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.
“Noooooooooo!!!” you hear MakNooN howling as one of our clients kills his Champion. MakNooN is a professional online gamer and the game is League of Legends (LoL). LoL is a multi-player game played online and in Korea LoL has a massive following and manic subculture. MakNooN is one of the highest-ranking LoL pro gamers in the world and he offers LoL coaching through his YouTube page.
Our latest clients were avid gamers and we wanted to create a gaming experience as part of their trip itinerary in Korea.
Korea is a hotbed for breeding talented, up-and-coming gamers. We called in MakNooN to host a casual tournament and coaching session with some of our clients at a PC café in the Gangnam district. Our clients were interested in the unique presence gaming has in Korea, a country where you can make a living by playing video games.
The first hour was spent setting up our clients at their computer stations on the Korean servers and making sure their headsets were functional. The headsets are necessary to be able to communicate directions to other team members (it’s also a lot of fun to trash talk during the competitions). A typical team in LoL has five members. We only had four clients, but we filled the last position with a random high-level player on the LoL Korean servers. We also invited a local team to come out as the opposing team to really create the atmosphere of an actual competition. The gaming session was divided into two parts. The first part was practice with MakNooN as the coach and following a quick noodle delivery to the PC café for lunch, the second part commenced, the mock tournament.
Dark underground room, brightly lit screens, the click clack of mechanical keyboards, and the slurping sounds of gamers eating their noodles mid game. For me the land of gaming is unknown territory. Playing Diablo, Age of Empires, and the Sims was the extent of my gaming experience. The gaming community is actually quite large and the demographic has a wide range of ages and professions. League of Legends is one game that is loved by office workers in their 30s and middle school kids alike. Developed by the game company Riot Games, LoL has a huge following in South Korea and the best of the best are selected to play on teams competitively in national and international e-sport tournaments. Currently, SK T1 is the top team in Korea and arguably in the entire world. The latter half of the tour included watching them compete.
Esports have their own season of competition in Korea and major corporations like Samsung and LG sponsor the teams. We entered Yongsan E-stadium, a venue dedicated to hosting online gaming competitions. On either ends of the stadium there are glass atriums with five computer stations where players take their positions. In the middle of the stadium, there is an enormous jumbotron screen showing the entire gaming action taking place while commentators below provide an endless stream of rapid-fire analysis. If you didn’t know where you were, you would think they’d be commentating on Monday night football based on the frenzied atmosphere. Responding to all this, you also have a huge audience of super fans going crazy in a sold out stadium cheering on their favorite teams. In the end, SK T1 sweeps the main event and retains their title. SK T1 is the undefeated champion of the current season. We got our clients exclusive access following the match to meet their online hero Faker, the SK T1 player who is heralded as the Lionel Messi or Michael Jordan of LoL. Clutching their freshly autographed neck strap and beaming at the selfie they took with their favorite LoL player, it was easy to see that our clients had the time of their lives.
Anyone can participate in this gaming experience in Korea. Whether you’re a diehard LoL fan like our clients or just an explorer of subcultures like me, I guarantee that the whirlwind enthusiasm of gamers in Korea will have you captivated.
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.
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.
So I found a neat new discovery in Seoul while I was shopping in Myeongdong today. Seoul is currently hosting the 2013 Special Winter Olympics as a precursor to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. I saw some of the athletes in there today so I decided to follow them around since they were being lead by Korean tour guides. Continue reading Free stuff in Myeongdong’s M Plaza