In May this year (2013) I was asked if I would consider travelling to South Korea for work. My first reaction was trepidation and a bit of fear. Personally, I had made the decision a few years ago that traveling with the Asian continent was not really something I would be interested in for a variety of reasons.
Once I got over my initial ‘drama queen’ reaction I calmed down and considered the prospect of traveling to a country where the culture, language and history are so vastly different from New Zealand. I also decided that it was an amazing opportunity (despite being mostly work-related) that was unlikely to come up again in the near future.
I have always been pretty relaxed about traveling, however this marked the first time to a country where English is not the native language. I do remember thinking “how lost can someone get in South Korea?” The really great thing is that one of my work colleagues had traveled to South Korea earlier in the year and he had also been there before. Also, the hotel I stayed at provided pretty comprehensive instructions on which ‘limo’ (bus) to get from the airport to the hotel.
When I first arrived in Seoul I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people around. I managed to get the right bus to the hotel and settle in. I think that, that night I walked around locally just to get my bearings. One thing that really surprised me was the amount of high rise style apartment blocks. I suppose when a city’s population is about four times the size of the whole of New Zealand you have to build up to accommodate the people.
Working took so much of my time especially when I was adjusting to the time difference. I would work when I woke up and then from 9am-6pm and then work again after dinner.
What I found really lovely was that the people I was working with went to lunch as an office each day and we tried all sorts of different restaurants from Vietnamese to traditional Korean. The sheer amount of different food options was just mind-boggling! My suggestion is to try some traditional Korean food before you go over there and then do not be afraid to try everything! It was a bit harder for me as I do not eat red meat/pork/lamb etc. however I managed to push myself so far outside my comfort zone when it came to trying different things from Ginseng Chicken to aged Squid.
I was there for a fortnight and on the weekend I was taken out to do some touristy things. We went to a beautiful Italian restaurant for lunch and then to Insa-Dong which is a more traditional shopping area with Korean antiques etc. Then there is Myeong-dong which is a very popular shopping spot and when I first went there earlier in the week I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in one place.
We went to the huge Buddhist temple and I didn’t realise until we saw a diagram of the layout just how bit it was. Then we checked out Shinsegae which is a massive department store/mall. It’s kind of split into two parts 1. Very high end fashion etc. and the second is more affordable and possibly a bit more popular. Tried some traditional Korean dessert/sweet treats.
There were times that I felt very alone in Seoul. It is hard going out shopping or eating alone when you are not working. Also, sometimes I just wanted a long conversation in English where I did not have to worry about colloquial language and having to explain.
When I returned home I realised there were so many things that I would have loved to have seen. You forget that when you go overseas for work that it is not really a holiday and you are normally knackered! When I thought I would be going back for work I was quite excited and began to think about all the things that I could do and see while I was there. I did not end up going back for work, however I know now that I would love it if my husband Mark and I could go back there in a few years and experience Seoul together on holiday. It is a beautiful place. The people are amazing and so friendly and welcoming. The food is incredible and we even went and had traditional Korean food for our wedding anniversary about a week after I got back to New Zealand. Korean food kind of makes New Zealand food look a little bit boring.
In retrospect I really wish I had done more research about Korea before I left New Zealand. The history and traditions of South Korea are rich, interesting and at times painful. If you are planning on going anywhere my suggestion would be to look at the Lonely Planet (or similar) books/websites for more information as it will really make your holiday/work trip much more fulfilling.
If I ever go back to South Korea these are some of the things that I would love to see/do:
- Seoul Tower
- Folk Village
- National Folk Museum of Korea
- De-militarized Zone
- Lotte World Adventure
- Changdeokgung Palace
- Gwanaksan Mountain
- Biwon (Royal Secret Garden)
- Gangnam Samgyeopsal Street