Random Notes from a Whirlwind Tour of South Korea

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Random Notes from a Whirlwind Tour of South Korea

One week is not enough time to really get to know a place. After a too-short tour of Korea, led by my brother and sister-in-law, I did pick up a bit of a feel for the country.

South Korea is shiny
The economy here has been booming, for the most part, since the early 60’s and everything looks shiny, new and high-tech. My one hour ride from the Busan airport to the island of Geoji took me across vast new bridges, through spotless tunnels and down well-maintained toll roads. You rarely see a cop car on the road as most speeding is controlled by automated cameras stationed along the highways (they’re mounted in cities as well to dissuade one from parking illegally. People still do it, of course, but not before having a careful look around).

This being a polite society, the cameras are conveniently marked with signs and GPS units (which I saw in over half of the cars on the road) helpfully warn the driver as a camera station draws near. Even without a GPS, they’re easy to spot as everyone slows down dramatically at the last moment.

Automated doors are the norm for many businesses, as are motion-sensitive lights in halls and stairways. Apartment locks use electronic keypads rather than keys and even the smallest Mom and Pop restaurant has an ultraviolet case that sterilizes the glassware.

After hiking in a park, you’ll often find an air station with a hose to blow the dirt off your shoes (to locate it, just follow the sounds of squealing children). I’m pretty sure that if you pee behind a tree here, it will flush when you’re done and mail you a ticket for public indecency.

Random Notes from a Whirlwind Tour of South Korea

I was captivated by the high-rise cities here which spring up in tall, dense clusters. Flat land is hard to find in this mountainous country so Koreans build vertically. Rather than the endless sprawl you’d encounter as you made your way into a city of size anywhere else, here the transition is often just a few blocks — from wild and empty fields to a bustling urban environment in moments.

Condos and apartment buildings tend to be tall and narrow and are arranged in groups of five, ten or more with the name and building number painted boldly on the side: Samsung 4 or Hyundai 11, for example. (I always thought of Samsung primarily as an electronics manufacturer but here they build ships, cars, housing and more.) There’s just something about the look of all these narrow 15-story buildings clustered together, nestled between green mountains and hills that feels, well, futuristic.

As a result of their strong economy and high standard of living, South Korea is not what you’d call a budget destination — in many ways it’s more expensive than the US. Cheaper motels seem to run from 40,000-60,000 won ($40-60 US) and a meal for 2 will run you $20-40 US or more. Beer (my economic conversion unit of choice) runs $4-5 in most pubs, which is why I found myself enjoying the relatively cheap rice wine, soju.

Bring the family
Korean food is amazingly tasty and makes for a fun eating experience but restaurants are definitely geared towards families. Almost every dish you order is served family-style, with a massive main dish and 10-12 smaller dishes of kimchi, soup, salad, pickled vegetables and more. I was told that some restaurants won’t even serve a solo diner, as it doesn’t make sense financially to bring out all the added dishes but would be rude not to.

Random Notes from a Whirlwind Tour of South Korea

Everyone I met was fit, very active and quite conscious of what they ate or drank. The most common comment was “Try this — it’s good for your liver/spleen/organ-of-choice”. The numerous mountains are riddled with hiking trails and they’re kept busy with families out climbing hills, having picnics and enjoying the air. I got more than one friendly comment about my “America belly” and spent the entire time sucking in my gut self-consciously.

There’s a big difference between a hotel and a motel
My brother and I couldn’t figure out why his wife was so insistent that we find a hotel each night, rather than the much more common motels. In Seoul our luck ran out and we quickly learned the difference between the two. The first clue appeared in the form of a sign in the elevator on the way to the rooms. A single room was $60 for the night but could be rented for only 2 hours at a $20 rate. It was –as my brother phrased it– a “no tell motel”.

Random Notes from a Whirlwind Tour of South Korea

My room was wonderfully kitchy, with zebra-striped furniture, a pair of white satin robes, a massive TV, a PC and a jacuzzi bath. The counter was covered with cans of hair spray (Hard Hair brand, no less), deodorant, air freshener and bug spray. A large white vending machine sat in the corner, filled with instant noodles and crackers. After traveling around SE Asia for the last year or more I was not about to pass up a chance to enjoy a good soak and soon found myself lounging in the tub with a cold beer.

I quickly learned, however, that seven squirts of bubble bath is about six too many — when I turned on the jets (which are on a timer and can’t be turned off), I was immediately swallowed by a mountain of jasmine-scented foam. Slipping and wallowing about, I desperately scrambled for the plug as the soap stung my eyes. Anyone walking into the room at that instant would have found nothing but a 3-foot high mountain of suds and one free hand holding the beer aloft as I sputtered and cursed. (I managed to save the beer, by the way).

Determined to enjoy my jacuzzi experience and prove my stupidity once and for all, I got the suds under control and began refilling the tub. I waited until the water covered the jets by a good inch and pushed the button. Again. This would have all worked perfectly if not for the fact that all of the nozzles were pointed skyward at about a 45 degree angle — 8 streams of water shot into the air with an angry hiss. It was like being in a malfunctioning car wash and I spent the next five minutes trying to block all of the jets with hands, feet, elbows, knees and –at one point– my head.

Feeling thoroughly unrelaxed, I dried off and donned my satin robe (not really built for us big boys but hey…) and fired up the plasma screen. There was one English-language movie channel but it was showing about an hour’s worth of commercials (and thankfully, no RoboCop rerun) so I ran through the channels and stumbled into a couple of Korean sex channels.

Now, I consider myself a bit of an armchair anthropologist, so of course I had to see what a Korean porn channel was like (all in the name of Science, ya know) and let me tell you: it’s pretty tame stuff. Each scene involved a young man in tighty-whities and a topless woman rolling around in bed, kissing and quietly moaning. One episode showed a young woman licking her lover’s abs as she made her way south — after just a few moments of this steamy action, she produced a tissue and carefully wiped his stomach clean. That’s when I turned the TV off and went to bed.

I was returning to the States the next morning and my brother poked his head into my room as we were preparing to head to the airport. “Did you check out the vending machine?” he asked with a grin.

Random Notes from a Whirlwind Tour of South Korea

“Yeah, noodles and stuff — kind of weird to put it in the room, huh?”

His grin widened. “I think you might want to look a bit closer.” And he was right. The top of the machine was filled with snacks but as I examined the last few compartments I discovered a wide selection of French ticklers, condoms and vibrators. A pink phallus-shaped vibrator goes for $20, batteries included.

Beats the hell out of noodles, I guess.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Mika September 14, 2011 at 6:06 am

Hey Wes! I enjoyed reading your blogpost :) I already spent some nights in these love motels but i never spotted the dildos :D hilarious! Eating is one of the best things here in Korea in my opinion.. always when i am here i am regularly gaining weight kkk :D

Good luck with your future travels!
Greetings from Seoul
Cheers Mika

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wes September 14, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Oh, man… the food is wonderful. I ate my way through the country…

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Naomi September 14, 2011 at 7:38 am

One of the things I first noticed about Seoul when I moved here was all of the LED lights everyone, constantly scrolling through the entire spectrum of colours – on signs, on the sides of apartment buildings, even in tiles on the sidewalk. The whole city is neon and, yes, looks SO futuristic!

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wes September 14, 2011 at 9:18 pm

I totally agree — I love walking around at night :)

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Amanda September 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Haha, love this, Wes. You’re such a great story-teller. South Korea sounds like a very strange and interesting place… thanks for sharing your brief experience with us!

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wes September 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Thanks, Amanda. It was a lot of fun.

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Matthew Karsten September 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm

You know it’s a party motel when they stock the room vending machine with 2 vibrators!

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wes September 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I was impressed by the fancy robes until I saw the vending machine. They really go all out…

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Alex September 14, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Ahah what a great new adventure! Cheers for saving the beer, in the end that’s the most important :) And thanks for sharing the motel experience, I love jacuzzis so I’ll take care with the bubble bath. The korean porn sounds kinda lame though…

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Shannon September 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I laughed through this post, great story writing :)

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wes September 18, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Thanks, Shannon!

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Christy @ Technosyncratic September 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm

I’ve always wondered what South Korea is like. Now I think I know more than I want to… :P

And your description of the evil jacuzzi tub was amazing. Really, seriously amazing.

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wes September 18, 2011 at 11:36 pm

That tub was nearly the death of me ;)

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Becks September 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm

I lived in Busan for a while a few years ago, and you’ve described the Westernized parts exactly (futuristic), however it seems you missed a few of the more traditional areas. On Yeong-do island, which is connected to Busan via an old bridge, is actually called ‘old Busan’. Everything is made of cement from the government giving out bags of the stuff to different cities after the war. The houses and walkways merge in swirls of grey. If a city used its ration of cement economically, they were given more. Yeong-do has a lot of old buildings, and is where the big fish market is located. While I loved the futuristic aspect of living in Busan, I also loved visiting ‘old busan’ in Yeong-do, and enjoying submerging myself in older Korean culture. If you make it to the Korea again, I recommend Yeong-do for some good culture-steeping :)

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wes September 18, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Thanks for the tip, Becks. I’ll check it out next time for sure.

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Marcel Vos September 16, 2011 at 9:32 pm

I loved living in south korea visit seoul like 5 times and it is wonderfull. Motels in seoul are shitty that is true but outside of seoul they are rather good and cheap.
Visit busan as well if it is summer the most relaxed city in korea. I hope you tried some korean bbq aka the best dish in the world?

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wes September 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Heh, I ate so much Korean BBQ that they had to roll me out of the country in a wheelbarrow. Love it!

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Matt September 18, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Love the multicab in the first photo! I originally came to the post because of that but was even more amused by the vending machine with its “variety” of treats.

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Erica September 22, 2011 at 11:37 am

BWAHAHAHA! We checked out the Japanese porn section of the bookshops we went to in Tokyo and all the videos were completely mosaic-ed out. Insane.

Love the vending machine. You don’t have to leave that room for days!

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Angela September 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm

looooooooooool! I cannot believe there is a vibrator in the vending machine! It does look an interesting country to visit, and the food I know is delicious.

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Tom Sawyer September 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

That motel looks more ‘kinky’ than ‘kitchy’ haha, but the food looks absolutely delicious! SK is definitely on my ‘countries to visit’ list – did you get close to the border?

PS: Well done on saving the frothy!

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Akila September 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Hilarious! We noticed the shininess too but we never braved the motels, though we heard about them from our friends who lived in SK. The story apparently about the motels is that SK couples often live with the whole extended family so they don’t get much time for each other. So, even MARRIED couples rent out motel rooms — if you went around Busan and some of the smaller cities, you’ll see motels shaped like castles to make the couple feel more intimate, I guess. SK also has a very low birth rate so apparently people are very encouraged to use these motels and the government even gives out vouchers for people to go out on dates (i.e. movie tickets, not motel rooms).

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Kate September 30, 2011 at 7:35 am

Hi Wes,
I love your blog and I love this post!
It caught my attention because I am living in South Korea- I always enjoy reading what people say about this place. It sounds like in your short stay here you got a really good feel for the country!
Have fun on the next leg of your trip!

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Joel Tillman October 17, 2011 at 10:37 pm

You are right when you say that a week is too short of a time to get to know a country. I just got back stateside from a year of teaching in Yeoncheon (a little north of Seoul) and felt it took at least half a year to really get to know the country.

The thing I miss the most? The food and Sauna’s. Korean Kimchi is hard to find here but if you scour the asian markets you can find it sometimes.

Did you try any mountain hiking while you were there?

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Sarah January 3, 2012 at 11:17 pm

I don’t know why I am just reading this now but I just spent a year living in Geoje!

It was a crazy I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it experience. You know, minus all that stuff in the vending machines.

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Dan January 24, 2012 at 1:17 am

Hey Johnny,
Great blog! Keep it up,

Let us know if you ever feel like doing guest post. We’re always looking for new writers.
http://www.thisboundlessworld.com

Thanks!
D

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wes January 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Thanks, Dan! At the moment I can barely keep up with my own projects ;)

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