By Dale Hardy
First experience day one arrival
When most backpackers are planning a trip to Asia they never really think about planning a trip to South Korea for an experience. The usual itinerary is to land at Bangkok, experience Thailand for a few weeks, then head onto Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Which is amazing in its own right still. I have traveled to many countries in Asia and experienced many different cultures, seen poverty and diversity, the poor and the rich, natural beauty and the polluted, urban, over-crowded cities. But for me, the country that stands out the most (and not because I have spent the most time here, or am because it is my wife's country of origin), is South Korea. I first arrived in South Korea in 2010. It was the middle of the baking hot summer and I had just finished 17 months backpacking around Australia. I arrived with my then girlfriend, now wife, Bonnie. She had explained to me what it was like but had always said I have to see it for myself to make up my own mind on the place. Before I ever even thought of exploring the place, I envisioned South Korea to be very advanced in technology, have very tall buildings and basically just be like what you might expect China and Japan to be like. I never really knew anything about the place before I met Bonnie. I remember the World Cup being hosted there in 2002, I knew about Samsung and LG being massive companies from there and the obvious evil neighbour "North Korea." But I never knew anything about the culture, food, lifestyle, history etc. So when I first landed at the amazing Seoul/In-cheon International Airport. I knew I would be in for a surprise and an experience that would live with me forever.
Lunch and first impressions
On my first full day, we went out for a trip around some popular areas for tourists in Seoul. The first thing I noticed about the place was how busy it was -- the locals working hard, people rushing about to get from one place to another, hundreds of buses and taxis carting people about everywhere, traffic building up, almost everybody smartly dressed in designer gear coming or going from work, and everybody either on their phones or using their phones to watch TV programmes! It is a fast-moving pioneering capital city, and very busy indeed. We went to a traditional Korean restaurant for lunch. I had tried Korean food before in Australia for the first time in a few places in Sydney and Brisbane but had never had the experience of dining in the traditional Korean way. The first thing I noticed was that there were not any chairs around the kneecap-sized tables. There were little flat cushions to sit on around the tables and a small wooden box which contained stainless steel chopsticks and spoons.
I sat down and was told to cross my legs just like I would have done at school when sitting on the floor during assembly. The waitress brought out a stylish pot made of stone. Inside the pot was the most popular thing among all things Korean, kimchi. Kimchi is the national dish of Korea, and is eaten with almost all of Korea's dishes. Almost every single household in the whole of South Korea will have kimchi in their own little separate kimchi fridge. Kimchi is fermented, pickled, slightly spicy cabbage, radish and sometimes other vegetables in a Korean style chili sauce. It is used as a side dish, is very good for digestion and is extremely high in health benefits. It can also be used as a main dish and is eaten hot or cold. I had never really used chopsticks before in my life and figured there was no time like the present to learn! I picked them up and started to figure out how to hold them properly let alone pick something up with them. Our food arrived within 10 minutes of ordering, and lucky for me as a beginner, the meals we ordered were mainly consumed using a spoon rather than chopsticks!
When the waitress brought our food over it was all in lots of individual pots on a trolley, ranging from small to fairly large. I had no clue what was in them, which made the experience more exciting. Bonnie began to explain to me what was what and how to eat them. The table was eventually scattered with all of these small and large pots, all vibrantly colourful. I had never seen a dinner table decorated so beautifully. I didn't know where to start or what to mix! The first meal I tried was a dish called dolsot bibimbap, or simply put in English, "mixed rice in a hot stone pot." Its colours were incredible. Compared to most western style food, which is mainly golden brown or yellow like chips and pastry, this is just a stunning picture to look at. Gleaming white sticky rice with fresh green and red vegetables decorated perfectly around it, and the bright yellow yolk of an egg placed perfectly in the middle. Add your gochujang sauce, which is Korean red chilli paste, then mix it all together. You can hear sizzle and pop sounds as it is still cooking away in the stone pot while being mixed. The second dish is a meat dish which contains beef, called Bulgogi. Bulgogi is made from thin slices of sirloin beef which have been marinated in sesame seed oil and soy sauce. It is served with onions and green leeks on top of Korean-style glass noodles called japchae. It is a very attractive looking meal and also very moorish. These first two meals were mild in flavour compared to what a lot of other Korean dishes are like. They are perfect meals for a first time traveler to Korea to experience traditional flavours if they are not keen on highly spiced food.
Nightlife and a mini tour
After my awesome first-time dining experience which left me smiling all day with satisfaction, we headed to an area called Insa-dong which is a tourist area in Seoul. It is full of old and new, lots of traditional style Korean streets and housing but also right on the outskirts of the completely modern, fancy-looking buildings. In Insa-dong you will find many souvenir stores where you can purchase lots of different Korean goods, from traditional tea sets, fans, clothes, models of past Korean emperors etc. South Korean people, especially students, are very big fans of coffee shops. They are spoiled for choice in Insa-dong, with loads of local businesses as well as your typical Starbucks. Korean street food is also a must-try and in Insa-dong you can pick up almost any type. Tteokbokki, which is rice cake sticks in a sweet and mild chili sauce, is a main favourite with Koreans, especially the younger generation like school children. You can also pick up sausages on sticks wrapped in breadcrumbs or potato. Octopus tenticles in batter for the adventurous person, grilled chicken on sticks cooked in spicy or mild marinades, and many more. There was so much for me to experience and take in on my first day that I was glad to be spending a while in Seoul. It has so much to offer it is unreal -- many massive department stores, historic palaces and shrines, indoor and outdoor theme parks, thousands of streets to walk down and come across completely random things. Lots of posh swanky areas like Gangnam, crazy party-style areas where you will find bars and restaurants busy until daylight. It is a 24-hour city that never stops moving, never sleeps and is constantly flashing in every colour of neon light imagine! Being from the UK as a child I loved to visit Blackpool to see the illuminations every year, but living here it is part of everyday life! If you are a fan of drinking like most backpackers tend to be, then Seoul is heaven for you! Most bars are open all night and serve food.
You are spoiled for choice of where to go and what areas suit you. I remember trying Korean Soju for the first time, and at around 1,000 Won a bottle which is about 80 odd pence in British currency you can not go wrong! It all comes down to whether you like the stuff and how much of it you can drink. Soju is basically a weaker version of vodka made with potatoes. It is around 18% proof and comes in a little green bottle. But never underestimate the stuff because after one bottle some people are more drunk than if they'd had 4 pints of beer! It is very popular with the locals in Seoul and is had with food especially Korean indoor bbq's which are very popular and enjoyable to discover.
You will find in Seoul that people love to eat out and enjoy drinking with friends as often as they can. It is a very lively and sociable city at night. As well as soju and all the usual beers, spirits and cocktails you will find anywhere whilst travelling, you can also find another popular traditional Korean drink called makgeolli, which is my favourite. Makgeolli is wine made from rice. It is a white drink that looks like cloudy milk when poured. It is also drank with food and once again is very cheap to buy, which makes South Korea a perfect drinkers paradise for backpackers on a tight budget who love to drink almost every night and have fun! There are many different areas in Seoul you can visit for a night out depending on your music taste. A lot of Koreans love to listen to hip hop and r&b music, but you can find other bars that play other types of music and you are guaranteed to find what you like. There are areas that are popular with foreigners like Itaewon and Hongdae. In these areas you will find many westerners out drinking most nights and it is a good way to meet English-speaking people and easily make friends. Also, you can find lots of western-style food here, so if you miss a nice doner kebab or fish and chips you can pick up these privileges there. So after my first full day in Seoul, where I tried new food, new alcohol and walked around some historic and modern areas, I was left thinking to myself "wow." I felt lucky that I had been introduced to this place and had a chance to experience it fully. I couldn't wait for the sun to rise again the next morning, get ready and head out for another adventure around a city where there is so much to see and do, and eat and drink.
To be continued....