Lonely Planet Korea: Guide Book Review
Dirty yourself clean at the Mud House...
Lonely Planet's Korea: 7th Edition is an absolute must for anyone planning to travel to Korea. It covers the North and South of the country with humour and wit, and is the perfect travel companion for anyone making a short term stay in Korea. People planning on staying in Korea longer term, such as ESL teachers, may find themselves quickly burning through the list of things to see and do, but let's face it, guidebooks like this are really not meant for you after around 6 months or so in Korea. You should be writing the guidebooks by that point. This guide book is especially suited to those who are planning to spend a few months or less in Korea, while traveling around the country -- not limiting themselves to Seoul. There is also a companion book focused specifically on Seoul if that in more your cup of tea, although we won't be focusing much on that book here.
This is a book.
Korea is a complex, and occasionally strange country from a western point of view. Before writing this review, I researched a few opinions from others about this book so I could see where I related to them in terms of my positive or negative assessments of different aspects of the book. There were some people I agreed with, others that I didn't necessarily agree with but allowed for individual differences, and finally, some reviewers that I would like to warn you against.
Lonely Planet Korea Disclaimer: You are buying a book!
In today's information age, and having been disappointed by some of the reviewers tore into this book as if their lives depended on you not buying this book, I feel it relevant to mention that this is indeed just that, a static, unchanging book. The world is a dynamic, changing place and by the very nature of books that publish information that is also dynamic and changing, they are out of date the minute they hit the shelves. Books such as these involve months of research, followed by editing time, printing, shipping, being put on the shelves in your local bookstore, purchased by you, and being brought home. After this you still have to plan your trip, wait for the date to arrive and then actually travel to Korea. Of course some information is going to be out of date, and some phone numbers are going to be changed.
One review posted in 2008 heavily criticised the 2004 version for a restaurant having been moved over 4 years ago. An unfortunate coincidence that the restaurant would move within months of the guidebook being published? Yes. Negligence on the part of Lonely Planet? No.
Expect quality work with you buy a lonely planet guidebook, but also have reasonable expectations.
Lonely Planet also offers two companion websites for this book with more up-to-date information than is possible in an old fashioned book.
As well as a special sites for Seoul, Pyongyang, Busan and other noteworthy destinations available through their respective countries.
Forget hot dogs -- snack on dried squid at a baseball game: Main selling points of this book
One of the main selling points of this book, aside from the pretty comprehensive view of things to do an see in each of many different areas of Korea, is the humour in which the information is presented. Not too afraid of the ire of Koreans for pointing out their oddities -- and believe me, there is plenty of ire to go around. Its almost as if you were listening in on them telling eccentric Great-Aunt Marmie about their adventures in Korea. They're polite, because she is an old lady after all, but the don't leave out any of the juicy details, because the stranger the stories, the better she likes them and the closer they get to being included as beneficiaries on her will. Silly Aunt Marmie and your love of silly stories.
Analogies involving eccentric old women aside, these authors give you your information served straigt up, to do with what you will. There is a less conversational tone when they actually get into lists of places to see, but there they've found a good balance between conversing with the reader, and trying not to take up too much space, or drag out individual descriptions.
Another thing that I really liked about the Lonely Planet Korea, was the little snippets of history and culture that are littered throughout the book. Especially in a homogeneous place like Korea, knowing a few little things about culturally acceptable practices is very valuable. Koreans regard westerners with a large amount of curiosity mixed with a healthy amount of suspicion. They will cut westerners a fair amount of slack when it comes to the way we act in public, but minimizing that will help you have a better time in Korea. Just because they tolerate our 'strange' behaviour, doesn't mean that they like it.
The Rebellious Teenager who lives upstairs
The guide also has a whole section devoted to its not-so-friendly neighbour to the North which is worth a read. It's obviously limited, as western exposure to North Korea is pretty limited, but it offers a pretty insightful look into what life is like in the North and what travelling there is like.
Korea on a time limit?
There is also a quick section about what to see in each place if you only have a matter of days. I found it really helpful that it prioritizes your trip like that. Having seen many of the sights for myself, I don't necessarily always agree with the way that they've prioritized some of the different options, but I also understand that it's very much a thing of personal preference and some people are going to like some attractions more than other people do, its all a matter of what you want to do while you're here, and what kind of attractions appeal to you the most.
Even lonely planet can fall short...
- Lack of street names and specific directions. Although I would classify this one as a Korea-problem and not necessarily a Lonely-Planet-problem, the directions to many of the locations listed in the book leave a lot to the imagination, and a lot to be desired. I have always eventually found what I was looking for, but rarely as quickly as I would have liked. This will be a constant problem for you if you want to visit, or move to Korea. Streets aren't well marked, or even marked at all in many cases, and often even the locals don't know the name of the street you are on. Street names and western-style addresses are a relatively new migrant to Korea and even a business card will have a small map on the back in addition to the address on the front, because it means quite little to most Koreans in terms of a specific location.
- Lack of Korean: Given the above problem with finding places in Korea, I was a little disappointed to find relatively little Korean in this book, that could help you find what you are looking for. The guile book should have more Korean names of places, so you can just point, look confused, and have someone point you in the right direction. Learning the Korean names of places you'd like to go, and carrying as list with you of the words written in the Korean alphabet should help you to overcome this pitfall.
Four out of Five Stars
All in all I think this was a pretty good read, comprehensive, and very helpful when you are planning a trip to Korea. There are some full colour photos that help to motivate you a stimulate your imagination, and the book covers all the basics. There were a few downfalls in directions, and helpful Korea words to get directions from locals, and some numbers and locations have changed since publication, but overall I think that its very informative, well laid out, and even interesting to read. I give it four out of five stars.
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