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Solo Korea: 4 Reasons to become a Solo Weekend Travel Warrior!

Korea is a pretty safe country to travel if you’re a woman. But being a solo traveler – difficulty and delight can share the same coin.

While I thoroughly enjoy relaxing and bonding with fellow expats on group day trips, as we weathered inevitable culture shock together; excursions alone, while initially dreaded, gives me valuable time to explore, grow and reflect upon my new cultural surroundings at a relaxed pace. Plus, I get to take out my DSLR camera!

Me and Solo winging it

On my weekend trip to Busan. I didn’t know if I was serious about going to Busan for the weekend and doing it solo!  But 9:30a Saturday morning I woke up and realized I wanted to go. It was too late to gather friends together… so off I went!  Call me impulsive. Impulsiveness often breeds solo travel.

…But I’ll get to my weekend in Busan later (Read here).  These are some realizations that surfaced from this solo adventure.

4 Reasons to be a Solo Weekend Warrior:

•  Self-Empowerment

My number one love for traveling solo is that I like to prove to myself that I can do it.

The heroine of my travel story, every time I leap my own mini hurdles, I hear a magical and triumphant “ding!”. It’s like throwing a golden coin in my bucket.

• I decided at the last-minute at 9:30AM on Saturday, that I would go to Busan…  “ding!”
• I got down to the Dongdaegu station and bought my one-way KTX ticket to Busan…  “ding!”
• I boarded my train and was off…  “ding!”

And so forth…

Each time I  leap a hurdle, I feel successful, alive and glad I accomplished it on my own!.

•  Putting your own unique stamp on a place.

In group travel, the city I’m visiting tends to turn into the third wheel.

Unusual, right?

Often, the city (the star attraction) has a tendency to be replaced by group dynamics. In group travel, the focus is about building friendships and working together to create a harmonious travel experience.  In many ways, this becomes a barrier between me and the place. For example, it’s the simplest act of choosing to spend my time absorbed in conversation, to get to know my travel buddies, which takes precedence over noticing the passing landscape, its inhabitants and their cultural nuances. 

When I return from a day trip with a group, I find my knowledge of a city is superficial. I learned more about fellow travelers, than the place I visited. In essence,  I “touristed” my fellow travelers. 

Traveling solo, it’s just ” you and the city”.  That is *the* spotlight activity.

For better or worse, when I’m alone, I experience and explore a place directly, minus distractions.   I speak to locals more and open myself to observing the subtleties of a lifestyle… or even serendipitous events. Traversing the land and learning about its nuances through conscious discovery and I build a personal connection to it. I weave meaning and understanding into my explorations.

Personally, while I enjoy group travel, I also love when I get to discover a special connection to a place and put my personal stamp on it!
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•  Explore it, connect with it or… move on.

What I treasure the most about solo travel is the freedom and time it affords for my interests and hobbies.

I’m a natural explorer. I like to get lost and this often leads me to experience off-the-beaten-path things. I love to follow my curiosity and see where it leads.

Also, as a photographer, solo travel is my golden hour. It means that I get to milk my time in an area, photograph it and observe  in silence, its dynamics and culture (check out my travel portfolio).  I can spend hours in one place, searching for a  subject I want to spend my time photographing.

When I’m with a partner or group, I’m often chained to their agenda and interests, often compromising my wants.  That’s generally when my photographic process gets quick, sloppy and I do a lot of drive-by shooting, never fully delving into what I’m shooting.


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•   Testing my resourcefulness, travel survival abilities … and learning how to take charge of my fears.

Traveling with a group, I don’t get to experience the intimidation or overwhelm of a city.

Why is that such a bad thing, you ask?

I become a lazy and passive tourist on a “safe” agenda vs. an active traveler on an adventure.

Traveling with friends,  often a trip’s organizer has coördinated an itinerary and researched its transportation issues beforehand. Everything is already done for me and all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Even if transportation isn’t figured out, in a group, there are enough “skilled brains” that are able to work out a confident solution. There’s also a lack of concern with budgeting money. We can hire a taxi and split the expenses ! This, coupled with the fact my attention is more on getting to know people (over  the city), is a deadly combination. Like a tiger in a zoo, I forget my most basic instincts… how to survive and hunt.

As a solo traveler, a new city can feel as vast and scary as a jungle! You can feel naked and ill-equipped in navigating it. It’s easy to get lost, feel overwhelmed, stressed and vulnerable, until you can get a perspective of the city grid and the way it works.  So, understanding how to navigate the city or learning how to use public transportation are things I like to do when I’m alone.  The test of being on my own, awakens a sixth sense or traveler’s sense in me. I observe my surrounding more and in navigational difficulty, I find I become more resourceful.

Guided city tours, day trip tours and bus tours on your first day in a new city, are a great way for solo travelers to get a quick perspective of a place.

Although I just negated group travel, I will be contrarian to say, day tours and hop-on-hop-off bus tours rock.  The difference between these and traveling with a group of friends, is that you’re still on your own and have a choice to interact with travelers around you …or not.  You can still give a place (and your reflective thoughts) your undivided attention.

 When I enter a city, I like to get a gist of its layout, how far things are from one another, … a general overall view of things. Knowing this helps me navigate it better and more confidently.. If you take a tour on your first day in a city, you’ll get transportation ease and it will help you capture city highlights in a time-efficient manner. As I mentioned with Busan and my frustration with exploring the city via unlimited metro pass (here), getting around to major attractions was much more time-involved and un-successful than I thought. Discovering their city bus tours was a godsend.

Korea has a wonderful thing called city bus tours (click here for Busan’s bus tours). For 5,000- 15,000 won, you’re taken to all the city highlights via hop-on, hop-off bus route. Pretty brilliant! A city bus tour not only gets you around cheaper and quicker than a taxi or metro; it also uncovers details you might overlook on foot… such as the possibility that subway stations may be closer to each other than they seem on a map!

What are some of your reasons for wanting or loving solo travel? What are your fears?

4 Comments

  1. I also get to travel both alone and by myself, and I always find solo travel much more enjoyable! I tried the HOHO (hop-on, hop-off) in New Delhi, but I didn’t enjoy it though. The guides just talked in Hindi! Pretty irritating.

  2. Ji Sheng says:

    Hi,
    I will be travelling solo to Korea(Busan) next month in may, one problem i’m currently facing is eating out alone in S.Korea as Koreans generally dine in groups of 2 or more and restaurants usually cater to 2 or more people, any recommendations or tips on dining alone in Korea?

    • @Ji Sheng: Well, there’s a couple of things. First, if you’re going to stay at a hostel and you feel awkward about dining alone, I’d suggest seeing if anyone is up for getting food.

      But largely, I’ve spent more times than I care to remember dining alone and other foreigners do too. You’re a foreign tourist; you’re well accounted for and off the “cultural” hook. Sure, there are times, I order dessert and they give me two spoons when I’m clearly alone and the panchan at restaurants are all mine. More for me and there’s nothing I can do about that.

      If you still feel funny or “lame” for being alone, try this- speak loudly to your waiter/waitress in a manner that lets them know you’re a tourist. Open up a phrase book or act like a foreigner. Being Asian, many Koreans assume I’m Korean and judge me according to their standard. But the moment I open my mouth & speak English or I fake bad Korean, those who look at me funny, say… “Aahh..(foreigner)”. I get the green light and they accept that.

      Another idea if you feel awkward about being at a restaurant alone: Eat street food or in Korean fast food restaurants (here), coffee houses, western restaurants, department store food courts (here) or a restaurant that’s not crowded. Busan’s Shinsegae near PIFF/Jalgachi has a downstairs food court and the PIFF shopping area is just loaded with fast food/street food joints. I’m pretty sure, being able to read a Korean menu will dictate where you end up dining, so you may be at the above mentioned for a while.

      I wouldn’t be nervous about dining alone. It’s not very Korean, but you can’t act Korean if you’re not. Hope it helps and if you discover any new tips, feel free to share!

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