What is the first thing you think about with you hear “South Korea”?
Is it K-pop? The demilitarized zone? Amazing skin care products?
Whatever it is, I am here to tell you that, while you are able encounter these things during your travels in South Korea, there is so much more to it that will amaze you.
Tucked away in-between skyscrapers and trendy coffee shops are centuries old palaces, and just at the edge of the city of Seoul are vast national parks from which you can see neighborhoods sprawling outward for miles.
From that point of view it is hard to reconcile the fact that almost half of the country lives in this one metropolis.
Today I want to reflect on my trip to Seoul, South Korea; I also want to share some of my recommendations for anyone traveling to South Korea in the future (once, of course, travel is advisable again!)
This trip is one I will remember for the rest of my life for two reasons. One, I got engaged to my now husband on this trip and two, this was the place where I had my first realization that I was actually becoming the person that I wanted to be.
Up until that moment, which I will talk about later, I questioned my ability to be brave, to be interesting or to be more than just a person who existed within the monotony of my everyday life.
Let’s get started! I will take you through six of my most memorable moments from my trip to South Korea, and what I learned from those experiences that you may want to remember if you find yourself traveling there in the future!
- I got a kidney stone on the plane!
You may be asking yourself something along the lines of, “Tori, why would you ever want to revisit you getting a UTI and a kidney stone on your 11 hour flight from Canada to Seoul’s Incheon Airport?!”
I’m glad you asked!
I have a history of kidney stones; I got my first one at the age of 16 which was diagnosed when I went to the emergency room at 4 a.m. thinking I was going to have to have surgery for whatever was rupturing inside me.
I just had 5 little bits of calcium sitting in my kidneys, and one decided it was time to leave.
So, when I started getting the same pain in the airport, I knew what was going on. I even intended to ignore it and soldier on, but after a day of walking around with my boyfriend and his family I knew that I needed to rest and get medical help.
Going to the doctor in general isn’t my definition of a good time, but going to the doctor in a different country, where I spoke not one word of the language and where I hadn’t the first clue of how the medical system functioned… next level nerves.
But my boyfriend (now husband) Micah and I got up early the third day after I arrived, got on the subway and made our way to the international hospital that we found on google. An hour away from where we were staying, at the only hospital where there were people who spoke English and missing the guided tour of Seoul that the rest of the family was going on, we were told that the doctor wouldn’t be able to see me until Tuesday.
At this point, I could hardly walk very far without needing to sit down.
So, seeing our reluctance to wait, the receptionist referred us to an OBGYN, gave us a map to get there that was all in Korean, and called ahead to make sure that they knew we were coming.
After a failed subway navigation, a cab ride, and a happenstance look into an office on the second floor of a building, we finally found the OBGYN.
How did we know? Our only indicator that we were in the right place was a nurse seeing our concerned faces and saying “Victoria?”
From this experience I learned the power of translation apps on smart phones, where you can just type in what you need to say and it automatically translates to the needed language.
Look one up! There are very helpful and there are many different apps.
I also learned that the South Korean healthcare system is incredible; I only paid $30 for the appointment and my antibiotics, when in the U.S. I would have paid $80.
What I thought was going to be scary and overwhelming, turned out to be a great story and a benefit to my health. And, as an added bonus, Micah and I got to experience problem solving together, by ourselves and with something that really mattered, for the first time!
Don’t be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone while traveling… you will love the outcome more than your security.
2. We got engaged at the top of Seoul Tower!
If you are familiar with the space needle in Seattle, then you will be familiar with the idea of Seoul Tower.
Standing high in the middle of the city, Seoul Tower offers a clear view of Seoul from a bird’s eye perspective and features gardens, places to hang love locks on the fences and a glass-wall restaurant at the highest point.
It was here, with a personal engraved love lock, a photographer and a family dinner that Micah proposed to me… and yes, it was one of the best days of my life.
A romantic and a family location all in one, this is the perfect spot to visit at sunset on a clear Seoul day.
For your visit, I recommend taking the gondola up and down from the top of the tower, using the Photo Booth that is on the main deck with the love locks and staying until the sun has gone completely down!
3. I went hiking for the first time at Bukhansan National Park!
Here’s the thing, my husband’s family really loves national parks, the outdoors and challenging themselves.
My family never went camping or hiking in my life.
So when I heard that we were going to be hiking up a mountain on one of our trip days, I was skeptical and worried that I would embarrass myself.
Our hike took place at Bukhansan National Park, and it was one of the most fulfilling and beautiful experiences of my life.
After taking a bus to the edge of the park, and hiking straight up the mountain six miles over rock scrambles, running streams and wooden stair cases, we finally reached the top. It was only after the hike that everyone else said this was one of the hardest hikes they had ever done… and it was my first.
This final part of the climb saw the elimination of all natural methods of hold and protection. Instead, there was a thin rope held up by poles screwed into the mountainside onto which we were to hold. With this, over large, smooth rocks, we pulled ourselves up.
Amid all the fear and the worry that I was wearing the entirely wrong things to be up this high in my chacos to my jean shorts, I felt alive.
This place, on a mountain top in South Korea, is where I felt like I was choosing my own life for the first time.
I was engaged and with people that I loved and I felt as if I had just conquered my fear of embarrassing myself, or falling off that mountain!
I definitely recommend hiking in this national park if you find yourself near Seoul… just remember to wear hiking clothes and bring snacks!
4. We had tea in Gyeongbokgung Palace!
As another part of our engagement day, Micah and I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is also commonly called the “Northern palace” and was originally built in 1395.
Along with the beautiful architecture, there are national museums and demonstrations wrapped within the walls. And, as an expression of culture and as a popular item to rent in the city, you can see many people walking around the palace grounds wearing traditional Korean dress, hanboks.
However, my favorite part of our palace experience was when we accidentally stumbled upon a tea house that was tucked into one of the palace sections just before we were about to leave. For $10, we both got cookies, the “king’s tea” and the experience of sitting in a tea house, in a castle, just like it was a personal fulfillment of my childhood dreams.
It was magical and the perfect beginning to our engagement day!
If you go to the palace, or other popular tourist attractions here, don’t be afraid to rent a hanbok! At first, we were concerned that wearing the traditional dress would be cultural appropriation. However, our tour guide kept assuring us that the Korean people truly want tourists to wear them and experience their culture.
While we did not rent them due to personal choice, I recommend trying it out!
5. We visited Bukchon Hanok Village!
The historic section of Seoul, and situated right next to Gyeongbokgung Palace, is Bukchon Hanok Village.
This neighborhood is a popular tourist attraction, but it is also a current neighborhood where wealthy Korean families live. In fact, many of the front gates of the houses had signs that read, “please be quiet,” as a reminder that those who are visiting should be respectful of those that live there.
We loved learning about the history of this place, and we loved getting our engagement pictures here!
I recommend visiting the village before or after you visit the Northern Palace!
6. We visited the Demilitarized Zone!
While there are many other parts of our trip to South Korea that I would love to talk about, for the sake of length I will end on our visit to the DMZ.
Only accessible by bus in large tour groups, the DMZ is a place that is seemingly shrouded in mystery.
A place that is also filled with so much history, tension and hope, you wouldn’t expect the atmosphere to be as it was.
There was no fear, no doubt and no withdrawal from the international visitors as we marched down the tunnels built by North Korea to meet the place where North and South Korea meet underground. Or when we shuffled up to the observation deck to stare directly at North Korean soldiers.
This was a moment and a place that I never thought that I would get to visit, and another moment in which I knew that I was living a life very different from the one I thought I would.
Well, that’s it!
Those are my top 6 moments from my trip to South Korea, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about them!
This trip was an indication that I was going in the right direction for me, and one of the reasons that I believe everyone should do their best to travel.
If not to somewhere as far as South Korea, then just the next state over.
Just leave where you are from so that you can understand how you differ from, and are the same as, others.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time,