How I travelled solo to Seoul and had a great time

  • Asia & Oceania
  • Wednesday, 12 Sep 2018

Outside Seodaemun Prison and History Hall in Seoul.

First time I ... travelled solo

When I look back at my first ever solo trip to Seoul, South Korea back in 2013, I am a little bit surprised at how brave – or crazy – I was.

I, this rather sheltered person who, at age 26, had never left the country (or even the state!) without family or friends was travelling all on my own in this foreign place.

I had planned to stay for almost two weeks in a place where I couldn’t speak the language, and didn’t know anyone. Some family members thought I was mad. “Won’t you be lonely? What if you get into trouble? You’re so blur, what if you end up in North Korea by mistake?” they kept asking.

Some of their concerns were legitimate. But the flight tickets were affordable, and I was hungry for adventure. So I headed to Seoul by myself, not knowing what to expect. And I had an absolute blast.

Most people think the worst thing about solo travel is being lonely. That is completely untrue. If you stay in a hostel like I did, it’s very easy to meet people, many of whom are solo travellers too.

At the Kimchee Hongdae hostel everyone was in a party mood all the time. I spent many nights drinking and chatting with guests from all over the world. (A tip: Game Of Thrones is a huge uniter, it’s amazing how many people watch it worldwide.)

The writer (centre, in red) with the very friendly people of his Seoul hostel. Photos: The Star/Terence Toh

There are some friends I still keep in contact with; one of them came to Malaysia this year, and we had a reunion.

Getting around Seoul is not too hard. Yes, the train system is quite complex, but there are a lot of signs in English. You’ll slowly get the hang of it. I was able to get around using a map, some hand gestures and a few basic Korean words (kamsahamida or thank you, was the most useful). Most Korean people are very polite and helpful, even if they don’t speak English. One person even called an English-speaking friend on her phone to help me after I asked for directions.

Of course, the journey wasn’t always fun. One night, I found myself suddenly very homesick.

I decided to go for a walk and ended up at this strange, dimly-lit bar. It was mostly populated by lovey-dovey couples, which only made my mood worse. It didn’t have an English menu, so I had to play charades with the waiter and ended up ordering some odd noodle dish with strange sauce. It was horrible.

“I could be at a mamak now, with all my friends,” I thought. “Why did I travel halfway across the continent for this?”

In the mood for seafood at the Noryangjin fish market.
Outside Seodaemun Prison and History Hall in Seoul.

Fortunately, that was the only occasion when I felt a little blue. The rest of the trip was a lot more fun.

The best part of solo travel is that you are the master of your time. No noisy tour guides, no picky friends – you can do whatever you want and whenever you want, it is completely your call.

Trip highlights include watching the Changing of the Guard at Gyeongbeokgung Palace and getting to try on a guard uniform; bathing naked with strangers at a jimjilbang or Korean bathhouse; learning to make masks at the Namsangol Hanok cultural village; and seeing eels swimming in man-sized tanks at the Noryangjin fish market.

While my memories of these places are fun, it’s the people I’ve encountered that really stick in the memory. I’ll never forget this kind couple, fellow travellers who took me out to a bar and taught me how to eat beef liver. There’s also an old man at the War Museum who shared stories about his family, and a student who went out of his way to accompany me to a place after I asked for directions.

Trying on the traditional Korean uniform at the Gyeongbokgung palace.

They say travelling solo is dangerous. But honestly, as long as you keep your wits and pay attention to your surroundings, you’ll generally be all right. The most dangerous thing about it, really, is how addictive it is! Ever since Seoul, I have travelled solo three more times – to Cambodia, the Czech Republic and Laos.

Each time, I have made new friends and new memories.

Solo travel takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you realise how capable you actually are. It forces you to adapt, to be open-minded and come to terms with yourself. It’s an experience I’d recommend everyone to try at least once.


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