Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Solitary Travel Wrap Up : All About My South Korea Experience


A year after I packed my luggage full of  layers of clothes and winter bubble jackets, I thought the best way to re-live the memories and the wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experience is to scribble my first-ever "Solitary Travel" in South Korea. My main reason back then was just to see and touch an ice snow on my birthday.  Not only I touched "Olaf" (the snowman in the movie, "Frozen") which I happened to name as plainly, Mr. Snowman, last year, I was able to experience the true meaning of "solitary travel" as a wanderer and traveler (and not on an official business trip).
At the top of Seorak Mountain
There are ups and downs of being a solo traveler. Being one was kind of unveiling the experiences of other solo travelers that I read from their travel blogs - the food costs that could have been split into two or three, to have somebody who can look over your things while you're responding to nature's call, to take pictures of you (though thanks to my mono pod and tripod) and to just talk and laugh about the marvelous things that you have just saw or witnessed, or to the simplest moments along the way.  At some point it was difficult but the moment you think of your main goal, you get back to the essence of solitary traveling. 

It is always a choice- a choice to either feel homesick or a choice to savor that kind of experience that worth a bundle of pages in your life journal.


At Seogwipo Harbour just having the time of my life
There was a time when I only settled just an order of fewer portion of food and did not splurge much on it.  Some moments when I only asked and trusted the stranger to look after my luggage while I took a short bathroom break. And even talked with some stranger randomly on certain things.  Surprisingly, those were the things that I learned more about myself.  I am not a conversation starter, neither I can easily trust strangers.  But in a foreign land where you can only lean upon yourself, there are times that you don't have the choice but follow your instincts.

I got my ever reliable monopod and tripod that kept me company while capturing memories.  It was amusing when some tourists watched me while I set my camera on time and allowed me to take my photos, then followed the same spot for theirs.  They thought I got the best spot to take photos.  Anything that seemed lacking is always filled in with another.  Things went well without realizing it. So hurray to my successful first solitary travel where I conquered the fear of traveling on my own and lived my dream of independence.
at Udo Island with my ATV (it was fun driving around the island)

My Preparations

It was a nine-month planning and preparation (though not continuous planning with my nine-hour-a-day-office job) - airfare promo hunting for cheap flights from/to Seoul and domestic flights, cheap yet comfortable accommodations, studying the transport system and directions.  I did meticulous research, read blogs and reviews and even contacted some expats who happened to be bloggers as well for some tips.  It's my first solitary travel and nothing can go wrong with a thorough planning.  With my DIY-prepared travel guide, prayer book and rosary, I went for my first solitary travel to South Korea on March 14, 2013 with nothing to bring home but a new experience that will make me more a much better person.

Just like a countdown to any event, I did my own 10-day countdown too. 


my own personalized itinerary meticulously made with pasted pictures, maps and direction guides that helped me throughout my trip, plus of course, my companion - my rosary.
So here I share the run down of my first solitary travel experience:

Solitary Travel By the Numbers:

Season  :  Late winter, early Spring
No. of Days 10 days (March 14-23, 2013)
Airport Transfers : 4 Airports (1 international, 3 domestic)
Incheon International Airport (International Flight from MANILA to SEOUL)
Gimpo International Airport (Domestic flight from SEOUL to JEJU Island)
Jeju International Airport (Domestic flight from SEOUL and to BUSAN)
Gimhae International Airport (Domestic flight from JEJU Island to BUSAN)
No. of Cities:  6 Cities (1 Special City Capital (Seoul); 1 Metropolitan City (Busan); 4 Cities (Paju, Sokcho, Gimhae, Seogwipo)
No. of Provinces: 4 Provinces ( South Gyeongsan, Gyeonggi, Gangwon and Jeju)
No. of Accommodations : 4 (hostel, inn, motel and hotel)
Four Seasons House (Seoul)
Jeju Hiking Inn (Seogwipo, Jeju Island)
Pusan Inn Motel (Busan)
YMCA Tourist Hotel (Seoul)
Mode of Transportation: Airport buses, city buses, intercity/express (provincial buses), subways (Seoul and Busan MTR), Korail (KTX), ferry to Udo Island and ATV around Udo Island


Transportation

Subways & Buses
It was my second time in South Korea so I was brave enough to go alone.  The subways are a bit complicated but once you get a feel of it, you're good like locals.  On my last day in Seoul, I just kept the subway map in my bag and traveled like I know much of the place.  Bus stops are very helpful too though many are not written in English, especially in the provinces, but diligent research and a dose of common sense could save you some time.  With names and directions written in Hangul, I saved screenshots of those in my Ipad. Then with the printed characters in the bus stops, I just compared the characters in my Ipad with those signages. Fun yet practical tips! 
my bus ticket to Sokcho City
However, "confirmation" and "strategy" are the keys - just like how I handle my team and manage our KPIs at my office work.  I always asked the driver twice to confirm the route of the bus and asked him to drop me at my designation, in the best efforts and rounds of explanation that I could. Most of the time, I took the seat at the back of the driver's seat so he could somehow remember me or I could ask him right away.

The language barrier could be a problem but just hold on to the key word.  When I went to Seoksan Ilchulbong (or Sunrise Peak) in Jeju Island, I just took a bus that according to my DIY travel guide, passed by at a certain rotary, I asked the driver in a questioning tone, "Ilchulbong"? And he nodded.  The travel time was much longer than I expected and I had no idea of the distance and the estimated travel time. But after an hour, the driver stopped and told me while pointing at Ilchulbong.  I assumed I reached my destination and got off the bus.  Then, I left to nowhere.  I did not panic but instead look beyond the location- should there'll be any street signs and directions.  Then, I saw that usual signage painted in white on green or blue background pointing to Ilchulbong.  I trailed the road and there I saw my destination.  
Learn to read signs and directions - its not something to be feared of
KTX
For unknown reason, I am fond of train travels in foreign countries (be it a tram or subways).  Perhaps, I am inspired of Harry Potter's Hogwarts or any other movies of historic times where people traverse from one country to another via train.  I've even read that if not of North Korea's restriction, Russia can be reached via train.  It was part of my plan to take the express train from Busan to Seoul although the price was more expensive than a domestic plane and travel time can be longer.  I had fun looking for the platform number, coach number and seat number.  Unfortunately, it was indeed express that I haven't seen much of the countryside but tunnels.  Next time, I'll take the much slower train.
But then, I experienced the efficiency of South Korea's transport system. Trains left as scheduled and arrived as announced. In just less than three hours, I reached Seoul from Busan.
KTX ride and route from Busan to Seoul

Food


Kimbap - my staple food in South Korea
Korean cuisine is always foreign to a Filipino palate like me who's more on sweets, salty and sour food.  I had my own difficulty during my first trip - aside from the new taste of kimchi, it was hard ordering food without English menu or even a picture to refer to.  We ended eating chicken most of the time.  However, on my solitary travel, I researched for the names and description of Korean cuisine such as Samgyeopgsal, Kimbap, Bibimpap. I saved a copy of pictures with its name in Korean that I just showed when ordering food. Sometimes, "turo-turo", a Filipino term for just pointing to the food on display also worked well for me. When I was in Udo Island, the only restaurant near the port offered food with menu written in Korean only - without even pictures. I looked around and saw a big man in military uniform taking a mouthful of black noodles. It salivating enough that I didn't mind pointing at his food to order mine.  All throughout my trip, Kimbap, was my staple food. It's cheap and a sort of all in one food with mixture of rice and various ingredients that are enough to be a viand for a Filipino like me.  All throughout the 10-day trip, it was proven how generous Korean servings were of the side dishes which they called banchan.  There was even a point in time during my trip that rice and kimchi were enough.  I came to like and love kimchi that I even bought a box at Duty Free and brought home.  I even ate from time to time at any authentic Korean restaurant here in Metro Manila. 


People

I heard a lot of not so good comments about Koreans who were either studying or living here in the Philippines.  But during my stay in South Korea traversing from one province to another, I experienced their kindness more than anything else.  A family fed me in the bus  while traveling to Snow Mountain in Sokcho.  Amidst the language barrier, we were able to share the smiles and the food.   On the bus to Ilchulbong, an elder woman sat beside me, kept on chatting with me while pointing at the map on my hand.  She was cheerful and all I can do was to smile and nod and kept on telling her I cannot understand her. The lady serving my food at the Traditional Restaurant in Jeju Island catered to my request to sit on the traditional table that I saw in K-dramas and gave me more side dishes that one person can eat.  A taxi driver was like a father who kept reminding me to stay safe and be well for the rest of my travel in South Korea as he drove me to the bus terminal.  The language itself is not a barrier but instead the kindness of the people helped me throughout my trip.  I talked in English and they spoke in Korean but we both understood each other.


the family who fed me in the bus with their daughter who even called me Unni when we bid goodbye


Culture, Tradition and Beliefs 

Conformity

Just like in any other countries that I'd gone to, it is always an unspoken rule for any traveler to respect one country's culture and tradition.  Wear the suitable clothes - do not go in shorts if the place doesn't allow you to expose some skin (like in palaces in Bangkok). Koreans have a high value in conformity.  It's non-negotiable.  They conform to traditions and culture and even religiously observed unofficial celebrations like National Siblings Day, White Day, among others.  When I arrived on March 14, I wandered around Hongdae and young people were flocked in one area with four good looking gentlemen with sort of placard worn like a vest and girls were screaming to hug and took pictures with them.  I thought they were some members of K-pop idols but I later found out that they were celebrating White Day which is observed a month after Valentines Day where men gave flowers and some sweets to ladies as sort of giving back for the presents they received on Valentines Day.  In Korea (and I think even in Japan) ladies were the ones who gave men some presents on Hearts' Day unlike in the Philippines where Valentines' Day is more of a Women's Day.  They were truly nationalistic - from cars to mobile and smartphones, they patronized their own brand.

Shoes Off the Floor
In Korea, you should never wear your shoes or slippers inside their house.  I once asked Mary, our landlady at Hongdae's Youth Hostel during my first trip in South Korea.  She said, no particular reason but just to keep the floor clean.  In Korea, and other Asian countries like Philippines, we put sleeping map on the floor and sleep.  Most Korean's houses (even hostels) have raised floor and lower floor.  That means, you can have your shoes and slippers on the lower floors but have to leave and take it off at the raised floor.  More so, it is much appreciated if one's wearing clean socks.

Don't be Noisy on Subway and Buses
Unlike in the Philippines where people are more chatty even to strangers, you can rarely hear loud voices on trains and buses, even loud music - perhaps the reason why most people were on ear/headphones on the train.  On my way back  to Seoul from Sokcho City, I was on the bus with many younger people but I did not hear any loud voices talking, or laughing. I thought it was because they chose to sleep than chatting but later I read that this is one of the norms in Korea.  Also, when I watched a Korean variety/reality show, Running Man's episode 192 where Song Ji Hyo and her partner took the bus to their final destination, they switched off their cameras and refrained from talking as many elderly were on the bus too.

Don't messed up with the elder Koreans
Korean elders can be scary but they can be charming too.  I am lucky to have had happy experiences with them. Maybe, I looked lost and helpless to them as I wander around on my own but maybe that's one of the freebies of a solo traveler. On my 2nd day in Jeju Island, I took my morning walk in Seogwipo and joined some elders sitting on the wooden porch after I crossed Seonimgyo Bridge.  Some cared to chat but I smiled and talked in English so they just waved and went back to their places.  They can just go in the queue whenever they want, and don't ever sit on their designated seats on the subways.  But when we were in Korea on our first trip with large bags on our hands from our shopping adventure at Nandaemun Market, some elder men even offered their seats to us but we happily declined. Again, just put a smile on your face and these Halmeoni (grandma) and Hal-abeoji (grandpa) will be gentle as the caring old folks.

These are all my observations and from my own experiences.  And this is all that matters to me.


Accommodation

Accommodation depends on the traveler's preference - rates, comfort, location or lifestyle.  I am always after the three factors - rates, comfort and location.  It doesn't have to be fancy as long as it is accessible to bus stops and subway stations, reasonable price but with either private bathroom or easy access to bathrooms and most of all comfortable - with good bed to sleep and clean pillows and blankets.

I made a research based on nearest bus stops and subway station, then usually check on Trip Advisor for any valuable reviews that I can refer to. And I can say, my chosen abode away from home were worth a page in my journal too.

Four Seasons House in Seoul
On my first stop in South Korea, I chose Four Seasons House as the Bed and Breakfast to stay in Seoul.  It has fewer rooms than other hostels and less crowded.  I am not into a typical hostels for backpackers. I still want to have some place and space of my own.  I chose the Winter Room just to go with my travel theme of Winter-Spring.  The pictures on their website were the same of the actual room. The location requires a bit of walking to the nearest subway stations, Hapjeong and Hongdae, and nearest Airport Bus stop, but this is common to most hostels in Seoul.  Every morning, you can prepare your own breakfast of bread with a lot of jams to choose from and coffee, tea and juices. The hosts were also accommodating.  Alex Lim was attentive to my queries on email and Julie accommodated my luggages for safekeeping when I arrived at 7am, too early for check-in.  The place was cozy and comfortable for a homey feel.  I liked the displays and the interior design that I even inspired to copy some of it.
Four Seasons House in Seoul
Their website is a plus! You'll never get lost with the very detailed map and the nearby locations were helpful also when I was in the planning stage of my Solitary Travel. It was pricey for a typical backpacker but I found comfort with it.

Jeju Hiking Inn
My second stop was Jeju Island where I chose to celebrate my birthday and the next two days of my trip.  It was raining when I arrived but my room with a bathtub in Jeju Hiking Inn compensated the gloomy weather a bit.  I bought bubble bath and some junkies to match with soju.  It was a simple celebration for me with a slice of cake that I bought at Jungmun.

Kevin, the receptionist, was also accommodating.  He can speak good English and was very diligent to give me some directions on the map. He even reminded me to keep my room locked.  The room was more than deserving of the price that I paid and very much liked it.  They also had a rooftop overlooking the Seogwipo Harbour and that's where I spent my first breakfast and prayed that the weather could got better.
Jeju Hiking Inn Room 
Pusan Inn Motel
On my third stop of the 10-day-solitary travel, I stayed at Pusan Inn Motel in Busan as recommended by my office colleague, Eve.  She stayed there with her friends and a walking distance to Busan Station. I was supposed to stay at Arirang Tourist Hotel which was more expensive for a solo traveler like me.  I saved more than 50% of my budget. The motel was not fancy, neither its entrance as it looked like one of the old stores of money changers and small restaurants along the street. It has no lifts so I had to carry my luggage up and down the stairs. But then the room was good enough for its price plus the location was very strategic.  The receptionist can only speak few English words but presenting my reservation was already enough to understand each other.  Since I arrived earlier than the allowed check-in time, I left my luggage again for safekeeping and went off for my first bus tour in Busan.


Pusan Inn Motel room at 3rd Floor
YMCA Tourist Hotel Seoul
I decided to splurge in comfort on my last night in South Korea.  YMCA is located near Myeongdong and Nandaemun and the airport bus is just at the front of the hotel.  This catered to my final itinerary - to do shopping for personal and business purposes.  What's more convenient to shop and then drop at the hotel and shop again.  With my luggages in tow, it was very convenient to drag them just outside the entrance of the hotel.  The price, of course, was pricey but enough to compensate the walking and tiring time or even taxi costs should I stay in backpackers' hostel.
YMCA Tourist Hotel Room
The Weather

No further details - I loved going back to Korea because of Spring.  It's not much of a cold of a Winter and the beautiful Cherry Blossoms just bloomed around this time.  But my dream of experiencing snow is one of the reasons that I tried to catch the changing of season from Winter to Spring.  In the next few years, when I save enough to travel again, I will explore South Korea in Autumn.
with Olaf at Seorak Mountain

My 10-day Solitary Travel Itinerary


When planning a longer trip and to cover as much of the country, it is advisable to identify your home base, that is, the main stop for your accommodation where during the day, a day tour/trip to nearby cities/provinces is possible. For my solitary trip, I chose three main home bases - SEOUL, JEJU ISLAND and BUSAN.

Home bases can be reached via trains, bus or airplanes.  To save time, I chose to travel by air.  However, for the day tours, I chose the City Bus tours and provincial buses.  It was fun, full of adventure and I have all the time of my trip figuring my destination.

 
My 10-DAy South Korea Solitary Map

 

1st Stop : Seoul 

Day 1 - Arrival
Spent the day wandering around Seoul, went to KBS and Seoul Station. Then, just anywhere Hongdae area to get the youthful feel and had my afternoon snack at Hello Kitty Cafe.  It was the time to make familiar of the place again.  


Day 2 - Gyeonggi Province (Paju City)
Took the bus to the nearest province, Gyeonggi, where I spent most of my first half of the day at Heyri Art Village and enjoyed coffee shops hopping more than anything else.  Then, I spent the rest of the afternoon in Seoul indulging into their traditional restaurants and homes.  I had my first Korean meal in Insadong, took my souvenir photo and then explored Bukchon Traditional Village.
my sticker photo at one of the stores in Insadong 
Day 3 - Gangwon Province (Seorak Mountain)
A day before my birthday, I fulfilled my wish to experience the snow.  I ate ice cream to further feel the cold and ate ramen to feel the warm as well. Ironic, isn't it?  


2nd Stop : Jeju Island

Day 4 - Arrival in Jeju Island (My Birthday)
I left Seoul and took the flight to Jeju Island.  It was raining so I spent my birthday at the Church and with Teddy Bear.

Day 5 - Seogwipo Harbour and Songoik Theme Park
Spent my second day in Jeju Island with a morning walk along Seogwipo Harbour and my mini-version of "Tour Around the World".  It was colder after the rain but just looking at the miniatures of famous landmarks of the world is like a peek of the world that I could explore in the years to come.

Day 6 - Seongsan Peak and Udo Island

Driving around Udo Island on ATV was such an amazing experience for me.  I wish I could stay overnight.  Taking steps to hike the highest peak of Seongsan was also a different experience to me. My Jeju Island experience was indeed the best choice to spend my birthday week.


3rd Stop : Busan

Day 7 - Busan Bus Tour
On my 7th day, I took the early flight to Busan from Jeju. The best way to see Busan in a day is through their City Bus Tours that go around via Haeundae Loop and Taejongdae Loop

Day 8 - Jinhae and Busan on my own
I tried to catch a glimpse of the famous Cherry Blossom City in South Korea, Jinhae, but the flowers were not in full bloom. So I decided to have a quick tour in the morning and spent the rest of the day in Busan on my own.



4th Stop: Seoul

Day 9 - Travel back to Seoul

I took KTX train to Seoul that only took less than three hours and then spent the rest of the day shopping in Myeongdong and Nandaemun.

Day 10 - Last Day and Departure

Had my quick trip to Changdeokgung Palace and just took a stroll to nearby cafe's and bookstores while I waited for my final time to depart Seoul.


My Expenses

My Top 3 expenses were spent on Accommodation, Food and Airfares, including KTX tickets.  Looking back, I thought I ate much in South Korea, the fact that I learned to love Kimchi that much.  A travel is not complete without pasalubong or presents for my loved ones at home - to my families, colleagues and even to my staff at work.  It was like sharing with them the happy memories that I had during my travel through the souvenirs.


 That wrap up my first solitary travel in South Korea last year.  Every time I missed the experience, I read through my blogs and browse through my pictures.  I surely be back in Autumn.



6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi. Your article is very helpful. I am also interested to travel to South Korea on Early March next year. How is the weather? Can I still see snow during this period?

Wanderer Claire said...

Hi there! You may check Sokcho in Gangwon province as it's area in South Korea where snow melts later than other provinces. They call it Snow Mountain. I went there on my 3rd day which was on mid-March.

Mary Grace Sansano said...

Hi. Im planning to go this September in Jeju by DIY. Can you give me your itinerary ang cost breakdown gping to Jeju.. I am here in Korea. For the accomodation as well as the booking of flight. THANK YOU..

Anonymous said...

I loved your blog. Planning to go to Busan alone this winter and got some ideas from your blog. thank you and keep on traveling.

MJ said...

Hi,

I also plan to solo travel to Jeju Island, still need to gather information about it :) How did you commute around Jeju? Is it easy accessible to travel alone? My main destination Teddy Bear and yellow2 flowers things..I might go there for 2 days only.

Thank you so much

Wanderer Claire said...

Hi MJ,

I just go around thru bus. It's convenient and bus announcements are in English. Teddy Bear Museum is in Jungmun Resort area and there are other attractions nearby too. Hope my blog on Jeju could be of help to you:
http://chriene.blogspot.com/2013/11/bracing-rain-and-late-winter-cold-in.html

Have fun planning your trip :-)