A. Airport & Arrival – Seoul has 2 major airports: Seoul Incheon & Gimpo. Most international flights land at Incheon airport while domestic flights to Busan and Jeju island usually land at/depart from Gimpo.
Before landing in Seoul, you will get a landing card and customs declaration. Be sure to fill this out on the plane as it will save you time in the sometimes huge queues at immigration. If coming on holiday, it is advisable to have a copy of your return flight handy for immigration.
If you bring in animal products (read biltong and droewors), be sure to declare it on the customs form. The occasional spot check might result in a hefty fine if you have not declared the goods although it is possible to just play dumb and let them take the contraband with a smile. Don’t ever get cocky or sarcastic.
Traveling from the airport: Airport connections are extremely convenient. Take the airport railway to the Seoul station, one of the major transportation hubs for connections elsewhere. The subway Line 1 also goes to the airport. We like taking the “airport limousine” bus – a comfortable coach that takes you on several major routes. Get your tickets at the booth near exit 8. The ladies will give you the appropriate ticket for your area. The bus costs about KRW 9,000 (R115) and while not the cheapest option, it allows you to see a bit of the city & area you are going to which helps to situate you.
B. Budget - Korea is expensive for South Africans because the exchange rate is tough. Budget obviously depends on whether you are coming to work, on holiday or to visit a friend or relative. If you have accommodation organized, you can safely get away on a budget of less than USD$40 (KRW 47,000) a day. This should comfortably pay for public transport, food and drink and entrance to a sight or two. If you need to pay for accommodation, you could double this amount if you expect half decent, shared accommodation.
For teachers going over to work for the first time, it is advisable to bring at least KRW 500,000 (R 7000) to see you through the first month given that your accommodation is set up on arrival.
C. Climate – Korea is hot as hell in summer and it is cold as f…well, freezing in winter. Summer time temperatures aren’t necessarily higher than in SA (around 27C average) but the humidity is high. Winter temperatures are well below zero and you can expect snow on the mountains and pesky ice on the streets. Personally, the in between season (spring or fall) is my favorite time of the year to visit. Between March and May, weather is moderate and mild and it is cherry blossom season (also allergy season!) Late August to October is fall and again a beautiful time to be in the country. Rainy season is usually around July & August.
D. Devices – telephones, computers etc. Korean sim cards are usually not compatible with South African phones. If you are moving there, it is best to get a cellphone contract & phone. Internet connections in Korea are phenomenal. There is free wifi nearly everywhere and when we were there recently, we didn’t even bother with trying to obtain our own mobile connection. For visitors, your smartphone or device can connect to any of the wifi hotspots in the city. It is also possible to rent a mobile connection device that connects to a cloud associated with a major service provider for the duration of your stay. Inquire at a booth on the ground floor at the airport. However, if you want to save some money, this is not a must have.
E. Exchange Rate – Korean currency is the WON (KRW). The exchange rate is roughly KRW 1000 for R12. It is not advisable to change Rands into Won directly as agents will first convert your Rands into a major currency like Euro or Dollar and then into Won, meaning you lose twice on the commission. Credit & Debit chip cards work well at Korean ATMs but you might get charged a hefty fee for withdrawing money. Don’t withdraw too often; it is safe to carry cash with you. If you bring in cash from overseas and it is at all possible, try to use major currencies like Dollar or Euro. Even the smallest corner shop or market stall has a card facility in Korea, so it is easy to pay by card provided you don’t pay per transaction. Korean banks don’t charge you, so if you go over to work and you get a Korean bank account, it is very easy to go around nearly cash-less.
F. Food – Korean food is simply amazing. It might take you some getting used to, but it is guaranteed that once you leave Korea, you will miss the food! Rich in flavors, textures and variety, you can eat something new in Korea every day for one year and never have to repeat. Rice is the staple here and gets served with everything. However, the popularity of bread and pastry is increasing by the day along with coffee culture. You will find a coffee shop (usually French themed!) on literally EVERY corner of the major cities.
Some MUST eats: Korean braai samgyeopsal, kimchi, bibimbap (rice based vegetable dish), bulgogi (fire-meat), samgyetang (herby chicken soup) and basically everything else on CNN's Korean food list.
*Note: If you are homesick and crave some warm South African hospitality, then definitely head over to Braai Republic in Itaewon/Pyeongtaek or The Workshop & Hidden Cellar where Episode 1 and 2 talents Chris, Roddy, Louis and Tobias will make you feel right at home.
G. Gimbap or Kimbap – yeah, we are still on the subject of food. Gimbap is actually just a Korean version of sushi minus the raw fish. Vegetables combinations and rice wrapped in seaweed, this is one of the favorite Korean fast/street food. I simply adore Korean street food culture. Everything is clean, fast and cheap, not to mention delicious! When in Korea, avoid western food joints, especially if you are on a budget. I promise you, once you are away from Korea, you will miss the food.
H. Hotels & Where to stay - There are literally thousands of options for accommodation in Korea but it can be tricky as it is on the pricey side and depends heavily on location. The good news is that, regardless of whether it is a 16 room dorm or a 5 star hotel, it is always immaculately clean and safe and usually comes with great facilities like free coffee, water, a light breakfast, internet and tourist information brochures. Rooms are comfortable but small and a general rule of thumb is that the more space you have, the more you will pay. Check www.airasiago.com or www.booking.com for the best rates with some flexibility for cancellation. We stayed at Road House Hotel in Myeongdong and it was great. The location was fantastic, the room small but clean and practical and the people very helpful and friendly.
I. Information - Tourist information is freely and readily available from all the major points: the airport, your hotel and many booths around the city. In my opinion, it is not necessary to buy a guide to Korea as high quality English information is available everywhere.
J. Jeju Island – a hugely popular destination amongst Koreans and foreigners alike. Book well in advance if you plan on visiting the island, especially over long weekends. When there, you must visit Hallasan National park, a horse ranch if that’s your thing, the world cup stadium, Loveland, the mysterious road and least one of the UNESCO World Heritage sights. Be careful of tourist traps e.g. buying naartjies from street vendors or the famous Jeju ice-cream; things tend to be more expensive on the island than on the mainland and even the Koreans seem happy to pay more for things here. Renting a car is by far the best option of getting around the island but make sure your international license is still valid as agents are completely inflexible with it.
K. K- culture – whether you are into it or not, one has to appreciate just how huge K-culture is; K-Pop, K-Dramas, Korean food & beauty products. Explore it while you are there. The fandom is unique here. K-stars enjoy godlike celebrity status and you will marvel at just how many different bands, actors and celebs the small nation produced.
L. Love Motels – certainly a very interesting alternative accommodation plan. Love Motels are well...a place where lovers go. They are discreet to the point of being sinister, have extravagant themes and rooms rented by the hour, it is not for the conservative of mind. However, with nightly rates just a tad higher than the hourly rates, it could actually make for an affordable and very unique experience. They are also usually very well located near areas where people go out, you know, in case you get lucky. The best thing about them is that they are completely fitted with anything and everything you might need to get ready for work or a day out: a complete range of toiletries and cosmetics, hot and cold drinks and even an ironing service. Not the cheapest lodging, but definitely the most interesting!
M. Medical Care – if you are coming to work in Korea, you will have to pass a pretty intense medical checkup with urine, blood, drug, and communicable disease checks (so, best to make sure you are clean). Once you get your resident card, you will have access to excellent medical care and visits to the GP will cost you only a few thousand won. Even oriental medicine and acupuncture is subsidized by the government here. In my experience, the worst part about going to the doctor in Korea was the language barrier.
As a tourist, it is always advisable to have a good medical insurance in case of serious emergencies. A visit to a GP won’t break the bank though, so if you need to go for something minor, it is not the end of the world. Your first aid kit should definitely contain any prescription meds, painkillers, allergy meds, a Med-lemon or your favorite flu remedy as it is very common to pick up the sniffles in Korea.
N. Nightlife – nightlife in Korea is amazing in the sense that there is something for literally everyone. Reduced living spaces mean that Koreans don’t entertain at home and they are always out on the streets. It is safe to be out at night and groups of girls, families and older people are to be found everywhere. Famous areas for going out in Seoul is Hongdae and Gangnam. In Busan, the area around Haewondae beach and malls is really popular and they have an amazing fish market too. Take your pick from late night shopping, food, beer bars, clubs and themed cafes. If you want to experience something unique, go to a PC, Wii- or Nori-bang (karaoke). “Bang” essentially means room and for next to nothing, you can hire an individual space with a big screen TV to play video games, sing karaoke or hang out with friends. You can even order drinks. TV is mostly in Korean with few English channels, so if you are sitting at home bored, it’s your own fault!
O. Outdoor Activities – one of the things that never seizes to amaze me is just how “green” cities in Korea are. Everywhere in the hurried metropolis, you can find patches of green in the form of public parks, walkways around the tributary streams of the Han-river and hiking trails. Just outside of Seoul, you can find Bukhansan national park with extensive hiking trails for all levels of fitness. Rent a bike to cycle around the banks of the Han river in Yeoido. And with great public transport, it is very easy to move around for your outdoor fix elsewhere in Korea. Contact Waegook Travel, owned by a South African from Kempton Park, Derrick Smith and wife Sugi for an unforgettable experience on Geoje island. Derrick’s been in Korea for over 15 years and started off with a restaurant called the Waegook Cook (Waegook means foreigner) before moving into the travel industry. They now offer tours and accommodation and are hugely popular among foreigners in Korea.
P. Public Transport – simply fantastic! Flawless and affordable, there are several great options for moving around Korea. Bus, train, subway or domestic flights, transport is accessible to everyone in Korea. Public transport ranges from basic options of bus/train for lower prices to a more comfortable & faster service at a higher price. A great example of this is the Mugunghwa (cheapest)/Saemaeul (mid-range) trains which take slightly longer to get you cross country vs. the high speed KTX train that will get you to Busan in under 3 hours but for nearly double the price. It depends on your priority: time or money. You honestly don’t need to think about buying/renting a car here (unless you are on Jeju-island).
Q. Quirky Korean things– to stay ahead of the game, Korea has come up with some pretty unique business concepts. Try out a themed café like a Cat or Dog café where you can have coffee while playing with the resident cats/dogs. Rent a traditional Korean dress/suit called Hanbok and walk around in it for a day. Go see a baseball game. The Trickeye Museum in Hongdae is a great way to get some special shots of your time in Korea. Episode 3 talent, Chantal Tereblanch’s Korean bucket list blog is a great reference for fascinating alternative ideas on what to do in Korea.
R. Relaxing – Never a dull moment, but Korea can get hectic. Luckily, there are so many great options for relaxing. Try out a Jimjil-bang (Korean bath house). While they are split into male and female, it can be a bit intimidating entering a room full of naked Koreans who will stare. Once you are over it, there are amazing hot and cold pools, massage and sauna areas and you can even sleep in a communal room. It is usually quiet and peaceful and there are entertainment rooms for those who want to chat.
For a unique (and affordable) cultural experience, join a temple stay where you can spend time at a Buddhist monastery observing their routines. You live, eat and complete daily chores with the monks and there are plenty of interesting activities to join such as a dado tea ceremony, meditation or martial art sessions.
Go for a walk on the tunjeon one of several hundred Han-river tributary streams complete with basketball, badminton, biking and blading facilities. Free outdoor gyms are found around large apartment buildings and parks, so go for a quick, free workout if you find that kind of thing relaxing! Coffee culture is enormous in Korea, so meet up for a chat on a patio in summer or nestled on a couch in winter.
S. Sights – Oh, where to start? This depends on what your cup of tea is. Culture, sports, shopping, entertainment or technology, there is so much to see and do. Go see a baseball game and experience the atmosphere, visit Lotte-world department stores or theme park or visit the old temple at Gyeongbukgung and the Korean culture museums around the centre of Seoul. Go shopping at Dongdaemun/Namdaemun markets, walk up the hill to the Namsan tower, go for a beer in Gangnam – and this is just Seoul. Saraksan mountain is simply wonderful. We visited in winter and it was magical albeit freezing!
T. Time difference – Korea is 7 hours ahead of South Africa.
U. Understanding Korean psyche – Check out Miguel’s blog on understanding Korean psyche
V. Visa – 30 day visa on arrival for South Africans visiting. If you wish to stay longer, you have to apply for this visa from the Korean embassy. Immigration is usually pretty strait forward, but bring a copy of your important docs (return flight, insurance etc.) with you just in case.
Employment visas in Korea should always be organized (or at the very least supported) by your employer. Personally, I don’t think it is advisable to go to Korea without a job in the hope of finding one there. There are other places in Asia where you can do this, but it’s best to organize your job before you head over to Korea.
W. Working in Korea - Teaching is by far the most common job for South Africans. As we’ve seen from East West Episode 1, it is entirely possible to go in a different direction while you are there, but most people seem to start off as teachers.
Despite recent discussions about whether or not South Africans are considered “native speakers”, Korea remains one of the go-to places for South Africans wanting to work abroad. It is still easy for South Africans to find a teaching job in Korea provided you have a university degree and the supporting documents ready. You will need a police clearance and a transcript of your degree. These need to be apostilled – these things take time. It is advisable to start collecting paperwork a couple of months before you plan to go as it may take time to get it together and a job offer usually requires a quick answer.
X. Xtra info - Check out these great blogs & websites for more great info:
Y. Your safety – Despite recent media coverage about rape culture in Korea and some people condemning Korea as a travel destination for western females, Korea remains one of the safest countries for solo travelers. In my experience, not even the minor nuisances of traveling like pick-pocketing or having your things stolen from a hotel room is a major consideration here.
When traveling, get used to the idea that anything can happen anywhere and there are places and situations to avoid whether you are in Paris France, Parys Vrystaat or New York. The same goes for Korea. Be smart: don’t flash your belongings, don’t walk around alone, especially not if you’ve had a few drinks. Don’t get involved with people you don’t know. Would you get into a taxi alone in South Africa at 2am in the morning? If the answer is no, then think twice about doing it elsewhere.
Z. ZA Embassy – The South African embassy in Seoul is located in Yongsan. Be sure to register on ROSA (Registration of South Africans Abroad) – this will make it easier for the embassy to assist you in an emergency.