South Korea is off the typical backpacker trail for one big reason: it’s too expensive compared to all the other countries in the region (barring Japan). According to governments statistics, only 12 percent of tourists hail from the Americas or Europe, with almost half of all visitors coming from nearby China. Price conscious visitors are keen to avoid the country, because with all its comforts and infrastructure, things can easily become expensive. That’s what concerned my brother and I when planning our four-night trip to Seoul.
Inside the Mount Bukhansan visitors center, a framed certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records proclaims the South Korean national park has the most annual visitors per square kilometer out of any park in the world. Hordes of climbers packing an otherwise bucolic 80 square kilometers outside Seoul sounds totally unappealing, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds…until we actually ran into one of these hordes.
That is, until we actually ran into one of these hordes.
Baseball may be an American pastime, but I never realized what a sorry experience it is to catch a game live in the U.S. until I witnessed the glorious Korean baseball fan experience. There’s no denying that Major League Baseball in the U.S. is still the world’s premier league. However, the fans of Korea Baseball Championship seem to have a lot more fun than their U.S. counterparts.
The cheapest accommodations in Seoul aren’t in backpacker dorms or rundown flophouses. It’s on the floor of a 24-hour Korean spa. These Korean spas – also known as jjimjilbang – offer up all the amenities you’d expect, with saunas, steam rooms, various hot and cold pools and massages. The difference between this and those Western spas is that it’s common to grab a pillow and sleep in the common area until morning rather than just sticking around for the day. In the morning, patrons refresh with another round of soaking or steaming and then head on their way.
In the hip Gangnam district of Seoul – and pretty much everywhere else in the city – are sticker photo booths intended for teenage girls and their extremely bored-looking boyfriends. Inside these shops are about eight or nine different photo booths with names like “LoveStar” and “Beauty Collection.” Photos of heavily airbrushed girls adorn the sides of these booths.
For my last dish before leaving Korea, I wanted something distinctively Korean (that wasn’t chicken and beer – as great as that is). My brother’s college friend who lives in the city took us to a modest little restaurant in the trendy Hyehewa theater district. I didn’t realize that the day – April 14 – was a special occasion. We all inadvertently celebrated Black Day, which falls exactly two months after Valentine’s Day and is exclusively for single people.