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This trip report appeared first on my website, NessTheNomad.com.
After six and a half years, I finally got myself back to South Korea – for the third time in my life. The first couple of times I went I was a fresh-off-the-boat newbie in Asia, I was on visa runs from China, I was always on a shoestring budget, and I just didn’t have that much travel experience to really put the country into perspective.
This time around, I found myself in Seoul, staying a total of eight days and eight nights. After that I made my way to Busan for the very first time, where I also stayed eight days and seven nights.
So what did I think of Seoul, a city dubbed as “the soul of Asia,” all these years later? Has much changed? How does the city compare to other Asian megacities? How was the food? Were the women really as beautiful as they say? How was the level of English? Was everything hyper-expensive like in Tokyo, or on the cheaper end like in Shanghai? The answers lie within this very trip report.
I remember I used to think that Korea was basically what you’d get if you put China and Japan together in a blender. But would I still stick to that statement now, having lived in both China and Japan for years? Let me take a closer look.
Let’s start with Japan, the country where I currently live. For starters I don’t see anybody in Seoul wearing those stupid surgical masks that plague the entire population of Japan. Nor do Korean people have that awkward, so-polite-it-makes-you-sick kind of demeanor that’s prevalent in Japan. Korean customer service also seems fairly normal, not so exaggerated like in Japan. I see almost no people riding around on bicycles, a stark contrast to urban Japan. So then, is anything the same?
Well, Korean restaurants seem to open and close as they please with no regard for customers, a common feature in Japan. A lot of buildings in Seoul have those flashy ads going up and down the entire sides of buildings, just as they do in every Japanese metropolis. I also notice so many girls wearing bright red lipstick, just like they do in Japan’s Kansai region (who actually started the trend, I don’t know). The buildings and the tiles on the sidewalk have that distinct Northeast Asian look, just as they do in China, Japan, and Mongolia. There’s also a very noticeable lack of variety in the way locals look, another distinct Northeast Asian feature.
As for China, Koreans definitely look remarkably similar to the Northeast Chinese, yet they also look quite a bit like the Mongolians. They also have that distinct aggressive body language that seems oh so common in China and Mongolia, but very lacking in Japan (though the average Korean is infinitely more polite than the average Chinese). Traditional Korean architecture looks remarkably the same as that of China. Korean cuisine seems like an offshoot of northeastern Chinese cuisine.
But the most important thing of all is that Seoul and the rest of Korea just has that China atmosphere. It’s hard to put in words, but if you’ve spent considerable time in both countries, then you’ll surely get my point. So would I still say Korea is simply a mixture of China and Japan? Yes and no. I think it’s better put this way: put three parts China, one part Japan, and one part Mongolia into a blender, and there you have Korea. Korea’s the blending point of Northeast Asia, the same way Thailand is the blending point of Southeast Asia.
Seoul itself seems like a combination of Shanghai and Tokyo. I can see remnants of both cities everywhere I go. It’s located relatively close to the coast and is intersected by several bodies of water. Tall and modern buildings line every major and semi-major street. The metro system is incredibly extensive and overwhelming to the uninitiated newbie (19 lines and hundreds of stations). The city’s streets lack a distinct cultural feel, except for a few small pockets here and there. Extreme vanity has a firm grip over the local population. These giant Asian megacities all seem to blur together more and more as each generation goes by.
Just walking around every day in Seoul, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a city dominated by youth, particularly those in their twenties and thirties. While there are certainly children, middle-aged folks, and the elderly to be seen here and there, they are greatly outnumbered.
Just like in Bangkok, I also noticed that there seems to be a disproportionately high number of young women in Seoul. For every one young man I see, I surely see two or three young women. I question if the Korean countryside is one big sausage fest.
And while we’re on the topic of Korean women, I can confirm that there’s no shortage of absolute beauties in Seoul. A man who likes women with that distinct Northeast Asian look will have plenty to look at in Korea. Practically every woman between the ages of 18 and 50 is in good shape, has a decent sense of style, and has an attractive face. And just like Mongolian women, Korean women seem to be a bit shapelier than their Chinese and Japanese cousins. It seems like most women were on average half a cup size bigger in the chest and had noticeably more of an ass. They’re no Brazilians when it comes to curves, but they do tend to have a bit more meat in just the right places.
Being one of the epicenters of the Asian fashion scene, it comes as no surprise that so many people in Seoul were dressed to impress. Vanity was so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. I’m a strong believer in making oneself clean and presentable, but there’s a fine line between looking good and being a self-absorbed narcissist. The entire population of Seoul has clearly stepped over that line. I think Seoul’s got vain cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bangkok beat. If you don’t look good, you’re invisible in Seoul.
That said, the women of Seoul were usually dressed to the nines and a bit oversexualized – short skirts, super short shorts, lots of leg showing, very high heels, layer after layer of makeup, hair dye, designer purses, and so forth. If it’s the humble girl-next-door you’re after, you’re gonna have to find her in a sea of self-absorbed bitches. Sure, there was lots of eye candy anywhere and everywhere in Seoul, but the women seemed very aware of their beauty, which was clearly reflected in their behavior and body language. If you want more cute, friendly, and approachable types, Busan would be a better fit (more on that later).
Lots and lots of women in Seoul also have fake, plastic-looking faces and bodies. Just like in Hollywood, it’s dead obvious that plastic surgery is widespread in the city. Like I said, Seoul is a pretentious city. With perhaps the exception of small breast implants, I’m generally not a fan of plastic surgery, so I found this local trend to be a bit of a turn off. Fake-looking plastic faces just aren’t my thing. Luckily, I didn’t notice this trend in Busan.
Though they’re generally quite good-looking, there really isn’t much variety in the average Korean female face and style. Once again, just like Mongolian women, Korean women all have that sisterly, belong-to-the-same-family look. I often just could not tell different girls apart. They all have the same facial structure, makeup style, and fashion style. If it’s variety you’re after, you’re not gonna find much of that in Korea. Korean women all look remarkably the same. Even my Chinese wife thought the girls were barely distinguishable.
Even though there was no shortage of catty bitch types in Seoul, I did get a lot of positive vibes from the local lasses. I wasn’t getting eye-fucked like I tend to in Ulaanbaatar, Manila, and parts of urban China, but I was getting lots of “soft” glances everywhere I went, particularly from university-aged girls. Whereas the women in Kyoto and Tokyo often go out of their way to avoid making eye contact with me, the women in Seoul would often lock eyes with me if I looked their direction. Not 100% of course, but enough to see a noticeable trend.
Women also seemed receptive to me firing up random conversations with them. Often times I would ask random girls if I could take their picture, or just simply say some random remark to them, and their eyes would instantly light up with joy. It was almost as if they were just waiting for me to talk to them. I also noticed when I went to restaurants popular with young people, whole tables of girls would turn around and look at me every time I got up. I just didn’t expect this kind of behavior from Korean women, as so many of the Korean women I’ve met in other parts of Asia came across as stuck up and prude.
To be perfectly clear, girls would never initiate me first, but if I initiated them, they always seemed delighted. And I don’t speak a lick of Korean, so take that for what it’s worth. If you’re a decent-looking man and have the balls to cold or warm approach random girls, my gut tells me you could probably do quite well in Korea. I felt like I was getting infinitely more female attention in Korea than I ever have in Japan. Perhaps it was on par with what I get in mainland China, which is not bad at all.
Smartphones have really taken over in Korea. I thought Japan was about as bad as it gets when it comes to the prevalence of smartphone zombies in Asia, but I think Korea’s got Japan beat. Anywhere and everywhere I looked, on the metro or in the park, from Seoul to Busan, everyone had their face buried in their phone. If there’s one thing you’ve got to compete with over Korean female attention, it’s surely their smartphones. And people are really zoned into their screens. Sometimes I would just stare at people or start taking their picture with my DSLR camera to see if they’d ever notice me, and surely enough, they never did.
The average level of English in Seoul was about what I expected – above that of both urban Japan and China, but below that of Singapore and the Philippines. Most shopkeepers, clerks, and waitresses knew enough English vocabulary to get me what I wanted, and many service people would initiate me in English before I even opened my mouth, but having any kind of meaningful conversation was usually not possible. And as always, younger people spoke more English than older age groups. I had the most luck with university-aged people, but even their English wasn’t what I’d call good, but it was usually passable. The bottom line is, I didn’t face an enormous language barrier, but I wasn’t exactly doing anything other than basic business transactions 98% of the time.
Korean cuisine has always been one of my Asian favorites. I’m not exactly sure how I’d rank it, perhaps about on par with Thai cuisine. I’ve eaten tons and tons of Korean food prior to my trip to Seoul, especially in Northeast China, and I’ve always been curious as to how authentic those meals were. Apparently they were pretty authentic, indeed.
Practically every dish I tried in Seoul was just like those that I’ve already had outside of Korea. Anything and everything is coated in gochujang, that classic Korean chili paste, which gives the food a lot of kick. It paints every Korean food red, which is a distinct color in Korean cuisine. Lots of pickled vegetables are served as sides to the main course, and seafood can seemingly be incorporated into just about every dish. Very spicy, quite salty, and a bit sweet best describes most Korean cuisine. The flavors did not disappoint. My absolute favorite Korean food is topokki, which can be found on practically every street corner and in every restaurant. Gogigui also deserves an honorable mention.
If I have one major complaint about Korean food, it would have to be that it just isn’t that healthy. Tasty sure, but good for your health? I don’t think so. Most cuts of meat have more fat than lean meat. There’s enough salt in every dish to raise your blood pressure levels in no time. And there are far too many simple carbs in the diet for just about everyone except the most active of people, such as marathon runners and Olympic weightlifters.
And just like the Thais, the Koreans have an unhealthy obsession with deep-frying. Deep-fried snacks are on every corner, and fried chicken restaurants are a dime a dozen. And finally the Koreans seem to be taking note from their mainland Chinese cousins by drenching everything in shitty cooking oils. I say if yo absolutely must eat healthy while in Korea, then go for the soups and pickled vegetables.
Foreign restaurants were everywhere in Seoul. I was particularly surprised at how much Mexican food was available. Hell, even Taco Bells were fairly abundant, which are almost nonexistent in the rest of Asia. Chinese and Japanese restaurants were also fairly ubiquitous. Koreans seem to have a newfound obsession with pizza, so finding affordable and decent pizza is no problem, unlike in Japan and China where pizza tends to be expensive and shitty. I wholeheartedly recommend Mr. Pizza, a local Korean pizza franchise. The bottom line is, the foreign food scene in Seoul is one of the best I’ve ever seen in Asia. It gives Bangkok, my previous number one, a run for its money.
If you like drinking, I’m happy to report that Seoul has a vibrant nightlife scene. Just like in Tokyo and Ulaanbaatar, lots of trendy and cozy little bars were on practically every street. These places seemed the most popular with young people, whereas the older guys mostly seemed to get drunk old-school style while eating a meal together at restaurants. Bottles of domestic beer at most bars were medium-expensive – far more than in Ulaanbaatar, but a bit cheaper than in Tokyo.
The natural landscape of Seoul did have some beauty, but it didn’t stand out as anything special. There are some hilly areas throughout the city, and the Han River does intersect the city, but other than that, it’s mostly just a concrete jungle. Very much on par with other Asian megacities like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bangkok.
There was also a constant brown haze hovering over the city during my entire weeklong stay. This made the sky a bit of an eyesore. It was no Beijing for sure, but it was something I immediately noticed once leaving the airport.
The weather was pretty miserable all weeklong. No surprise considering I was there in mid-August. I actually love hot weather, but it wasn’t so much the temperature that got to me in Seoul, but rather the crushing humidity. Only minutes after stepping outside, I would always be covered in sweat. This was made all the worse by the fact that Koreans seem to be largely anti-air conditioning. Subway stations and other public places seemed to have no AC whatsoever. So very Chinese and so very un-Thai-like. Everywhere I went I saw people carrying those little paper hand fans cooling down their faces. I felt like I was back in third tier China.
There was the occasional brief downpour of rain, but not enough that it put a damper on my plans. The sunshine was also intense, made all the worse by the fact that there was nowhere to hide in the shade. If I was outside, I had no choice but to roast in the hot sun and sweat my ass off. So very Bangkok. I wish more cities would take note from places like Singapore and Penang, where buildings are built with the upper floors hovering over the footpaths, which creates a natural shade for pedestrians.
Seoul was a bit expensive for an Asian city. It was certainly no Tokyo, but it wasn’t too far behind a city like Singapore. Accommodation was not bad at all, seeing as I only paid an average of 35,000 won or so per night to stay in a guesthouse in a central area (Myeong-dong), but things like public transportation and food were a bit high for a city of its dynamics.
I paid about 1,350 won for most subway rides, which is about the same as Singapore, but about four times more than Shanghai. Most locals meals cost me around 8,000 won, give or take a thousand, and most foreign meals cost me anywhere from 10 to 15,000 won. Portions were about 1.5 times those of Japan, but maybe a bit less than those in Shanghai. Excluding accommodation, I spent an average of about 40 to 50,000 won a day, and I don’t feel like I had to be that careful with my money either.
Quite frankly, Seoul just didn’t strike me as a very interesting city. Just like Tokyo, it’s a bit too big and overdeveloped for its own good. Except for a few pockets here and there, the streets largely lacked a local vibe. I never had a “Wow, I’m in Seoul” kind of feeling. In stark contrast to Busan, I also had to pay close attention to try and find anything I wanted to photograph. I’ve found that when a place is boring to photograph, it’s usually boring to explore, too. Seoul is just too sanitized.
But it wasn’t all that bad in Seoul. There were a few notable highlights. My fondest memory was walking through Bukchon Hanok Village, a more traditional and laidback residential area in the city’s north. It was by far the most scenic part I saw of the city. It felt far more Korean than the entire rest of the city.
I also enjoyed just walking on foot at night through Namsan, the area surrounding N Seoul Tower. It’s very hilly, so I was always walking up and downhill, but I liked the more local vibes.
The Yongsan Electronics Market was also a highlight, as I enjoy looking at all things related to electronics, particularly camera gear and computer parts. The whole area is remarkably similar in look and feel to Nipponbashi Den-Den Town in Osaka’s Ninaiwa Ward.
Though it was absolutely not to my liking, I took a couple of evening strolls through Itaewon, Seoul’s infamous foreigner ghetto that’s filled with countless bars, restaurants, and shops that largely cater to Westerners. Itaewon is adjacent to Seoul’s giant American military base, so lots of douchey, culturally-insensitive soldier types flock there to drink and party – kinda like an offshoot of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road or Ho Chi Minh City’s Pham Ngu Lao Street. The whole area was overly pretentious and filled with young people who desperately want to be noticed and to be perceived as “cool.” Not my kinda scene. Maybe I could’ve enjoyed it more when I was ten years younger.
I also spent a day in Gangnam, the part of Seoul just south of the Han River that was made famous by Korean singer PSY’s song “Gangnam Style.” Glitzy malls and stores, beauty clinics, trendy restaurants, and tall skyscrapers all line the area. It reminded me of Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district. I didn’t feel the need to stick around long.
If I have one major grievance about Seoul, it’s not the fact that the whole city is a bit dull and lacking in culture. Rather it’s the absurd amount of mainland Chinese tourists, particularly small groups of young women, that plague anywhere and everywhere of interest to tourists. Just about any time I went somewhere on the main tourist trail, I would see far more Chinese people than actual locals. Even my Chinese wife was getting really irritated by them, because they act just like they do in the mainland – completely lacking in any kind of civility. They were everywhere in Myeong-dong, Gangnam, and Bukchon, but oddly enough, they were nowhere to be seen in Itaewon.
At both of my guesthouses, about 75% of the guests were mainland Chinese. The others guests were mostly small groups of other Asians, particularly Thais and Filipinos. Westerners were very few and far between. It’s quite obvious that South Korea is very much off the beaten track for most Westerners, as I really didn’t see many over my 15-day stay (except for in Itaewon, of course). Their lack in numbers was very comparable to second tier China. Sure, you might see one here and there, but not enough to really care. Northeast Asia in general really just doesn’t attract Westerners the way Southeast Asia does. Seoul is clearly the territory of Asian tourists.
Seoul is a giant city with endless possibilities. It truly is one of the epicenters of Asia. The local food tastes great and lives up to expectations. The foreign food scene is very diverse and has something for everyone. The women are smoking hot, in good-shape, dressed to impress, and age very gracefully. If shopping’s your thing, the sky’s the limit in Seoul – electronics, clothing, cosmetics – it’s all there. Public transportation is extensive, efficient, and affordable. Free high-speed wi-fi is anywhere and everywhere.
But Seoul is not the best city for those looking for adventure. The street life is very sanitized and bland. The city largely lacks in distinct local vibes. While quite good, the local food can get boring fast, nor is most of it conductive to a healthy diet. The women of Seoul may be very easy on the eyes, but so many of them come across as bitchy, self-absorbed, and full of silicone. The whole city is infected with shallow and pretentious people. People never stop looking at their smartphones. Nor is Seoul cheap on an Asia-wide scale – the cost of traveling is very comparable to medium-large American cities like Dallas or St. Louis. Seoul has also sold its soul to Asian tourists, particularly the mainland Chinese.
Whether or not you’d like Seoul depends on countless factors. How much of Asia have you already seen? Do you like megacities? Does Korean food strike your fancy? Do Korean women appeal to you? Do you want a bit of challenge and adventure or a safe and straightforward journey? For better or for worse, Seoul, just like Tokyo and Singapore, feels like Asia on easy mode.
Though I was happy to spend an entire week in the city and learn about it more through firsthand experience, the truth is I couldn’t wait to get out of Seoul and on to Busan. The city has its good sides for sure, but I felt they were greatly overshadowed by its downsides, particularly the vanity. Seoul is just not for me. I doubt I’ll be back anytime soon. On the other hand, Busan was a whole ‘nother story. Stay tuned for part two of my Korea trip report in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for reading.
As of September 9th, 2016, 1 USD = 1,101 KRW.
Last edited by Everdred on Fri Sep 09, 2016 12:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Excellent photos and report. I would love to travel there.
I have absolutely no interest in Korea, and yet after reading your trip report I feel like I want to visit. You have a real knack for travel writing, Everdred.
It sounds like going to Seoul for a few days would be a straightforward, safe, but still fun adventure. I know I wouldn't do well with the women or like the hugeness of the city, but you've highlighted things like those leftover traditional places that can be found in the city. So at least for a few days, there'd be plenty to do that didn't involve living the big city life. On another note, I didn't realize that Chinese tourists were that common there. They're really taking over, and no one likes them. In China people don't seem that uncivil. Disorganized (can't form a queue) and dirty (spitting and throwing garbage everywhere) but not especially uncivil or rude.
Anyway, not exactly the HA ideal, but hey, not every country is going to be cut out for that. Shame that modernity is swallowing up everything, although outside of capital cities I guess it's not as bad. But still...weird that you can be in a foreign country and at some level it feels like it could be any major city anywhere.
Last edited by Ghost on Sat Oct 15, 2016 3:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
Just fantastic Everdread, once again. Thank you. I was really waiting for your SK report.
Exactly, the boxier skulls and high eye sockets are definitively more mongolian. Not that japanese IMO.
But it's interesting though, as there are certain overlaps. From my observations, 5% of Vietnamese girls look like 90% Koreans, and 5% of Koreans look like 90% of Vietnamese.
Also behavior-wise (you and yohan can correct me) I think they are not as clean as the japanese, I'm told here they pee all over the toilet and don't flush, etc. It seems they're stuck in between rural and modern behavior, i mean their rise has been too fast. The japanese civility goes way back.
I saw a site that shows Seoul still has plenty of littering and garbage dumping, is this correct?
Sweeet, although I've found out the hard way that in some countries nice ratios don't always translate to nice attitudes.
I love that ostrich-like figure.
Sorry about the crassness here , but I want to bury my face in their *ss*s
The success of K-pop has clearly gotten to their head, even the chubby ones carry this stance.
This is refreshing news, and kind of the on-the-ground clarification I was waiting for. That's very nice, at least if they fricking acknowledge your presence it's nice, one can actually do something with that.
I've tried that too, they don't give a shit to their surroundings, but to be honest I've been guilty of that sometimes.
Seriously, sometimes i want to slap that stupid phone to the ceiling, especially when they're walking and looking at it simultaneously. I don't know how they don't trip.
Lol there are plenty of youtube videos with that haha. Like locusts, but I think they will catch up, some of them just left the farm so to speak with all the new money.
The girl on the right is doing the loud "ooooh-oh-ooooohhhhhh" they do all the time.
I CAN'T WAIT FOR YOUR BUSAN REPORT EVERDRED
1)Too much of one thing defeats the purpose.
2)Everybody is full of it. What's your hypocrisy?
I too have very limited desire to go to Seoul, but I enjoyed this review immensely. I agree that female vanity is a problem seemingly on the rise. A man feels that he is not in competition with other men for a woman's attention these days, but up against her phone - and that's a battle he'll never win. A girl who is not painfully aware of her attractiveness is now a rare find. You'd think girls in big cities wouldn't be so vain as they are in a sea of other attractive girls, but no it doesn't work like that apparently.
Actually a smart phone can be used to read or study anything, but usually I see people are just using LINE or Pokemon go. Although here in Taiwan you do see lots of people reading books too, it seems the kindle is one gadget that didn't really catch on in Asia!?
Everdred! There is no P4P report on this report. Really papi?!
It's time to expatriate to evade your fate; it's time to expatriate before the barn door permanently closes on "US" sheep.
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Nice to see a trip report from Everdred about South Korea.
In some other parts of this forum there are some interesting Japan-reports too.
Please read them...
E Irizarry R&B Singer,
I think everdred is married so I don't think he does p4p.
correct me if I 'm wrong you are married? When you try to approach or talk to other women does your wife get jealous?
Overall the Korean post I more or less have to agree with it some of the views. I have to reread it to see where there is difference from my experience.
If you guys are going to visit Korea, I would avoid Seoul. As many people have mentioned, Seoul is a fake, plastic city. On the other hand, cities outside of Seoul are fantastic. Most of my family live in Incheon, which is where the major airport is located at. I've also heard fantastic things about Busan as well.
Seoul is like the Los Angeles of Korea; If I was a foreigner visiting America, I'd much rather visit Texas, Arizona, or Tennessee, than that fake city; conversely, if I was visiting Korea as a foreigner, I'd avoid Seoul and visit places like Busan, Kwangju and Inchon instead.
But Seoul is where almost all the action is. I think what happens is that most of the major cities..Seoul, Tokyo, Shang Hai etc...aren't the best place to go to if you want to avoid westernization and superficiality.
I have a Japanese friend who told me he prefers to go to the country side because it still has a sense of community where as tokyo is just ever person for themselves.
Large cities are getting more and more similar, regardless where you are...
However it depends, what is your intention, are you going there for work as a foreigner or merely as a tourist.
As a tourist only, I agree - a very few days in Seoul are more than enough, we continued soon to Daejeon (between Seoul and Busan) and Daegu to see something which is more Korean and less 'international'. These are fairly large cities, but still easy to move around with much less tourists, less traffic, more greenery....
Thanks, Ghost. Those are very encouraging words. If my writing made someone wanna travel, then it was worth all the effort I put into it.
Haha, maybe you have me mixed up with Winston? But yeah, I'm not a big P4P guy, though I can empathize with those who are.
Yes, I'm married to a northeastern Chinese woman. No, my wife doesn't get jealous - in fact, she's usually with me when I do and eggs me on. But understand that I'm not approaching in a sexual nature. Rather, I'm usually just asking the girls if I can take their picture, because what they're doing looks interesting, what they're wearing looks nice, etc.
Thanks to everyone else who chimed in. I always read every reply on my trip reports, and I appreciate any words of praise or any observations you can add. Okay, let's get part two of this trip report rolling:
Once again, this trip report appeared first on my website, NessTheNomad.com.
Seoul turned out to be Just Another Big City™, but could Busan, South Korea’s giant coastal city 200 miles to the southeast, really be any better? If culture, unique local vibes, and more humble attitudes are what you’re after, then the answer is a resounding yes. Busan had everything I had hoped to experience in Seoul (yet didn’t) and then some. I spent eight days and seven nights in “Dynamic Busan” pounding the pavement, soaking in the vibes, shooting thousands of photos, trying different Korean foods, and talking to the locals. Here are my observations on the city.
If you’ve ever been to Dalian or Qingdao in mainland China, then you already have a good idea of what to expect visually from Busan. Throughout my entire stay in Busan, I kept seeing things that reminded me of China’s coastal cities – the lovely seaside scenery mixed with tall and modern-looking buildings, middle-aged and elderly people just sitting around on the sidewalk chatting and moseying about (something you almost never see in Japan), the drab China-esque color-schemes, and lots of mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall restaurants on every street.
While Seoul felt a bit too developed for its own good and scrubbed clean of culture, Busan felt like taking a step back in development. Just like Bangkok and Shanghai, Seoul can easily give the outsider a false sense of how developed the country is overall. Busan on the other hand felt a bit grittier and localized, perhaps one step further in development than China’s second tier cities, yet still one or two steps behind Seoul. I like that. As my travels have taught me again and again, too much development can certainly harm a country’s unique character and charm.
So how is Busan less developed than Seoul I hear you ask? Right off the bat I could see that traffic was much more aggressive in Busan. Whereas cars mostly drove reasonably and gave pedestrians the right of way in Seoul, this was often not the case in Busan, where cars put the pedal to the metal. Jaywalking was also more noticeable. Customer service was clearly a step down, too. Often when I went to restaurants or stores, I’d have to wait for the waitress or cashier to stop playing on their cell phone before they’d give me any service. And no developing city would be complete without its fair share of hideously bad smells lurking around every corner. But the trade-off to all this is that you get a much more authentic and unique experience, and that’s something you can’t put a price on.
One of the first things I noticed in Busan was that it’s more of a mixed bag when it comes to the average age of the locals. Seoul felt dominated by youth (and hence overly pretentious), but I was seeing lots of people of all ages everywhere I went in Busan. As a result, the people of Busan struck me as a bit more genuine and authentic than the plastic people of Seoul. The Busanites retained their Korean (and Thai and Japanese) characteristic of looking good, but they weren’t overdoing it to the point of vanity like in Seoul. Like I said, taking a step down in development has its upsides.
Whereas I didn’t stand out much at all in Seoul, I noticed I was getting lots of glances and stares from the people in Busan. Elderly people, particularly those on the subway, were the ones looking at me the most. It wasn’t the obnoxious and prolonged kind of staring I often get in China, rather it was the simple kind of staring that made it obvious that I stand out among the crowd. I did notice that there were very few Westerners in Busan, even less than I had seen in Seoul. Other than your token English teachers here and there, it’s abundantly clear that Korea has mostly failed in attracting Western folks. South Korea, much like mainland China and Mongolia, is just off the grid for most Westerners traveling in Asia, and I kinda like that.
The women of Busan were much more to my liking than those of Seoul. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of hotties anywhere and everywhere in Seoul, but I prefer women with a more humble attitude and a cuter, more down-to-earth dress style. Whereas so many of the girls in Seoul had that sexy bitch look, the girls of Busan had more of a girl-next-door look. They looked good without overdoing it and without being so try-hard. In the realm of women’s fashion, I find less is sometimes more. That said, if it’s just fun and casual flings you’re after, Seoul fits the bill quite well. But if it’s a relationship with a quality girl you’re after, my gut tells me Busan is the better choice. I’m sure vice versa is possible in both cities, but the odds would be less in your favor.
Just like in Seoul, but unlike in so much of Japan, the women of Busan weren’t afraid of a bit of human contact. If I looked their way, they very often looked back. If I said hello to them, they would say hello back. If I asked to take their picture completely at random, they always happily obliged with a genuine smile on their faces. I didn’t really talk to any Korean women on a personal level (I’m married and traveling with my wife after all), but I surprisingly got lots of good vibes from them overall, especially the ones in Busan. I felt acknowledged as a man, and that’s always reassuring.
In the vast realm of Northeast Asian women, I’d say mainland Chinese are my favorite, Mongolian second, Taiwanese and Korean tying at third, and Japanese coming in last. These rankings are based on everything – raw beauty, fashion style, personality types, chemistry, body language, etc. These rankings are subject to change at any time in the future, but my years in Asia have naturally taught me a lot about the personalities and mindsets of different Asian women.
The food in Busan was very similar to that of Seoul, but with Busan being a coastal city, there was naturally more of an emphasis on sea food. I liked almost everything I tried, particularly anything with squid in it. I think the Koreans cook squid better than all of their Northeast Asian neighbors. The way they coat it in gochujang (spicy pepper sauce) just does the trick for me. If you like Korean food and seafood, then I don’t see how you could go wrong in Busan. It’s definitely one of the better cities for food in the region. It’s still riddled with lots of tasty junk food like in Seoul, but it’s all good nonetheless. Every meal was great.
Whereas in Seoul the restaurant scene is kind of a perfect blend of mom-and-pop shops and franchises (especially American and Japanese ones), Busan is still mostly dominated by the mom-and-pop shops with a sprinkle of franchises here and there. If you’re in a popular area like Seomyeon, prepare to see lots of franchises, but get off of the main drag, and you’ll start to see far more independently-run kind of places.
As to be expected, there were noticeably less foreign restaurants in Busan than in Seoul. But that doesn’t mean the foreign food scene sucked in Busan, rather you just had to know more where to find it. Haeundae, the coastal area popular with tourists in the eastern side of town, had lots to choose from – pizza, burgers, kebabs, Mexican food, and so on. Korean-style fried chicken restaurants were also anywhere and everywhere just like in Seoul. I love almost anything related to chicken, even fried chicken, but I just can’t eat deep-fried foods that often.
Most of the meals I had in Busan were noticeably cheaper than those in Seoul, in fact maybe 25-33% cheaper. Except for a few elaborate meals here and there, 5 to 7,000 won per person per meal was always enough, and I always left each meal full and satisfied. The cost of food was about on par with what I pay in Little Rock, Arkansas (my hometown).
One thing I noticed in Seoul (and in Tokyo), was the lack of large supermarkets. I saw countless convenience stores and what I like to call “hybrid supermarkets” – stores too big to be called a convenience store, but too small to be called a convenience store – but never did I see any full-sized supermarkets. Not so in Busan, where medium-sized and full-sized supermarkets were in practically every neighborhood.
Busan was noticeably drier and cooler than hot and humid Seoul. Busan still had its fair share of heat and humidity, which was made all the more noticeable by Korea’s disregard for air conditioning, but the weather was still tolerable. Definitely comparable to the summers in coastal northeast China. I’ve heard Busan has mild winters though, the same of which cannot be said for northeast China. And just like in Seoul, Busan had a sprinkle of rain here and there, but not enough to hinder my enjoyment of the city.
One thing that surprised me about Busan was how good and extensive its public transportation systems were. The subway system alone has four lines and over 100 stations – not bad for a second-tier city. It also seems like every corner of the city is accessible via subway or bus. You’re never that far from a station. There’s really no need to take a taxi in Busan other than in the wee hours of the night.
Busan subway fares were on par with those in Seoul, with 1,500 won per ride being a rough average. You expect subway fares to be cheaper in second-tier cities than in megacities, but not so in Korea, where they’re almost the same across the board. The subway stations and trains were also very full all throughout the day and night. I could get on the subway at 2 PM on a Wednesday afternoon, and it would still be full of people. Whether August is just a particularly busy time of the year, or if the subway always stays this busy, I don’t know. Nevertheless, getting around Busan was mostly straightforward, if not a bit uncomfortable at times.
Because of Busan’s hilly landscape intersected by many bodies of water, the city doesn’t really have a centralized, circular layout like Seoul. Rather the city just spreads out like a slithering snake. What this means on ground level is that getting from point A to point B can be more time-consuming than you might initially think. You generally can’t travel in a perfectly straight line, rather you must weave up and down and around and around to your destination. For example, just going 15 subway stations can take almost an hour.
Busan is a great city to just walk around. The sidewalks are mostly open and walkable, there’s lots of great natural scenery, the streets have a distinct local Korean feel to them, there are countless markets scattered all around the city, and there’s lots of nice little restaurants and cafes to chill out and relax in. Whereas in Seoul, Tokyo, and Singapore I felt like I had to try hard to find something of interest, in Busan I felt happy and entertained by simply being outside. Interesting things to do and photograph found me, I didn’t have to find them, and that’s the true sign of a fun place to travel to.
When I think back on my eight days in Busan, five places keep popping up in my head as the most memorable:
First and foremost is Bujeon Market. This place is a giant wet market selling all kinds of exotic seafood, vegetables, herbs, spices, and meats. Walking in is an explosion on the senses and makes you feel very much like you’ve landed in Korea. It’s a travel photographer’s wet dream.
Second is Gamcheon Cultural Village. The area apparently used to be a ghetto of sorts, but it’s been given an artsy makeover and lots of renovations. It’s a bit like Georgetown in Penang but with a very different landscape. I like the village because the whole neighborhood feels very authentically Korean, cozy, and charming. The whole area is filled with hole-in-the-wall cafes, restaurants, and shops. And the view of Busan from the top of the village is outstanding. Definitely bring a camera.
Coming in at third is Gwangalli Beach and Haeundae Beach. You can’t make a summer trip report about Busan without mentioning its beaches. Surprisingly, the beaches were actually quite good, albeit a bit crowded. The sand was fine and yellowish white, the water was mostly blue, the area was mostly litter-free, and the coastal landscape was eye-catching. I’m not big into beaches, but I do appreciate their summer vibes. Busan’s beaches were no comparison to what you can find on Southeast Asian islands, but they exceeded my expectations nonetheless. I found myself wandering around them a lot over my eight days in the city.
Fourth is Dongbaekseom Island, which is right across from Haeundae Beach. This is a super scenic coastal area with a boardwalk, a small lighthouse, and the Nurimaru APEC House (the meeting place of the 2005 APEC Summit). It doesn’t sound that interesting on paper, but once you’re on the island (more like peninsula), the views are great no matter which direction you face. To the west you can see the enormous Gwangandaegyo Bridge, and to the east you can see Haeundae Beach. If you’ve ever been on Dalian’s Binhai Road, the boardwalk on Dongbaekseom is remarkably similar to that, albeit much shorter. If you’re a sucker for scenic views like me, then go and bring a camera.
And last but not least is Haeundae Market, a place I found myself again and again day after day. It may have “market” in its name, but I think it’s better described as a pedestrian snack street. It’s very short, maybe only half a kilometer long, but running along the street are several street vendors, snack stalls, hole-in-the wall restaurants, and a wet market. All kinds of food are for sale on the street – topokki (my favorite), fried chicken, baozi, dumplings, pastries, local specialties, tons of seafood, and countless other things. The street is best enjoyed at night, which is when it feels the liveliest. Most of my fondest food memories during my 16 days in Korea were on this street. Don’t miss it!
One thing I heard again and again about South Korea prior to my trip is how xenophobic the Koreans can be. I’ve heard stories of foreign guys being spit on for walking together with Korean women, people saying nasty things to them on the subway, and so forth. Honestly, I always thought that’s about on par with mainland China, especially northeast China. During my years living in Dalian and my subsequent years traveling around China, I’ve encountered my fair share of unprovoked animosity directed my way. Being told to go back to where I came from, being told by complete strangers that foreigners like myself are not allowed to take photographs in their country, being accused of being a spy, and so on. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s hard to erase from my memory.
So in 16 days in Korea, did I experience any xenophobia directed my way? Yes, twice as a matter of fact, and both times it was in Busan. The first time I was alone taking some pictures outside a seafood restaurant (pictured bellowed), and some random psychotic homeless-looking woman came up to me speaking some gibberish that sounded hateful in tone. She then took a camera out of her dirty-looking bag, aimed it at my face, and pretended to start taking pictures. At least I think she was pretending. I simply walked away a bit dazed, and I chalked the situation up to her just being a typical homeless loony.
The second time I was also alone, and I was sitting on a bench outside at Seomyeong (a busy and modern shopping district), waiting for my wife to finish shopping and come back outside. During my wait, a Korean man who looked twenty-something zoomed by on a bike and shouted “f***ing foreigner!” (in English) at me. It all happened so fast that it took my brain a few seconds to catch up and realize what had just happened.
While neither of these scenarios were that big of a deal, and I’m certainly not butt-hurt about them, it does show that there’s a select amount of hateful people in the country who’re ready to give an unsuspecting whitey like myself a piece of their mind once we cross paths. Surprisingly, I didn’t receive any kind of negative attention when walking around with my northeastern Chinese wife, someone who could’ve easily been mistaken for a Korean. I imagine if a Caucasian foreigner like myself were to live in Busan, they would encounter similar xenophobic situations. I had two in only 16 days in Korea. But other than those mishaps, I found the people of Busan to be far more to my liking than those in Seoul. Still, the xenophobia is something to be aware of.
Busan was everything I had wished for Korea to be. While Seoul left a bland taste in my mouth, Busan turned things around and showed me that Korea does indeed have some attractive features – the lovely and (mostly) approachable women, the great-tasting local cuisine, the picturesque landscape and street life, the authentic Korean atmosphere, the energetic nightlife, and so on. If one only had just enough time to see one of the two cities, Busan or Seoul, the best between two is an obvious one: Busan.
But just because Busan is better than Seoul doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and sunshine. It still has its shitty side – bad smells, more aggressive locals, less regard for cleanliness, a medium-high cost of traveling on par with many American cities, women glued to their smartphones, mild xenophobia, etc. Nevertheless, from a traveler's point of view I felt like Busan's pros definitely outweighed its cons, and I really enjoyed my trip there. I got hundreds of fantastic photos, and I never really felt bored during my eight days there. There was always something interesting to do or see. For these reasons, I would put Busan somewhere near the bottom of my top ten favorite Asian cities to travel to.
Having seen three different cities in South Korea – Seoul, Busan, and Jeju City (back in 2010) – I feel like I now have a pretty solid impression of what the country’s all about. I’m in no hurry to ever get back to Seoul, but I’m certain I’ll be back to Busan sooner or later. The only question is when. And I’d love to get back to Jeju someday, but my intuition tells me it has probably been overrun with mainland Chinese tourists by now. P.S. - in stark contrast to Seoul, I saw little to no Chinese tourists in Busan.
All in all, I had a good 16 days in Korea. If you really want to understand northeast Asia just that much more, it’s not a country to be missed. Now if only I can manage to get myself to North Korea, the only country in Northeast Asia I've yet to see. I’ll get there eventually. Mark my words.
If you like this trip report, also check out my other trip reports (in chronological order):
Japan (Living Report)
I have big big plans for 2017. I'll be leaving Japan for good in January, but first I'll make a trip back to Taiwan in December 2016. This time I'll be going to both Taipei and Kaohsiung, staying about a week in each city. If Winston happens to still be in Chiayi at that time, I'll also pop by there and say hello. Maybe I could do a professional photo shoot of him in his native habitat, haha. After I leave Japan, I'll be going to the following places:
Northeast China (January and February) - Dalian, Mudanjiang, Changchun, Yanji, Shenyang, and Dandong (about 1.5 months)
Hong Kong (March) (1 week)
Vietnam (March) - Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (1 week each)
Cambodia (March and April) - Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, and Poipet (about 3 weeks total)
Thailand (April) - Pattaya, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai (about 3 weeks total)
Laos (May) - Vientiane and maybe Vang Vieng (about 10 days total)
The USA (May, June, and July) - Chicago and its suburbs (Elgin, Schaumburg, etc.), Arkansas, and anywhere along Route 66 (Springfield, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, Flagstaff, Los Angeles, etc.) (about 2.5 months total)
(Back to) China (July and August) - Dalian and Beijing (about 1 month total)
After China I'm off to Malaysia to live and work, but this time my older brother (the same one I interviewed in my Japan living report) will be tagging along for his first overseas living experience. We'll most likely live in Kuala Lumpur, but Penang is also a possibility. Only time will tell, but we're hoping to stay in Malaysia two to three years total. I'll naturally be writing trip reports, taking thousand of photos, and doing interviews all throughout 2017 and my years in Malaysia. That said, if any HA'ers out there live in or will be near any of the places I mentioned above, send me a private message, and I'd be happy to meet up with you. In the meantime, I'll be wrapping things up here in rural Japan and trying to make the most out of my final days here. But I gotta confess - I can't wait to get the hell out!
Anyways, thanks for reading, everybody!
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