Category Archives: Travel Tips

Camera Shopping in Seoul

I have a new toy.

I have a new toy.

I keep collecting hobbies as my list of pursuits continues to grow, and photography is the newest realm of dabbling. My interest in photography actually began in college during my photojournalism classes when I got to play with some fun toys. As part of the class, the college issued me a Nikon D100 for a semester — my first exposure to a digital SLR. It only got better in the higher-level course when we had an arsenal of nicer lenses — such as a 70-300 mm telephoto or an 8 mm fish eye — at our disposal.

While I didn’t develop into a strong photographer, my interest in the visual arts continued to manifest in my graphic design. Photography took a backseat to Illustrator and InDesign, but it never left. Fast forward to now, a time when I’m making a little extra money and DSLRs are a little cheaper abroad — especially after the exchange rate. The little shutterbug whispering in my ear combined with my penchant for expensive things  led me to this question: Where does one go to get a camera in Seoul?

How to get there

It’s impossible to find anything around Seoul at a decent price without knowing where to go. It’s not like the States, where you can peruse the Sunday ads and walk into Best Buy and match the best price you find. The area in Seoul where you can find the best deals on cameras is in the Namdaemun Market. After doing some homework and ultimately deciding on a Canon 40D (but not before also considering the Nikon D80 and Nikon D90), I got directions from friends who had been there before and jumped on the subway to the Hoehyon stop on line 4.

Exit 5 of the Hoehyon subway station put me right into the Namdaemun Market fray.

Exit 5 of the Hoehyon subway station put me right into the Namdaemun Market fray.

After leaving the station via exit 5, I immediately turned right, putting me on a path through the heart of Namdaemun Market — a dizzying array of lights and merchants. Although the street looks like a complete mess on first sight, the storefronts and food stands are rather organized for an open-air market. The straight-line walk through the market is about 200 meters long and ends at a major cross-street. There will be a sign that indicates “Gate 2” of the Namdaemun market. There I turned left toward all the camera stores were — the strip of sidewalk lit by gigantic “Canon” and “Nikon” signs — and began my quest to find my Canon 40D. This is where the fun part begins.

There's a lot of stuff going on here other than cameras.

Namdaemun Market: There is a lot more going on here than camera shopping.

How to find the right price

The best/worst part of shopping in Korea is that — especially in markets like Namdaemun — prices are often subject to haggling. The best rule is to check out as many stores as possible. Not only will prices vary between stores, but some vendors will be more willing to throw in a freebie or two to keep you coming back. On the other side of that coin, there are also vendors looking to cheat a wide-eyed foreigner. Here are some tips on how to get the best deal for your camera:

Know what you want

I knew what camera and lens I wanted long before I arrived at any store. There are several reasons for this. First, while most of the stores speak decent English, any possible language barrier can be overcome with the make and model of the camera and/or the length and brand of the lens. Next, nothing perks the ears of a dishonest vendor more than the sound of an uninformed shopper. The online resources are endless, but sites that proved helpful to me were The Imaging Resource and Digital Photography Review. Along with knowing what I wanted, I also made sure to find prices on sites such as Danawa (a Korean site that can search in English) to use as benchmarks in haggling. Their prices are always negotiable, so they’ll try to sell the novice buyer an expensive price as a good deal — usually by throwing in some useless freebies that cost them nothing. Also, beware of anyone willing to sell you something at an absurdly low price. Odds are that they’re giving you an inferior product, such as a used camera being sold as “new.”

Be patient

Never buy from the first store you walk into. Get quotes from as many stores as time allows. These stores, all crammed on the same street, are competing with each other for your patronage, so they’ll usually match reasonable prices from another store. Some vendors pressured me to buy from them immediately, telling me they were giving me the best price. This shouldn’t happen; the most reputable sellers understand the process behind making a big investment in a DSLR camera and will let you look and leave as much as you need. It will be very apparent which stores are looking for the quick sale. You can use this greed against them if you carry cash and threaten to leave for another store; they’ll often cave to your asking price, but make sure you’re getting the exact product you’re searching for and nothing less. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if you don’t like what you see.

Pay in cash — lots of it

Vendors will give you the best prices when you pay in cash for two reasons. First, cash transactions cannot be tracked like credit card transactions. Some vendors use this to their personal advantage when it comes to tax season — maybe dishonest, but it benefits the buyers. Second, credit card companies charge the vendors a fee for each transaction, and that fee is passed down to the buyer. It usually runs around an extra five percent of the total, but on a 1 millon won purchase, that’s an extra 50,000 won. If you make a large purchase, vendors will usually find creative ways to give you a package discount and/or give you some free stuff. I bought a Canon 40D body with an 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, lens hood, 4GB SanDisk Compact Flash memory card, extra battery, and bag, totalling nearly 1.1 million won. In addition to that, the vendor gave me two cloth camera wraps, a lens cloth, rubber lens blower, and UV filter as “service.”

Where to buy

If you get a business card that looks like this, beware of that seller.

If you get a business card that looks like this, beware of that seller.

As I’ve said before, there are good shops and there are bad shops. One store immediately agreed to my lowball price (I just wanted to get negotiations going) and tried to sell me a camera that he said was new, even though it was clearly used. The name of the store is Sung Do, and as soon as I asked to see the camera, he asked whether I had cash and tried to pressure me to buy that night. The store from which I eventually bought my 40D, Hyosung Camera, was very helpful from the beginning. The most helpful thing about this store is that there is a fluent English-speaking employee pretty much there to help out any foreigners. His name is Paul, and he studied in Australia for more than seven years. If he doesn’t have the answer, he’ll find someone who does. If you manage to wander into that store, mention that Daniel sent you, and he’ll get a good chuckle out of it. He’ll definitely give you things like blowers and lens cloths if you need them.

I bought my camera at this store.

I bought my camera at this store.

I’m excited to learn more about my new toy, especially since I’ve only shot with Nikons before this. Hopefully dropping a pretty penny will be incentive enough for me to teach myself some photography basics and improve whatever skills I might’ve acquired in college — and eventually add a new dimension to my young blog.

What are your tips/suggestions/experiences?

Author’s note: I’m in no way affiliated with Hyosung Camera or any other camera store in Seoul. My recommendation of Hyosung comes only from my positive experiences there, and I receive no compensation for doing so.

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It’s not what you know but who you know

After arriving in Korea with an E-2 visa (one designated specially for English teachers), it’s necessary to get an Alien Registration Card (ARC). The ARC is more or less my ID as a temporary resident in Korea and is necessary for things such as opening a bank account (which I actually did without an ARC thanks to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education‘s sponsoring us at orientation) and acquiring a cell phone (which I actually did without an ARC thanks to the shadiness of Itaewon).

The process is somewhat tedious, but I finally got my ARC this week with the help of my Korean co-teachers. Here are the steps to apply for a Korean alien registration card:

  1. Get two passport-sized photos of yourself.
  2. Get a medical check at one of the public hospitals in Seoul. You’ll need one of your photos for this.
  3. Pick up medical check a few days later.
  4. Make an appointment at the Seoul Immigration Office or show up and wait forever (I’ve heard up to two hours) in line.
  5. Show up and turn in your ARC application with 10,000 KRW, your medical check, and your passport.
  6. Wait 1-2 weeks for your ARC.

Or you could have a co-teacher who knows someone who works in immigration in Incheon who makes a phone call to someone who works in immigration in Seoul and can shorten the whole process at the Seoul Immigration Office to a painless 20-minute wait and have you walk out the same day with your ARC in hand.

I went with the latter of the choices. It was fantastic. Also, in other fantastic news, I learned my school doesn’t require me to be at school during winter break when I’m not teaching the winter camp. The holidays lasts from December 24 to February 2 and then from February 14 to March 2. After taking out two weeks for the camp, I have about three weeks in January and two weeks in February to do whatever the hell I want — and still get paid for it.

I’m thinking a three-week backpacking excursion through southeast Asia in January and maybe a jaunt through the States in February, but as we all know, that could very suddenly change. Stay tuned.

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Korean Air Review

My plane as seen from O'Hare.

My plane as seen from O'Hare

The nearly 14-hour flight from Chicago O’Hare to Seoul Incheon passed by rather quickly thanks to my all-night packing affair coupled with my propensity for sleeping on moving vehicles. All in all, I’m sure I slept more than seven hours of the flight, which is probably a major reason I can’t truly believe I flew halfway around the world.

The six or so hours I was conscious were actually rather pleasant for being strapped to a seat inside a cabin suspended 32,000 feet in the air. I flew Korean Air, and the journey was much easier than I had anticipated. For a pre-paid flight, I wasn’t going to be difficult, but I had heard good things from my mom, who flew Korean Air from Dallas to Seoul en route to Vietnam.

This particular flight didn’t have personal viewing screens, just a large projection in the middle of the cabin. I had my own means of entertainment with my laptop, my Nintendo DS and my iPod, so I was rather indifferent to this fact, especially because they showed Korean news and some crazy Korean movie that involved (from what I could gather from glances and not reading the subtitles) a girl who gained superpowers from having too much Soju. It was worth the occasional peek.

There was lots of leg room, especially when I put the seat back. I was surprised at how far the seats leaned back, but I wasn’t going to complain. It definitely helped the sleeping patterns. The few occasions I woke up were coincidentally (unless I have some uncanny sense) the same times the attendants served food. The staff was very friendly despite a bit of a language barrier, and the meals were a little better than typical airline food. For each of our meals, we had two choices of entrees, one Korean and one, well, not-so-Korean. Between meals, the staff also provided snacks, such as a choice between a BBQ pork-stuffed bun and a banana half, as well as tea in addition to the standard airline drinks.

Overall, Korean Air was a pleasant trip, especially since I didn’t have to pay for the ticket (thanks, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education). I would fly them again, and I probably will since I’ve read flights around the tiny South Korean peninsula are rather affordable.

Has anyone else flown Korean Air? What was your experience like? Any recommendations on other overseas carriers?

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Mail Forwarding to…Everywhere?

With this whole dashing around the world thing comes planning out the logistics of some very mundane errands, including, but not limited to, banking, selling unnecessary things, and forwarding mail. The first two will be pretty easy; the third is a bit more complicated. The difficulties arise because I have mail sent to my school address as well as some to my parents’ address, but I don’t want my mail forwarded all the way to South Korea (which is a difficulty in itself since I don’t even know my future address, yet).

But now there’s a way to forward my mail to me online, making my mail accessible anywhere in the world. With Earth Class Mail, I can forward all my mail to a centralized mail-sorting center where they scan my mail and let me decide whether to scan its contents or to recycle it. I still don’t completely understand the process, but it does seem like a competent solution to getting important mail in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner. I think the way it would work for me is that I’d just forward my mail from school to my home address and on to my Earth Class Mail P.O. box. The service starts at $9.95 a month, but that seems like a small price to pay for someone who might be without a permanent address for a while.

Does anyone have any experience with this service?

[via Almost Fearless]

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