Travel Guide to South Korea

South Korea is a spectacular country - and it amazes me how such a small country can accomplish so much in such a rapid period of time. But having lived and worked here, I think I know the answer. Hard work and humility. 

There is no need for a lot of preparation really to go to South Korea. The country is ridiculously accessible, and without knowing Korean, one can navigate through the help of people - and apps. Being tech-savvy will help you a great deal when navigating Korean society, though you can always rely on people for help. 

Korean people are extremely generous, especially to outsiders, and though you may end up in Seoul for a conference, or to see sights, half of your travel journey will be about the people, and the Korean people are a joy to be among.

Here are a few basics about traveling to South Korea.

1. Language
While Korea might be one of my favorite places, there is no denying that everything, and I mean everything is in Korean and there are very few people who can speak English. Sure, you might be able to get some directions but most Koreans, even if they can speak English, are too shy about their skills.  That is why I would highly suggest learning a few basic Korean phrases and downloading Google Translate on your phone.
It also helps to know that the Korean language, Hangul, is extremely easy and it’s phonetic, meaning it’s made up of letters that can be sounded out rather than characters that have to be memorized. The alphabet itself is actually quite easy and it might take you just a day to learn the language. At the least, you might be able to recognize food names on menus and destinations on street signs.

2. Phone and Apps
Data is integral on your trip. Though you will likely find Wi-Fi everywhere, it is important to have access to the internet to navigate your way through Korea. You would need to rely on a number of apps including Naver Maps, Kakao for messaging and Google Maps. Internet will allow you to call a cab and find your way around. 

3. Getting Around
Korea has an advanced public transit system which means it is vital to get a metro card made known as "T-Money". This card can be used in both subway and buses and can take you pretty much everywhere. Transit is also very cheap and you can travel quite far for just $1. Inter-city buses are also quite frequent and you can go to even the remotest of places (though there is no remote place in Korea). 

If you are a group, it might make sense to take the occasional taxi. Taxis are pretty cheap compared to rest of the world and won't cost you an arm and a leg. A regular taxi from the airport to Seoul would cost you about $75, and perhaps $110 if you take the deluxe one. Don't forget that the airport is around 2 hours away from Seoul.

4. Basic History and Geography
Learning the basics of Korean history will help you appreciate many of the museums and historical sites the country has to over. The country's first kingdom was Gojoseon (then called Joseon), that was founded in 2333 B.C.E. After the collapse of Gojosean, there was the Samguk Era- otherwise known as the Three Kingdom period, when Korea was ruled by three  kingdoms called Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. A lot of historical places you will visit will be from the Samguk era and this period will be regularly referred to. Following this time, the kingdoms Goguryeo and Baekje had great power for much of the era, but Silla's power gradually extended with the help of China, leading to Unified Silla period. This lasted for 267 years until falling to Goryeo kingdom, under the leadership King Gyeongsun, in 935. This collapsed to give birth to the Joseon dynasty. This lasted until Japan annexed Korea in 1910. There are some sights of the time when Korea was under Japanese rule and once again, this time period is significant in Korea's history. Finally, in 1945, Korea became independent though the movement to seek independence had begun much sooner.

In terms of geography, remember that Korea is an extremely dense country and fairly small in land area. The mainland Korea has 8 provinces: North Chungcheong, South Chungcheong, Gangwon, Gyeonggi, North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang, North Jeolla, and South Jeolla. The 9th province is the island Jeju. I've had a chance to visit all the provinces, primarily because of the size of Korea and its excellent public transit.

5. Cheap Tours
While most guided tours tend to be a rip-off with a high mark up value, in Korea it may make sense to go via tours because not only are they affordable but they are in English and you can get to make good friends. We went with Tour08 often, but you can book your tours on sites like Voyagin, Viator and Klook that offer amazing deals. Sometimes, these deals are cheaper than if you did it on your own. For example, this tour allows you to explore a palace in rented attire. And this one has the entrance tickets of two attractions. In short, book the tours. They are worth it.

Continue onwards to read the blog about South Korea