As countries are slowly easing lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached out to Muslims all over the world to find out how life and travelling have changed where they live. One country that had a bumpy start with COVID-19 was South Korea. Fortunately, the pandemic situation there has been stabilised. We spoke to 2 Singaporean Muslims in South Korea to find out how life has been like so far.
Husband-and-wife couple, Fairoz D'Cruz and Nurulhuda Albukhari have been living in Seoul for a year now. Besides sharing with us their experience of living in Seoul during the pandemic, they also gave us some recommendations for hidden gems and halal eateries!
Note: Some parts of the article may have been edited for length and clarity.
Which part of Seoul are you guys living in?
We live in the Northern Eastern part of Seoul in Wolgye, Nowon-gu. For e.g. Itaewon is in the Yongsan district. So Wolgye is in the Nowon district. (there's a meme that says no one goes to Nowon ?).
Why did you move from Singapore to Seoul?
This July marks our one year living in Seoul. Prior to living in Seoul, we were living in London for 2 years, Frankfurt for 2 years, and Marrakech for 1 year. Fairoz is an international teacher hence we move a lot. But we will be here in Seoul indefinitely, for now, as we're both currently working in the same school. Fairoz as the High School Coordinator (equivalent to a Secondary School principal), and I lead the school's Communication Office.
Celebrating Eid-al-Fitr in Seoul
COVID-19 situation in Seoul right now
Were you in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
South Korea wasn't in lockdown at all. Only parts of the country were designated as Coronavirus special care zones (Daegu and Cheongdo). That happened during the Shincheonji super-spreader outbreak. And almost immediately international schools started HBL (home-based learning) while the local public schools pushed back their opening. Social distancing is not strictly implemented and neither is mask-wearing but Koreans are pretty disciplined. From the get-go, everyone was already wearing masks, limiting unnecessary outdoor activities etc.
No crowds in Hongdae
What is the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in Seoul? There was a resurgence of cases recently; is the situation getting better?
- New confirmed cases in Seoul are double digits (from the Seoul government website)
- In Nowon-gu itself, there are a total of 50 confirmed cases. And through the Nowon-gu website (it's in Korean though), we can check the movement of the confirmed cases too so if we're a person in contact with a suspected case, we can go down to the nearest hospital for testing.
- Most of the cases are now imported cases, which is why the government has been very stringent on international travel. We (long-term visa holders) are now not allowed to leave the country without a re-entry permit.
What are some of the social distancing and safety measures in place in Seoul?
When the virus was at its peak, sales of masks were limited to only 1x a week and you will need to show your Korean ID. Those without the local national insurance weren't able to purchase them. But they have lifted that now. And the public is asked to wear masks everywhere.
Meanwhile, on public transports (even bus stops and train stations), in lifts, at restaurants, cafes, etc. hand sanitisers are available for the public. On top of that, buildings have the virus copper film pasted over the buttons on elevators. You can even see them in trains on the poles. And whenever we eat out, our temperatures are taken first (at the restaurants) and we're asked to sanitise our hands.
Is life back to normal already?
People have started going back to work (but I heard some companies are rotating their work-from-home shifts) and the public schools are now open but students attend the schools on alternate days for social distancing. However, since it is Summer, we're currently on school vacation. During the first half of Ramadan, the masjid was closed as the government ordered all establishments where crowds gather to close after Shincheonji happened. Towards the end of Ramadan, the masjid re-opened but then the Itaewon cluster happened and it had to close again. So anytime a cluster happens, the entire neighbourhood is shut down for two weeks. But now things are back to normal.
Wearing a mask in subway stations
Our lives never stopped. We can go out and meet our friends. We've been doing so but we just ensure that we're practising what the local government is preaching - we do not leave the house without a mask and hand sanitiser. And when social distancing was strictly enforced, we avoided meeting in large groups - some plans had to be cancelled e.g. picnic by Hangang etc.
Travelling in the new normal in Korea
Honestly, we haven't been anywhere except for Jeju since the pandemic happened. Both of us were working and since routines changed and we needed to adapt quickly, we were pretty busy.
We flew from Gimpo and the international terminal was basically empty. At the domestic terminal, there's a thermal scan for fever before we are allowed to enter airside. We flew on Air Seoul and everyone was wearing masks during the flight - our flight to Jeju was surprisingly full!
At a waterfall in Jeju
Honestly, nothing much changed. It's just that there are more thermal fever scans everywhere we went or there'll be someone checking your temperature. The only new thing we did was making sure that we packed enough masks for the duration of our trip.
From our hotel room in Seogwipo, Jeju
However, since the borders are not opened for international travel yet, most of the places we went to in Jeju-do were pretty empty. It was quite refreshing to head to Shinhwa World Waterpark and not having to queue for any of the water rides.
Tea plantation in Jeju
P.S. Planning to visit Korea when it's safe to do so? Check out these 5 new exciting things you can look forward to!
Hidden gems in Seoul to visit next
We live near Dobongsan (Dobong Mountain) and it's a popular hiking destination. We're not hikers so we've never explored any mountains but we've heard only good things about Dobongsan. It's located within the Bukhansan National Park.
Onguendal Cafe in Seongsu
As for cafes, I (Nurulhuda) recently went to a beautiful cafe (IG @onguendal) in Seongsu. It's definitely IG-worthy as it makes you feel like you're in a resort as the cafe has a 'pool' that customers can sit by.
Halal status: No alcohol or meat sold, just cakes and coffees. We recommend that you eat at your own discretion.
Anyang Art Park
Another favourite place of mine is slightly on the outskirts of Seoul - Anyang Art Park. When it is hot, you can see Seoulites and many others wading or cooling their feet in the stream at Anyang Park or just enjoy the art sculptures in the forest.
There are some IG-worthy cafes around as well. And in Spring, you can even catch the cherry blossoms there ? I went there with a friend who is a fan of the k-pop group, Golden Child. Their MV, Spring Again was filmed in Anyang Art Park. You can see just how gorgeous Anyang Art Park is through the video!
P.S. For your future trip to Seoul, check out our 6D5N Muslim-friendly itinerary which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi-do too!
What's your favourite halal restaurant in Seoul that you would recommend to Muslim travellers?
Obviously Yang Good. Lol!? But we were recently introduced to Aladdin's Lamb (알라딘양고기). The nearest station is Jamsilsaenae (Line 2). It's a Korean BBQ with Mediterranean influences.
Halal meat is hard to come by so we're always on the hunt for new places and this is one place that was introduced to us by a Korean friend. She brought us here to celebrate my birthday. This place serves lamb meat from Australia and the meat has no 'gamey' flavour or odour. On top of that, their pita bread and hummus are really good too!
Halal status: Halal ingredients used but alcohol is served. We recommend that you dine at your own discretion.
P.S. Find more halal restaurants in Seoul here.
Tips for other travellers visiting Seoul
The cheapest mode of travel in Seoul is definitely via their metro subway system. You can download KakaoMetro and set the language in English - it will give you all the information you need on travelling on the metro - even the last train time.
If you're a taxi person, download the KakaoTaxi app, input your phone number (international numbers accepted), and you can book a taxi! The app is available in English and this saves you the time from trying to explain your destination's address in Korean. There's not much price difference between the app and hailing the taxi. In fact, the app is safer as the taxi drivers aren't able to tout or reject customers. Fairoz uses the KakaoTaxi app almost everywhere as he has absolutely no knowledge of Korean ?
Also, another great app to download while in Seoul is Mufko! The app is good for South Korea as it shares solat timings, qiblah, and more halal/halal-friendly places.
You can find more of Fairoz and Nurulhuda's adventures in South Korea on their Instagram @adcruzstory.
P.S. Want to share your tips and stories to help Muslims travel better? Click on this link to share your experience!