Stories that Shaped Us: Solo traveling through South Korea
Emily Creasman is a Tean Seoul alumna and current ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador at Arizona State University whose experience abroad during Fall 2019 and Spring 2022 shaped her love for traveling the world.
We reached out to learn more about why she chose to go abroad with TEAN South Korea and how her experience abroad has impacted her long-term. Check out her unique story below and hear her advice for others wanting to follow a similar path!
In March 2022 I was in Seoul, South Korea working at an internship through ISA/TEAN when I found myself with a free weekend. With Korea’s quick and convenient transportation systems, traveling across the peninsula is fairly easy and I had gotten into the habit of doing so whenever I had the chance. This weekend was no different. When choosing a location to visit, my reasons varied greatly. I visited Busan, Jeju-do, and Daegu primarily because of their popularity. I traveled to Gwangju due to its historical importance and visited Mokpo because a friend of mine used to live there. This time I chose to visit the city of Yeosu and I have a very specific reason for doing so: it was the subject of one of my all-time favorite songs—Yeosu Night Sea by Busker Busker. I stayed in Yeosu for three days and during that time I visited museums, climbed ancient temples, ate delicious local cuisine, explored nature, and more. Below I will highlight what I did in Yeosu and my personal tips for solo traveling in South Korea!
When planning a trip, I initially consider these four things: activities, food, transportation, and accommodations—in that specific order.
If there’s one thing to keep in mind when planning activities, it’s variety. My itinerary rule of thumb is: something new, something old, something outside, something inside, something popular, and something personally intriguing. Of course, each destination will be slightly different, but I strongly believe that all my successful trips have followed this format to some extent.
‘Something new’ comprises of popular cafes, shopping centers, attending a concert, skincare experiences, etc. while ‘something old’ would be historical monuments or sites such as temples, palaces, tombs, etc. ‘Something outside’ would be any activity in nature such as hiking, visiting a park, or sailing while ‘something inside’ would be museums, art exhibits, etc. ‘Something popular’ would be any famous tourist attraction, while ‘something personally intriguing’ is any other activities that aren’t necessarily popular in the area, but you want to try anyways. Through this method, one can explore a destination’s various facets and gain a broader sense of the location.
While in Yeosu I visited trendy cafes (new), trekked to a historic Buddhist temple (old), walked a small island full of camellia flowers (outside), visited an immersive media art exhibit (inside), visited a mural village (popular), and visited a historical war ship replica (personally intriguing) among other things.
Regarding food, I always research what the local cuisine is like in advance and seek out restaurants that carry the dishes I want to try. In Yeosu, I tasted agujjim (braised angler fish) and seodae hwae muchim (flat fish sashimi with seasoned mixed vegetables), both of which were incredible! I also sampled some delicious strawberry mochi at a famous local family-run shop.
After figuring out what to do and where to do it, it’s time to figure how to get there! One tip I would give to anyone traveling—not just solo travelers—is to visually plan out the itinerary and transportation options before booking your accommodation. In Seoul, there’s numerous subway lines and buses connecting to almost every nook and cranny of the city at any given moment, so getting where you need is never a hassle. However, not every city in South Korea is like that. In Yeosu, for example, there was no subway system, so I had to take buses and taxis or walk everywhere. Navigation apps like Naver Maps (Google Maps for Korea) have features which allow you to save destinations. I always plug those destinations into my phone before starting my trip to easily find where I want to go and the proximity of each location to each other.
Finally, it’s time to book the stay. I suggest deciding accommodations last because I’ve met numerous people who booked their accommodation first only to discover that it was nowhere near anything else on their activity list or near any public transportation. Being stranded with a suitcase somewhere unfamiliar is never fun!
These guidelines have helped me amply in my solo travels. Still, the more I’ve journeyed, the more I’ve realized how rare it is for trips to run perfectly smooth from start to finish. There will always be a location unpredictably closed, a bus not on time, or an activity that just didn’t live up to expectation. So, plan as best as you can, but always leave room for error and be open to adapting—that’s something I myself continually work to improve on!
Traveling as a Woman & Safety
A major concern for many women wanting to solo-travel is safety. I can only speak from my own experiences, but personally I always felt safe in South Korea as crime rates are relatively low and there are public security cameras throughout many of the cities. I actually felt safer in South Korea than I did in my home country. Still, there are precautious measures I always take as a woman to assure safety.
First, when booking my accommodations, I always choose places with ample reviews. If booking through Aribnb, I will also seek places owned by other women. Next, when I leave Seoul for trips, I will also notify my family back home of where I’m staying and will keep them updated during the trip. Depended on the situation, I might message my family more often. When I went to Gwangju for a weekend, I messaged them before I left and then when I returned. While I was in Japan for a week, I messaged them daily. The ISA/TEAN staff are also always available and will ask where and when you’re traveling out of the city. This provides an extra level of assurance and guarantees someone close by can help in case of an emergency.
While in Yeosu, I experienced one of my most nerve-wracking but rewarding experiences. During the trip, I planned to watch the sunrise at Hyangiram Hermitage, a Buddhist temple located on a coastal cliffside. It has been called one of the best sunrise spots in South Korea, its name literally meaning ‘a hermitage facing the sun.’ So of course, I had to go! However, the journey was slightly daunting.
To get to the temple before sunrise, I took the first morning bus at the ripe time of 4:00am. I was surprised to see a few other elderly Korean ajummas riding at the same time. Seeing other women on the bus gave me some assurance, but as we exited the city and grew further away from the glowing streetlights, my anxiety heightened. The sprawling streets became narrow winding cliffside roads which the bus driver daringly steered through without slowing down. Thankfully, the night sky limited my vision so much that I couldn’t tell exactly how far the drop below was. After two hours I arrived alone at the foot of the temple. It was still pitch-black outside, so I used my phone’s flashlight to see and messaged my family of my status. I soon scaled the temple steps up to the outlook platform and hunkered down to gaze out onto the open ocean. Soon enough, the stars began to fade into a hazy dawn. Then, the sun peaked out over the steady ocean, slowly illuminating the sky in a bright yellow and orange hue. The view was outstanding. For most of the sunrise, it was quiet expect for the faint sounds of crashing waves, the birds chirping overhead, and the occasional chanting of distant monks. Slowly, as more people began to arrive and as the morning light flushed the sky, my fear dissipated.
The initial idea of traveling somewhere unknown so early in the morning was scary. However, the experience was extremely gratifying. I especially felt proud for having tackled the trip alone and overcoming my fear. Ultimately, it ended up being one of the best and more unique experiences I had in Korea. With solo traveling, there is always a risk, but keeping others notified of your status and being knowledgeable about the area you’re in can help you feel more confident abroad. Once again, these are my experiences traveling specifically in South Korea, somewhere I felt exceptionally safe in. Different places will require different levels of caution—something that’s safe to do in South Korea might not be as safe elsewhere—so always research before traveling!
Is Solo Traveling Worth it?
For the last stop of my last day in Yeosu I visited an immersive media art exhibit called the Arte Museum. The last room in the exhibit was a series of famous paintings animated to look like alive. As I was observing, someone came up to me asking to take their picture. After realizing I came by myself, they stated, “Oh! I came alone too,” then gestured to the pictures saying, “We can look alone, together!”
That interaction encapsulates many of the exchanges I’ve have with people on my travels. Part of the joy of solo traveling is being alone, sure, but I’ve found that strangers are more willing to speak to you when you are alone. In Korea, there is a strong sense of companionship and collaboration. So, when someone’s alone it seems that people want to reach out, either because they want the person to feel welcomed or because they’re just curious about why they’re alone. The many brief interactions I’ve had with other people on my trips and their pure sincerity have always been incredibly memorable.
Besides that, I’ve found that solo traveling has taught me a lot about myself and has encouraged me to grow as an individual. As I mentioned previously, trips hardly ever go 100% according to plan. This upset me immensely when I first started traveling alone. However, as time progressed and as I continue to explore, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the unexpected. Traveling alone has also given me more confidence in navigating, planning, and problem solving. I find that when I travel, I may be alone, but I hardly feel lonely. Finally, solo traveling is great because you never have to argue about where to eat! Five cafes in a row, anyone?
I don’t think solo traveling is for everyone, but if you’re curious about it, I’d say research where you want to go and give it a try! You might surprise yourself.
Curious to hear more from ISA/TEAN alumni? Read more blogs from South Korea Alumni or explore how other alumni found succsess traveling on their own.
Inspired by Emily’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!