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Got it! Thank you! Podcast: Insider's Guide to South Korea

Find out how you can navigate through Seoul's best attractions, shop in the Korea's biggest markets, and explore the country's most fascinating parks and historic sites.
This week, host Kelly Regan is joined by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of Frommer's South Korea to hear how travelers can tour the country like a pro. Lee shares tips on navigating hot spots in Seoul, shopping in markets, and exploring national parks and historic sites.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Changdeokgung: This palace is known for the Secret Garden of Biwon, formerly a hangout for the king himself!
  • Open Markets: An endless selection of house wares, food and clothing.
  • The Countryside: Outside of metropolitan Seoul is beautiful, green countryside you don't get to experience while you're in the city.
  • Tongyoung: A coastal city with dramatic views over rocky cliffs.
  • The Bathhouses: Same-sex Korean spas can be a great way to wind down (clothing not necessary!).
  • The Border: The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea can be visited on a guided tour.
  • Sura: A type of palace cuisine (typically prepared for a king!) consisting of twelve dishes.
  • Be Polite: Bowing is a form of respect in Korean culture. And when you're eating, try to keep yourself from licking those fingers!
  • Haeinsa: A temple in the mountains that houses the Buddhist scriptures carved in wooden printing blocks.
  • The KTX: A high-speed train that runs between Seoul and Pusan in two hours.


Announcer: Welcome to the travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of travel destinations, please visit us at
Kelly Regan: Welcome to the travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at Hi and welcome to the Podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides; I'll be your host. My guest today is Cecilia Lee who's the author of our new book "Frommers South Korea", which is on sale now.

Cecilia was born in Seoul and lives in Los Angeles, but travels back to her home country whenever she can. And if she's not hiking up a mountain somewhere, she takes photographs, makes art and writes about food, travel and culture. Korean is her first and third language. And she's here today to talk about South Korean cuisine, culture and what makes this such a compelling place to visit. Cecilia, welcome. Thanks for being here today.
Cecilia Lee: Thanks for having me.
Kelly: I confess there's a lot that I don't know about South Korea, so I'm very interested to talk to you today. I do know though that at the beginning of this year, Frommers editorial team named Seoul one of the top destinations to go to for 2008. I'm curious what for you makes Seoul such a great destination?
Cecilia: I think it's one of the most exciting and noisiest and crowded cities in the world; it's a lot of fun. One of my favorite things to do other than to eat - because all I do once I'm there is just eat and eat the whole time I'm there ,but I like to go shopping in open markets and to go to the palaces. My favorite palace is Changdeokgung which has the Secret Garden called Biwon.
Kelly: What makes it secret?
Cecilia: Well that's just the name of it. It's called the Secret Garden.
Kelly: I mean was it something that was hard to get to? Did not everybody in the palace know about it at the time?
Cecilia: It was just a garden for the king and he made it, one of the kings that lived there. I can't remember who it was. It was for him to relax and a place for him to go.
Kelly: What era was the palace constructed?
Cecilia: All the palaces in total were really built during the Chosun dynasty, which went on for hundreds of years, that was like the major dynasty in Korea.
Kelly: You mentioned also shopping in the open market. I'm curious of what kinds of stuff you can get there.
Cecilia: You can pretty much get anything that you need, from house wares, to food, to clothing. Korean women love shopping for clothes, so there are clothes for everybody.
Kelly: Are there multiple open markets around the city?
Cecilia: There are several huge markets, but the biggest one is in Namdaemun, that's the oldest one in the city. And then the best one for clothing is Dongdaemun, which is near the stadium.
Kelly: Seoul is clearly such a big metropolitan, crowded center. What are some of your favorite places to go outside of the big city? Do you have certain off the beaten track or small town experiences that you'd recommend?
Cecilia: I would definitely say if you get a chance to get out of Seoul, you should because Korea, other than Seoul, is a beautiful, green and lush country and you don't get to experience it when you're in the city. Some of my favorite places to go, for instance, Boseong, which is a small town in Jeolla. They have tea plantations there and it's wonderful to go to in the springtime or in the summer to see the tea leaves and the people picking them, and the green hillsides. Tonyoung, which is a coastal city, which is really incredibly dramatic. It's on a rocky coast and so it's foggy, but there's ocean, there's cliffs - it's just really beautiful there.

If you get a chance to take a little boat out, there's hundreds of thousands of little, tiny islands. Most of them you can't even get to because they're so small, you can't even dock a boat on it. But there are some islands where you should be able to take a boat out there and just go for a day.
Kelly: And just sail around.
Cecilia: Right, you could charter a boat with somebody. There are little boats that go off on a timely basis, depending on the weather because if its typhoon season, you want to make sure that you're not out there.
Kelly: Right, not the time to be out on a boat in the water.
Cecilia: That usually happens about late summer or so around that time.
Kelly: Typhoon season?
Cecilia: Right.
Kelly: It sounds like there's an astonishing amount of diversity not just in terms of not the geography, but the kinds of things that you can experience. I'm curious because in your chapter, "The Best of South Korea", you recall one of your unforgettable travel experiences of being naked in front of hundreds of strangers. I think maybe you should explain to listeners what you mean by that.
Cecilia: I'm generally a very shy person, so I don't want to go out naked in front of strangers, but you kind of get used to it if you go to a bathhouse.
Kelly: OK, the bathhouses.
Cecilia: The bathhouses and the Korean spa is definitely something that you want to go to because it's so relaxing and just hanging out in water is really good for the psyche.
Kelly: Right.
Cecilia: It's same sex, so you don't have to worry. And especially if you're traveling, you don't have to worry about running into your teacher, like if you're Korean, you might find your teacher in the bathtub.
Kelly: Right, slightly awkward moment.
Cecilia: Right, you're bowing while you're trying to cover yourself with a towel and that's not so good. So you probably won't run into anybody you know.
Kelly: Do you have a favorite bathhouse in the country?
Cecilia: There are so many of them and I really like a bunch of different ones. A lot of them are based on the local hot springs that are naturally formed in the region. If you go to any area that has hot springs, there's usually a wonderful spa there.
Kelly: Do you find the culture can differ from region to region, or does it for the most part have the same kinds of elements?
Cecilia: It's interesting because Korea is a very regional country because of the fact that it's mostly mountains, so it used to be very difficult to travel in between the places even though it looks very small on a map. Huge regional cultures, languages and dialects developed during historical times. There's still some of that strong regional flavor with the people and also with the food, but in general, Koreans are still Koreans.

But you can tell when you travel around - the different personalities and the way people speak - it is a bit different. It's like if you're traveling around the United States, people in the South are different, and it's the same way in Korea. They're still Korean, but there's a little bit of a difference.
Kelly: Right, regional differences. One of your other unforgettable travel experiences that you talk about is visiting the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, between North and South Korea. And I was very surprised by that. It doesn't strike me as the kind of place that you would want to visit, or that it would be safe to visit. Can you describe what it was like to do that?
Cecilia: First off, I have to say that you can't actually go on your own. You have to go on a tour. It is the world's largest, most heaviest defended border in the world. The last vestiges of the Cold War. Not to say it's really dangerous, because there are so many soldiers there, so it's not like...
Kelly: Right.
Cecilia: Because the Korean War actually never ended officially. There was just an armistice signed saying; OK we're going to stop fighting. It's historically significant, because I find that, even myself when I was younger; I didn't know anything about the Korean War even though my parents survived it and all of that. It's an interesting educational experience, I think.
Kelly: Does it feel very tense when you're there?
Cecilia: Yes and no. It's not really tense per se. But people will be looking through their binoculars at the North Koreans, and the North Koreans are looking through their binoculars at you.

[nervous laughter]
Kelly: Yeah.
Cecilia: And there's a certain distance, because North Korea is a very sheltered country, and you can't really get in there except for a couple of places now. The Diamond Mountains, the Kumgang is open. You can take a tour there, but those are the only two places you can enter from South Korea. It's interesting, I would say, but I never felt very dangerous or that my life was threatened at that point.
Kelly: Right. Right.
Cecilia: Stuff there is really kind of cheesy. And they'll be like, "Oh, these are things made in North Korea, and look how bad it is!"

Kelly: It's all part of the whole experience.
Cecilia: Right, exactly.
Kelly: You're also a cookbook author for Wiley, and you've written a fabulous cookbook called "Eating Korean: From Barbeque to Kimchi, Recipes from My Home." Can you give folks an idea about what to expect from Korean cuisine? In the US, people are mostly familiar with Kimchi and barbecue and bibimbap.

But I'm curious about whether the transition to having Korean food in the United States, as often happens with ethnic cuisines in the US, it's very different, what you'd eat in the US than what you'd eat if you actually travel to the country. So, what can people expect when they go over there?
Cecilia: I think its ironic that Korean barbecue is the most popular thing in mostly all over the United States, because meat isn't a huge part of the Korean diet.
Kelly: Interesting.
Cecilia: Of course, it's a rice based cuisine, so a lot more meals involve rice. But if you've ever eaten at a Korean restaurant, you go and they give you all these side dishes and all these tiny little side dishes will come out. Most of them are vegetables or seafood, and then there's also the Kimchi and any kind of pickled thing. That's all part of the way people eat all the time. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, it's rice.

I think the food that you might try outside of Korea, the meat might be a little sweeter and also things are made less spicy, because I think that non-Koreans can't handle the spice. [laughs]
Kelly: Right, right. Meaning over here, Korean cuisine they'd have here is not nearly as spicy.
Cecilia: If you go there, of course you want to get really spicy food and any special meal. Like the Kimchi and things like that are really spicy. It is pretty similar to what you'll experience in America, but there are a lot of different regional dishes, which you might not be able to try here.
Kelly: Do you have a favorite region?
Cecilia: The region well known for their food is cholletan region. And even though right now, it's the poorest region. But they're known for being the most generous, which means if you go to a restaurant there, you might only pay like 15, 000 won or something for a meal there. But there will be more side dishes than any other place that you go to.

Cecilia: And the food is really good, because this was the region where they used to grow the food for the king and send it over.
Kelly: Well that brings up the palace cuisine which I'm kind of curious about. You mention that quite often in the book, and I'm curious, what exactly is palace cuisine and how is it similar or different to traditional Korean cuisine.
Cecilia: Palace cuisine is, obviously, food that is prepared for the kings and the people in the palace. And a meal for a king was actually called sura, which comes from a Mongolian word. Actually way back when. But it really developed in the Joseon dynasty.

It's a special kind of way of making food, and it's served with 12 different types of dishes, which means you'll get more than 12 dishes, but it's the 12 types of dishes that arrive plus the rice and the soup. And you get two kinds of rice, two kinds of soup, that kind of thing.
Kelly: Wow!

Kelly: That's a lot of food!
Cecilia: It's a lot of food. The kings did not go hungry.

Cecilia: And it's not even like a royal banquet which took like a month to prepare. This is just the rate that they regularly ate.
Kelly: Right, this is like the everyday meal.
Cecilia: And each person got three tables just for their food.
Kelly: Three tables for food.
Cecilia: Yeah. [laughs]
Kelly: Presumably that still doesn't happen. You're still not getting three tables for food, but you are getting this multiplicity of dishes though when you go have palace cuisine somewhere.
Cecilia: And you'll know that when you taste palace cuisine, it won't be as spicy. They don't use garlic or certain things in it. And they thought that spicy food was for peasants, to give to the [unintelligible] who work in the farm. And also none of the flavors overlap, so it's a very planned meal.
Kelly: Oh, wow. As someone who has written a cookbook, do you find that people try cooking palace cuisine at home, or is that something that's mostly eaten out in restaurants?
Cecilia: Oh God, I don't think you could cook it at home without enough people to help you.

Kelly: Maybe if you had a full kitchen staff. Maybe if you were the king, you could ask them to cook it for you at home.
Cecilia: Exactly. If you had a bunch of chefs. They had a bunch of women who lived in the palace just to cook it, and you had to learn how to cook it for 30 years before you were allowed to be the head chef or whatever. So it was a pretty developed kind of cuisine.
Kelly: Wow. It's pretty intricate.
Cecilia: Even I wouldn't try to make it at home.
Kelly: For people who are considering traveling to South Korea, how easy or hard is it to communicate for people who don't speak Korean? Can you learn a few key phrases that are going to get you pretty far? Does the language barrier impact your ability to haggle or shop in the markets?
Cecilia: I don't think that it does. You've got money. They want you to buy it.

Cecilia: Money always talks. Also, in the big cities, most people have learned a little English. And if you travel in the subways, they always have English as well as Korean, so it's actually very easy to travel around Seoul or Pusan or something like that.

The only difficulty for English speakers is that there are words and sounds in the Korean language that don't exist in English, and vice versa. Learning the language, you can learn how to read it in maybe an hour because it's a very simple language. The written language was developed in the 18th century. So it's easy to read. But you may be able to make the sound, but you don't know what it means. You can learn a few phrases which I have in the appendix of the book, useful phrases that you can use.
Kelly: Right.
Cecilia: But pointing and gesturing gets you a very long way...
Kelly: [laughs] Right.
Cecilia: Because Koreans are very expressive people, and they're not going to hide their feelings. If they're disappointed with something or they're happy, you're going to know right away.
Kelly: So is the pronunciation fairly straightforward? I know, with Chinese, that there are tones and Vietnamese as well, so it can be very complicated to kind of look at phonetic pronunciation and understand exactly how you should say it.
Cecilia: Yeah. Korean is not at all. There's no worry about intonation and things like that. The pronunciation is very straightforward, and there's only like two or three exceptions to how to pronounce certain things.
Kelly: Oh, that's great. So check the useful terms and phrases appendix in the back of the South Korea book, and you'll be good to go.

How much of a learning curve is there for people who might be unfamiliar with Korean culture? Are there behavioral tips or things to keep in mind, advice you'd have for people to avoid either being misjudged or inadvertently kind of causing offense while you're out traveling around?
Cecilia: Well, Koreans are pretty modern people, and the culture's not so foreign that, as long as you behave in a courteous and a polite manner, it would be really difficult to offend somebody. The number one thing I would stress is being respectful to elders, because it's still a Confucius-based society. So, if an old lady gets on a bus, please get up. [laughs] Get up for them. That kind of thing.
Kelly: Yeah. Right.
Cecilia: Bowing, as always, is still considered respectful. And just being respectful to other people, I think, is very important.

One thing that I do see that Koreans find offensive, a thing foreigners do: when you're eating fried chicken or something, don't lick your fingers. [laughs]
Kelly: Don't lick your fingers.
Cecilia: Yes. [laughs]
Kelly: Oh. Wow! OK. OK. [laughs]
Cecilia: And the other thing is being careful about taking photos in like a temple...
Kelly: Oh, right.
Cecilia: Be respectful of the Buddha and the main Buddha image and the Buddha statues and things like that. Now, you can take photos. But there are some areas that they don't want you to take photos, and it's usually designated.
Kelly: They'll probably have little icons, right? With the camera...
Cecilia: There's the little sign with the camera with the red thing...
Kelly: Yeah.
Cecilia: It's like, "All right. Don't take pictures in here." [laughs]
Kelly: Yeah. Don't just go kind of get up in someone's face and take a picture. [laughs] It's good to just kind of engage with them a little bit, or have dialog or something like that.
Cecilia: Absolutely. Yeah. Koreans aren't shy. They like to have their photographs taken, but they don't want them to be taken without their knowledge, so it's best to just ask.
Kelly: Right. Before I go, I wanted to ask you, now that you've been through this experience, you've researched and written this book, as you look back on it, what were some of the most memorable moments that stood out for you during your travels?
Cecilia: One of them was driving on a freeway that was not completed.

Kelly: Right. Note to self: get updated map. Yeah.
Cecilia: [laughs] Right. And I was just like, "Hmm. The sign didn't say if it was closed." And I could read Korean.

Cecilia: I mean, I stress in the book--you don't want to be driving in Korea anyway, but I did it because...
Kelly: Right.
Cecilia: But other than that, I had some good experiences, too.
Kelly: [laughs]
Cecilia: One of which was going to Chun Kin Sao, which is in Chuncheon. It's about a couple hours outside Seoul. You have to take a bus, to take a boat, to walk over to the small peninsula that you go, and then you have to climb up a mountain to go to the temple. And I took the last boat out, and they were, "OK, you only have 30 minutes," or whatever.
Kelly: [laughs]
Cecilia: I'm riding up the mountains. As soon as I got to the temple, I heard the horn. [makes horn blowing sound] Like, "It's time to get back." As I'm running back down the mountain... [laughs]
Kelly: Oh.
Cecilia: That was a lot of fun. The other experience that I really loved was going to Haeinsa, which is the temple that holds the Buddhist scriptures that's carved in wooden printing blocks. That's housed there.
Kelly: Wow.
Cecilia: Yeah, it's a beautiful temple up in the remote area in the mountains. And I went there just before they closed, and I was hanging out there after the sunset. And it's about six o'clock in the evening, and they were going to do the gong ceremony. So the monks came and hit the gongs, and the sun was setting, and it was just a really like meditative, peaceful experience.
Kelly: The country, which looks relatively small on the map, can actually encompass this kind of hyper, urban reality that you'll find in Seoul. But then these regions are very remote, and you can have these extremely peaceful experiences as well.

My last question, I guess, will just end us on a practical note, which is there are a lot of mountains in Korea, and you also mentioned it's probably not a good idea to be driving. How do most people get around the country when they're traveling? Do they take the bus, or is there a good train system? How does that work?
Cecilia: I usually take a combination of train and bus, because the trains are really efficient. And nowadays, you can take the KTX, which is the high-speed train that goes from Seoul to Pusan, and it takes you like two hours or whatever. I mean, it's ridiculously quick.

But the buses take you everywhere and anywhere you need to go in Korea, even though you might only have one bus that day. So it's best to plan ahead, read the charts, and go, "OK, if I go at 10 o'clock in the morning, I can come back by 5," or whatever.
Kelly: Right.
Cecilia: The bus drivers, if you tell them, "I want to come back," they'll tell you, "Oh, make sure you're back by three o'clock, "or whatever. They're usually looking out for you, too.
Kelly: Oh, that's good. That's good to know. But logistically, it sounds like it's something that you need to kind of work out in advance.
Cecilia: When you're going outside of the cities.
Kelly: Yeah.
Cecilia: In the big cities, you can pretty much get anywhere you want to go.
Kelly: That's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with Cecilia Lee, who is the author of our new book, "Frommer's South Korea," which has just come out and is on sale now. Cecilia, thank you so much for being here. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Cecilia: Thank you. Me, too.

[musical interlude]
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