10 Things You Can Only See and Do in Rural South Korea
By: Sally Bucey
When most people think of South Korea, they envision Seoul and the neon lights, endless streams of people on a Friday night and some funky hip hop clothes topped off with an Asian face. Allow me to balance your knowledge with a little insight into life on the other side of the spectrum, rural Korea. There are no nightclubs, no theme cafes, and no four-lane highways, but you can find some very low-quality street food on Tuesdays, among other weird and wonderful things that are not to be overlooked.
1. Tractors/Farm Equipment Everywhere
If you’re not already familiar with the different kinds of farm equipment, then you will be within short order of spending some time in rural Korea. Not only will you see them parked next to various buildings throughout town, overgrown with weeds in high grass and left in the parking lot next to a Kia, but you’ll even have the pleasure of seeing various kinds of tractors drive down the main road, off to who knows where, holding up traffic as they go no more than 40 kilometers per hour. You can quickly learn to differentiate between typical tractors, digging machines and the vehicles that till the field before winter sets in. Spend a week in rural Korea and watch your agricultural knowledge soar.
2. Fields Covered in Old Cabbage
If you’re lucky enough to come during November, then you’ll probably be able to see the beauty of cabbage-strewn fields. Every early winter, when Koreans make kimchi for the year, they peel off the outer, unwanted layers of the cabbage. Those layers then decorate fields all over town and will eventually break down and fertilize the soil, though occasionally rouge cabbage leaves will also find their way onto sidewalks or perhaps directly into my apartment building, via my dog. In rural Korea, nothing goes to waste!
3. Blatantly Break Basic Traffic Laws
Are you fed up with red lights in the middle of the night? In rural Korea, you can blatantly run those pesky red lights, provided there isn’t a traffic camera at that particular intersection. Or, are you tired of waiting for the green light to turn right, because there’s a stopped car in front of you? Just drive around them and turn right anyways, it’s perfectly acceptable. No, those flashing red and blue lights aren’t police, they’re just attached to curving portions of the road, so don’t worry about slowing down. Law-break away!
4. Handicapped Grandmothers/Grandfathers Doing Manual Labor
After years and years of working the fields, a lot of the elderly Korean population have back problems and can’t walk while standing up straight. They seem to teeter-totter around while walking and crane their neck up to see, while they hunch their back over at a right angle. But don’t think that will stop them from being farmers, because these same men and women can be found in their fields any time of year, digging up sweet potatoes and planting rice for hours at a time. They may stop walking, but they’ll never stop farming.
5. The Same 15 People Literally Everywhere
You may see a familiar face here and there in the big city, but in rural Korea, familiar faces will become a routine. Picking up breakfast at Paris Baguette, the pastry shop? It’s always the same woman working there and she’ll be sure to smile and ask several nosy, uncomfortable questions before wishing you well. Your morning workout will be alongside the same two strangers every day and you’ll jog and sweat in silent solidarity. Sometimes you’ll pass that elderly lady on the sidewalk while walking home, or perhaps you’ll see her in the local restaurant. This doesn’t even include your students, if you’re a teacher, who can be found at the coffee shop, pizza shop, bus stop, school track, convenience store, the sidewalk in general or the bank.
6. That One Coffee Shop
Ah, yes, the solitary coffee shop in town. They may not have any fancy baristas, but they do have an espresso machine and three coffee options. The owners will be the same family, everyday, and if you’re lucky they will also offer some kind of toast or waffle. There’s nowhere else to go and sit in rural Korea, unless you’d like to hang out in the convenience store, so the coffee shop is regularly populated by students, perhaps a jobless resident of town, and you, the foreigner. Only in rural Korea can you visit the one small shop with less than ten menu items and still be thrilled to be there.
7. An Excessive Amount of Karaoke Rooms, But None You Should Go Into
Seoul may have the most Noraebang, or karaoke rooms in Korea, but rural Korea must hold the record for the most Noraebangs you also shouldn’t go to, because they’re actually just “entertaining” rooms for lonely, old men. A small rural town may have only three streets, but it will easily host ten or more karaoke rooms, most on the same street and all with unexpected surprises for anyone who ventures inside the dark, smoky rooms.
8. Venomous, Deadly Snakes and Giant, Harmless, Scary Spiders
Walking through the Korean countryside during “spider season” as I like to call it, or early summer, you’ll see terrifyingly huge sticky webs with equally as terrifying large, eight-legged occupants. Some have bright yellows and reds, which may scare you into thinking they are deadly. This is false. While some Korean spider bites may pack a punch, none will do more than cause you temporary misery. On the other hand, those brown and black, not-too-long slightly innocent-looking snakes you see chilling in the grass? Yeah, those will kill you. Short tailed pit vipers are not to be messed with, stay on that trail, my friend, no wandering into the brush for you. Thankfully you’ll also get the chance to see what they look like, up close, as these snakes are frequent road kill victims, making you a wildlife semi-expert. That’s some knowledge you won’t be picking up in the big city.
9. Be Alone in Public
Of countries with over 10 million residents, South Korea comes in at number three for the highest population density in the world. Finding a quiet spot to belt out your Mariah Carey lyrics can be a tough mission, and in any major Korean city it’s next to impossible. In rural Korea, you only have to walk fifteen minutes into the endless rice paddy roads and you have complete solitude. You can dance while walking, scream if you’re angry, take really awkward selfies with the local wildlife (see #8) and generally just have free reign to do and say whatever you’d like, away from prying eyes. Just watch out for tractors and cars if you have your earphones in, since they can easily creep up on you when you’re jamming out to Beyoncé in the middle of the road and they need to get by.
10. Unending Natural Beauty
Rural Korea has a lot of little quirks, but it’s not entirely all funny and weird out there. Rural areas boast some of the most beautiful scenery in Korea, where you can look out in one direction and see endless green rice paddies blowing in the wind and a small mountain in the background. Some lucky parts of rural Korea are nearby the coastline and have beautiful rocky beaches and other interesting shorelines. And to highlight all of the natural beauty in the middle of nowhere, the sunsets and sunrises can provide some spectacular views when the clouds are cooperating. Yes, to your right may be several karaoke rooms, but you only need to look to the left and rest your eyes on that unbeatable scenery. That’s what I will never forget as the real beauty of living in rural Korea.
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Contest Comments » There are 13 comments
I've been following Sally's posts for over a year now and continue to be intrigued by her descriptions and the topics for her posts. I can tell that she writes with first hand experience of this area. She makes rural S. Korea more of a "go to" than the typical big city tourist draw!
Sally has posted regularly on South Korea throughout the last 12 months, and always gives us a distinct and thoughtful look at a country few people go to. If her collection of posts were gathered together, an alternative yet definitive guidebook publication could be on the cards. This post is no different. Sally is absolutely right about most people's initial perceptions of the R.O.K...technology, neon etc. But look beyond the city glow, and rural Korea is an endless journey through history. Thanks Sally for your quirky yet knowledgable insights.
A refreshing change from the urban submissions, this post may take away any inhibitions a foreigner might have about visiting the South Korean countryside solo. Many tourists have been taught to fear for their safety, and this is a nice antidote.
Love me some karaoke. What is the demographic of the town? I close my eyes and envision very old very bent people doing manual labor on every corner.
You know, Sally, your description sounds so much like life in rural Venezuela! Except the karaoke rooms, which I didn't see anywhere in Vzla. But big spiders, the elderly doing hard labor, that one little coffee shop, etc. is a description of the years I spent in the Andes Mts in Venezuela. I look forward to reading more of your articles!
Sally I have loved reading your blog throughout your travels. Do you want to be my personal tour guide when I visit you in Korea some day?
Very interesting. Glad to see people venture out into rural areas of any country, because they are often overlooked. I'm not sure what "very low-quality street food" is, though; it doesn't sound very appetizing. I prefer low-priced, good-quality street food myself. By the way, the U.S. imports many Korean tractors, from manufacturers with interesting names like "Daedong", often rebranding them with a U.S. name. Your next assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to devote a blog to nothing but the Korean tractor industry. Ha Ha.
I enjoyed your comments about rice fields. When I was in that very same area about 9 years ago I needed a place to run daily about 4 miles. I discovered the locals from the nearby apartment buildings went down into the rice fields and walked the dividers between the sections. So I ran them and found that experience to be beautiful. I was the only person out there running though!
Spiders?! Count me out! But love the countryside feel to this post! It's the same in China, rural is so much more interesting! Great post :)
I spent a weekend in Seoul and it's hard to believe this is the same country! Some of this stuff sounds more in line with what I saw in China. But no poisonous snakes there, thank gawd!
Will be visiting South Korea next year. I will print(I know I'm old school)out and bring it with me.
I love this, Sally -- Just this afternoon I saw a moped/motorbike run a red light (that had been red for a while) at the main intersection in town. He got honked at by an oncoming bus. (Though I feel like motorbike/cycles tend to do as they please both in rural and urban areas here -- right?) I didn't see any snakes this fall, but I'll keep my eyes open this spring/summer.
I never would have pegged South Koreans as law breakers! Too funny!