So I am in Myeongdong at least once a week doing a Seoul city tour. While I’m there I am always checking out the great street food, the rates on the US dollar as well as the prices of sangpumgwon (상품권). That’s pronounced Sahng-Poom-Guwon. Memorize that word because it will give you an automatic discount when buying stuff in Myeongdong. You don’t need to register for anything and it’s completely legal. It’s one of the great secrets of Myeongdong that really doesn’t need to be one anymore.
So the sangpumgwon are these gift certificates that you can actually buy and sell from kiosks in Myeongdong like this one.
These are real gift certificates issued by the respective company sold at a discount.People pass them up these kiosks without ever knowing they are being sold there because none of them bother to write it in English (nor in Chinese for that matter). But all you have to do is go to one and say that magic word. They will then present you with these gift certificates and you just tell them what kind you want.
There are 2 kinds: One for Lotte and the other for Kumkang Shoes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.