One thing this trip has reminded me of is the value of staying in smaller accommodations, such as guesthouses and Airbnbs. There’s the obvious financial value—they tend to be much cheaper than hotels—and then there’s the opportunity to peek into the lives of locals and have much more personable interactions.
This trip, I traveled to a different city every couple of days, so I got to stay in guesthouses, Airbnbs—and one hotel. It’s safe to say my hotel experience was the least enjoyable for me. Especially having come from the Jeonju guesthouse where I was treated to dinner and personally shown around town, as a solo traveler, the most important thing for me became the local interactions and guidance, rather than simply having a nice room to myself at the end of the day.
But as surprising as it may seem for us Airbnb veterans, there remains and will always remain those who have never tried Airbnb, citing safety and the inability to accept the idea of staying in someone else’s place as reasons for preferring hotels. But once you stay in an Airbnb or even a guesthouse listed on Booking, it’s hard to turn back.
After all, what is traveling if not to step out of your comfort zone and experience a country, sure, how a tourist does, but also how a local does?
The hotel staff won’t leave the building to give you a tour of town and then buy an ice cream cone for you as you stroll through the streets. Oh! This place sells chocopie! You want? The hotel staff won’t share stories about having spent over a decade living in the U.S. as they personally drive you to the airport free of charge.
Sure, there is something weird about staying in a guesthouse with the owner who sleeps in the room across from you and spends his time shuffling between his computer checking all his listings across multiple websites and the rooms to go change sheets after guests check out. Meanwhile, you sit in his comfy, spacious living room, taking it all in and wondering if any other guests have ever taken one of the many books on the bookshelves to sit and read for an afternoon, before being personally driven to the airport at 5 the next morning. Despite how weird it might seem, you realize how cool it also is to witness a day in the life of a guesthouse owner.
At AirBuddy Guesthouse in Incheon, a couple miles from the airport and at least an hour on the metro to Seoul, I spent two nights in a “female dormitory,” which means three very comfortable beds in a clean room. Luckily on my first night, I had the room all to myself.
About a 10 minute walk from the guesthouse and two metro stops from the airport is Unseo Station. The area is rather secluded and in the middle of developing into a shopping hub for airport travelers. And when I say in the middle of, I mean things are quite dead on the streets, save for the sounds and sights of construction. Walking through the streets on a weekday morning, especially, feels eery, because you realize places don’t open until 10 a.m. and even once they do, the only people around are other tourists staying in nearby hotels, in transit, while the few locals are seen waiting at the bus stop at Unseo Station to go into the city. There doesn’t feel to be any permanence around.
So I had the morning and afternoon to myself, and for dinner, I reunited with a fellow BU alum at Hongdae, one of the many fascinating shopping districts in Seoul.
At Caffé Bene, I enjoyed my favorite Korean grain latte, a drink I discovered at a café in Guangzhou and now love, while flipping through Korean beauty magazines.
One thing I found interesting was the buzzer they give you after you place your order. It’s no ordinary buzzer.
You can watch the screen playing ads for its food and drinks (just in case you wanted to order more?) and once your order is ready, it buzzes and speaks in Korean, English, and Chinese telling you to pick up for your order. #technology
I also walked through the Lotte supermarket down the block, but unlike those in the heart of Seoul and Busan, the eeriness of the entire town managed to creep in, with the lack of crowds and morning calm making exploring markedly less thrilling.
Having experienced enough of Unseo for a lifetime, I made the long trek into Seoul to explore Hongdae before meeting up with my friend.
And man, what a difference! While Myeongdong was nice and reminiscent of Taipei, Hongdae felt uniquely Korean and somehow cooler.
On my second night, another traveler from Zurich stayed with me. Apparently, she was just starting her backpacking trip around the world after working 10 years at a pharmacy. Good for her. But I found it interesting that she chose her first stops to be Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong—the most modern of the Asian cities—because if it were me, I would want to start in the least-developed countries while I still had the energy and end my trip relaxing in the hot springs of Japan or something.
But even after weeks in Japan and Korea, she was already pretty tired, and while we chatted, she spent the time doing her laundry when all she wanted to do was sleep before waking up at 5 the next morning to catch her flight to Hong Kong. Rough.
Hours after taking her to the airport while the skies were still dark, the guesthouse owner drove me to the airport, where I finally tried the dumplings that the Jeonju guesthouse owner told me to try…while in Jeonju, but hey, better late and still in Korea than never, right? 😛