The best way to see a place is through the eyes of the locals. Whenever possible, I avoid hop-on buses and express tours. I like to explore cities by simply walking around and getting lost. But its always best to have a local person who speaks the local language and is familiar with the streets show you around.
So how do you go about finding such a person in another country? South Korea Tourism has a Goodwill Guide program that connects travelers with volunteer tour guides. The guides are registered volunteers, who offer their services free of charge. These are retired folks, stay at at home moms, or professionals who just want to show off their city and meet other people. They attend festivals and events together with visitors, assist with tour planning, and participate in cultural exchanges.
Through the Goodwill Guide program, I met Mr Gook Gun Lee, a retired IRS officer in Seoul. He met me at Seoul Station and brought me maps and brochures about the city. We agreed to go for a day trip outside Seoul, to ChunCheon, also known as romantic city by the lake.
Since I didn’t speak any Korean, Mr Lee was very helpful in navigating the way as he bought train tickets, asked for directions and found places to visit. Mr Lee had not been to ChunCheon in a long time himself, so we explored the city together, visiting the lake, dam, river and shops.
He took me to a famous chicken restaurant for lunch. The speciality here was a spicy stir-fry that was cooked on a hot stone right in front of you. Sure enough, I would have never found the place on my own, let alone figured out the real cuisine of this area!
My Goodwill Guide, Mr Lee made my trip to South Korea even more memorable. He escorted me to a city where few tourists go, showed me where the locals eat, and ensured I did not get lost any part of the way.
Visitors must submit an application through Visit Korea website and request for a guide with specific dates and cities of interest. Depending on availability, the guides will contact you and introduce themselves. Although the serves of the volunteers are free, you are expected to pay for their admission tickets, food, transportation, accommodation if traveling to other cities, etc.