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Korean lifestyle and culture can feel very different for Western travelers.  Asian travelers may feel the difference, as well.  How different is it? I’ll let you be the judge. Here’s essential things to know before traveling Korea…
My last video post was about Travel Essentials for Seoul, so this week I wanted to share five travel essentials for Korea for navigating Korean culture!

27 Things to Know Before Traveling Korea

1. Is Korea Safe?

 The question “Is Korea Safe?” happens to be a very popular question for travelers.
Korea happens to be one of the safest countries I’ve been to yet! The honor system in Korea is pretty good (watch the video for explanation). But that doesn’t mean that crime doesn’t and can’t exist. One way Korea ensures safety is CCTV, a big brother surveillance system which runs throughout the country. If there ever were a crime, you can easily check out the CCTV footage . They have CCTV cameras installed everywhere: neighborhoods, parks, schools, convenience marts, even on streets and highways , etc…

 When I thought I lost my passport and went to the front desk because I knew it was the last place I took it out, the manager went to the security room and then after 15 minutes, returned and told me that from the CCTV footage, he noticed I had taken my passport up to the room!   Lo and behold, when I scoured my room, I discovered my passport had somehow fallen behind a dresser bureau.


CCTV in Korea, Korean CCTV

CCTV in Korea

2.  Be prepared to walk A LOT

I’m not kidding. Korean seniors are fit and active people; they make westerners look slothful. Taking the Seoul metro? Prepare to climb stairs (sometimes, levels). Korea has escalators, but usually it’s for intense climbs– hiking a floor or three with luggage does get sympathy from Korea.


3. Learn simple Korean travel survival phrases

My first year of living and teaching in Korea, the language barriers didn’t make living in Korea easier.  If you’re in Seoul, English is a little more common, especially around the younger generation. Outside Seoul, like Daegu or smaller cities, the English language gets a little spare.  But not to worry, Koreans try their best to help and if you’re lost, they might even lead you by the hand to your location.
Other travel survival tools for unblocking language barriers are:  taking a Korean phrase book, learn survival phrases, take a map to point at things, miming and gesturing.
Koreans know travelers probably don’t understand their language or rules, it’s often nice to have some phrases, just in case.
Annyeong-haseyo                 Hello (Koreans almost always greet people upon entrance)
Kamsahamnida                       Thank you.
Gomapsumida                         Thank you.
Hwah-jahngshil odi-ehyo?    Where is the toilet?
___________ odi-ehyo?             Where is  ________?    [ Tip: It helps if you have a map that you can point to]
Olmay-ehyo                             How much?  (or you can gesture this)

4. Navigating Language Barriers? Try a Korean accent.

I am not trying to be offensive here and this technique is a hit or miss…  Korean language uses some English words (aka Konglish, a Korean style English). Thus,  you can attempt using English in order to be understood, but it might not be understood unless it is spoken in a Korean accent. Weird, I know. (  Read Do I have to learn the language for moving abroad ?)  In my entire year of living/working in Korea, taking a taxi to Costco was always a challenge in Korean pronunciation. My drivers would never know what I was talking about if I pronounced Costco as Cost-coh. I had to break it in Korean/Japanese syllables to pronounce it- coh-su-tu-coh.  Coffee (koh-pi), drive (durai-bu), booking (boo-king), dessert (dee-sah-tu), sexy (sehk-shi),… Here’s a list here.

Here’s a quick primer in Korean pronunciation. The Korean language does not have hard sounding consonants. Instead, certain hard sounding consonants will be merged together to make the same alphabet. Thus, you’ll often see Koreans spell the same word differently. Let’s take cities  Daegu/Taegu or Busan/Pusan:

“d” and “t”s are the practically considered the same alphabet in Hangul (the Korean alphabet). However, they’re not pronounced like how you’d hear them in the U.S.  In Korea, it’s pronounced a bit like a nasal “d” or “t”… a soft tongue tap, rather than a clenched teeth type of strike.  Similar with “b” and “p”s or “g” and “k”s.
Also, there are no “f”s in the Korean pronunciation, so any “f” is pronounced more like a “p”. (i.e.  “coffee”= “Kopi”)

5. Food in Korea is spicy.

However you’ve had it at home, you’ve not had it this spicy.  Mexican chillies? Nope. Indian chillies? Eh. Korean food warrants it’s own level because it’s the flavor.  Much like fish sauce and garlic. Your nose will run and you’ll want to blow, but before you’re tempted… Don’t blow your nose at a meal.  See #8

6. Korean food is inexpensive

If you’re on a budget, you’ll find Korean food to be very easy on your wallet. From street food from under $1 to a small meal for under $5, you can get an insane amount of food. Some of my favorites are: soon dubu jigae (soft tofu stew), doenjang jigae (soy bean stew), bibimbap, bibimgooksu  and a whole bunch of vegetable side dishes.

7. Bibimbap is your best friend.

When you get there, you might be timid about trying the food. Especially if there are no English menus.  If your stomach can’t handle a lot of spice, then consider sushi restaurants, western restaurants, kimbap restaurants (sushi rolls), chook (aka rice porridge).

8. Where are the toilets in Korea?

Public restrooms are easier to find and more omnipresent than trash cans (that’s no joke). You’ll find them in subways, train stations, shopping malls, parks, coffee houses, a lot of places.  However, always take your tissues with you, as they might not have toilet paper.

9.  The public bathroom bar of soap

One thing you’ll find in Korean public bathrooms are a community hand soap. No, not the dispenser type (although in upscale Seoul bathrooms, you may find it). It’s a rounded bar of soap sticking out from the wash basin and you wet your hands and rub them over the soap to get it on you. It’s a slight turn off for Westerners who prefer their soap to not share the hands of others who have used the bathroom.

washing korean

Community bar of soap

10. There are three types of toilets in Korea

In Korea you’ll find three types of toilets: a squat toilet, a standard western toilet, a Toto toilet. Of the three, you will love the Toto Toilet, which is a luxury version of the standard western toilet but with side controls which offer bidet and drying features. Some even come with seat warming which is ideal during winter.

Read How to use a Squat toilet & how to use a feminine urinary device

Squat toilets are typically the old style Korean toilet and you’ll find them in older establishments, such as older restaurants, schools, parks, etc..  Often you’ll find a few obligatory squat toilets but many are being replaced by western toilets in large cities. Seoul, Busan and nice shopping malls, you may find more Toto toilets.

11.  Where to find trash bins in Korea

Toilets are more ubiquitous than trash cans.  You’ll find toilets in many places but where are the trash cans? You may find some in metro stations by the the drink vending machines or in fast food eating establishments and restaurants. But generally Koreans hold them in their bags until they find an actual trash can.

Read more Korean quirks which shock you.

12. Public spaces are not heated during winter

If you’re traveling Korea in the winter, pack a lot of warm clothes. Not only does Korea get brutally cold but there is not heating in public places such as bathrooms, school hallways/bathrooms, train or bus stations, metro stations, etc..

Koreans have a thing with using their heater. Houses are kept warm with ondol (floor heating), but that is the only place you will find consistent warmth and when I taught at a Korean public school, we could only run our classroom heater when the students had class in it.

Korean culture and etiquette

13.   Korean culture respects formality and tradition.

Greetings and formalities are always appreciated. You’ll be saying Hello and Thank you a lot. Anyeong-haseyo and Kam-sa-hamneda!

andong mask festival, korean masks

Korean masks

14. Koreans make offerings with both hands

 In Korea, little forms of etiquette are important. In some countries, passing things with your left hand is a No-no. Not Korea. When offering or accepting anything– money,  gifts or food — use both hands. For example,  if you’re paying or receiving change from the cashier at a convenience store, do so with both hands. There are variations to this, so please watch the above video for examples. Needless to say, whenever you’re doing something which requires both hands, you’ll want to make sure they’re both available and not holding things.

15. Age matters in Korean culture.

Westerners find it rude when people ask their age. People ask my age a lot in Korea (and Asia) as it occasionally determines respect for your seniors. In  Korea, daily interactions, age (and whomever is senior) determines how you ideally would address the person you’re talking to. This matters bigtime in Korea. There’s a hierarchy in interactions and it’s a trickle down effect, even amongst the younger generations. There’s even language cues you would use to speak to elder (meaning: anyone older than you) or children.
my korean students

My Korean elementary students with EPIK


16. No Nose Blowing

It’s an unspoken thing in Korea– it is considered rude to blow your nose. Thus, to navigate spicy Korean food and your nose running, you’ll have to dab your nose with a tissue. Some Koreans will just suck the mucus back up.

17. Korean is a gifting culture

Korean culture can appear generous~ it seems they are always generously giving gifts. You’ll experience it and you it will feel too good to be true~ you’ll wonder what the catch is. From unlimited panchan (side dishes) at the restaurant to skin care shops which give you a handful of samples or face masks for stepping into their store to 1+1 sales where you get an extra product or sometimes, extra gift with your purchase, Koreans constantly seem to gift each other.  Many of these gifts are a marketing incentive to keep customers coming back for more.

18. Kimchi is served at every meal.

Korea and kimchi are synonymous.  Kimchi is the national vegetable and a favorite panchan (aka side dish) you’ll see accompany every meal.. including breakfast . It is a tradition passed down through the women of the household and there are kimchi making seasons in the fall season, when you’ll see incredibly large cabbages being sold at supermarkets. Korean women still gather with their female family members to prepare kimchi for the season. However, modern Korean women who are too busy will simply buy it from the supermarket. There are many contradictions about its healthy properties which you’ll hear, from curing cancer to being too high in sodium. In either case, kimchi is spicy but super flavorful; it is a strong flavor you will not find anywhere outside of Korea.

kimchi making season, making kimchi in Korea

19. “Good Morning, How was your breakfast?”

When I lived in Korea, every school morning, my Korean co-teachers would greet me with “Good morning, How was your breakfast?”  as I held my banana smoothie shake in my thermos. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t eat it. Skipping breakfast is a bad habit Westerners have gotten into but Koreans see it as the most important meal.

20. Hiking is a favorite national pastime in Korea.

Mountains in Korea are nothing to sneeze at and yet, it is common to see 60 year ajusshis and ajummas trotting up steep slopes that might have you wheezing. Walking trails are an element of Korea.

21. Be prepared to drink until the boss goes home.

Soju, makkeoli (rice wine) and maekju (beer) are the popular alcoholic beverages in Korea. I’m not sure why drinking is so big, but it’s all about bonding. And then hierarchy.  If you’re going for business purposes, know it’s impolite to refuse a drink. If you’re working with a Korean company, then hope your drinking levels are up to standard, because you won’t be able to leave until your boss does.

How did I fare when I was there? Well, I’m absolutely not a drinker, but thankfully my Korean teacher was more western and did not drink herself. She explained it was a western misunderstanding and it is against my religion. But otherwise, Koreans will expect you to drink.

22. Don’t want to drive drunk? Call a driver

As Koreans are heavy drinkers and understand that it is dangerous to drive drunk, there hire driver services. You call a driver service and the driver appears at the bar or restaurant you are at to drive you and your car home. Pretty cool, right?

23. Koreans love Noraebang

Noraebang (aka karaoke singing room) is a popular form of relaxation and social entertainment in Korea. Koreans honestly love to sing and don’t be surprised if you get invited to a noraebang. it is exactly like how you see it in Korean dramas, with some having disco lights, or instruments like tamborines, etc.. When I started working at my school, our first teacher’s dinner we all were required to sing a song. It is part of being a part of community.

24. Live and Fresh Foods

Koreans like foods fresh. Sometimes, that translates as “alive and still squirming”, like live octopus. At Jalgachi fish market restaurants in Busan, when you order sashimi, the sometimes bring the plate with the fish tail still writhing. But on tamer notes, this can also mean that shopping for product in the grocery marts, you might have some produce, like potatoes, will fresh dirt on it.  Read more about fresh foods here.

25. Warm Water vs Iced water

Iced water and drinking water are not always common to restaurant experiences. In fast restaurants, you may have to go to the water cooler to pour your own cup. Iced water is not a popular way water is taken, quite possibly due to the fact that health-wise, it’s shocking to the system. Koreans are health conscious people, so the water will usually be room temperature or hot.  But water is generally taken after a meal and often, it’s hot to warm water, which helps aid digestion.

26. Cup sizes

One thing that was very difficult for me to get used to in Korea was the size of the drinking cups. In the U.S., we like big cups- Big Gulps, Vente… Super size me.  In Korea, the average sized drinking cup fits in your palm. It’s like kiddie cup size. Koreans do value drinking water to quite the extent that the United States do.

27. Jjimjilbangs

Korea has public bathhouse spas that are inexpensive, fun, packed with entertaining rooms like sauna rooms with crystals, charcoal, salt, ice. They are popular hang out spots and a place where families and friends like to bond. It The best thing is that some are open for 24 hours. They give you a storage locker for your belongings and spa clothes to wear if you want to spend the night.  Check out my favorite jjimjilbang to sleep in Seoul.  Planning to stay in a jjimjilbang? Check out this jjimjilbang guide on things you need to know.

What are your top travel essentials for Korea? What are essential things to know before traveling Korea?

Watch Essential Travel Tips for Korea (video)

Travel Survival Tips for Korea:  Navigating Korean Culture

Additional Posts on Trip Planning for Korea

Cool things to buy in Korea (Part1 & Part 2)

Travel Guide of things to Do and See on Jeju Island

9 Neighborhoods to Make you Fall in Love with Seoul

5 Secret Places in Korea

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