We can almost guarantee that when people first consider South Korea as a holiday destination, it’s because of at least one of these things: their cuisine is incredible and deserves to be eaten in the most authentic fashion and style, cooked by ajummas (aunties) who live and die by their food carts that have been in the family for generations; the Hallyu wave (rise in popularity of Korea entertainment and culture) has hit them hard in their heads, hearts, and wallets, and they want to experience the world of k-pop stars in person; and because they want to live (for a while) on a land that leads the world in technological advancements, where you can watch entertainment shows in real time as easily on your smartphone as every other device you may have, and the city gives Times Square a run for its money.
South Korea encapsulates all the above perfectly and verbosely, but to really pay homage to the country, you need to know that it is just so much more than that. More than great food, more than superior entertainment, more than super slick technology that wows even the most cynical, South Korea is brimming with unique culture, a whirlwind history, and nature’s hidden gems.
There are some things about South Korea that deserve to be known to the world and we’ve curated some of the most interesting facts about South Korea below so that your insatiable appetite to know more about the popular country can be appeased. Read on below, and if you happen to come across something that you’d like to share, comment below! We’d love to hear from you.
1. Almost everywhere you want to go can be done as a day-trip from the major cities
South Korea is roughly 100,000 square km in size, but more than half of the land is cloaked in forests. Given this split in land occupancy, it makes it extremely easy for those traveling to South Korea to base themselves in one or two main areas, and they can probably travel to most parts of the country in one day.
This, coupled with the fact that they have one of the world’s leading cross-country transportation systems (in high-speed trains, condensed air traffic routes, and limitless highway busses) that traverse all around the country, then you’ve got yourself a good time. You can also use the Korea Rail Pass for unlimited train trips during a period of time.
When traveling to places like the U.S and Europe, and even Australia, it is extremely difficult to travel to major tourist destinations without uprooting from where you’re staying and moving to where it is.
Whilst this does add a layer of fun and excitement, it can be quite costly, time-consuming, and will most likely require a lot of effort on your end (dealing with luggage, booking additional accommodation, transportation, etc). In South Korea, you can pretty much base yourself in one of the main areas (think Incheon, Seoul, Busan, Daegu), and simply pack your backpack for the day, head out nice and early, and be back by dinnertime to unwind and rest up for some more travelling the next day.
For example, if you base yourself in Seoul, some incredible day-trips that can be completed from there would be:
Muuido Island – one of the major filming locations for the famous Korean drama ‘Stairway to Heaven’, adorable minibak (beach huts) that line up along the shore, zip lining, ATV riding and horseback riding activities to do, and camping and hiking facilities.
Access: Head to Dongincheon Station, catch Bus 306 to the port, walk 10-minutes to the ferry terminal, and catch the ferry across to the island.
Pocheon – a destination for photographers, home to the Pocheon Art Valley, can also visit Herb Island on the same trip.
Access: From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, take Bus 3000/3001 to Pocheon Intercity Bus Terminal. From there, take Bus 67/67-1 to Pocheon Art Valley Bus Stop.
Yongin – another city that is popular amongst visitors to Seoul, home to popular attractions including the Korean Folk Village and Everland Theme Park.
Access: From Seoul Express Bus Terminal, take the Ko Bus to Yongin. There are regularly buses hourly that depart for Yongin.
Busan – yes even Busan, South Korea’s second most populous city after Seoul, located almost on the other side of the country, is visitable through a daytrip from Seoul. Simply purchase a ticket for the KTX trains (roughly 100,000 for a return ticket) and you’ll be there is just 2.5 hours.
2. Cosmetics has no boundaries, with women and men both indulging in the popular products
Almost all Western countries are taught that make-up is traditionally a female commodity, serviced, bought, and used exclusively by women. However, South Korea has, for many years, broken the ceiling on this ‘rule’ per se, and men are known to use make up almost as much as women.
In a country where physical beauty is glorified and imperfections are nit-picked, it’s no wonder why men here have become accustomed to applying make up.
Whilst among the average guy, it would be hard to distinguish whether or not they’ve got a light layer on, all Korean celebrities, females and males, from famous singers, dancers, MCs, variety show stars, and event professional league gamers (yes, league gamers are considered to be up there with the celebrity status, but more on that later) will always have a makeup artist at hand when they’re doing a public appearance.
Sadly, it’s a known fact in the community that Korean fans of celebrities tend to be harsh when it comes to critiquing the physical appearance of their favourite stars, and any form of imperfection will quickly do a savage round on the internet before anyone knew what hit them.
Men in Korea are not ashamed of applying make up; in fact, they’re actually quite dismissive, considering it a completely normal and acceptable practice to have. Whilst their regime may not be as stringent as females, they would commonly apply items such as eyebrow pencil, BB cream (blemish cream), and of course, hair product.
There is no pre-conceived idea in Korea that men wearing make up are ‘less manly’; in fact, some claim that after taking better care of their skin through a simple make up routine, they’ve received more attention (the good kind) than ever. On a national scale, Korean men spend close to US$900 million a year on cosmetics.
3. South Korea has one of the lowest numbers of obese citizens in the world
South Korea is second in the world for the lowest number of obese citizens in the country, trailing just after its neighbour, Japan. With that being said, you’re probably wondering, for a country that is known for their gargantuan consumption of fried chicken, incredible variety of snacks and soft drinks, and a drinking culture that consists of limitless bottles of soju on a daily basis, how is this possible?
One of the reasons why South Korea has one of the lowest numbers of obese citizens in the world (only 3.2% of South Koreans are overweight) might be because their diet is built heavily around pickled vegetables, the most famous being kimchi (a Korean dish of spicy pickled cabbage). Read the health benefits of eating Kimchi at The Green Leaf.
Also, compared to many Western countries, the food portioning in South Korea are relatively small.
Another indirect contributor to their low obesity rate may be that, whilst all countries hold physical appearance to some level of esteem, South Koreans take this to another level. How a person looks, whether they’re an average Joe or a celebrity, dictates how they will be perceived and treated.
With such strong emphasis on the face and the body, they tend to take extra (extra) care when it comes to their body size. Sadly, this has also contributed to South Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, with certain people being so unhappy with their looks that they believe surgical enhancement is the only way to go.
4. Korean skincare products are fast taking over the world
You may not have heard of it, but the 10-step Korean skin care routine is becoming one of the fastest adopted skincare routines worldwide. Whilst this may be as an indirect result of fans of the Korean culture around the world pretty much adopting anything and everything that is endorsed by their favourite Korean celebrities, it has started making a splash across countries like the U.S, with websites like sokoglam forging the way for citizens to easily access Korean skincare, and Australia, where Korean skincare stores are popping up all around the country.
People who have been following the Hallyu wave for some time now will know what we mean when we say Korean celebrities always, and we mean always, seem to have soft, glowy, dewy skin.
It’s incredible, considering the hours that they put into their work as celebrities, and the amount of make up they wear (even the males). Much of this can be contributed to their insane skincare routine, which we’ve outlined below for you to get better insight on how to get the type of skin most people dream of:
- Makeup Remover and Oil Cleanser – this is important to remove ALL the makeup residue from your face
- Water-based Cleanser – the next step to removing all the impurities which have built up over the day on your face.
- Exfoliator – only do this every few days, but at least twice a week for clear, polished skin.
- Toner – use everyday after washing your face to dampen your skin again and balance your pH levels.
- Essence – the soul of the Korean skincare routine! It’s a hybrid toner/serum made to assist with skin repair and hydration.
- Serums and Ampoules – concentrated essences for more skincare repair, or to target dull areas.
- Sheet Masks – for skin nourishment. Use at least twice a week, or every day if you like!
- Eye Cream – to assist with repairing the soft skin around your eyes
- Moisturiser – the major step to hydrate your skin.
- Sun Protection – every single person and their mum use sun protection in Korea. It protects against premature aging, and of course skin disease.
5. Home to one of the world’s best airports
Incheon Airport has consistently held one of the top tier positions for the world’s best airports for many years straight since it opened. With world class passenger terminals, shopping complexes, rest and relaxation facilities, and food options across multiple levels, it leaves little to be desired by any passenger fortunate enough to pass through it.
The airport itself was placed third at the Skytrax World Airport Awards in 2017. It’s recently added a brand new passenger terminal (Terminal 2) to the airport, and across this terminal, you will be able to peruse through 130 brands of alcohol, tobacco, and packaged foods, 110 brands of cosmetics and fragrances, and 170 fashion and accessories labels, all across the three major duty-free shopping centres located in the terminal. The restaurants in this terminal also offer Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines for those after a taste of Asia.
However, don’t sleep on terminal 1. Feeling a little tired, lethargic, fatigued? Head to Darakhyu, a capsule hotel, or Spa on Air, a sauna with a lounge area, where you can nab a night’s rest (or two) at an affordable price without having to leave the terminal. This is especially convenient for those who have a long layover at the airport.
For those who just want to freshen up, the airport’s shower room is available for transfer passengers for free, or for non-transiting passengers for a small price. Got kids? Head to the Kids Zone (both in Terminal 1 and Terminal 2), and make use of the facilities to feed your babies, change diapers, or simply rest up in the nursery rooms. They’re actually open 24 hours for your convenience!
All the above, and we haven’t even begun to dig into the airport’s cinema complex, laundry service, ice skating rink, multiple Cultural Centres, medical facilities, observation deck or even the apt Sky Garden yet. Incheon International Airport is definitely worth all the hype.
6. It leads the world in number of Professional Computer Gamers
In many western countries, gaming (i.e. playing videos games on any platform) is seen as a leisure activity; something that traditionally only kids and teenagers do in their spare time (although in more recent years, adults have begun to openly master the gaming scene across many platforms), whilst simultaneously living their life outside of playing games.
Families preach the notion that when you ‘grow up’, following the path of studying, finding a job, starting a family are all inherently and obviously the primary priorities to playing video games. However, in many parts of Asia, none more predominantly than South Korea, this could not be further from the truth.
South Koreans have long led the world in professional computer gaming. They’re consistently taking out world titles across many of the popular global games such as League of Legends, Overwatch, and Starcraft. Their players are often coined by other country’s players as being on ‘another level’, with disciplinary standards much higher than the average gamer.
Many gaming analysts ponder why this is the case: why is it that South Koreans just seem to be better at games than many other countries? As generalised as this question is, it’s always a question on everyone’s tongue, and the answer just might be this: gaming is not just a hobby in Korea, it’s a lifestyle.
Becoming a professional gamer is a legitimate career path, and a dream job for many; successful professional gamers in Korea are given the celebrity status, they’re able to earn an exorbitant amount of money, possibly date other high-ranking celebrities, and are sponsored by some of the biggest names in the country – they’re basically earning a lot of money by making their country proud doing something that they love and that they’re good at.
Whilst it might not be comprehensible in countries like Australia and the U.S where playing games past curfew earns some grounding and possibly a fresh set of rules to abide by, gaming is treated as a mainstream sport in Korea (typically referred to as an e-sport, i.e. a competitive multi-player video game with spectators watching), similar to the National Rugby League in Australia and the NBA in the U.S. There are dedicated seasons for different games, channels which showcase these games live, online ticketing platforms to purchase tickets to these games – the whole shebang.
7. More than half of South Korea is covered in forests, even though it’s one of the world’s most urbanised countries
One of the best things about Korea is that you can have all the intention of spending your entire holiday in the city, soaking in the cityscape, shopping at all the world class brands, eating a top-class cuisines and generally living the high life, but if you ever feel like you need to escape the urban and get into nature, it is literally a stone-throw’s away (or at least a bus/train ride, which is essentially the same thing).
There are cities surrounded by mountain peaks, monumental lakes that run through towns, and forests right next door to some suburbs that you don’t even know about.
In fact, half of South Korea is covered in forests, and some of the nature destinations in South Korea that you may not know about are some of the world’s best kept secrets – quiet beaches with crystal clear waters begging to be swam through, trails the wind around untouched mountains, offering supreme views of the country at its peak, villages that overflow with so much tradition and culture it’s almost like walking through a historical novel.
It’s pretty difficult to believe for some, as many articles paint South Korea as one of the most urbanised cities in the world, with tall skyscrapers, sparkling lights sprinkling the city at night, and being home to some of the world’s best shopping districts, but you would be surprised. Below we’ve listed some examples of the greener destinations you could visit whilst in South Korea:
Seoraksan National Park – a national park containing unique rock formations, dense forests, hot springs, and ancient temples. In autumn, the foliage across the mountains is a sight to behold.
Suncheon Bay – a coastal wetland with a wide field of reeds, and a river running through it. Home to plentiful wildlife, and beautiful to capture during sunrise or sunset.
Cheonjeyeon Waterfall – located on Jeju Island, an absolutely stunning waterfall of 22m high. Translating to mean ‘sky connected to the land’, many people travel to this waterfall just for the stunning blue hue of the water.
8. Koreans are very superstitious people
Across Asia alone, there are probably thousands of superstitions that run rampant amongst parents and their children, each either playing in a role in disciplining kids, or to pay respect to their family generations and generations before who held their superstitions at the highest level of belief.
South Koreans are known to be extremely superstitious people. They are believers that there are many things in the universe telling us what is right and what is wrong, and most people genuinely live through their entire lives believing in these superstitions, often letting them dictate their daily actions.
Some of the more bizarre and popular ones include:
- The number 4 is bad luck (like how number 13 is bad luck in western culture). Many elevators in South Korea will avoid using this number as a level.
- Writing people’s names in the colour red is always avoided, unless you want them to know you want them dead.
- South Koreans don’t generally sleep with the fan on in a closed room, as they believe this could kill someone.
- Gifting someone with shoes might cause them to run away from you. Thus, to avoid this, some people pay a small amount of money back to the person who gave the gift. This goes the same for giving someone chicken wings, as they might provide them with ‘wings to fly away’.
- Whistling a night is call for ghosts and spirits; some South Koreans may actively stop you from doing it.
- Leaving your chopsticks or utensils in your rice bowl when eating, as this resembles the processes at a memorial service where mourners burn incense and place utensils in different dishes as a gesture for spirits to eat the food.
Read this blog post on My Korean Addiction to discover more Korean Superstitions!
9. World’s capital for plastic surgery
In front of Brazil and Thailand sits South Korea for the world’s capital of plastic surgery. We mentioned this before, but again, understanding the pressure that many Korean’s have whilst growing up to have the ‘perfect’ face and body can take a toll on almost anyone, and thus many will turn to plastic surgery for feature enhancements that fit in with the industry’s model characteristics.
From a young age, girls and boys learn quickly that Korean society places strong emphasis on looks. In the past, some Korean celebrities have even come to admit that they were only approached by scouting agents on the streets because they appreciated how they looked. Because of this pressure, many people succumb to the pressure of plastic surgery to enhance their face to fit in with the social norm.
This is saddening, but it is a reality in South Korea. Their cosmetics surgery industry, however, is booming. It is reported that the city of Gangnam has more than 500 cosmetics surgery centres alone.
Whilst this is an alarming number of concentration in one city, it’s not only local residents that they service. Due to the high level of professionalism, skill, and experience of the surgeons on South Korea, people from all around the world fly to South Korea to get surgical enhancements.
10. There are more than 200 kinds of kimchi!
Kimchi is the most popular side dish in Korea, and it continues to lead the world in favourite and most well-known Korean dish. South Koreans munch on kimchi at almost every meal and with almost anything: for breakfast, on its own with rice, as a side dish with ramen noodles, as part of a 10-course meal – it’s simply a way of life.
It’s most generally made with fermented anchovy, ginger, garlic, green onions, and of course, red pepper powder. There are over 200 types of kimchi today, and they’re all laden with vitamins, minerals, and proteins from the lactic acid fermentation of the vegetables or meats it’s made with.
Some of the differences in kimchi might be that those who live in villages nearby the seaside tend to make theirs a tad saltier than those who live inland; cabbage kimchi made in summer might be lighter than the heartier version in autumn and winter; seasonable kimchi (made for short-term consumption, made from fresh seasonable vegetables) are different to ‘kimjang kimchi’ (made for long-term consumption, made in large amounts to be stored).
To broaden your keen knowledge of the kimchi database, we’ve listed below some popular ones that you might have already tried, or should add to your list when you visit South Korea:
- ‘Baechu’ Kimchi – this is the most popular form of kimchi, made from napa cabbage. It is what you would typically get at your local Korean restaurant as a side dish. It’s made with salted and rinses cabbage leaves with red pepper, onion, garlic, ginger, green onions. It might have been fermented for months!
- ‘Baek’ Kimchi – the white, non-spicy version of the ‘baechu’ kimchi. Made with similar ingredients, except with no pepper flakes, so it’s just as tasty without the spicy kick. Most people add fruit to the fermentation mix (such as Korean pear or jujubes).
- ‘Kkakdugi’ – cubed radish kimchi. This is a side dish that is also popular at restaurants. It is made specifically with Korean radish (mu), not to be confused with daikon.
- ‘Oi Sobagi’ – this is the typical spicy pickled cucumber radish. It’s refreshing, crispy, and super spicy, just like the traditional cabbage kimchi. It’s a great summer accompaniment, and is only made seasonally (not for long-term storage).
I hope you love this blog post about 10 interesting facts about South Korea. If you are interested in visiting this beautiful country, check out these articles too: Korea Blog Travel.