Tom is the man behind waegook-tom.com, a blog on all things travel in South Korea, especially the things that you can eat. He manages to travel occasionally and so far this year has been to the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania, in addition to starting a new job in Daejeon, South Korea. You can catch him on the Twitter when he’s not eyeing up animal print clothing whilst mercilessly guzzling down the local cuisine or listening to K-Pop.
1. Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in South Korea?
I certainly can! I’m Tom, the dashing Brit behind waegook-tom.com, and I blog about travel and expat life in South Korea, and also wherever else my travels take me. I’ll be off continent hopping in 2013 when my current contract ends. I’ve been in Korea since June 2009 working as an ESL teacher and have travelled around a fair bit of the country, but there’s still a lot more left for me to explore!
2. How does South Korea compare to the rest of Asia in terms of things to see and do, its food and its culture? Is it very similar to other countries or very different?
Koreans are fiercely independent of their culture, as the country has been trampled on by so many other larger countries for centuries. As a result, Korean culture is celebrated a lot and there are festivals for everything, from food to different kinds of flowers, snow and mud. There’s not much in the way of ancient sites, as a lot of cities were flattened during the Korean War and then subsequently rebuilt – the country has no Angkor Wats or Great Walls to rival other Asian countries. However, there’s a surprising amount of natural beauty – the country is covered in mountains and has an abundance of forest, national parks, and sandy beaches.
As for the food – it’s spicy! Koreans eat the most spicy food per capita in the whole world, even more so than India. Make sure you enquire “mae-wo-yo?”, or “is it spicy?”, when ordering as chillies and pepper paste can pop up in even the most bland looking dish on the menu. Mealtimes are communal, with barbecued meats such as samgyeopsal (fatty pork) and galbi (rib meat) being amongst the most popular. Also green tea and red bean everything. I mean everything.
Koreans also drink an obscene amount of alcohol – a fact that usually surprises most people. So put on your drinking hat and enjoy the cheap makkeolli, beer and soju that the country has to offer.
3. How much money can someone travel in South Korea for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
As with most places, it depends on how you travel. Transport can be a big cost, with a two hour ride on the fastest train costing about $40. However, if you take the bus or the slow train, that cost can be cut in half – but double the travel time. Accommodation isn’t cheap, either – outside of Seoul, hostels aren’t all that popular, so “love motels” – at about $40 per night – are what most travellers go for. Accommodation can be had for as little as $8 a night if you choose to stay in the jjimjilbangs, or public bath houses that have sleeping rooms.
Food is cheap if you stick to “orange restaurants” – mom and pop places that can give you a full dinner for around $5 maximum. Entertainment is affordable too – pre-drink before you go out, and you can have a grand old night out, karaoke room included, for no more than $20 dollars. Just make sure you stay out until the buses or subways start running again to avoid the cab fares and save your pennies.
It can be done for as little as $30 a day if you stay in a jjimjilbang, eat at orange restaurants and take local transport around a city – however you won’t be seeing too many sights in that case.
4. What are your favourite destinations in South Korea and why?
Sokcho! It’s a gorgeous little city in the far north-east of the country, right on the coast. Not only is it a hiker’s dream with the imposing Mount Seoraksan towering over the city, but it’s a beach bum’s paradise as well, with it’s powdery sand and the perpetual buzz around the seafront. You can eat the fresh catches of the day that you get to choose yourself at make-shift fish restaurants and explore the city’s peaceful parks.
5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in South Korea and why?
Get yourself on a night out – South Koreans seem quite quiet and reserved by day, but venture into the downtown areas of the major cities at night and you’ll see a different, fun-loving side of the locals that you can only see by moonlight. Do some shots, eat pizza in a cup on the street and then sing your heart out until the sun rises. Daegu’s downtown area is by far my favourite.
For the non-alcoholics out there, I’d recommend going to Gyeongju. It’s the capital of ancient Korea, and is rightly described as a “living museum” – it was largely spared during the Korean war, and all the old temples there are dazzling. Walk around and be a tourist for a day as you imagine yourself into a historical drama, all shifty courtiers and murderous princesses.
6. What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
My favourite thing is simply how easy it is to travel in Korea. Korea’s transport system is extensive, and there’s nowhere that can’t be reached by bus or train within a day.
My least favourite thing…how expensive flights are. Budget flights to and from Korea are extremely hard to come by. AirAsia and AirBusan are two low-cost carriers that fly here, but their lowest fares are very, very hard to find – you have to be eagle-eyed and really on the ball to catch them. Even a return flight to Japan – about an hour away – can run to over $400 easily. However, AirAsia Japan is set to launch this year, so hopefully that’ll mean cheaper flights being more readily available, and also more people coming to visit this beautiful country.
7. What things do you focus on most when you blog about this country? Why do you choose these things?
Food. Koreans place an importance on food that isn’t seen in my home country, and they’re very proud of how healthy most of their national dishes are. Not to mention, the food here is delicious and so unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Even the fast food is healthier than it is in the west.
8. What’s one thing you can’t travel in South Korea without?
A very basic grasp of the language – Koreans are all about manners, so learning and using just a few key phrases will immediately endear you to the locals, especially if you’re an obvious tourist.
So make sure you practice your “an-nyeong-ha-se-yo” (“hello”), “gam-sa-hab-nee-da” (“thank you”) and “ma-shi-sseo-yo” (“it’s delicous”) before you come, and say it with a smile!
9. If you could have lived anywhere else in the country where would it be and why?
Changwon. I lived in Daegu for two and a half years, and now I’m in Daejeon, so I’m assuming they’re both non-options. I’d choose Changwon as it has a great expat community, is a fairly decent sized place, modern, and just has this really awesome vibe to it – even if bouncers don’t tend to let male foreigners into nightclubs for fear that they’ll corrupt the local ladies. No worries about that from me!
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone had told you before you started travelling in South Korea what would it be?
Not to believe all the rumours you hear about Asian men. They’re not true…
Apart from that…nothing. I love being surprised here every day, from election campaigns are marked by trucks with dancing middle-aged ladies doing special dance routines, finding red hot peppers in my carbonara, gorgeous spring cherry blossom in the middle of the city, and men in my gym blow drying their pubic hair in full view of everyone.
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