After a long six and a half years hiatus, I finally made it back to Seoul. The first time I went I was a fresh-off-the-boat newb doing visa runs from China on a shoestring budget. I just didn’t have that much travel experience to really put the city into perspective.
So what did I think of Seoul, a city dubbed as “the soul of Asia,” the second time around? How does the city compare to other Asian megacities? Was it as expensive as they say? Is the food really that spicy? Were the women as beautiful as K-pop stars? Do Koreans even speak English? Has everyone had plastic surgery? The answers lie within this very trip report, so let’s get started.
Korea is often described as “China meets Japan,” but is that really accurate? I’ve lived in both China and Japan, so surely my opinion holds some merit.
Let’s start with the Japanese aspects. Korean people don’t really remind me of Japanese people. I don’t see anybody in Seoul wearing those silly surgical masks, 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. Nor do I see anyone getting around on bicycles in Seoul, a popular mode of transportation in Japan. So then, is anything the same?
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 vertical billboards going up and down their sides, just as they do in every Japanese metropolis. The buildings and the tiles on the sidewalk have those distinctly drab Northeast Asian color tones. I also notice many Korean girls wearing bright red lipstick, just like they do in Kyoto. There’s also a very noticeable lack of variety in the way locals look, another distinct Northeast Asian feature where conformity and homogeneity are king.
As for Korea’s Chinese side, the Koreans definitely look remarkably similar to the Northeast Chinese, but they actually look more like Mongolians. Koreans also have fairly aggressive body language, which is something the mainland Chinese have mastered. Traditional Korean architecture looks remarkably the same as that of China. Korean cuisine seems like an offshoot of northeastern Chinese cuisine. Korea as a whole just feels way more Chinese than it does Japanese. 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 Tokyo and Shanghai. It’s located near the coast and is intersected by several bodies of water. Tall and flashy modern buildings line every major and semi-major street. The metro system is incredibly extensive and overwhelming to newcomers (19 lines and hundreds of stations). The city’s streets feel sanitized and culturally dull. Entertainment largely revolves around shopping and fine dining. These giant Asian megacities all seem to blur together more and more as each generation goes by.
If I have one major grievance about Seoul, it’s got to be the absurd amount of mainland Chinese tourists, particularly small groups of young women that descend upon anywhere of interest to tourists. They’re annoying because they act just like they do in the mainland – completely lacking in any kind of civility. Any time I went somewhere on the main tourist trail, I would see far more Chinese people than actual locals. They were everywhere in Myeong-dong, Gangnam, and Bukchon, but oddly enough they were nowhere to be seen in hyper-touristy Itaewon.
Seoul is clearly the territory of Asian tourists. At both of my guesthouses, about 75% of the guests were mainland Chinese. The other 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 in Seoul or Busan (except for in Itaewon, more on that later). Northeast Asia in general really just doesn’t attract Westerners the way Southeast Asia does.
Just walking around every day in Seoul, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a city dominated by youth, particularly people 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. If all the women are in the cities, does that mean the Korean countryside is one big sausage fest?
Being one of the epicenters of the Asian fashion scene, it’s natural 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 just being a self-absorbed narcissist. The entire population of Seoul has sadly stepped over that line. If you don’t look good, you’re invisible in Seoul.
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, 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. 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 – passable, but that’s it. Most shopkeepers, clerks, and waitresses knew enough English vocabulary to get me what I wanted. Service people often initiated me in English before I even opened my mouth. But having any kind of meaningful conversation was usually not possible. As always, the 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 enough to get by. 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.
I can confirm that there’s no shortage of absolute beauties in Seoul. Men who like women with that distinct Northeast Asian look will have plenty to keep their eyes busy. 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.
The women of Seoul were usually dressed to the nines and a bit oversexualized – short skirts, super short shorts with lots of leg showing, very high heels, layer after layer of makeup, lots of 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’s lots of eye candy anywhere and everywhere in Seoul, but the women seem very aware of their beauty, which is clearly reflected in their behavior and body language. I find that a turn off. If you want more cute, friendly, and approachable types, Busan is a better fit (more on that later).
Lots and lots of women in Seoul have fake, plastic-looking faces and bodies. Just like in Hollywood, it’s dead obvious that plastic surgery is widespread in the city. Seoul is a pretentious city, so this comes as no surprise. I can tolerate minor breast implants, but fake-looking Botox-injected plastic faces just aren’t my thing. That’s another strike against the ladies of Seoul.
Though they’re quite good-looking, Korean women have a very cookie cutter appearance. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve kind of seen them all. They all have that sisterly, belong-to-the-same-family look. Their facial structure, makeup style, fashion style – all the same. It was hard to tell different girls apart. Korean women are like eating one remarkably good dish for every meal every day of the week. They may be good, but their lack of variety eventually makes you grow tired of them.
I did get receive some positive attention from the local lasses. I didn’t get eye-fucked, but I got lots of “soft glances”, particularly from university-aged girls. 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. This practically never happens to me in Japan, so it was a welcome change.
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 light up like a Christmas tree. I don’t even speak a word of Korean, so take that for what it’s worth. They might look a bit unreceptive as they walk around, but I felt I had their full attention and interest when I engaged with them. Korean women tend to come across as stuck up and self-absorbed in other Asian countries, so this behavior threw me a curve ball. If you’re a well-dressed decent-looking white man and have the balls to cold approach random girls, my gut tells me you could probably do quite well in Korea. Speaking Korean would surely give you just that much more of an advantage.
Korean cuisine has always been one of my Asian favorites. I’ve eaten lots and lots 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. Well apparently they were pretty authentic, indeed. Practically every dish I tried in Seoul was the same in taste and presentation as those I already had outside of Korea, and that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps a Korean would disagree with me, but my taste buds couldn’t tell any major difference.
Anything and everything is coated in gochujang, that classic Korean chili paste which gives food a lot of kick. It paints every food red, which is a distinct color in Korean cuisine. Lots of kimchi (pickled vegetables) are served as sides to the main course, and pork or seafood can 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. Gogigui (Korean barbecue) and bibimbap (mixed rice bowl) are classics that everyone should try. But my absolute favorite Korean food is topokki (stir-fried rice cakes), which can be found on practically every street corner and in every restaurant. Anyone like me who loves really spicy food should definitely give them a go.
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 an instant. 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.
Koreans also have an unhealthy obsession with deep-frying. Deep-fried snacks are on every corner, and fried chicken restaurants (which are actually exceptionally good) are a dime a dozen. The Koreans must have also taken note from their mainland Chinese cousins about drenching every dish in shitty cooking oils. If you absolutely must eat healthy while in Korea, then go for the soups and pickled vegetables, but expect an uphill battle the entire way. I left most meals feeling full and satisfied, but riddled with guilt about what I had just consumed.
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. Koreans seem to have a newfound obsession with pizza, so finding affordable and decent pizza was 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 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.
Things to Do
My fondest memory of Seoul was walking through Bukchon Hanok Village, a more traditional and laid-back residential area in the city’s north. It was by far the most scenic part I saw of the city, and it felt far more Korean than anywhere else. I also enjoyed walking at night through Namsan, the hilly area surrounding N Seoul Tower. The local neighborhoods are interesting there.
If you like drinking, I’m happy to report that Seoul has a vibrant nightlife scene. Lots of trendy and cozy little bars were on practically every street. These places seemed the most popular with young people, as the older guys tend to get drunk old-school style while eating a meal together at restaurants. Bottles of domestic beer at most bars were medium-expensive – pricey but still cheaper than in Tokyo. I’m not much of a drinker, but the bars in Seoul deserve a mention for their unique atmosphere and style. Even I felt drawn into them.
I took a couple of evening strolls through Itaewon, Seoul’s infamous and touristy foreigner ghetto that’s filled with countless bars, restaurants, and shops that largely cater to Westerners. It’s adjacent to the 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 is overly pretentious and filled with attention-seeking young people. It may be energetic and lively, but it’s just not my kinda scene. Maybe I could’ve enjoyed it more when I was ten years younger.
The Yongsan Electronics Market was 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.
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.” The area is filled with glitzy malls and stores, beauty clinics, trendy restaurants, and tall skyscrapers. It reminded me of Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district. I didn’t feel the need to stick around long.
Quite frankly, Seoul just didn’t strike me as a very fun 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 lack a local vibe. I never had a “Wow, I’m in Seoul” kind of feeling. Unlike Busan, I had to pay close attention to try and find anything I worth photographing. I’ve found that when a place is boring to photograph, it’s usually boring to explore, too.
The weather was pretty miserable all week long. If you ever go to Seoul in August, you better be prepared to sweat. I actually love hot weather, but it wasn’t so much the temperature that got to me in Seoul, but rather the crushing humidity. 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, which is so very Chinese but so un-Thai. Everywhere I went I saw people carrying those little paper hand fans cooling down their faces. What did I say about Korea being so much like 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 walking outside, I had no choice but to roast in the hot sun and sweat my ass off. 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. It makes all the difference in the world. There was also a constant brown haze hovering over Seoul throughout my stay. This made the sky a bit of an eyesore.
Cost of Traveling
As of September 4th, 2016, 1 USD equals about 1,100 KRW.
Seoul was fairly expensive for an Asian city. I can’t say I’m surprised. It was certainly no Tokyo or Singapore, but it wasn’t too far behind either. Accommodation was actually a decent value, seeing as I only paid 35,000 won per night to stay in a guesthouse in central Myeong-dong. But things like public transportation and food felt a bit high. Subway rides were 1,350 won on average. Local 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, yet the cost was 1.5 times less. A small bottle of domestic beer at the Korean bars was usually 5,000 won and up. Most tourist sites were either free or dirt cheap. Excluding airfare and accommodation, I spent an average of about 40 to 50,000 won a day. Not terrible, but not great either. I don’t feel like I had to be too careful with my money, so that’s good.
Seoul is a giant modern city with many possibilities. The local food tastes great and is some of the best in the region. The foreign food scene has something for everyone. The local ladies are smoking hot, dressed well, and age very gracefully. If shopping’s your thing, the sky’s the limit in Seoul – electronics, clothing, cosmetics – they’re all there. Public transportation is extensive, efficient, and affordable. Free high-speed wi-fi is anywhere and everywhere. Just like Shanghai in China, Seoul feels more developed than the rest of South Korea.
But Seoul is not the best city for adventure seekers, as it’s culturally dull and very predictable. It doesn’t even feel that Korean, nor is it a cheap place to travel. The local food is delicious, but I left most meals feeling guilty about what I ate. The women of Seoul may be very easy on the eyes, but 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. And last but not least, Seoul has sold its soul to the Chinese tourist dollar.
Whether or not you’d like Seoul depends on many factors. How much of Asia have you already seen? Do you like huge cities? Do you like spicy food? Do you think Korean women are hot? Do you want a safe and straightforward journey, or something more rough around the edges? For better or for worse, Seoul – just like Tokyo and Singapore – feels like Asia on easy mode. For that reason, Seoul just isn’t for me. I don’t have any strong negative opinions of the city, but I doubt I’ll be back anytime soon either. On the other hand, Busan was a whole ‘nother story. Thanks for reading!