Disclaimer: Please note that this article is the personal experience of the writer, who travelled to South Korea (Seoul, Gangneung and Busan) from 19 - 26 Feb 2020. Since then, the coronavirus situation in South Korea has developed significantly and continues to change on a day-to-day basis. If you're planning to travel to South Korea, we urge you to stay updated with the latest information and check with your local government (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia), airline, travel service and insurance providers for any travel and health advisories ahead of your trip. Do weigh all your options and discuss with your family or loved ones before changing or continuing with travel plans.
I travelled to South Korea in the last couple weeks of February 2020.
In a trip that lasted about a week, I travelled to Seoul, Gangneung (a city on the east coast of the country, about 2.5 hours away from Seoul by train) as well as Busan. It was my first time ever travelling to South Korea and I went there with a friend of mine. Both of us are major BTS fans and we had been planning this trip for more than six months (!), with an itinerary that included a lot of the spots made famous because of its significance to the BTS fandom. As we started counting down the days to our trip, I remember getting increasingly excited and I couldn't wait to go!
Then, the coronavirus situation happened.
It first starting gaining traction sometime towards the end of January, especially in Singapore as the number of cases reported here started pulling ahead. In addition, the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition or DORSCON (Singapore's colour-coded framework for disease outbreak) level was upgraded to orange around early February, and everyone was generally growing more and more concerned about the situation.
So in the weeks leading up to the trip, I started getting quite worried as the coronavirus situation developed. My friends and family were also worried for me - while they didn't prevent me from going and ultimately left it to my decision, they did keep asking if I was still going. Coincidentally, the friend whom I was planning to travel with works in a hospital, and as we got closer to our trip she was also worried that she would be unable to go due to work duties. But luckily, she was able to make it!
In all honesty, the thought of cancelling our trip didn't really cross our mind. At the time, the number of cases reported in Singapore far exceeded those reported in South Korea, so we were more worried about restrictions being imposed by the South Korean government against visitors from Singapore. And since we had already planned for the trip (including paying for our flights and accommodation) and had been looking forward to it for such a long time, we still really wanted to go. After assessing the situation (including making sure there were no travel advisories issued by South Korea for Singapore and vice versa, as well as ensuring that we were feeling healthy and well), we decided to stick with our plan and proceed with our trip.
We had some last-minute suspenseful moments though. On the day of our trip, our airline carrier announced that they were cancelling/postponing some flights and we saw that our flight route number happened were included in the list of flights affected! Luckily, it wasn't for our travel dates, so we could still go as scheduled.
Preparing for the trip & arriving in Seoul
We made sure to take all the relevant precautionary measures - we got surgical face masks to use during our flights as well as while we were in out exploring in Korea. We also packed plenty of hand sanitizer and wet wipes. At the same time, I subscribed to the local news (both for Singapore and South Korea) on Telegram so that we'd be updated throughout the trip on the latest coronavirus updates for both countries.
Our flight to Seoul was quite empty, so we were able to stretch out and have a comfortable flight! When we landed at the airport, we didn't have our temperatures taken or go through any extensive health screenings.
Exploring South Korea
We started exploring and doing all the touristy things you would expect, like wearing the hanbok, visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace, exploring places like Gangnam and Itaewon, and going to Lotte World.
In Seoul, things looked pretty normal to us - businesses, shops and eateries were operating per usual with a bustling sense of activity. There were also a decent amount of visitors at all of the touristy spots we visited (including plenty of Muslim travellers like us! We spoke to a couple of them and they told us they were from Indonesia ?). The only real indicators of the coronavirus situation we saw were the fact that people (especially store and shop employees) were wearing masks and there were hand sanitizers at the cashier counters of most of the shops we visited.
We started noticing major changes on our fifth day in South Korea, as we started travelling in and out of Seoul (making trips to Gangneung and Busan). On this day, South Korea had a big spike in the number of coronavirus cases reported, and as we travelled by KTX (the high-speed rail system), we started noticing thermal cameras at the train stations, as well as more hand sanitizers being made available for public use in common areas. Everyone we saw riding the KTX (including ourselves!) wore masks, and there were also announcements reminding commuters to wear them.We also noted a marked difference in the crowds and atmosphere in Busan (which is located geographically closer to Daegu, which we know now as the epicentre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak). Here, the streets were noticeably empty at popular tourist areas such as Haeundae Beach and Gunamro Street, although stores were still open.
Visiting Gamcheon Village in Busan - it was a rainy day!
All throughout this time, we kept up-to-date with the news and grew more worried as we realised the growing number of cases. My friend’s phone was roaming on a South Korean network and she got emergency alerts in Busan almost every hour, with news of new cases as and when they were happening. We also read the news online so we were well aware of what was going in, and lots of friends also texted us to make sure we informed while reminding us to take care.
After the big spike in cases was reported, in all honesty, it was a bit scary but we made sure to exercise good hygiene, clean our hands constantly, and stay alert. We also started wearing masks full-time whenever we were out as an added precaution. We took comfort in the fact that supplies of masks and hand sanitizers were still easily available, so we could re-stock anytime. We were still able to visit all the attractions we planned to go, and I still had a lot of fun visiting these spots as well as indulging in a lot of yummy local food!
Enjoying the food at Busan-jib in Seoul!
In Busan, a lot of the same precautionary measures could be seen (e.g. temperature screenings at the train station, hand sanitizers everywhere, people wearing masks, etc.). But as I mentioned, it was definitely quieter here than in Seoul - the attractions were less packed, and the shops seemed emptier.
But I also had some of the nicest interactions with locals while I was here! While people in Seoul seemed to generally mind their own business (though they were perfectly friendly when we asked for help), in Busan, we encountered locals who were so sweet and went out of their way to help us. Someone on the street gave me an umbrella while it was raining! Even though I declined because I didn't want to take his umbrella (plus my jacket had a hood), he insisted that I take it.
Separately, while we were exploring Gamcheon Village, we boarded a bus and the driver stopped us to ask where we wanted to go - he could tell that we were kind of lost ? He accompanied us to the right bus stop and made sure the other bus driver knew where we wanted to go. And yet a third instance of a lovely encounter: my friend and I were on another bus and we were looking out the window, but couldn't see much because it was raining and the window was full of condensation from the warmth inside the bus. There was elderly uncle sitting behind us who was wiping his section of the window so he could see, and without a word, he just leaned over and wiped our window for us! Those small acts of kindness really left an impression on us ☺️
We overnighted in Busan, and then came back to Seoul to spend the remainder of our time in South Korea. Soon enough, it was time to go home. Our return flight was fuller than the one we took to Seoul, and when we landing in Changi Airport we went through the health and temperature screenings required for all passengers.Overall, I'm really happy that I still got to go on this trip and experience the amazing attractions in the places we visited. While it was scary to be there at a time the coronavirus situation in South Korea really accelerated, it was still an incredible experience. Thankfully, we were able to go and come back safely and healthily, with awesome memories of our trip. So, whether you’re travelling to South Korea or even any other country at this point in time, make sure to take the necessary precautions
(especially washing your hands and bringing along hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and masks!) and keep yourself updated with the latest info. Be sure to also stay alert and monitor yourself for any signs of falling ill, so you can seek medical attention swiftly and take measures to stay home and recover fully! I definitely would want to return to South Korea again in the future to continue exploring this wonderful country ?
Do note that the views expressed in this article are purely those of the writer’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect HHWT’s views.