Life in Korea: getting around rural Korea by bus
Author's note: 'Life in Korea' posts are aimed at the newer expats among us. If you have a more experienced perspective, comments are open!
Whoever had "half the fun is getting there" hasn't yet had the pleasure of getting around the smaller towns and cities of Korea. The good news is that all but the tiniest areas around Korea will have a bus terminal (and quite a few have train stations as well), it's up to you to make sense of the bus schedules. It doesn't help that the schedules - and prices - are written almost entirely in Korean, and sometimes updated by hand. You can get from point A to point B - just expect it to take a bit longer than it might if you were going to one of Korea's larger cities. The reward is getting to see the off-the-beaten-path places that few other foreigners get to see.
In the ideal world, bus systems would deliver you to the precise place you're going without worrying about where else the bus stops along the way. You wouldn't need fear about getting off a bus in a strange city with no clear indication that you're in the wrong place because your bus driver would look at your ticket and tell you. In reality, you're likely to be one of the only schmucks on the bus that doesn't get it. Unless you speak conversational Korean or better, any announcements are likely to fly right over your head.
Step one: know your destination. Most smaller cities will have one bus terminal, usually named after the city (si) or county / area (gun). Some smaller cities will have their express (시위) and intercity (시내) buses leaving from the same terminal, while others will have two seperate terminals in the same area. Larger cities will often have multiple bus terminals, so pay attention to the name as well as the city. In Seoul, you have the Express Bus Terminal (sometimes called 'Gangnam'), the Nambu Bus Terminal, the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (sometimes called 'East Seoul' or 'Gangbyeon'). Don't assume that there is a bus that connects point A to point B - in most cases there will be, but your journey may need more than one leg to make it work.
Step two: pay attention to the schedule. While not always accurate down to the minute, it'll tell you how many buses run between point A and point B. If there's only X buses a day, it makes more sense to be at the terminal for the bus of your choice. If buses leave for your destination every X minutes, you can relax a bit more - if you miss this bus there will be another one along before too long.
It's worth noting that bus schedules don't always precisely line up. In other words, getting from A to C means you may have a layover at B - sometimes for an hour or more. Pass the time with some cards or a book - at the smaller terminals, there isn't much to see or do.
Step three: pay attention to the RETURN schedule. On more than one occasion this traveler has gotten stranded by not paying attention to the RETURN schedule. In other words, the last bus leaving XYZ bus terminal for ZYX destination is, say, 6pm; if it's not posted, ask about the last bus coming back to said terminal from said destination. Failure to do this means either hitchhiking with a kind-hearted Korean or an expensive taxi ride, if there's even one around to hail.
Step four: note any stops the bus makes along the way. Unless it explicitly says 'non-stop', assume the bus will have more than one stop - and know which one you're getting off at. Few things in life are as much fun as staying on the bus too long (and paying the difference in ticket prices) or getting off too early (and having to wait for another bus). If it's a non-stop, peek at the front bus window before getting on. The buses usually have the destinations in the order they stop (only in Korean, of course). You can also ask the person you bought the tickets from, but few I've met have spoken more than a tiny bit of English.
Step five: know your kinds of buses. While comfort may not always be a high priority, the first-class buses (우등, or u-deung) are mixed in with the standard-class buses (일반, or il-ban) on the schedule board. The former can cost about 25%-30% more, but typically come with a wider throne and more legroom. You won't be offered any drinks or snacks, however and the route is precisely the same. If traveling at night, the midnight buses are typically priced at a premium above first-class.
Finally, I've yet to ride a bus that had restrooms on board, so take care of that business before you leave. Most longer bus rides (e.g. 4 hours or longer) will have a rest stop along the highway - great places to stock up on snacks or drinks, get an actual meal, or just use the restroom before moving on. Whether stated or not, most bus drivers give about 10 minutes - don't be the last one on.
© Chris Backe - 2009
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