Popular backpacker destinations in Southeast Asia show a sharp contrast to the Southeast; Thailand, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and so forth. To throw the caution straight out there, travelling cheap is hard work. If you aren’t aware of this you can be caught off guard by a nasty surprise during this part of your journey. But… not to worry! Here’s how to hack it and why.
From the moment I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, it was like stepping into a completely different outlook of Asia. From urbanised high-rise, modernised buildings, to the sight of dogs on leads. I felt a sudden culture shock after spending months in some of the least developed parts of the world.
Seoul was like New York and London, but with language I couldn’t understand and scorching sunshine like no other. As soon as I reached the airport I realised immediately that taxis are no longer an option with a boost in price of maybe 10 times or more.
To travel Korea cheap I hastily bought a ‘T Travel Card’, similar to an Oyster card in London. This provided cheap travel throughout Seoul and turned out to be my absolute saviour. This card can also be used for buses and **NOTE** you need this card for any public transport. Transport doesn’t seem to cater well for tourists and isn’t apparent or obvious apart from the over priced taxis. My first day in Seoul I jumped on a bus before realising I had no way of paying. So I was forced to fare dodge and jump off at the next stop and pray nobody was watching. Getting arrested in Korea wouldn’t have been a good start!
The food in Korea is delicious consisting of seaweed, rice and noodle dishes
and Gimbap. However, make sure to check the prices before you eat as some restaurants can be very expensive. The majority of Korean restaurants are self order via a screen (similar to McDonald’s system in the UK) so it is easy to check the place out before you eat. I found a fantastic restaurant in Hongdae, Seoul, which boasted a huge and delicious rice dish with chicken and fish soup for only?5,500 won (£3.84). For a city like Seoul this is awesome value. The name of the restaurant is ‘ ‘ if you get time to check it out. Perfect for a quick, cheap yet delicious meal!
FASHION. WOW. Korean fashion is absolutely amazing. I admit that I overspent here because of the irresistible fashion markets and trends. Guilty. I particularly love the beautiful over dresses (worn with white t-shirts underneath) and pinafores. The fashion is so girlie, sweet and innocent looking. Many of my friends have requested I bring them some back to England.
I spent a lot of my time in Hongdae, as well as travelling by the subway to Gangnam. Hongdae is great for nightlife which youth culture highly identify with in Seoul with awesome bars and night clubs (you do have to pay to get in after 11pm however unless you are female in some cases). Get your liver prepared, because Koreans go hard on the drink with test tube styled shots. It is a great way to meet foreign travellers like yourself and mix with the locals. A friend I made explained to me how Koreans are particularly friendly to foreigners yet many fear speaking English or attempting to. Therefore, I would encourage making an extra effort to complement their English. I made some amazing friends here, helped by an awesome travellers hostel (find out more about on my hostel living article).
Novelty cafés are a part of culture in Seoul, with so many they’re almost impossible to miss. You must see this raccoon cafe in Hongdae. It’s so awesome and costs only about £5 for entrance and a drink. These furry friends will make your life complete and they’re treated really well too with all the necessary vaccinations etc. I noticed in South Korea these novelty cafés are a huge thing from cat cafes, to meerkats, raccoons and dogs. It’s certainly worth checking out the trend for yourself.
Gangnam is definitely worth a visit, everybody knows Gangnam style, right? This is the place. It even holds a huge gangnam style statue outside the subway station, easily and cheaply accessible by subway. Opposite is the Coex Mall, expensive but great to window shop. Even more awesome is the global world summit meeting which was held here some years ago outside the Korean World Trade Centre. It has a pillar for each country and its leader who attended and it stands in front of the huge trade centre. This is overall just an awesome stop to make if you have free time. With a lot to see.
In Korea I tried to go swimming, but came across some trouble when I realised that they have strict rules here that indicate you must wear a swimming cap to swim. I refused to pay for one there (they tried to charge me a ridiculous amount)! So I ended up in the baby pool! Still refreshing in my opinion and it was empty. If you can pick up a swimming cap before you go swimming you won’t endure any problems. Two of the friends I was with had dread locks which made it mission impossible but highly amusing to witness.
After South Korea I arrived in Haneda, JAPAN. As expected taxis were an even bigger no go than in Korea. So I waited throughout the night at the airport and caught the first bus at 6:55am to Fuji costing about £18 and taking approximately 2.5 hours.
I changed my original route to stop off at Mount Fuji. This world-famous mountain I later spontaneously decided to take on climbing. I would seriously recommend this to anybody who has the time and money to spare. Compromise is a key part of travel, and I sacrificed a lot of restaurant meals in Tokyo and clothes shopping in order to complete this personal challenge. You need a solid 4 days really for Fuji, this is a day or so to prepare and hire your gear, 2 days to climb, and a day minimum to rest. You can find out all about my climb up Fuji during the worst typhoon, a week later sending Japan into darkness, on my blog.
After Fuji, battered and bruised as well as complexity exhausted we caught a bus to Tokyo Station. Again this cost us about £20. We then spent hours trying to find our way around Tokyo station (which is like a literal maze) until we reached our stop only a 3 minute walk from the Hostel. I recommend using google maps and planning your route precisely in advance.
I arrived in Tokyo almost PENNILESS. Luckily I had paid for the hostel in advance. Accommodation is looking to be around £10-15 MINIMUM per night in a dormitory so book as far in advance as possible to get the cheapest prices. This is contrasting to the Southern parts of Asia where you can book only a day in advance for £3-5 per night.
First on my list due to lack of money was to do a food shop, so after 2 days of rest I headed to the supermarket to make use of the hostel facilities and purchase my weeks worth of food. This included items such as bread, crisps, noodle pots, microwave dinners and cartons of juice. Food shopping has never seemed so hard when everything is in Japanese. However, for a 5-7 days worth of food I spent only 1500 yen (£10.49).
This is highly recommended in Northeast Asia because eating out every night is around the same price as major cities in England. Something not possible when travelling for 3 months on a budget.
Japanese people I found spoke less English than Korean. They also seemed more withdrawn from talking or acknowledging foreign tourists. I put this down to a
difference in culture and the blatant language barrier, nothing personal. If you ask for help, many will still go the extra mile to assist you.
My main aim for Tokyo was to slow down a bit, and just get a feel for the culture and atmosphere of the city.
Myself and my friend wanted to see the Akita statue of Hachikō- if you haven’t seen the film you must see it. This heartbreaking true story is about a dog who became famous in Japan after waiting 9 years at a train station for his deceased owner to return. This dog has become part of Japanese culture.
Many people buy Akitas and use the story of Hachikō to teach loyalty and moral lessons to children.
Tokyo transport is a cheap subway system which can take you to the most prominent
areas for about £3-4 return per day.
Eating out in restaurants can become pricey in Tokyo while you’re living here, so it’s a wise idea to make the most of 7/11 stores and bring food with you on your travels.
Food is a fascinating part of Japanese culture (just don’t visit your dentist for a while after). They have a huge lust for sweet and sugary treats including huge ice creams and sweets.
Whilst in Shibuya I came across a 1500 yen candy floss made upon order. It was literally the biggest piece of candy I have ever seen probably having the capability of feeding a family of 6. I also recommend trying the bubble drinks! I find them rather amusingly strange, however they certainly look the part and they’re extremely mainstream in Tokyo.
The clothes in Japan are worth a look at. They are more pricey compared to south East Asian prices and most the prices actually worked out to be about the same as in UK shops. However, the unique sense of style in Tokyo is worth visiting just to look at. Window shopping is a brilliant hobby here because you’ll always be shocked at the styles they have to offer from vintage frocks to American hip hop style clothes.
Where clothes are concerned especially a huge fashion trend seems to be cute adorable outfits featuring animals and other characters. For example, I found an entire shop with panda tees, socks, even shoes. Of course.. you’ll find multiple Pokémon shops too.
I straight away noticed that Japanese culture focuses a lot on Philosophy and symbolism. There are tons of shops with jewellery sections for specific parts of life believed to carry good fortune, good health, love and beauty and so on.
These shops have beautiful hand crafted pieces which often include special stones such as amber, amethyst etc. If you can buy something from here it would be a great souvenir to remember, and who knows maybe you’ll get some good fortune!
It’s important to note that language can be an issue in Northeast Asia, where they rely on western tourism less dependently than Southeast Asian countries.
Japan especially I found this the case as they proudly try to preserve their original culture in a world where language seems to be slowly and sadly fading into English only. It is worth noting that few people seem to speak fluent English and some none at all. Therefore a phrasebook would be useful or a translator app you can subscribe download. I have the google translate app on my phone, this allows you to download languages so you do not require WiFi. I personally think this is one of the things I actually loved about Japan. Despite its westernisation, it hasn’t lost its touch of unique culture.
Northeast Asia feels a lot more major city vibe to me than the South which I tend to associate my experiences of Asia with the most. Despite the steep price tags it’s well worth coming here prepared with enough money so that you can fully appreciate the culture and unique experiences it has to offer. From food, to people, fashion and standards.
To find out more, see my short article on Tokyo’s 5 Must See Sights.