First Impressions of Seoul, South Korea


Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, TEDx Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

Leaving Malaysia was unexpectedly sad. After a month there, I had adjusted to the heat, the culture, and even felt like I knew a neighborhood and people in it. I treated myself to a business class seat with miles flying from Kuala Lumpur to Seoul, South Korea. It was epic! I’ve never ridden in a business class bus, with leather seats, exclusive to those of us sitting in the best seats on the plane.

At one point in my flight, I looked out to the right, and I saw lightning in the distance. I felt completely nervous, and wondered why we were flying in a storm. Then I realized, the ride was smooth, and the storm must have been far enough away so as not to be a problem.

First Impressions

After a month in heat where I wished for a shower three times a day, I landed into the rain that apparently washed away the last of the season’s cherry blossoms. It was grey, cold, and my first confrontation happened at the SIM card desk at the airport. I had pre-ordered a SIM card online, and found that I couldn’t make voice calls on it. The woman at the counter, when I went to complain, insisted it was my fault for ordering the wrong card, though she did exchange it for me.

Durres port

Next was the most difficult experience I’ve had in five years getting a taxi. You see, none of the usual apps work in South Korea. I had to get Kakao Taxi, which you have to link with Kakao Talk (that’s how I discovered I didn’t have a voice SIM card) and then figure out how to get the darn thing to work in English. Eventually, I got a taxi but couldn’t link my credit card to the app due to another requirement I didn’t meet so had to pay in cash. And, the driver spoke only enough English to tell me his age, ask me mine, and tell me I am very pretty. Not a comfortable entry to the country.

I cashed in some Marriott points for a lovely room outside the center of Seoul. This meant living in a residential neighborhood. There was very little English spoken outside of my hotel. My first night, I was rejected from a restaurant because I was alone! The next morning I was yelled at by the cashier at the convenience store where I tried to add cash to my subway card. She was right, I spoke no Korean, and it’s her country. But, I walked away feeling there were 100 rules I was breaking just by standing there. I noticed no bright colors, no eye contact, and just felt like I was getting everything wrong. And, I was alone, another rule broken.

More Frustrations

I had been looking forward to coming to South Korea for years. Now I wondered whether I ought to figure out someplace else to go and cut the trip short.

I’m freezing, and I need something warm to wear. The hotel suggests the student area of Hongdae, and helps me use another new app, Kakao Metro, to figure out how to get there. 40 minutes later, I’m walking around the shops, umbrella in tow. Another rude awakening happens at the first shop where I find something I might like to try. They don’t allow trying on any tops! There’s no fitting room. I can’t put the items on over my clothes. It’s just take it or leave it. I am somewhere between insulted and stupefied. How am I supposed to buy a sweater if I can’t try it on and see if I like it??!!

bari port

I’m soon tired, disappointed, frustrated, and still cold with no sweater. I realize this area isn’t going to work for me and head back to the subway. On the way, I pass a larger store (as opposed to the boutiques I was visiting). I duck inside. There are no rude sales women to stop me, so I weave through the store, and hit the jackpot. I find a lovely green sweater and it’s about $17 USD! It becomes my treasured sweater for my month in South Korea. It warms me and it matches just about everything.

Things Start Improving

Over the next week, I spend most days trying to figure out how to exist and see Seoul. I take a free walking tour. There are too many people in the group and somehow doesn’t cover what I expected. I do learn about a K-Pop museum and see one of the main palaces. I also learn that the beautiful dresses people wear around the city are called Hanbok and that anyone can rent them for a few hours or a day. Mental note – I’m going to do that! I also take a tour to the DMZ which is fascinating. To see North Korea’s flag waving in the distance, as well as an idea of one of the tunnels they built to try and overtake Seoul was, well, beyond what any history book could have taught me. 

While I came here for the green tea, I had no idea there was such a big skincare culture. I’ve never seen so many masks in my life. If you’ve got a body part, there’s a mask for it somewhere in South Korea! I try eye masks, face masks, hand masks, neck masks and the most interesting – a neck lifting mask! It hurts the ears, but it might just work a little bit! Here is me in three masks, simultaneously. It looks scary, but the results are nice!

Near the end of the week, I discover Bukchon Hanok Village. Somehow, all the difficulties of the week are replaced with this feeling of happy inspiration. There are people in beautiful Hanbok everywhere and I’m walking along houses from the Joseon dynasty, and one of them even looks like a scene I saw in a K-Pop show on Netflix. Something inside me clicks, and I realize, I’m beginning to “get it”. Customs and behaviors here take a lot of getting used to, but I now am beginning to understand how people will react to my behavior and how to semi fit in! It makes a world of difference. I no longer feel like leaving. In any case, I’m about to fulfill the action that is my reason for coming to South Korea in the first place – journey to Jeju Island! I end my first week feeling satisfied and ready to discover more of this fascinating country.


Heather understands the nuances of traveling and living well while doing it and she is willing to take you along for the planning journey so you can, too.

Matt Noel

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