Top 10 tricks to happy backpacking in Korea

Without being able to speak Korean, that is.

1. Okay, so you gotta learn some basic Korean:
  • annyeong haseyo ("hello" and all-purpose greeting)
  • gamsa hamnida ("thank you")
  • annyeong-hi gyeseyo ("goodbye", if you're the departing party, as I usually am)
  • hana ("one", for a solo traveller)
  • eolmayeyo ("how much is it?")
  • masi sumnida ("delicious")
  • an apologetic chon hangug marul mot'aeyo ("I don't speak Korean").
(PS: I'm trying to use the Korean government-sanctioned spelling style, but I might've made a mistake above or lapsed into the previous McCune-Reischauer system)

2. If you need directions, show someone the name of the place you're trying to find in hangeul. English text will throw most Koreans off. Maps are helpful only if they're in hangeul.

3. On that note, learn to read hangeul. Even if it takes you 10 minutes to parse a five-item restaurant menu, it still beats faffing about cluelessly. Also useful for spotting motel names, checking schedules at the bus terminal or destinations posted in the bus window, and reading toilet signs (though the latter tend to have appropriate graphics or English text as well).

4. Bring a phrasebook, and bookmark or dog-ear it so that it's easy to flip to the phrases you'll most often use on your trip. (I have about 10 pages dog-eared on my increasingly bashed-about copy.)

5. Don't spend all your small change. You'll always need 1,000-won notes and 100-won coins for bus fare.

6. Sometimes you won't know what you're eating. As long as you're not allergic to anything, just roll with it. The ajumma knows best!

7. Everyone knows about kimchi, but have a go at all the other banchan (side dishes) too. I'm currently addicted to the heavily salted-and-spiced anchovy-like fish that've been appearing with all my meals at these seaside towns (it reminds me of ikan bilis). And yesterday I had a braised beef side dish that was just divine. I almost abandoned my main course doenjang jjigae (soybean-paste stew) for it.

8. Always, always wear socks or stockings. At some point you'll probably have to remove your shoes to sit down at a restaurant, and showing your bare feet is a no-no. (I'm ashamed to admit that this didn't dawn on me till the end of my first week in Korea, but I've since been diligently atoning for my earlier faux pas).

9. Smile. A lot. It doesn't cost anything and it can smooth the way before you start stuttering in makeshift Korean.

10. Start accumulating some good travel karma by being considerate of people around you. Like don't hold up the entire queue at the bus or train station if you have a lot of questions. Or take the cue from the locals and give up your seat on the bus to someone who needs it more, especially the elderly or someone with a baby. Or be patient with people who want to hazard their English on you --- it's much harder for them to overcome the fear of making a mistake, than for you to wait and try to understand.

I've had a good first two weeks in Korea. Five more to go ...

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At 5/12/2009 8:23 am , Blogger suzie said...

there is no "like" checkbox on your blog. so i will manually heart this entry. <3

At 5/12/2009 9:39 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

Yay! Useful info... can go straight in the book

At 2/01/2010 3:03 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm deciding to backpack in Korea this summer/fall with a relative, but I'm not sure how or where. Korean is not a problem in our situation, but I need to research more on our travel path. I'm wondering if you can just 'camp' anywhere in the mountains? Anyways, just came across this site and wanted to say good info.

At 2/01/2010 7:46 pm , Blogger Tym said...

Anonymous > If you're talking about national parks, most of them have campsites (a small registration fee may be required). You can check them out at the Korea National Park Service website for more info, but also call ahead to the park you'll be visiting. Sometimes campsites or certain parts of a national park might be closed to visitors (because they need to allow the forest to regenerate, for instance). The parks get pretty crowded in summer and late fall too.

At 10/07/2010 12:04 am , Blogger Bite Bite said...

very informative. since airasia is now open for korea, partner and i are plannig a trip there soon.
thank you.


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