[Viewpoint] South Koreans in Southeast Asia

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[Viewpoint] South Koreans in Southeast Asia

Just in time for a record snow fall, last year I returned to Seoul after a 19-day tour of Cambodia and Vietnam.

Prior to my departure, I decided to watch for Koreans at work and play in those two countries. After all, it was not so long ago when both Korean and international publications reported on the “ugly Korean” who obnoxiously stuck only to themselves, much to the disgust of the locals and the amusement of other international travelers.

Well, 19 days just wasn’t long enough when one has to balance family members’ needs as well as this assignment. But there was no escaping Koreans, it often seemed. Particularly in Cambodia, if one did not see Koreans, it was amazing how often one encountered signs in Hangul - almost as frequently as one may find it in certain parts of Los Angeles.

Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat is, of course, a favorite destination for many Koreans. After spending a couple of days in somewhat-dingy Hanoi, I was pleasantly surprised to find the city to be clean with modern infrastructure in many parts.

But as noted, one was never far from restaurants, night clubs, real estate offices and new condo construction sites catering to Koreans, with signs in Hangul beckoning Korean travelers.

One of the Angkor Wat sites had been largely renovated thanks to Korean contributions. What made the site peculiar was that the explanatory sign’s space was half devoted to Korean language, while other languages - including Cambodian, English and Japanese - competed in smaller fonts for the remaining half. Yet only a small percentage of the sign’s readers were Koreans. Even my Korean wife found it all a bit too strange.

What really struck me, though, was when we visited the various temples of the Angkor district. At least four of our visited temples had paths of at least half a kilometer leading from the parking area to the temple. And along every path one encountered a band of sitting musicians playing traditional music on traditional Cambodian instruments.

The quaintness of such dissolved as one approached the musicians. All the musicians in all the bands were amputees from landmines. Besides busking for donations, they were also selling CDs and DVDs of their music. As we approached, possibly because I was with my Korean wife, the music would suddenly change from whatever Cambodian tune to “Arirang.”

I was impressed on the first occasion. But on the fourth experience, I was almost irritated. To be fair, I would have had the same reaction if the bands had been switching to “Home on the Range.”

Regardless, it is clear that Koreans are generous donors - and/or easy marks. In both Vietnam and Cambodia, souvenir hawkers were adroit in calling out in Korean to my Korean family. While other nationalities had foreign language-speaking guides, all the Korean groups were led by Koreans. Many of the guides only pointed out the obvious.

On the other hand, there was a Korean tour leader, whom I suspect was a university professor, who provided a marvelous, in-depth explanation to his Korean students. I also encountered a bright, enthusiastic young man at Angkor Wat on Christmas morning wearing a “Koica” (the “Korean Peace Corps”) baseball cap, guiding a small group of Koreans.

We stayed at low-cost, often very nice, small hotels catering to international travelers. We encountered travelers from all parts of the world except for one - Korea. We got our first clue why that was so when we encountered a lone Korean traveler in his 50s in Hanoi. He was a very independent soul and found it better to be taking on a personal adventure in Southeast Asia than probably sitting around unemployed in Korea. While we were happy to be paying $28 a night for three people in Vietnam, he pointed out that we were paying too much.

He was finding similar lodgings for $12 to $15. Later, after checking Korean-language travel blogs, we found that savvy Koreans who were willing to risk uncertain hot water and air conditioning were getting by for as little at $6 per night. I suspect more conservative Korean travelers favored hotels that specialized in Korean travelers’ needs and expectations.

To be fair, all the hotels where we stayed included breakfast as part of their pricing - and all offered Western or local food as options. While we sampled local food, we normally started our days with our preferred Western breakfasts. So I don’t fault Korean travelers preferring to start their days with a Korean meal if possible.

So, what may I conclude from cursory, short-term observations of Koreans in Southeast Asia?

First, the Korean economy continues to have a major impact around the world. When I asked local people their impressions of Koreans, I received consistently positive replies and often, statements that they look at Korea as a role model.

Second, Koreans are not nearly the unsophisticated travelers as reported not too many years ago. They are catching on on to how to travel wisely and cheaply. And some are doing serious homework in trying to understand the countries where they are traveling.

Third, Koreans are becoming a truly internationalized group beyond simply being emigrants. They are investing in overseas retirement condos and moving rapidly up the learning curve in becoming cosmopolitan. Perhaps this is partially because many have vigorously studied English in their youth, and in doing so have become more open-minded than prior generations.

In any event, from our observations, many Koreans are replacing the old “ugly Korean” image with modern, international behavior. I could not have been more pleased.

* The author is the president of Soft Landing Consulting and is a Korea business development adviser to Odgers Berndtson (Japan).

by Tom Coyner
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