A good guidebook is hard to find

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A good guidebook is hard to find

Guidebooks designed to make navigating around a foreign land easier can be indispensable when you strike out to discover the country, whether you're a casual first-time visitor, a frequent business traveler or an expatriate. Packed with essential information and all sorts of trivia - some even the natives are only vaguely familiar with - and often featuring colorful photographs, good guidebooks can make even an armchair traveler feel like he is right there in the midst of strange landscapes, exotic aromas and unfamiliar sounds.

Many travelers have complained about the lack of reliable and up-to-date guidebooks on Korea. Flanked by the two tourist magnets China and Japan, Korea has never been a hotspot for travelers, and the dearth of good guidebooks bears this out. But with the 2002 World Cup less than six months away, when the country expects some 720,000 overseas visitors to hit its shores, it may be worthwhile to take stock of what guides on Korea are available, including those on the Web.

If you are a fan of the Lonely Planet series and rely on "Lonely Planet Korea" (Lonely Planet Publications, 2001), you may be confused as soon as you arrive in Korea. The book, published in April 2001, curiously fails to note the March 2001 opening of Incheon International Airport, incorrectly identifying Gimpo Airport as the "principal gateway to South Korea." The book does mention a few lines later that "Gimpo Airport is due to become a domestic airport when the new Incheon International Airport opens." The lesson? Travelers need to take to heart the typical warning found in most guidebooks: "We accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone using this book."

Once you've got your bearings on the peninsula, however, Lonely Planet's book should prove to be useful. The "Facts about Korea" section provides a neat summary of Korean history and aspects of Korean life that visitors will appreciate. For example, if you ever get angry when a Korean makes a mistake, possibly a serious one, and then laughs about it, the book explains that the culprit is not laughing at you, but that laughter in Korea can be a sign of embarrassment, and a tacit form of apology.

The chapter on facts for the visitor offers the basic information tourists need to make their stay as painless as possible. Included in the section are visa requirements, currency exchange rates, business hours, and telecommunications services, including where to get Internet access. A short list of other books about Korea is useful for people who want more in-depth knowledge of the country.

In addition to extensive coverage of things to do and see in Seoul, the book devotes many pages to the rest of the country. It even includes a few pages on North Korea, probably the least visited place in the world. The book explains that travelers to the North are restricted to certain places and areas and must be accompanied by two government-employed tour guides at all times. If that's not enough to deter you from visiting the Stalinist state, be sure not to forget the book; it may be the only guidebook for the country you'll find.

For expats in South Korea, "The Expatriate Handbook-Seoul, Korea" by Jacqueline de Ville-Colby (Hollym Corp., 2001) is a handy guide that offers information on a vast array of subjects, from accommodation to zoos. With topics arranged alphabetically, the 345-page book focuses on places and services that have been "expatriate tried-and-tested."

Under the letter "F" is an entry called "Food availability in Seoul, Seasonal" that lists fruits, vegetables and herbs in both English and Korean and indicates when they are available. Although these days most food is available year-round thanks to greenhouses and imports, the information is useful for folks planning a trip to a traditional food market. An unfortunate omission in the section is seafood.

No guidebook would be complete without maps; this one has seven, including a Seoul subway map, a simple, uncluttered map of Seoul showing the gu, or district, divisions and major dong, or local neighborhood, locations, and a map of beaches, national parks and major destinations.

The book also devotes an entire section to this year's World Cup soccer championships, providing details on the 10 stadiums and corresponding cities on the peninsula that will host games.

With approximately 40,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Korea, it's natural that guidebooks would be published catering to their needs. Richard Saccone's "Having a Great Tour: The G.I. Guide to Korea" (Hollym Corp., 1998) is one such book. Published before the revised Korean Romanization system went into effect in 2000, the book uses the now abandoned McCune-Reischauer romanization, meaning that many of the names of places in the book will not necessarily match updated signs and maps you'll find on the tourist beat.

Tailored to the needs of the military, the introduction to Seoul starts off with information on the Yongsan Army Garrison in Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Although people with no access to the military base will have no use for the section, which describes things to do and where to eat on the base and shows pictures of on-base buildings, military personnel will appreciate the information.

Its things to do in Seoul section is basically the same you'll find in other guidebooks, though this one has a lot more color photographs. Sometimes pictures are indeed worth a thousand words: The book's side-by-side photos of a deluxe taxi and a regular taxi obviate the many paragraphs other guidebooks use to differentiate them by verbal means. Sections on the rest of the country concentrate on areas around military bases to make exploring the country convenient for the base-dwellers.

For the more tech-savvy, personal digital assistants, or PDAs, are a convenient option that combines portability with instant, up-to-the-minute information via the Internet. Incoming visitors at Incheon Airport can rent wireless PDAs from the KTF Roaming Center counter on the arrivals floor. The gadgets cost 2,000 won ($1.50) per day to rent plus 34 won per 10 seconds of airtime. The fixed fee is waived for the first five days for members of Sky Pass, Korean Air's frequent flyer program. KTF's online NTour Service features a tour guide program and information on daily events.

Guests staying at the Westin Chosun hotel in downtown Seoul can rent wireless PDAs from SK Telecom that support voice calls and offer contents geared toward tourists and business travelers such as tourist information in English and Japanese, transportation and shopping guides, and interpretation services. The rental costs about 20,000 won per day and 300 won is charged per minute of airtime.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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