Water quality in South Korea is generally fair, though pollution, usually from industrial sources and the discharge of sewage, remains an issue in some rivers and coastal areas. The water supplied to homes is perfectly safe to use for bathing and apparently suitable for drinking, though most expatriates and locals stick to bottled water or install water filtration systems. The water served in restaurants is usually boiled or filtered.
While ads discourage the habit and nonsmoking zones are starting to pop up in places, in general it’s open season for cigarette smokers in South Korea, which views tobacco with a permissiveness not seen in North America for decades. By some estimates close to half of all adult men are smokers. Cigarettes are dirt cheap and readily available everywhere, and a lot of restaurants and nightspots allow people to puff away wherever they like. Of course this leniency is extended only to men—South Koreans still view women smoking as strange, racy even, and while it’s become more common to see girls lighting up on the street, many women will avoid doing so if they’re not in or near a trendy café or nightspot.
The tide is slowly turning. Authorities have banned smoking in government facilities and large office complexes, for example, and the Seoul government plans to progressively roll out a smoking ban to all the city’s restaurants by 2015. Nonsmoking bars have also emerged in areas like Seoul’s cosmopolitan Itaewon district. However, for the time being, in many venues (bars in particular) nonsmokers have little choice but to grimace and bear it. Smokers, on the other hand, will have found their own little slice of heaven.
Sanitary conditions are generally quite good, and it’s rare these days to come across a home or building in South Korea without access to modern plumbing, though in some areas squat-style toilets are still the norm. Restaurants, especially busy ones, are kept pretty spotless, and cases of food poisoning or contamination are fairly uncommon. Some caution needs to be exercised with street food, especially seafood, which is sometimes left sitting around without proper heating or refrigeration. Frequenting popular stalls where there’s a high food turnover is the easiest way to avoid problems.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in South Korea.