Saturday, August 24, 2013

How-to: Survive the Korean Summer Heat

This blog entry was originally published on the Aclipse Blog, which is produced by current Chungdahm Learning teachers in Korea. The blog features entries on current events around Korea, advice for incoming teachers, and the best spots sightseeing, shopping, and eating. The original entry can be viewed here. It has been edited slightly for content. For more information about Aclipse and Chungdahm Learning, click here

Finally, everyone on the Korean peninsula breathes a sigh of relief: rainy season is over. However, the relief is short lived because with the end of the rain comes the real summer heat. Having grown up in Oklahoma and lived in Texas, I'm no stranger to stifling, humid, triple digit (Fahrenheit, of course) temperatures. The heat in Korea is not quite as intense, but it's still a humid heat, which makes staying inside as much as possible very appealing. But you live in Korea! You don't want to waste your weekends away hiding in the air conditioning! So here are some tips on what you can do to enjoy Korea this summer and still stay cool. 

korea summer sunshine
You can't hide. 

Eat and drink ALL the cold things.

This is absolutely the time for everything cold, and luckily, Korea knows what's up. As you may know, Korea has a certain affinity for coffee shops and dessert cafes. Not only do these cafes have a wide assortment of iced to ice-blended coffees and fruity drinks, but there's also bingsu, aka the best summer treat ever. 

bingsu korea ice cream treat
The one is from my favorite of the coffee chains: Angel-in-us. 
Bingsu is like an overachieving snow cone. Instead of just shaved ice and syrup/cream, you get any combination of red bean, ice cream, rice cakes, fruit, whipped cream, cereal... I've seen tons of combinations in the various cafes around Korea. They come in huge bowls, so it's definitely easy to share this with a friend or two. They typically cost around ₩9,000. 

If you're looking for a cold meal to take the edge off the heat, try some naengmyeon, or cold noodles. This dish will typically be a pile of buckwheat noodles, half an egg, some veggies, and broth -- with crushed ice. Yes, ice. This makes your noodles chilled and perfect for slurping back on a hot day. I'll admit, I was highly wary of these when I first saw a friend eating it, but after trying it myself, I'm willing to admit that I was wrong to be so skeptical. 

korea naengmyeon ice noodles

There are tons of varieties of naengmyeon, so if you've tried one kind and decided you don't like it, don't give up completely -- it took me a couple tries to make up my mind. Pro-tip: make sure your noodles are cut up with scissors before you try to eat it, otherwise you'll be slurping impossibly long noodles and it might make your experience less than pleasant. You can find naengmyeon in most Korean restaurants, and it's typically super cheap. 

Also, a summer can't go by without these being a huge part of your life: 

ice cup korea summer
Ice Cup! How I love you.
You'll find these in every mart -- a pouch of liquid for ₩500, and a sealed cup of ice for another ₩500. They come in a wide variety of flavors, including bubble teas that are a tad pricier, and they're wonderful. Cheap, quick, and refreshing. And did I mention cheap? I've come to look forward to the Ice Cups making their way onto the shelves each summer. It just isn't summer in Korea without them. 

Check out indoor activities.

One of the great dilemmas of the summer is the desire to stay indoors vs. the need to go do things. If you're worried about not taking full advantage of your weekends in Korea because the heat is making you slowly melt, look into spending your time doing indoors activities.

war memorial of korea
Just look at that big, air-conditioned building.
My go-to is always museums. Korea is full of awesome museums, such as the War Memorial of Korea, pictured above, with its free admission. It really is a well-designed museum, and while somewhat depressing, it's also very informative and interesting. There's also the National Museum of Korea, which is huge and also free! I haven't been yet, but I hear it's great and would take at least a full day to completely explore. 

Right now, there are three really cool art exhibits going on in Seoul: Miyazaki and Studio GhibliAlphonse Mucha, and Paul Gaugin. (Click each name for more information about the exhibits.) 

studio ghibli exhibit seoul miyazaki

Admission ranges from ₩12,000-15,000. Also, just a heads up: the Ghibli and Mucha exhibits are in the same place, which is super convenient. All three art exhibits run into September.

Then there's another great fallback: themed cafes. They're everywhere in this country, ranging from dogs and cats to Hello Kitty and Mustoy Dolls. Some allow you to dress up in fancy costumes and pose for photos, whereas others have pools of water filled with fish that eat the dead skin off of your feet.

dog cafe seoul
My favorite: the dog cafe. Just look how happy these children are! Best. Place. Ever.
Sometimes, I've planned an entire day around being in a particular area of Seoul so I can check out a new cafe. They're immensely entertaining, and with all the different themes, you'll definitely find at least one that interests you. For most of these cafes, the "admission" cost is that of a coffee or other drink from their menu, which is usually no more than ₩10,000. For others like the Mustoy Dolls or the dress-up cafes, you can expect to pay more due to the activity you'll be experiencing, in which case a drink is included in the price. 

Embrace the use of fans and umbrellas.

You're probably going to feel silly waving around a brightly colored plastic fan in the middle of the subway. Especially because it seems like 99% of the fans here are covered in cute animals or something K-Pop related. Or, you feel ridiculous walking with an umbrella when the skies are clear and blue, because you're used to the idea that umbrellas are for rain, not sun. (The giant beach ones being the notable exception, of course.) But here's my advice: just swallow your embarrassment and follow the lead of the Koreans. 

korea fan summer heat
"Summer panda: Tommorow will be like today!" Gee, thanks, summer panda. Making me feel real good about this summer heat...
Air circulation is key. Summertime in Korea is kind of like living in a sauna, so even if you initially resist buying a fan, you'll eventually understand its usefulness and cave. Fans can be picked up literally anywhere -- from free ones being given out on the street (printed with an advertisement of some sort), to cheap plastic ones being sold near the registers in stores, or nice, fancy ones sold in touristy areas. So don't worry, if you need a fan, you'll find one easily. And I highly recommend finding one. 
When it comes to the use of umbrellas, that all depends on how sensitive you are to the sun. In Korea, having tan skin isn't considered attractive, so it's common to see Koreans walking under umbrellas when the sun is out. However, even if you don't have an aversion to tanning, you have to appreciate having a portable shade-creator. It really does cut a few degrees off of the temperature by walking in the shade of an umbrella. 

Last, and most obvious: get into water. 

Korea has beaches aplenty, as well as countless islands -- one of the perks of being a peninsula. But for quite a lot of us teachers, we aren't always in a position to pop over to the beach for a day. Even living on the coast in Incheon, the best beaches are at least a couple hours away from where I live, which makes for a long commute to and from the water.

busan beach korea summer
Busan, pre-summer beach season, looking so, so inviting. 
Luckily, while beaches are often ideal, they aren't the only spots where you can cool off. For more swimming spots, check out the pools along the Han River in Seoul. Is a pool too ordinary for your taste? Check out the water sports Korea has to offer, in nearly any place that has a river. I saw some interesting ones near Nami Island, and I've seen tons along the Han River. Tubing, peddle boats, something that looks like water Iron Man... Lots of activities that will cool you down.

nami island korea water sport
I bet these people are feeling nice and cool.
Recently, some of my friends and I have been throwing the idea of a water park around, eyeing either Caribbean Bay or Ocean World. Tickets to the two parks are on the pricier end of things, around ₩60,000-70,000, but for a day splashing around and acting like a kid? I'd say it's probably worth it to go at least once. I know it's definitely on my to-do list. 


This is just a smattering of options for staying cool without sacrificing your enjoyment of summertime in Korea. I've already knocked a few of these off my list, and as we're facing quite a few more hot weekends, I'm trying to plot what I want to do next. 

Have you tried any of these activities? Do you have any brilliant ideas for staying cool this summer that don't involve refusing to leave your apartment? Leave a comment below! 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dear Korea, please explain, volume one.

Anywhere in the world, you're bound to see things that just baffle you. I'm talking about the small, mundane things that are just a little off or unexpected. I could easily rattle off a list of things like this from the U.S., and I'm from there -- these things should be somewhat normal to me, and yet they still catch my eye. Being on the other side of the world though? Completely different assortment of perplexing and, as my students say, "strange-ee."

To show you what I mean, here's (the first installment of) a photographic journey through some of the more... unique things from Korea that I just really, really need someone to explain.

This is ice cream. You peel it like a banana. It's kind of like mochi on the outside, with ice cream on the inside, and it's entirely banana flavored. A+ for creativity.

Chew this lady gum while you write with your BIC "For Her" pens.

Because who doesn't want a box of chocolates with Korean men printed on them? For the record: these were "service," or free, from a chocolate vendor when I purchased a ton of the cactus chocolate and stuff to send back to family and friends. Also, let the record show that I was highly disappointed to find that the faces were not edible.

Kakao is the most popular free messaging app in this country, and they have some of the strangest emoticons... Most of the time, the peach looks more like a butt. Also, I spy something racist? 

Stay classy, Korea. 

Underwear bomb? On display at the airport? 

"Blood Diamonds." Nice jacket, bro.

In the winter, walking to work is kind of like ice skating, but the super dangerous kind where you don't have any ice skates and it's awful. The sidewalks aren't cleared here, so all the heavy snowfall just gets packed down until it starts to melt and then freezes again overnight into solid ice! Fun times for all.

This was one of those moments where I felt like the kind ajummas at our local gimbap house were trolling us. The banchan, or free side dishes, are often a little different when we go in there, so I always get excited when there's something I've never had before. When this was placed in front of us, I didn't think twice before trying it, not knowing what it was exactly. Can you guess from the picture? Because it was definitely sliced hotdogs in ketchup. Well played, gimbap house ajummas. Well played.

One of the strangest things in Korea for me is this: the soap on a stick that's in most public bathrooms. It both grosses me out and amuses me. It's so logical, and yet so absurd. 

I love this country, but sometimes... what?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Korea + Travel = Cheap!

This blog entry was originally published on the Aclipse Blog, which is produced by current Chungdahm Learning teachers in Korea. The blog features entries on current events around Korea, advice for incoming teachers, and the best spots sightseeing, shopping, and eating. The original entry can be viewed here. It has been edited slightly for content. For more information about Aclipse and Chungdahm Learning, click here

As someone who grew up in a landlocked state nearly smack in the middle of the U.S., traveling to another state was normal. But going to another country? Too far and too expensive. In fact, while I've traveled all over the U.S., moving to Korea was the first time I'd ever left my home country. Now that I'm here, the novelty of being able to easily country-hop is still so amazing to me. I can't even count the hours I've spent planning the trips I'll be taking someday. Lucky for you, in all of my planning, I've amassed a huge amount of resources. Like, a lot. So get ready to bookmark websites, because it's about to get real with a whole lot of information.

travel korea asia


1. Travel within Korea

First, let's look at the traveling you can do within Korea itself. While a weekend trip to another country is definitely possible (and easy!), more often than not, you'll be sticking to domestic destinations. 

Seoul Subway Map resized 600I promise, it's much easier to navigate than it looks...

Subway - Taking the subway is often the easiest way to get around, but it's somewhat limited in that it only serves its respective metropolitan area. The Seoul Metro system, for example, is amazing -- so efficient, cheap, and sprawling. With the number of attractions within the greater Seoul area, you'll definitely want to take advantage of this cheap means of travel. But if you need to travel farther away, you'll have to utilize some other methods of transport.

KTX/ITX - One step up from the subway are the high-speed trains. These require you to actually purchase a ticket for your particular destination, but really help reduce overall travel time and eliminate the possibility of being stuck in traffic. The trade-off, of course, is the price: a Korea Train Express, or KTX, ticket all the way down to Busan from Seoul is significantly more expensive than a bus ticket. In addition to the KTX is the Intercity Train Express, or ITX, which travels between Seoul and Chuncheon Station. [Note: see this post about Nami Island for a really great excuse to take the ITX for a weekend trip to Chuncheon!]

For more information: Korail's website with KTX time tables and ticket info/prices, as well as this site with some timeframes for the KTX and this one for the ITX.

Buses - Most metropolitan areas will have a central bus terminal, and from there, you'll be able to purchase tickets for farther distances than what you would travel on a regular old city bus. The local terminal here in Incheon has ticketing machines in addition to a ticket box, so picking up a ticket is relatively easy. Also, look into overnight buses -- you'll be traveling/arriving late, but it's an ideal way to make the most of your weekend time, especially since you'll likely be working until 10pm on Friday nights.

For more information: Kobus has a good website that focuses on the express bus system, including schedules, time tables, and booking.

Car rentals - Renting a car in Korea is possible for us foreigners, and as I've been researching getting my Korean drivers license, here's what I've learned. Short-term residents can drive in Korea with an International Drivers License, but long-term residents should exchange their existing license from their home country for a Korean license. (Don't worry, you get it back when you leave the country.) For proof of long-term residence, you'll need to show your Alien Registration Card, or ARC. Depending on where your license is from, you'll be able to skip most (or all!) of the tests.

Why rent a car? In my opinion, it's fantastically easy to get around Korea without a car. However, there are a handful of destinations on my Korea Bucket List that would be better visited with the freedom of a car simply because they're in more remote area. A taxi could drive me there, yes, but it would be much more convenient to have a rental car. Besides, who doesn't like roadtrips?!

For more information: Seoul Metropolitan Government's site outlines both types of licenses, as well as a little info on care rentals. This website also has helpful info.

Flying - If Jeju is your destination, you might want to fly. From the Seoul area, the flight is quick (about an hour) and can be very, very cheap! A couple discount airlines are: EAStar Jet and Jeju Air.

travel asia koreaByeeee, Korea! 


2. Travel to other countries

You'll get a week of vacation time as a teacher for Chungdahm, as well as some long holiday weekends, which are all perfect for planning a trip to another country that's conveniently nearby. The first thing you'll be looking into is most likely going to be airfare. (You can, for the record, take a ferry to Japan from Korea's southeastern ports, but I'm going to focus on flying.) While the usual travel sites are handy, I've discovered that local, Asian airlines are much, much cheaper. Here's a rundown of the airlines I've either used or bookmarked for future trips:
  • EAStar Jet - In addition to cheap flights to Jeju, you can catch a plane to Japan, Thailand, or Malaysia. I flew with them to Japan last year and it was great.
  • Jin Air - Flies to places like Japan, Thailand, Guam, and the Philippines.
  • Cebu Pacific Air - Flies all over the place -- Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Hong Kong... the list goes on.
  • Air Busan - If you're in the south, check out this airline with flights to Japan, China, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
  • China Eastern - As the name suggests, flights to China.
  • T'way Air - Flights to Japan and China, as well as some to Jeju.
  • Eva - Flies out of both Incheon International and Gimpo to a whole slew of spots in Southeast Asia as well as Taiwan and China. 
  • Peach - From Korea to Osaka, cheap and nonstop. 
  • Air Asia - They'll take you to tons of popular destinations: Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
travelz2 resized 600


3. Cheap accommodations

Sometimes, staying in a fancy schmancy hotel while traveling is wonderful. You're on vacation, you've got the money, so why not treat yourself? But sometimes, you don't care how luxurious your accommodations will be because all you really need is a place to crash each night before another day of exploring. Whatever your preference, check out these links for information that run the full gamut of accommodations in this corner of the world:
  • Hostelworld - I've had huge success with booking through this website. I've only used it for hostels in Seoul and Tokyo so far, but I've been pleased with the user ratings and reviews as well as the overall experience at the hostels. The hostels I've stayed in have been safe, clean, and affordable. 
  • Airbnb - This has just recently popped on my radar because of an aunt and uncle who used it on a recent vacation in Europe. Basically, Airbnb allows a host to rent out a room, flat, house, or something bigger to guests because they're out of town/don't use it/etc. So, you're renting a spot for rates cheaper or comparable to a hotel, but with the bonus of the amenities of home. I've heard quite a few glowing reviews of this service from family and friends since I first learned of it, and I'm definitely planning to book through them as soon as possible. How nice would it be to have a private apartment while on vacation?
  • Agoda - Basically Hotwire/Priceline/whatever, but the Asia edition. Some great prices on here, so it's definitely worth checking out if you want a regular hotel somewhere. 
  • Couchsurfing - I haven't gotten into couchsurfing yet myself, but I have a number of friends who do it all the time and they love it. Free place to crash, new friends to meet, and the chance to get insider information about area from someone who's local.

Of course, the Aclipse blog, which I write for, is another great resource, with tons of entries from years of English teachers, blogging about their various vacations spots like: JejuJapanThailandBaliHong Kongthe PhilippinesVietnam, and Taiwan. I've always loved to travel, and now that my travel options have exponentially multiplied, I have to say it's one of the amazing benefits of living in this corner of the world.

That, I believe, concludes my attempt to give you all the links. Even with my exhaustive searching, I'm certain I've missed some information, so please, please leave it in the comments below! Lets compile all the resources we can! After all, a five day break for Chuseok is coming up next month...

Do you have any links worth adding? Any feedback on the services/airlines/travel destinations mentioned above? Leave a comment below to add your information to this post!