Lessons from South Korea

Having been here for several weeks – the intrepid traveler and I agree that there are somethings that Koreans just do a whole lot better than we in North America do – and what would a ‘blog’ be if we didn’t let you guys in on the facts? I hereby challenge us in North America to beat the Koreans at this game!

1. Greet your incoming guests – as soon as they walk in the door. Here in South Korea you never walk into a restaurant or a shop without someone immediately greeting you with a smile and hello and welcome. Not a snarly “how can I help you”, but a sincere sounding “Welcome”. Makes you feel glad you walked in.

2. Stand up when people walk up to you. Here in South Korea, if we walk into an information booth or up to a hotel reception desk and the staff is seated – immediately all the staff stand up, bow, and say welcome. It’s really nice. There’s eye contact – and you know that they are attentive to your request. Even if there are 2 gals – and clearly only one is going to respond – both stand up – and stay standing until you leave. They don’t chat on their cell phones, pretend to be busy on their computers, or keep their heads down to ignore you. Nope – they stand up. Every time!

3. Say thank you when people leave your place of business. On the buses, when you walk out the door, there is an automated ‘thank you’. When you press your pass to the machine – it says – ‘Thank you’ to acknowledge receipt. When you leave a shop – even if you didn’t buy anything – the staff says ‘Thank you’. How nice is that!

4. During a wedding ceremony – thank the guests, and thank your parents. I’ve seen 3 weddings so far – and in every single one, at the very beginning the mothers of the bride and groom walk down the aisle first – and light candles to thank the ancestors. And at the end, before the ‘you may now kiss the bride and run down the aisle’ part – the bride and groom – together – officially thank their parents – who stand, face the crowd and are applauded. And the Bride and Groom also bow and thank the guests. How nice is that. I’ve been to weddings where one side or the other was ignored because they didn’t feel comfortable about making a speech. By officially thanking them – no speech is required – it’s just a formal acknowledgement that without the ancestors and without the parents – no wedding would have take place today.

Another Beautiful and Unique moment in a Korean Wedding – the groom kneels in front of his bride – and presents her with a bouquet of flowers… not a dry eye in the house – trust me!


5. Smile at strangers. We’ve been at the Kensington – a big and basically Korean only Resort – for over a week. And while the guests change – the politeness doesn’t. People here smile when you walk past – they don’t just shove you out-of-the-way – or worse – ignore you. They take a second to smile, and if you smile back – their smile goes all the way to the eyes. It’s nice.


6. Clean up after yourself – Even on the Beach. There are not a lot of trash cans, and those they have they hide (check under the cash – see the flap – that’s the trash!) – but there isn’t a lot of trash on the ground either. People come prepared to gather their garbage – and because everyone cleans a little bit, the place in general stays clean. Now it’s not like Rwanda (where the President mandated no plastic bags and a monthly – everyone must clean – policy) – but it’s pretty nice.

7. Men shouldn’t be afraid to carry ladies purses. We’ve seen guys – and I mean older men – in their 50’s and 60’s – cheerfully carrying their wife’s purses. It’s the in thing. (Ok – I agree – shocked me the first time too.)

Just little things – but things you notice – and remember – and they add up to a wonderful place to visit.


Korean Museum Smack-Down

The Intrepid Traveler and I love Museums – in fact that’s a big part of the reason we became Visitors instead of Tourists – guided tours never give you enough time in the Museums. We can easily spend 3 to 4 hours in a museum – we get the audio tour, we read every sign, we examine every display carefully. I mean – we love museums.

Now I know that not everyone likes museums the way we do, people don’t even like Aquariums the way we do. So instead of a blog on every museum we visited (it would take way too many days) – I’ve decided to rank them – from worst to best – and defend why.

8. Our least favorite Museum – The Sokcho Beach Nature Museum (Walking distance from the Express Bus Station). Size matters – and this one was a single large room on the 3rd floor of a building full of restaurants. The stellar attraction was a model of a dinosaur that was sensitive to movement. When you got close – the jaws moved. Marcel (age 5) loved it. The rest of the museum was a taxidermist dream come true. There was a mock-up of an aquarium – poorly preserved fish with a paper ‘sea’ background, no explanation in English, I’m not even sure there was an explanation in Korean. Most of the ‘fish’ were plaster models – I think. The next big section was a series of land animals – lions, tigers, wolves, coyotes, polar bears (?), and the like – again – either poorly done plaster models or really badly done taxidermy. The highlight, besides the view and the moving dinosaur, were a series of animal skeletons and 3 large models of sailing ships. I didn’t get the shell collection at all. For free – it was a fun way to entertain a 5-year-old, if I’d had to pay – it would have been a complete waste. Lots less fun than building sand castles – trust me.

7. Busan – Museum of Art (Modern/Contemporary) – Free. (Has its own subway stop) Modern art is always a challenge to the viewer – and while I always enter museums like this with a feeling of excitement, I often walk out wondering what the world is coming to. The current exhibit contained some really interesting pieces, and some really strange stuff. Highlight – art that ‘stripped’ the clothes off the people in the paintings when you stood in the right place. Bottom line – the price is right, and if you never go – you’ll never find out how artists are seeing the world we live in.


6. Busan – Museum – Free. (Ask for directions – its right next to the UN Cemetery – and not hard to reach.). Best parts of this museum were the life-sized re-creations – including a street from 1900 (when they first had barber shops in Korea – before that men wore their hair long and never cut it), the amazing video footage of the aftermath of the war, and some of the displays from earlier periods. Free Audio tour is a must of course. I liked the use of walk over displays too. In one, the first street car in Busan drives down the road. This museum is a must on the school tour circuit – and I got trapped between an exhibit and a stream of about 300 3rd and 4th graders walking through the museum. Trust me – I’m not sure they stopped anywhere – they just walked straight from the entrance to the exit. Tour Done. But then there was this foreign lady to see – I got hi, hello, hi from about 80% of the kids – so not only was this my personal highlight – I think I was theirs!

5. Seoul – National Korean Folk Museum – Free. (Close to the Gyeongbok Palace – walk around the outside of the Palace keeping the wall to your left – you won’t have to pay to enter) This was the very first museum we saw in Seoul, and what I remember most were two sections – a life-size traditional home, furnished as if the family had just gone out. You could see the kitchen area, and imagine the bustle as food was being prepared. The other part I thought was neat was the Children’s Museum – basically a space attached to the main museum but kept for just parents and young children. There were holes to stick your hand in, there was a large egg that you sawed in half to reveal a treasure (I’m guessing this is a Korean Fairy Tale). The kids got extremely excited to have the opportunity to do the sawing. We plan to go back with Marcel (age 5) to check this out.

4. Gyeongiu – National Museum – Free – (Ask for directions) (in 3 parts – Shilla History, Stuff found at the Anapji Pond Historic site, and Buddhist Collection). We opted for the Audio Tour (1000 Won = $1) and it was well worth it. Even though they had moved the collection into a smaller building while they ‘earth-quake proofed’ the larger museum, seeing how seriously old the culture in Korea is was stunning. On one wall is a timeline of what was happening in Korea vs what was happening in the world – puts things into perspective fast. I also particularly loved the Buddhist collection – which since we saw this following our temple stay at Haein-sa – made a lot more sense. This is also the place we met the ‘English’ Teacher/Tour guide who confused rice and lice. But the collection of Silla remains is worth seeing. Over 1000 years old and still so beautiful.


3. Busam – Maritime Museum – Free (Getting there – take the 66 bus from the Nampo-dogg subway stop). The building is worth the visit – a gigantic stainless steel Ship sailing off into the future. The exhibits were excellent as well – including a full-sized mock-up of one of the ships that the Josen rulers sent to Japan to try to keep peace – in the 1600’s. There’s a huge walk thru sea tanks – this one had a very friendly turtle. The video footage of the port of Busan in operation is definitely worth seeing as well.



2. Seoul – Women’s Rights Museum – Charge. (Getting there – it’s walking distance – sort of – from the Hongik University subway stop) This is a small, but extremely interesting museum devoted to the ‘comfort’ women (starting at age 11!) effectively imprisoned by the Japanese to ‘service’ their soldiers during the occupation from 1905 to 1945. What is most interesting is the amount of ‘evidence’ they have collected about what was happening, including numerous stories by ‘comfort’ women who have openly and painfully revealed their past. The history is shameful, but the effort put into this tiny museum is worth seeing. Highly recommended. Picture below shows the ‘memory’ or ‘butterfly’ wall outside the museum – visitors were encouraged to sign a ‘butterfly’ dedicated to the memory of one of the ‘comfort’ women and pin it to the wall. Lovely thought, eh?


1. Busam – Fisheries Museum – Free (Getting there – walk 2 minutes from the Haedong Yonggung Temple – makes it definitely worth visiting the Temple. They are connected by a red bridge and a seaside path. To get to the Temple – take the 181 bus from Haeundae Beach Station.). I liked this Museum for several reasons – there were lots of fish in tanks to look at – they made the path ‘up’ to the main area look like you were swimming thru an underwater cave, and the exhibits were very good at explaining the different types of fishing nets – without a word of English. There was even an entire section devoted to how pearls are made in oysters, another about women breathe-hold divers, and another one on harvesting abalone. Plus there were 2 interactive sections that were quite unique – one showed you the nutritional values of different foods on thermometers – the other allowed you to spin a dial and point and ‘shoot’ a fishing area off the coast of Korea. Your reward for hitting the target – a picture and description of the type of fish you’d find there. Fun museum – great location – and you can easily walk from there to one of the top temples of Busan – the Haedong Yonggung Temple. Plus – if you like fish – there were several quite reasonable restaurants nearby. A win, win, win!


The picture above is taken from the highest point in the temple – looking towards the fisheries Museum – that blue wall you can see in the middle distance. All the lanterns are strung to celebrate Buddha’s birthday – which was the day after our visit. Lovely, eh? Very peaceful scene, wonderful temple, great museum.

But it’s not all about Museums! Check out my next blog for our ratings of ‘Not a Museum’ must see attractions in Korea. Our favorite…. well you’ll just have to wait to see

English in Korea – It happens!

Koreans love English words. They use them everywhere – not always correctly of course – but with delight and enthusiasm. I love it – but it does throw one off occasionally (ok – often actually).

Example 1: English on a brochure cover means nothing! – Here in Kim’s Guest House there is one labeled ‘Spring Tourist Guide’ on the outside – without a word in English on the inside! It’s completely in Korean. So why put English on the cover? Your guess is as good as mine.

Example 2: The signs – There is so much English on signs here in Korea – I sometimes forget that people may not actually speak the language. It’s quite a funny feeling. You pass a store – the slogan is in English – like Paris Baguette with its ‘Fresh and Ready’ – and no one inside speaks English at all! It happens a lot – and it is always a bit of a shock. Street signs are often translated, stores advertise ‘Sale’, you see ‘Bank’, ‘Steak and Pasta’, and ‘Korean traditional Restaurant’. But while it makes it clear what service they are offering, don’t expect more than a ‘hello’ in English – you might be pleasantly surprised – and then again – you might be reverting to sign language pretty quickly!

Check out this picture – it’s advertising a water park – English on the sign includes ‘California Water Park’ and ‘Open’ – but I’m willing to bet that no one who works there speaks English – why should they? Clearly this is for Koreans to enjoy – despite the clearly California look of the bathing beauties.


Example 3: Marketing Slogans – or What exactly did you mean by that? Consider this one for the city of Gyenogju – “Meeting place – The Scent of Culture – Time to Surpass”. What do you think they were trying to say? I get meeting place – but Scent of Culture? What ever does that mean? Do you think they were hinting that the place smelled? Can’t be, right?

Or here’s another one that amuses me – In Gyenogju, they make a special Barley cake (they sometimes refer to it as ‘bread’, but it is really 2 pancakes with red bean paste spread to hold the pancakes together). What is remarkable about it in my opinion is not the cake (it’s pretty bland) – it’s the number of ‘bakeries’ – often 2 or 3 on the same block. They all have the special ovens, and use the special boxes to make these cakes. How can there possibly be enough sales to keep them all in business? We got to try (for free) cakes from 2 different bakeries – and I must admit they tasted different. Can’t say I cared for either – but they definitely didn’t taste the same. But its the marketing in English that cracks me up. On one store – the Sign cheerfully proclaimed “The Barley Way to Health”, on another it announced that here you’d find the “Rich Chewy Texture of Sticky Barley”. Yummy sounding, eh? On a third I saw “100% domestic glutinous barley” – well, that’s definitely reassuring. Do some people import the Barley? Or perhaps not all Barley is Glutinous.

But my favorite language mis-adventure happened yesterday in the Gyenogju National Museum. This is a wonderful museum that attempts to explain – in a variety of languages, just a bit of the very complex history of this remarkable city. The artifacts on display are well presented – and the audio tour quite complete, if a bit robotic sounding. But it was the free English tour in one section that was over the top. There was an older gentleman responsible for giving the tour – and he proudly explained that he was a retired English teacher. Problem? His English was literally incomprehensible. At one point we thought he was talking about growing rice, and he really meant that they had a lice problem in 800 AD – which he explained by scratching himself.

But I really shouldn’t complain. The ability of Koreans to at least attempt to communicate in ‘my’ language puts us in North America to shame. We ran into trouble at the Metro – and despite our lack of Korean – and our helper’s lack of English – we muddled through. He didn’t give up – even when it was clear that we couldn’t communicate at all. Even if it meant carrying our bags up a staircase – forcing us to sit and wait while he got help – throwing in the towel just wasn’t option – Thank goodness.

And this willingness is official – Museums here have signs in 4 languages – and not just the name of the object – the entire description is translated. Even the subway maps and signs on the metro cars use both Korean and English names. I’ve been on Metros and Buses that announced the next station in Korean and English, can’t be to help the locals. I’ve even heard cross-walk signs speak English. Bank machines and Metro card vending machines always offer an ‘English’ language button, and Audio tours in even more languages are the norm – and not just in Seoul. It’s all pretty impressive – and very tourist friendly.

So as a prospective tourist to this intriguing country – you can rest easy. You might not quite understand everything – but I can guarantee you that the Koreans will make sure you have a wonderful time. It just comes naturally to them. What a country!


Fried Chicken, Fried Fish, and Ramen Noodles – Yum!

We’re in Gyeongju, along with Seoul and Jeju Island, the most visited places in South Korea. And it’s easy to see why. For a thousand years – from 71 BC to 935 AD this was the hot spot of culture, wealth, and power in Korea. The Silla Kings ruled this land – built amazing places, participated in riotous drinking parties – and converted all of South Korea to Buddhism. The resulting flowering of art, music, culture, and design was considered to be outstanding. Unfortunately – only bits and pieces survive to this day.

We cheated and joined a ‘City Bus’ tour of the highlights – primarily the Tumuli Mound Tombs, the Bulguk-sa Buddhist Temple, and to me the absolute highlight – the Seokguram temple in a grotto. Along with at least a thousand school children – all of whom want to say hello to us – we climbed steps, admired the exquisite landscapes, and felt the power of the Buddha in the grotto.

We lucked out at the Paris Baguette – and snagged a bag of 1/2 price day old goodies for lunch, but the highlight of our stay here has been the dinners.

First up was a Ramen Noodle restaurant. Now don’t go all – instant noodle on me – these were fresh noodles in a wonderful broth served with rice, Kimchi (of course), pickles (of course), and a slice of pork belly. In the soup in addition to the noodles was a soft-boiled egg, vegetables, and soy beans. It was awesome. To go with it – we had an order of potato fritters – man do these guys know fritters. These were made with mashed potatoes inside, then dredged in egg and a batter mixture and deep-fried. Oh were they good.

2nd night – we ate at student hangout – cheap prices (Just $6), and absolutely no English. Our meal consisted of two ‘Schnitzel’ Korean Style. Flattened pieces of chicken that were combined with mashed potatoes, then dredged in a yummy batter before again being deep-fried. Unlimited – help yourself – quantities of Kimchi, pickles, rice, and sauce were provided. We watched Korean Baseball – I think the good guys lost, cheered with the crowd – and headed home full.

Tonight we tried a Japanese restaurant – and ordered the best Fish and Chips (but no chips) I’ve ever ever had. We also had a pork Schnitzel – also good – but not quite as amazing as the fish. Again – more kimchi, more pickles, more rice – and lots of sauce.

I have to admit – I’m going to have trouble finding restaurants this consistently excellent at this price range in Montreal.

Signing off (and too full to move)

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveller

On the Road to Gyeongju – South Korea

My favorite seat on a bus is in front – I love the 180 degree view you get – and I must admit to watching the bus driver. So imagine my surprise when our bus driver here in South Korea – while driving – washed his hands, the steering wheel, the gear shift, the side window – then put on white gloves in order to eat lunch. That’s new and different.

He also removed the fancy leather shoes he was wearing when he put our luggage on the bus, and is now wearing comfy clean white sneakers. And he has his own set of ear phones. Wonder what channel he listens to while he drives?

I’d been told that buses here are the way to travel – and I have to admit – it’s nice. There’s satelite TV (in Korean – but that is the language here), very comfy seats that recline, clean windows (Montreal – smarten up – it is possible to have clean windows on buses), and curtains.

Leaving Seoul and heading south – we started on an 8 lane highway, driving past a surprisingly beautiful city scape of skyscraper and towering sound barriers interspersed with old-fashioned residential neighborhoods followed by huge apartment complexes. I’m guessing zoning in non-existent.

Eventually the 8 lanes became 4 lanes about an hour out of Seoul – as we steadily head south toward Gyeongjue – our next destination. The highways cuts through hills, and the signs of civilization are everywhere – this is not Vermont, people.

We are passing traditional looking (but new construction) buildings, and modern factories mixed between rice paddies and farms. If you can farm it – you farm it. I even saw vegetables planted between the highway and the fences that mark private property. Everywhere peach trees are in bloom – their flowers a brilliant offset to the freshly churned but not yet planted rice paddies. There are also Ginseng farms – recognizable by the sun shades. I’m definitely going to have to try some Ginseng.

Another observation – the use of sound barriers when the highway goes past residential areas is astonishing. And they are huge – I’d guess 40 to 50 feet above the highway. Some have glass tops, many have become supports for green vines. And there is no graffiti anywhere. This was true in Seoul as well. A surprising change for us North Americans.

Arriving in Gyeongju – we check into our next guest house – a traditional style house off an alley between two motorcycles repair shops. Like most traditional homes – the front gate is plain and unassuming – but when you round the corner into the yard – you discover that there is wooden building with 4 traditional rooms – which means you sleep on the floor.

To enter the room, your shoes come off – you climb up onto a wide wooden porch, unlock your double wide doors, and then slide back rice paper screens to reveal a 10′ by 14′ room. Korean’s heat their floors – so the floor is raised off the ground. But to get to the attached bathroom or kitchen – you must step back down to ground level – about 18″. And there are ‘kitchen’ shoes and ‘bathroom’ shoes to wear in those areas. Traditionally – the floor would be wood – but this is a modern constructions – so the floor is linoleum that looks like wood. Regardless – it’s still shoes off to enter!

Our bedding is simple comforters that we unfold to sleep on – and re-fold in the morning. There is a 27″ flat screen TV – and electric lighting – two welcome modern touches.

The biggest surprise – the pillows are barley stuffed. The intrepid traveller takes both – I’m sticking with my travelling temperpedic’s thank you!

The only other piece of furniture is a small low table with folding legs. Handy for putting stuff on.

And that’s it.

We grab dinner (read about that in another post) and make ourselves comfy. It’s very quiet – and while the floor is hardly soft – I’m so tired that I think I could sleep on anything.

Signing off –

The Soup Lady and her side kick – the Intrepid Traveller.