A few things about Korea.

I wrote the following, in an email, to an Aussie who was being relocated to Korea, and didn’t know the place. This might actually come in handy.

* Housing
There are two systems for rental, one for expats and one for the locals (and those who don’t want to play along with the expat rip-off system).

The expat system is basically a 3-year contract that has to be paid in full, up-front, and it’s not cheap, in areas full of other expats… 2,000US$ and up, way up, per month. So the company – or you – will have to front 72,000 US$ and up. There are a few areas where you can find these places – which are usually nicer than what the locals have. If the company goes for that, so be it 🙂 You’ll live in a nice place. If you have to pay for yourself, or the budget isn’t sufficient, you might want to consider option 2.

The other system is what they call key-money (welcome to konglish). You sign a contract for 1 to 2 years, pay up a deposit – usually a very large one, 80,000 US$ and up – and you pay no rent. The deposit is refunded when you leave. Yup, I know, sounds weird and one has to wonder how they make money, but there you go. I lived in such places all the time I was there, and I was basically living rent-free. You’ll need the assistance of a bunch of Koreans to get that (to combat instant foreigner-induced price-tag inflation and whatnot), but Koreans are usually in sufficient supply in Seoul…

* Phones
Keep the same Koreans handy when you apply for a mobile phone. Most companies now have a prepaid-ish + very expensive system for foreigners, for fear they’ll leave the country without paying (it wasn’t so when I was there…). To get the “Korean discount” you register the phone in the name of a Korean and set up auto-pay on your own bank account. Voila, thank you, done. 😉

Phones are CDMA – our phones can’t be used there. Welcome to “we’ll do it our way and screw you twice” Korea (they screw mostly their own people but whatever). Many phones can be set to English – I know mine has that somewhere. If you use the prete-nom services of a Korean person, just get an iPhone – other phones are made by and for Koreans. Seriously. Your HK mobile phone will work (roaming charges $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$) if it’s 3G.

* Transportation
Taxis used to be considered as mass-transportation; you’d fit in a cab as many ppl as possible, with ppl stepping on and off cabs along the way. 1997 and the economic crisis brought this to an end, thank God, but taxis remain very cheap. Except the black cabs – avoid them unless you have no choice. Cabbies usually don’t speak English, I mean at all. Prepare addresses in Korean, and have a phone number of a Korean-speaking person ready. The addresses in Korea are very confusing, and cabs have difficulties sometimes finding places.

When you arrive at Incheon airport, DO NOT TAKE A CAB! If the company is not picking you up, take a KAL Limousine bus to your hotel. Buy a ticket at the KAL counter, nearby Gate 4. Taxis working the airport, even the legal ones, are crooks, and will give you a full tour of Seoul before you arrive home, maybe. I had a cab driver arrested once.

The so-called high-speed train from the airport is, excusez my French, a fucking joke. Neither fast nor convenient. A waste of time. KAL Limousine Bus, lady. 🙂

Inside Seoul (the place is 40 miles wide, 20 miles north to south), buses are convenient when you know what you’re doing. Avoid them until you’re settled in. Traffic in Seoul is almost as bad as in Bangkok – seriously. The metro system is getting better now, and serves its purpose. The PAs and signs are in Korean and Konglish, so you’ll be fine after a few days.

Taxis are usually fine within the city – as long as you’re going somewhere they can find. They’re not all honest, the airport cab drivers have cousins downtown, but most of the time they’re ok. You’ll miss HK cabs though. But Seoul cabs have GPS. “nabigayshon”, don’t ask. Sometimes more than one…

* Health
Hospitals are hit and miss – good ones and bad ones. And too many people. Seoul has 11 million people, and just as many in the suburbs. And they usually come to Seoul for work… So health care is kinda tough. Plus it’s massively expensive. Make sure you have good coverage first, along with the local insurance card (hospitals won’t take you in unless you have a medical insurance card) and in case of problems, until you find a suitable place, go to Samsung Jeil Hospital, in Jangchungdong. I use to be a service provider to hospitals, and they’re one of the best.

Unless you’re feeling adventurous and desire sick days, do not drink tap water. Even boiled. Once boiled it still contains heavy metals. Once boiled and filtered it is considered safe to drink. Oh well.

* Aussie Embassy
If they haven’t moved they’re in the Kyobo Building, on Sejongno (-no/-ro means road; as you’ll see, Seoul’s streets are highway-sized). It’s in the northern half of Seoul, downtown. In this building you also have a large bookshop that actually carries English books. There ain’t that many. The Aussie Embassy used to have a bar called the Boomerang Bar, that used to be open (or not) to ordinary people every Friday arvo. Worth checking it out – drinks were cheap there.

* Weather
Seoul has two seasons, interrupted by short-term “seaslets”: freezing cold and dry, and bloody hot and humid. “Spring” is a few weeks of generally clement weather, and fall is wonderful, but lasts as much as a snowball on a grill. No typhoons, yay, but Jangma, the monsoon. Jangma actually means long rain. You’ll see. People die every year trekking in mountains during Jangma. They never learn.

* Trekking
Rome is called the city of 7 mountains or something like that. Seoul is the city with a thousand of them. I don’t think you can find inside Seoul a mile of flat land. Hills and mountains everywhere. Many of them, alas, layered in concrete apartment blocks. But a few good ones. Koreans LOVE trekking. They’re basically the human version of goats. Even the beer-bellied 2-packs a day dudes are better than you’ll ever be.

* Food
Hope you like chillies and garlic. I do 🙂 Koreans are carnivore. They don’t understand what “vegetarian” means. I’ve seen even Buddhist monks eat meat. There are a few vegetarian places, but mostly, if you’re a veggie (I’m not) you’re in for a lot of home-cooking.

* Travel
Lots of nice places to visit outside Seoul — Seoul’s butt-ugly — and buy this book to give you lots of tips on the place. Avoid Chinese New Year and the Autumn Festival to travel, because 20 million+ of ppl are doing the same. Highway 1 – the main highway in Korea – is smaller than many avenues in Seoul, and turns into a parking lot during these holidays.

Yes, Korea celebrates Chinese New Year and such — they just tell us that it’s LUNAR rather than Chinese, but that’s where they got the Lunar calendar from, China 🙂

* Money
The Korean Won is one of those monkey deals with too many zeroes, and alas not convertible outside Korea. There are also restrictions on sending money out. Caveat emptor. The won is available in 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and since recently 50,000 won bills, and there are coins of 500, 100, 50, and 10 won.

There’s an Octopus-like card (T-Money), except that it has only 2 legs instead of eight, as it’s used mostly in buses, metros and taxis. You can get it in subway stations. Handy. They can be recharged by handing over a bill and the card and a smile, or at machines. Remember. People. Don’t. Speak. English 🙂

Opening a bank account usually takes 10 minutes. You’ll only get a debit card, at best, or even just an ATM card. And a cute passbook. Credit cards are harder to get, since, like for mobile phones, you are suspected of wanting to run away without paying. Get used to it.


One response to “A few things about Korea.

  1. Hey, thanks for this helpful and funny guide to Seoul! Was there a month back and enjoying your humor!

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