You’ve dance the Gangnam Style, you’ve watched the food docos and now you are itching to visit Seoul to experience Korean culture. You want the unedited, raw octopus galore kind of holiday where you can chat to the locals and after, dazzle your friends with your stories!
I’m sharing my experiences from my solo travel in the hope that it pushes your comfort boundaries a little so you can declare that you went on a genuine escapade. After all, we only live once.
- Memorise 1330
Before we rush off, this is something you must know. 1330 is your lifeline to everything a traveler needs during their stay in South Korea. The Korean government acknowledges the importance of their tourism industry therefore is prepared to help visitors extensively. When you are on the ground, nothing beats having a number to call, no matter the time or issue.
The operators of this hotline can translate your requests to your cab driver, contact emergency services and provide you with information on the go. To give you an idea of how amazing this is, let me tell you of the time when I was lost in Busan after alighting from the bus at 10 p.m. After two hours of circling countless streets, I was about to break down in tears from exhaustion and anxiety. Luckily, I dialed 1330 and within 15 minutes, the operator navigated me to the doors of my accommodation and cheerfully rang off after I was safely inside.
- Stay at the Jjimjilbang
Those on an adventure AND a budget, this is your golden ticket. The jjimjilbang, which is a bath house/ sauna, is a Korean experience not to be missed. For $6-$13, you can shower and sleep the traditional way on a mat on the floor for the night. If you are a lady traveling alone, sleep in the designated women quarters for safety.
I stayed for 20-odd nights at different jjimjilbangs and this was my routine: check in after dinner for a shower (and soak in the spa) then to sleep. Next morning, I check out, lock my bag in a locker at the train station and I’m free to explore to my heart’s content. Most jjimjilbangs are basic but I enjoyed the experience because they are the centre of experiencing life as a local, especially in a small town.
There are separate gender showers, but I’ll warn you here, everyone walks around bare naked. Since you are a foreigner, expect ample amount of staring. The trick is to view this as the perfect opportunity to embrace your body. I started off really shy, but relaxed to the idea by reminding myself that they are naked too! I can’t explain the bonding as I sat naked, answering a crowd of ladies asking about my life, my work and if I’d like to marry their neighbour’s son’s cousin twice removed, because he is a great guy and a lawyer to boot. My Korean was limited during that trip, but nothing impedes communication when you genuinely want to understand. Those sessions are treasured memories, I may never see those ladies again, but they touched my heart.
- Eat what she’s having.
When you are traveling solo, food options can be tricky but you get the opportunity to be more adventurous. My key to enjoying the local cuisine is to walk into places crowded with locals or choose shops that are covered in Korean writing then point to whatever the next table is consuming. This way, I’ve tasted the most surprising, delicious or on occasion spicy beyond logic kind of food. If you are up for a wilder ride, visit the markets and enjoy crowding elbow to elbow with the locals eating noodles, kimchi and fried food. Keen on raw cuisine? Find out where the freshest sea food is and video yourself consuming raw fish, pulsing octopus tentacles and squirming abalone. Whenever you are in doubt, look at the neighbouring table and order what they are eating.
- Save important information in Korean
This is something most newbie travelers forget until they are stuck drawing the logo of their accommodation to the police. Yes, I’ve done that before. When you first arrive, your phone might not work and you can’t communicate with your cab driver because he doesn’t read English addresses…you get the idea. It is really important to write down essential information like hotel addresses, particular places to visit like award winning restaurants in Korean. Oh, and copy contact numbers for good measure. Trust me; it will save you much heartache.
- Hike a mountain
I’ve discovered that relaxing or smooth sailing holidays mellow into bland memories. Why? Because there wasn’t a challenge to spike my memory. Therefore, here is my challenge; join a favourite Korean national past time, which is to hike a mountain!
There are scores of mountains to scale, even at the centre of buzzing cities like Seoul. The views are spectacular and you can choose from a variety of difficulty levels. I recommend picking one that is just slightly beyond your comfort zone. You won’t need special equipment as the paths are mostly smoothed out for easy walking unless you pick a hard core trail. There may be a moment when you realised that there is no turning back, it may cost you to keep going but do it! In retrospect, you will remember how you handled the process and realise how determined, able or cool a person you are deep down. Plus, it makes for a great story!
The last tip is common but important – exercise precautions while traveling. South Korea is probably one of the safer Asian countries to go off the beaten track on your own. But I would be a poor person if I encouraged adventure without prudence. Designate two friends and check in daily. Choose a safe phrase that only you and your friends know to prove that it truly is you and not a stranger who stole your phone or hacked your account.
As friendly as you can get with the locals, never reveal your itinerary. It may seem like a small detail but I’ve done it before in the heat of happy chatter, luckily without consequences. The phrase to remember is ‘It might happen to me’. The only person who can keep you safe is yourself and it should be your top priority. Traveling alone is invigorating but there is a responsibility to yourself and your loved ones so don’t let slide the little things.
Should you feel wanderlust overcoming you and a cheer rising internally for adventure after reading this, hoorah! I will leave you with this, action trumps intention. Give it a go and surprise yourself! I’m a huge fan of traveling in South Korea (must be something in the water) and I’ve returned often but nothing surpasses my solo travel experience. It showed me that I can be strong, courageous, open minded and adaptable. I hope that you will discover the same about yourself and more!
Author: Su Hsien Heng
Author Bio: Freshly minted Sydney-sider with a penchant for wandering side streets and traveling around Asia. Owner and founder of chic batik brand, neishus B that sells clothes and bags made for bold, sassy and classy women. Anti-human/sex trafficking is my passion, Jesus is my Lord and empowering women is my heart.
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Link to social media or website: Instagram @neishus_b