Since we only have DAYS left here in Korea I wanted to pay homage to the place we’ve called home for the past two years. When I first found out we would be moving across the pacific I thought, “YES!! I LOVE Asia. I love India. I love southeast Asia. Finally I get to travel to all the places i’ve been pining over my whole life. And Korea, okay sure. It wasn’t necessarily on my list, but hey, it’ll be a decent jumping off point.” I thought I knew the basics about Korea.. like that there was a north and south- the north being communist and scary and the south a democracy that was a tech empire of sorts. I frequented a few Korean restaurants while living in Utah, so I had a decent idea of what it would be like, or so I thought.
Korea has been so much more than what I thought it would be. I’ve fallen in love with so many different aspects of this country and culture. I hope any foreigners who come to live here in Korea learn to live with an open mind, because when you do you are rewarded far greater than you can imagine. Here are my top 20 reasons I love South Korea and will miss it like crazy.
- Rest stops
When going on any extended driving trip in Korea you MUST stop at a rest stop. And not just for a quick bathroom break. They have cafeteria style restaurants where you can order pork cutlets and gravy, udon noodles, beef bulgogi, bibimbap, and many other Korean classics. And they are GOOD. The best udon noodles i’ve had in Korea were at a rest stop.
2. Baseball Games
The perfect summer activity. I love a classic American baseball game in the summertime and this is pretty darn close. Just substitute hot dogs and cracker jacks with squid and gourmet tea. But don’t worry the beer is just as plentiful!
3. Public Transportation
It’s clean, quiet, easy to navigate, and everywhere. Even if there isn’t a subway that reaches into your town there’s a bus. Grab yourself a T-money card from any convenience store and hit the road. The train system is also easy and affordable. (affordable being the key word here. While in Japan the same type of train going the same distance at the same speed was more than triple the price!) So take advantage! Plus it keeps you out of all that crazy traffic you would otherwise deal with in a car.
4. Street Food
When it comes to street food in Korea, there are SO MANY choices. Go to any market and you’ll be sure to find an ajumma frying up anything from sweet potatoes and squid to corn dogs coated in french fries and whole chilis. There’s odeng (fish cake) which can come in all different varieties and is stuck on skewers. And there’s tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes in red sauce) which my husband LOVES, mandu (dumplings both fried and steamed), beondegi (steamed silkworms) we’ve never tried considering all we’ve heard is they taste like juicy dirt and dirty vomit.. so no thanks. Then there’s bungeoppang (a pastry shaped like a fish filled with bean paste, ice cream, or custard), and my personal favorites- hotteok (sticky rice dough filled with pumpkin seeds, variety of nuts, cinnamon, sugar then grilled to create a warm pancake like pastry. SO YUMMY and so easy to find in the colder months.) and peanut butter grilled squid. I know, I know… it sounds gross, but it’s DELICIOUS! They sell it at Everland and movie theaters, it’s the best. Also try going to Myeongdong, especially on the weekend- it’ll be crazy but there’s food vendors galore and it’s the perfect spot to try lots of the above mentioned items.
People here look good. And I mean ALL people. Little toddlers here are trendier than I am, seriously. Your average 20 year old male will be wearing a perfectly fitted suit while standing next to a 75 year old man on the subway station wearing a suit just as nice with a cap to finish off the look. And don’t even get me started on the women here *insert heart eyes*. There are no baggy, sloppy, or frumpy looking styles here. Only trendy and trendier, which makes the shopping here a must do! Now if only all American guys would dress as nice…
6. Honey Bread
Go to your nearest coffee shop. Order honey bread. Then come and thank me. Thick slices of soft bread toasted, then slathered with butter and honey, crushed nuts and cinnamon sprinkled on top, and finished with a thick drizzle of caramel sauce. There’s a few varieties of honey bread and every shop does it a little different, so go wild trying a bunch out.
This might be one of my top 3 favorite things about Korea- it’s SO insanely safe. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and it lives up to the hype. I can’t tell you how many times a dollar bill has been hanging out of my pocket, or even fallen completely out of my pocket, in a crowded subway station and someone has come running after me to make sure I get it back or notify me that my money is well on its way to being lost. I’ve heard countless stories from others who have left behind wallets or phones only to have them promptly returned by a honest Korean citizen. There have been times someone could have easily ripped us off and charged triple what they were charging, yet they didn’t. As a woman, I feel completely safe walking alone at night in most areas. There was a recent government protest in Seoul that generated over 1 million people and yet only a few minor injuries occurred and was considered a successful, peaceful protest. Besides the threat of their neighbors up north, South Korea is by far much safer than almost anywhere in the USA.
8. Food delivery services
Almost every restaurant around delivers food to your home. Even McDonalds has cute yellow and red scooters with matching helmets for their employees ride/wear as they make deliveries. Let me just say that again, MCDONALDS DELIVERS TO YOUR DOORSTEP.
9. Incheon Airport
Seoul’s main airport actually lies outside of Seoul but is a gem worth exploring. Incheon has been voted world’s best airport more than once. And for good reason. It’s big, but well marked and easy to manage. It’s clean, the staff is on point, free wifi AND free showers, and if you’re traveling with kids or babies they will happily let you cut long immigration or security lines. It even has a spa, casino, and ice skating rink.
Hiking in this country is not like hiking anywhere else. Koreans are serious when it comes to extra curriculars or hobbies. They go all out when it comes to trying a new sport out. If they go bowling, they buy the shoes, the outfit, and even their own ball. And when it comes to hiking, it is no exception. I’ve never seen a Korean hiking without wearing the full outfit they bought from an expensive outlet like North Face or the Black Yak, including a high end walking stick (sometimes two walking sticks!!) Part of the fun when going to a park or trail is to not only look at the pretty landscape, but the walking Columbia ad that is surrounding you. And while they may stare at you for being so.. underdressed or “ill-equipped” they will happily offer and share their snacks with you.
11. Heated Floors
Being an American means I’ve missed out on one of man’s best creations- heated floors. I know this is not exclusive to Korea but it was my first time living in a home where I was happy to step out of my bed during the cold winter.
12. Hot Stone Bibimbap
A stone bowl filled with rice and an assortment of kimchi, pickled radishes (and other veggies), dark leafy greens, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and sometimes thinly sliced beef with a raw egg cracked over the top. The hot bowl is brought out sizzling then you quickly mix it up to cook the egg and keep the rice from burning on the bottom. It is most definitely my favorite Korean dish.
13. The Spa (Jjimjilbang)
Jjimjilbang is a Korean spa/bath house. And it is another one of my top 3 favorite things about this country. While there are some unisex areas (bathing suits and clothes required!) the gender segregated areas are the best parts. You literally strip down to your birthday suit in the locker room and freely explore all the different pools, saunas, and steam rooms. IT. IS. FABULOUS. I know it sounds weird to get naked with other random women and roam freely from pool to pool but it is the most exhilarating, freeing, and relaxing feeling all in one. And if you don’t love your body, it’s even more reason to go… I promise you’ll leave feeling oddly more confident in yourself. The spas even have cafeterias, napping rooms, and lots more to explore! And make sure to get a “massage” from one of the ajummas walking around in a bra and panties. It’s not at all a massage and really just an aggressive scrub down but your skin will have never been softer.
You can find local markets right in your town or go to Seoul for the complete experience. Namdaemun market is the oldest and largest traditional market in Korea. They sell everything from kitchenware and baby clothes to party supplies and street food. It’s cramped, chaotic, and a must do!
The best strawberries i’ve ever had in my life. Not artificial tasting. Not pumped-with-hormones-and-pesticides tasting. Juicy, flavorful, and delicious.
16. Nursing Rooms
Korea is kid friendly. And Koreans love white babies and children. The older people especially love to pinch their cheeks and play with the babies. Maybe it’s like this in other countries as well, but in most department stores, malls, and bigger establishments they have nursing rooms or baby stations. When we went to Everland, an amusement park here, they had a few different baby stations set up all around the park. And they were NICE. Attendants manning the desk wore milk maid costumes (too cute and clever) and could help answer questions or direct you around. They have a quiet area with little stalls separated by curtains to create a private room complete with comfy leather chairs and side tables to sit and nurse your baby. Some even have nursing pillows you can use. Another section of the building has cribs so if you need to take a break and allow your baby to nap, you can. Another corner hosts a large counter with tiny dividers and pads to create a diaper changing station. Across from there they have sinks, filtered water faucets, and microwaves to make and heat bottles. There are even a few highchairs and kids tables to feed older babies and children.
17. Skin Care
The people here love to look good. And they are passionate about good skin. Koreans are adamant about wearing sunscreen and full wetsuits to protect themselves from the sun. And they spend lots of money on all the latest and greatest techniques the beauty industry has to offer. You can find cheap face masks all over the place or go high end and drop some major moolah on exotic serums . It’s worth checking out and getting free samples so hit a market or subway station and you’ll be sure to find many stores handing out free masks to entice you to come inside.
Any building that has lights flashing and a disco ball design on the sign means that it’s a Noraebang (karaoke place). A Korean karaoke place is divided up into rooms. You pay for however many hours you want at the front desk then head to your own private room. No singing in front of strangers at a bar, it will be just you and your friends in a comfy room. Most places provide drinks and sometimes snacks for purchase in case you need a bit of liquid courage. It’s a blast and the night always ends in exhaustion and everyone losing their voice.
Think of a creamier, milkier, finer, and more elaborate version of Hawaiian shave ice. Instead of a water base it is usually always a milk base and it’s so silky and fine. The original flavor, Patbingsu, is topped with a red bean paste but the flavors are endless. One of my favorites is simply topped with fresh fruit, like strawberries and mangos. Chocolate and coffee flavors tend to be popular too. You can also get syrups and condensed milk drizzled on top. It’s hard not to find a place that serves this cool treat during the summer. And even in the winter it’s worth it. Bingsu makes every other cold icy dessert look (and taste) pretty pathetic.
20. The People
Obviously there’s a lot I love about this country, but the Korean people are my number one favorite thing about this place. It is what makes the culture and spirit of Korea so unique. I know you hear it about every country, “oh the people here or there are just SO great”, but I really mean it when I say that the Korean people are special. They are strong and resilient- they come from a tough background of invasion, civil war, etc. It’s only been a little over 60 years since the Korean war and to see how much progress South Korea has made since that time is simply astonishing. They went from being a war torn nation, impoverished and considered third world by most standards to now being a leading nation in Asia and in the world of technology. The innovation and discipline these people posses is more than impressive. And it’s not just the Korean peoples’ drive and determination that makes them great. It is their hearts, their gratitude, the respect they have for their elders and other human beings that sets them apart. They might seem quiet and reserved at first, but Koreans will happily take the time to help a lost foreigner at the train station or give up their seat for a pregnant woman or elderly person. They giggle and appreciate any bit of effort you put into using their language but are more than happy to practice and use their english with you. While traveling through Asia i’ve come to realize every nation’s people has their corks and their positive attributes, but also their differences. It makes me ashamed that I ever grouped together “Asians” as a whole or got confused at the difference between someone from Japan or Korea.. or a Chinese person or a Korean. And maybe it’s just the fact that I lived here for two years and I am biased, but I most relate with Koreans. I love their culture. I have become a better person having lived here and met so many selfless, wonderful, and remarkable Koreans.