Do something!
    2. Crossing the street – I hear it all the time. This blaring alarm when I cross the street. Usually in major tourist areas. Someone did it again…I remember when I lived in the United States, when you wanted to get a green light to cross the street, you would have to push the button on the lamp. That would signal the stop lights to turn red so that pedestrians could cross the street. In Korea, the very location where that crossing button would be is another button designated for blind people. They push that button to get an audio on when they can cross the road. Honest mistakes I know. Newbies always press the disabled person’s button when trying to cross the road.

      These are not the crosswalk buttons you are looking for..
      These are not the crosswalk buttons you are looking for..
    3. Stepping on the ondol floors with shoes – I know, it almost looks like a step. So if I’m not the front leading the tour group, tourists will just step right onto the ondol floors in restaurants. This is where you are supposed to sit and eat. Honest mistake and it’s something that I take for granted. But I realize it’s not straight forward at all for the newbie. In a lot of restaurants in Korea, diners have the option to eat on the floor as opposed to the normal tables and chairs. Koreans like this option because we like to feel the heat on our butts. So again, this ondol floor looks like a step and tourists will walk right on it with their shoes if they are not forewarned. You are supposed to take off your shoes before stepping up there because you are going to be sitting on that floor. Usually it happens more often in big group tours where someone wasn’t listening on the bus.

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      Maybe it’s the color of the shoes against the backdrop of this floor…
    4. The exchange rate – Everyone gets ripped off with the exchange rate in every country I know. The issue is how much will you get ripped off. When I go around Korea on my tours, I always take notice of the USD/KRW exchange rate. The worst places to go:  Never exchange money at any bank, no matter how reputable it is. Never exchange money at the front desk of your hotel. I wouldn’t even exchange money at the airport for petty cash because most places will take credit cards on the way. The best rate in Korea can be exchanged at the currency stand directly in front of the Chinese Embassy in Myeongdong. There are other currency stands in Myeongdong with decent rates (and better than hotels and banks), but I’m telling you where the best one is. In fact, there are times where I went to the place across the Chinese Embassy and they gave me a better rate than what I saw on Googling the “USD to KRW” rate concurrently.

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      Find this stand directly across the Chinese Embassy in Myeongdong. It’s located behind the Post Office Towers there. Look for the red walls you see in the background of this picture.
    5. The escalators – There is this de facto rule in Korea. It states that all escalators have 2 lanes. The lane on the left is for walking up or down the escalator and the one on the right is for people who want to stand. The official rule though is to stand on both left and right. There are those that claim that walking on just one side damages the escalators and so requires frequent maintenance and tax money. So yes, sometimes you will be stuck behind someone who chooses to stand in the left lane or it might just be another tourist. But most people will agree that Seoul is a busy city and that the people are always on the go. And that time is the most precious thing in the entire world (not our tax dollars). So try to be conscious of this when using escalators in Korea.

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      Walk left, stand right..

Hope you enjoyed these and are well aware now for you trip to Korea. Come back next week when I list out the final 5 completing the top 10 list of common mistakes by tourists in Korea.

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Rolling in the Deep…Mud

Just kidding. The mud is shallow and safe to play in and great fun!

What’s probably now known as the most famous mud festival in the entire world, the 10 day Boryeong Mud Festival is came to another close last week. Another successful year it was. We went through tons of mud, a slew of memory cards, and many servings of hangover soup. But if you are looking to extend your buzz, there’s a lot more mud where that came from in Korea.

mudrace

Korea is a peninsula that has beautiful beaches along the east and south coasts. But on the west coast there are these massive fields of mud, otherwise known as mudflats. People in this side of Korea know how to appreciate nature’s bounty and can be frequently found rolling in the mudflats or digging up clams and other seafood. The mud flats are then renewed and revitalized each and every day as the high and low tides brings in new life.

korean-flawless-skin

Another noticeable feature of the west coast residents is their beautiful skin. A trait that is attained by frequent visits to the mudflats! A weekend for a local here is not complete without a quick roll in the mud. Cool and slick to touch, the feeling of mud on your skin is terrific.

in the mud

Perhaps, some might find the idea of wallowing in the mud like blissful piggies, distasteful. But how many times have we been taught not judge a book by its cover? Rolling in the mudflats of Korea is not the first thing that will come to mind when you think of tour in Korea, but it’s definitely worth a trip even before or after the Boryeong Mud Fest!

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The mud on the west coast is mud at it’s best. It has a clean, earthy mineral smell and the texture is thick and silky. You can dive, roll or just plop your feet in it. The mud doesn’t get too deep so you can be reassured every step you make. So it’s perfectly safe! No fear of drowning. No fear of being stung by jellyfish or other critters. And if children running around slip, then soft, cool mud is there to catch their fall.

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So spend the day at the mudflats! It’s definitely worth the experience. It’s a great way to enjoy beach activities with that added safety. Pitch an umbrella or a tent in the sandy areas. Lay out in the sun and build mud castles and of course, mud pies. There’s also areas where it’s full of crabs and other wild life to catch. You can set them back free or have a feast later in the evening. The mudflats offer much more to do than your traditional beaches.

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And don’t worry about cleaning up. There are showers within walking distance and guesthouses all along the beach area. Rent one out for the night and you can get all spic and span in the comfort of your own room. Most of them are nicely renovated and offer a variety of different amenities including hot tubs. Let us know if you are interested in us taking you there. It makes for a great tour of Korea.

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And remember that the mud fest is only a fraction of the multitude of activities to be enjoyed in Korea. There’s yet a whole new world to be discovered here!

A brief look at the Seoul Metro and getting around

South Korea is a nation of about 50 million people…

..of which, 24 million of us live in the greater Seoul area. That’s roughly half the entire population.

10 million of us live within the Seoul city limits, but then there’s an additional 14 million of us that live in these surrounding satellite cities like Incheon and Bundang that make up the Gyeong-gi Province.

But we are all inter-connected through a network of subways, buses and trains that make up our public transportation system here. It’s a system that’s heralded by not only Koreans, but expats living here because its breadth, depth and ease of use. Number-coded, color-coded, in 4 different languages it makes anyone coming here for the first time feel like a true Seoulite.

It is also said that you can meet any one of the 24 million people in just about an hour!

…granted that you meet half-way^^

But it just goes to show here that if you need to meet someone here in Seoul, you really can! This makes connections in Korea easy, meeting your friends, making business happen or stalking your favorite K-pop celebrity.

I can’t stress how clean and safe our transportation is, not to mention Korea in general.

The Dark Side of Korean Tourism

No matter how you slice it and dice it, 40% is still not a good number for tourism. Especially when you compare it to China and Japan. As a tour guide in the Korean tourism industry, after reading this article and seeing the news segment that relates to it, I can say that it doesn’t just stop there. There are old-boy tour companies here that partner up with their buddy-buddy shopping centers and other places where tourists are told to spend money. They herd tourists around from one commission-based shopping to another. Sometimes you get a place added onto your itinerary to a so-called “museum”, only to find that it is a one-room exhibit explaining what kimchi is with the other parts of the warehouse as showrooms dedicated to selling overpriced products to locked-in tourist. This is not just Korea, but as I’ve traveled all throughout Asia, this seems to be standard practice. As a developed nation Korea should look beyond this now.

Adding in these mandatory commission-based stops allows many of the tourism companies to lower their tour fees to what’s called a “minus tour”. Minus tours are local tour companies “buying” tourists from foreign tour companies on the expectations that their souvenir-buying commissions will pay for the “minus” deficit they incur from purchase.  This is not tourism. This is probably closer to being a bookie managing a sports gambling book of bettings.  Tour groups are often tagged with the odds of buying “souvenirs” given their specific demographics. Some tour companies hire statisticians to often place value and hedge against less profitable tour groups. Overall the tours are run poorly, not being sensitive to the tourists needs as well as taking away from the chance of seeing other parts of Korea. 

This needs to stop. Korean is not a 3rd world market here.

Continue reading The Dark Side of Korean Tourism

KOREA IS VERY SAFE. SAFER THAN..

Coming to Korea from a country, say America, you will immediately feel how safe it is here. Lifestyle9.com just came out with their top 10 list of safest countries to settle. The top 4 countries are in Asia and they go as follows: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea (America is #88). They only give descriptions for the top 3, so we’ll go over Korea specifically. When you come to Korea, without saying a word, foreigners immediately feel unthreatened. There is this sense of social order that people tend to abide by. Nobody gets in your face about anything unwarranted. Nobody is out seeking to get attention. Nobody shows any outward attitude. Yet if you approach any young Korean person randomly walking on the streets with a question, they are immediately happy to help you find your way with a friendly smile. Continue reading KOREA IS VERY SAFE. SAFER THAN..