“Annyeonghaseyo” (hello) and “gamsahabnida” (thank you) are the only Korean words I know by heart.
As much as I’ve tried to find time to master the language, it hasn’t been as easy as I’d hoped. The linguistic setback, however, didn’t stop me from planning a 10-day solo trip to Seoul earlier this month.
The first time I visited the South Korean capital was for work last November, when I had an impressive but packed itinerary, ensuring I saw the city’s main attractions while being guided by people who knew it best. But this time around, I wanted to see Seoul for myself, to find out if I could replicate the magic I felt before.
While South Korea is not known to be an easy country for those who don’t speak the language, it’s also not impossible to find ways to get by. For starters, downloading apps such as Papago (for language translations) and Naver Map or KakaoMap are musts (Google Maps does not work properly in the country). There is also free Wi-Fi widely available throughout the city, especially on public transport.
For some, a week and a half can feel like a long time to be in one place, but for me, every day felt like a new adventure, full of possibility. I spent time wandering around new neighbourhoods, going to outdoor markets and eating delicious foods. I also caught up with some friends I had made from my previous trip. After those 10 days, Seoul was still an extraordinary experience but that isn’t to say it was smooth sailing all the time.
So, here are some things I learnt on my trip to help others who want to visit.
Knowing a little bit of Korean goes a long way
Not many people speak English in South Korea, nor should they be expected to. Although I am impressed with how many things are in English, when it comes to face-to-face interactions, it will mostly be in Korean unless its somewhere like a business where tourists would go.
So, knowing a few small phrases can go a long way. Even something as simple as gamsahabnida (thank you) with a smile can be a good way to show your appreciation to someone. For example, a bus driver helped me to get to a correct stop and then proceeded to hand me a left-behind umbrella because he knew it was going to rain. I'd like to think my numerous "gamsahabnidas" and general gratitude towards him were connected to the exchange.
Just having a little notebook with some keywords or phrases written in it will make things a lot easier because Koreans will probably understand what you are trying to ask for even if you can't say it in a complete sentence. For example: olmanayo (how much), yokssil (bathroom) and waipai (Wi-Fi) are good to know.
Don’t have a plan
This isn’t going to be for everyone, but sometimes it’s better to not have a set plan for the day. Perhaps make a list of things you'd like to see while there, but don't tie yourself to it. If you really want to immerse yourself in a place, you should be open to discovering as much as possible without the fear of something going wrong.
Pack very light
This feels like stating the obvious, but the shopping scene in South Korea, especially when it comes to beauty and skincare products, is unmatched. There’s an Olive Young (an outlet similar to Sephora) on almost every corner and, as the prices are often cheaper there than they are internationally, it’s hard to not want to buy everything.
However, even for those who aren’t into skin care or make-up, there are plenty of street markets to discover that sell souvenirs at reasonable prices. Whether it’s keychains and magnets, hoodies and T-shirts or cute cat-themed stationery, there is something out there for everyone, so be sure to have plenty of extra room in your luggage.
Just remember, if you take the metro back to the airport (which is the cheapest way), you'll have to be ready to carry your heavy bag for a while.
Be realistic with your expectations
Social media has allowed us all to romanticise many places and things, and Seoul is no exception. I tried to time my trip with the cherry blossom season because I really wanted to see them in full bloom. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't the only one.
My friend and I headed to Yeouido Hangang Park on an early Saturday afternoon and were shocked by how absolutely packed with people it was. However, in hindsight, this isn't surprising because cherry blossoms are a much sought after sight. We also tried to go up to Namsan Tower at sunset, only to be met with an enormous queue that extended outside the door, so we decided to leave and get dinner instead.
Much like travelling to any other place, Seoul really is what you make of it. It is not a perfect city, but it will continue to have a special place in my heart and I hope others who visit feel the same.