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!

The Myeongdong Underground – Navigating through the Mall tunnels

Even though it’s winter now, we still manage to get a lot of tourists in during this time. The snow is quite magical and Korea has some of the best ski resorts all throughout Asia. On the other hand, it can get wickedly cold here and you have to know how to get around quickly and efficiently around here. Most tourists will spend time in the area mapped below. When staying there, its good to get acquainted with the underground tunnels in the Myeongdong district. It’s there you can take refuge from the cold as well as continue your shopping and get to where you need to go.

You can essentially walk from City Hall Station all the way to the DDP at Dongdaemun Culture and History Park without ever taking a step outside. Along the way there are shops and snack stops along the way. A lot of companies have side entrances from these tunnels.

Continue reading The Myeongdong Underground – Navigating through the Mall tunnels

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.

How Honest are Koreans? Let’s take a look..

Following up on the post I did on How Safe Korea Is, I found a video that studies how honest Korean people are. Take a look at how disturbing the video is at first.

http://www.allkpop.com/buzz/2014/10/south-koreans-are-tested-on-honesty-in-a-subway-experiment

Then see what remarkably happens.

Who knows how scientific this study is, but on a personal note, I can agree with it when I compare it to my life in America. You can leave a laptop on a cafe table, come back in 1 hour and it will still be there. Again, that doesn’t mean crime doesn’t exist here. It just manifests itself in different forms.

There is this shame culture here that prevents committing crimes in front of you. Things like burglaries taking place while you are away from your home.

What does this mean? It means that travelers to Korea don’t really need to worry about petty thefts while they are visiting here. It makes it a much more pleasant travel experience compared to other countries where you might have to watch your wallet/purse all the time.

Again, the word of caution is that this is for the most part. And it is clearly evident in the air when you come to see Korea.

Tour Itinerary for Reah Conference

So I’ve been asked to do a tour in October for 50+ and counting people for the Reah Conference on Oct 1. When the sizes get this big, we end up doing only a fraction of what’s on our typical itinerary due to the slow nature and free time we need to allot. I need to send them a description and schedule so I might as well talk here as to how I’m going about it. I’m also going to split them up into 2 options so I’ll be leading one and the other will probably go to Mars. Let’s see if they like the reel:

Option 1
Ye Olde Joseon Tour
Seoul has been the capital of the entire Korean Peninsula for the past 600 years. It was only 60 years ago or tenth of this city’s history has it been severed in half. We take you back when there was a time of unity in the country called the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled from 1392AD to 1910. This is a great place to start for the history of Korea as it sheds light onto the forthcomings of the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War.

Tour Highlights
– Pickup from hotel
– City Hall Tour
– Cheongye Stream
– Meet the Admiral
– Meet the King Sejong the Great
– Gyeongbok Palace Tour
– Bukchon Hanok Village
– Insadong

Option 2
Arts and Active Korea
Korea today, is the miracle that took place on the Han River. We will take a look at contemporary Korea and starting from where it all happened. This is one of the world’s greatest untold stories. Going from the ashes of war to one of the most powerful countries in the world is knowledge that must be shared. This vibrant and active country now has the means to share its artistic values and talents and this tour is going to share some of that.

Tour Highlights
– Pickup from hotel
– 63 City for view, aquarium and wax museum
– Bicycle around Yeoinaru Han River Park
– Head over to Hongdae
– Trick Eye Museum

The future of KoreanTourGuide.com

Getting from Point A to Point B.

2014, so far has been a remarkable year for us. After winning the Viator award for Top 10 Guides, we saw people approaching us from all over the world to do tours for them or even ask us to do interviews. We even hosted Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child. That emboldened us to start up this website, KoreanTourGuide.com. One thing I am grateful of is that we have a great team. In the beginning it was tough to expand just the two of us, but now I feel we can handle just about any request that comes through our inbox. But as we grow, how do you scale a business based on our original chemistry and personalities? This is the characteristics that our customers loved about us. Our customers rave about our service and we are overwhelmingly flattered.

We know a lot of people, yet its so hard to find people just as passionate about tourism as we have. Anyone living in Korea who speaks perfect English would better want to work in a salary job over at Samsung or Hyundai. Why? Probably because we are all deeply directed by what our parents say is safe and what society tells us we should have. I was in the same unremarkably average category as well until something traumatic happened in my life* Now I don’t see the economy of money, but I see the economy of utility, but that’s enough for another blog post on its own.

11 Ways to be Unremarkably Average
click on the pic for something hilarious but so true…

Going back to what I was saying before, It’s going to be tough to find a way to replicate or come close to what we do. In the meantime, we are happy taking on the workload we have, but obviously we want to do so much more. We want to show people the beauty of this country and it’s people. We want to tell the world of the successes Korea has made and to deconstruct it so that its applicable to us on an individual level.

That is more of the romantic overarching dream we have and ultimately its branding Korea as a country. We will continue to tell the story of this on our tours, but in the future we need to be more sophisticated. Integrating it with the social-commerce, social-crowding and shared type economy is a key tactic, but I’ll save that for a later blog post as well. Think Uber, AirBnB and in real-time.

Getting from Point A to Point B is what we are doing. In between is KoreanTourGuide.com and hopefully its going to be a travel adventure on its own. So for now, please cheer us on and give us some love and support as we develop this website to be more informative for people coming to Korea.

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..