Our Experience in South Korea

One of the “bad” ways Seoul has modernized is in terms of plastic surgery. South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world and is particularly popular for surgery tourism, facts that are readily apparent after walking through even one Metro station. There, you’ll see an endless lineup of advertisements for all types of procedures.

The most popular of these is blepharoplasty, but there were also ads for teeth enhancements, jawline restructuring, cheek injections, and even obscure (at least to me) stuff like hand rejuvenation. These ads aren’t just confined to the Metro station walls, either. I even recall seeing ads inside of bathroom stalls.

It got to be a bit much. I realize cosmetic surgery can help improve self confidence, but the types of dramatic transformations that are advertised–in my estimation–cause more harm than good. If anything, cosmetic surgery leads to self doubt, social anxiety, and creates a vicious cycle of superficiality. The pitfalls of a society obsessed with appearances was evident during our visit in a number of ways, and was unsettling. South Korea is on the vanguard of beauty obsessing, and this is by far the ugliest aspect of its culture.

Otherwise, Seoul is a pretty place. The modern side features interesting design and luxurious conveniences, while the traditional side provides gravitas and cultural significance. Beyond all of these temples and palaces mentioned on page one, one of our main “activities” in South Korea was simply wandering around. This is something that gets lost in the shuffle sometimes when we write about various places we visit, as we tend to focus on the highlights. Nonetheless, wandering is far and away our top activity wherever we go.

Even if it’s not actually “doing” anything, wandering is a good way to experience a place, getting a taste of what a place is about. Usually, I don’t write about our wandering since it’s not sexy blog content (particularly for stand-alone posts), but in the case of South Korea, I did take a bunch of random photos as we meandered around…so here they are:

We always consult a variety of resources (namely, books and blogs) when planning any trip, but the only book that is worth reading for Seoul is Seoul Selection Guide

It’s written by one author who interjects his opinions and provides useful background. It’s one of the best travel guidebooks we’ve used for any destination, period, and I’d highly recommend it.

I mention this now because it’s how we found a lot of the random places we visited in Seoul, including a number of the restaurants we enjoyed and bingsu (Korean shaved ice) spots. The only one of those worth mentioning here is a place called Sanbong Hwarogui, a popular spot samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly).

We enjoyed this restaurant so much we dined here twice. It was delicious, fun, and inexpensive. I believe this restaurant is a popular spot among college students (it seemed to skew younger).

While we had fun here, there was definitely a bit of a language barrier. After his explanation of how to cook our meats went right over our heads, our waiter started cooking our meats for us. We caught on quickly at this point, so no big deal.

However, ordering drinks wasn’t quite so easy. (Actually, I’m surprised I’ve never found an excuse to write about this restaurant before, as this is one of my favorite travel anecdotes.)

My goal was to order a Coke, which I thought would be as simple as saying “Coke” or “Coca-Cola” since I’ve always assumed those words were fairly universal. Alas, neither worked.

Having struck out twice, I started fumbling for English synonyms, eventually landing on “soda.” This appears to have worked, as our waiter repeated it to me, and I nodded enthusiastically. Success!

A few minutes later, he returned with this:

I was slightly bummed since I wanted the caffeine fix offered by Coke, not the Korean version of 7-Up or Sprite, which presumably would be lacking in caffeine.

Nevertheless, sugar is sugar, so I took a huge swig of this soda.

Something had gone terribly wrong. This most definitely was not soda, with a sharp sting that burned all the way down my throat. I started gagging, trying my best not to throw up as that’s clearly what my throat wanted.

The taste was obviously alcohol, but I’m not sure why I was served that instead of soda, and why it was in a soda-sized and style bottle. After reviewing the menu and some quick detective work on Google, I discovered that this was soju, a type of clear Korean alcohol distilled from rice or potatoes. The drink itself was not terrible (it wasn’t good, either), but with my tastebuds anticipating the sweet flavor of something like Sprite, my mouth was “shocked” by this.

Even though I thought I was going to be sick at the time, it was hilarious in retrospect (I’ve probably told the story a dozen times…I’m sure Sarah is sick of it).

It also didn’t hurt that the pork belly and other dishes at Sanbong Hwarogui were absolutely fantastic. I’d highly recommend doing a meal there if you visit South Korea.

Speaking of soda, I extensively catalogued my adventures in vending machines during our visit to Seoul, and here are a few of the drinks I tried for your perusal:

We didn’t just drink soda (and soju), eat, wander, and visit temples.

We also hiked Mt. Inwangsan and Seoul’s Old Fortress Walls, but I’ve already written about that (see link), so that’s another thing I won’t rehash.

Following that hike, we headed to YTN Seoul Tower.

This was a stunning location for sunset on our final night in the city.

The top of the tower is at almost 480m above sea level, including Perched atop Namsan Mountain, the top of the tower is 480 meters above sea level, and is itself 236 meters tall, making it one of the tallest towers in Asia.

We enjoyed the experience at Seoul Tower quite a bit, and stayed from sunset (which had the right amount of haze for the sun to appear as a huge red ball–it was stunning) and through the rise of the full moon. It was perfect way to end a great trip to South Korea.

The range of Seoul’s points of interest and general atmosphere made the city particularly fascinating for us. I think this is not just interesting, but should be lauded. Even as Seoul’s industries and dominant culture have changed–something that has been reflected in the skyline of the city–much of its traditional culture has been preserved.

Personally, I love this type of balance. As tourists, it’s easy to favor places that are either entirely traditional or entirely modern. We enjoy cosmopolitan metropolises that feel like they’ve jumped off the pages of science fiction. We love villages in Europe that look like time capsules.

There are drawbacks to both polarized approaches. The perfectly-preserved villages can feel disingenuous at times, as if they’re stuck in time for the sake of tourists, not because that’s how they’ve naturally progressed. At the other end of the spectrum, those metropolises can feel stark and without any sense of history. A balanced approach highlights both modern function and history–it feels at once lived-in and rich.

This is why we love places like Kyoto and Paris (both of which also strike such a balance), and Seoul hits some of the same high notes as both of those cities. Ultimately, I think Seoul skews much more towards the modern metropolis end of the spectrum, which does a lot less for me personally, but it still weaves an excellent blend of culture. This is why we enjoyed Seoul so much, and are eager to see more of South Korea. Hopefully this post has offered an interesting glimpse at Seoul, and between this and the PyeongChang Winter Olympics coverage, maybe South Korea will soon become a place on your travel bucket list!

If you’re planning a trip to South Korea, check out my other posts about Seoul.

Your Thoughts…

Have you ever been to South Korea? What were the highlights of your visit? Are Seoul and/or PyeongChang now on your radar as a result of the Olympics? Any other thoughts or questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

4 replies
  1. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Our older two daughters are Korean adoptees, and we had the good fortune to travel to Seoul twice in order to bring them home. We fell in love with the city and Korean culture. I hope you tried street food as well as traditional ban chan while visiting! We too are fans of wandering when traveling, and found some of the quirkiest corners when doing so. We hope to return to Seoul within the next 5-7 years or so for an extended stay to soak up more of the culture and to give our daughters some time in their birth country.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Oh yeah, we love street food just about everywhere in Asia. We actually did not have banchan in South Korea, but we’ve had it in Los Angeles (I know, not quite the same!).

      Hope you have a chance to get back–that’d be a great opportunity for your daughters to learn about their birth country.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Those are love locks, on which couples ‘declare their eternal love on locks.’ I guess you could say have become a bit of a trend after starting out in Paris several years ago. In the case of Seoul Tower, people are actively encouraged to leave the locks, and the local authorities don’t cut them down.

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