SINGAPORE - Peek into any of the swish plastic surgery clinics that line the streets of Gangnam, Seoul, and you'll find that it's packed with women waiting for their turn. And the surprising fact is, many of them are not Korean.
These days, you'll find a medley of nationalities at Seoul's beauty belt, from busloads of Chinese tourists to solo Europeans travellers looking for a cheaper deal on Botox.
Ever since the South Korean government encouraged the growth of medical tourism (which includes cosmetic surgery) in 2009, the country has seen a sharp rise in medical tourists.
Singapore is part of this wave, with the number of Singaporean medical tourists doubling from 239 in 2010 to 468 in 2011, according to the Korean Tourism Organization.
In March this year, Sam Joo Healthcare, a tour agency that specialises in nip-tuck holidays to South Korea, opened an office in Singapore - a sign that such vacations are here to stay.
I went to Seoul, and found out that South Korea's nip-tuck scene offers more than just affordable nose jobs. Here, ther things you never knew about the industry:
1. You can get a new face in three hours
When Sofie Chandra, 30, flew to Seoul for a double eyelid surgery this January, she didn't expect to get a new look in an afternoon.
The Singaporean business development manager checked into a hospital at 2am and had five operations done in three hours, including removing her eyebags, creating a crease in her lids and "cutting" the muscles above her eyes to "open up" her peepers - she even had a complimentary Botox session thrown into her $5,000 package.
"I didn't think it would be so quick. After the anaesthesia wore off, I was free to leave the hospital - just in time for dinner," she said.
Her doctor also recommended a hospital in Singapore where she could go to remove the post-op stitches a week later.
Sofie spent the next few days sightseeing in Seoul, and wasn't shy about appearing in public with her stitches.
"When I took off my sunglasses on the streets, some Korean girls came up to me and asked who my doctor was. They said my stitches looked well done!"
Quick surgeries like Sofie's are the norm in South Korea. Julia Goe, a coordinator for English-speaking patients at Arumdaun Nara Dermatology & Plastic Surgery clinic, says that her clinic's doctors work around the tight schedules of out-of-town visitors.
"We always try to do our surgeries within the day for foreign clients," she said. The most extreme makeover she has seen? A Russian lady in her 50s who had a liposuction, rhinoplasty, face lift and brow lift - all done on the same day.
To speed things up, doctors conduct e-mail consultations before the operations. Patients will send photos of themselves and state what they want done. The doctors will then give a quotation.
After a simple surgery such as a double eyelid operation or a nose job, patients typically spend four to five days recovering, says Nicholas Tse, the general manager of the JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul hotel.
Chances are, you'll be in and out of Seoul within a week. That's quick enough to lend credence to the popular cover story that foreign patients tell friends and family back home - that they're in Seoul for a vacation.
2. A Big Bang concert and a boob job?
Don't think that patients who've undergone some nip and tuck stay holed up in their hotels, nursing their scars.
Many venture out (think trawling Dongdaemun Market for fashion buys or taking in the picturesque sights on Jeju Island) while recovering from surgeries, all arranged by medical tour agencies.
These specialised tour agencies - check out the list on the Korean Tourism Organization's website (www.visitkorea.or.kr) - arrange trips to South Korea for healthcare services, be it for lasik or liposuction.
These agencies settle your airfare accommodation and doctor's appointment, and can even arrange sightseeing tours.
Want to plan a trip to Busan? Score tickets to a Big Bang concert? All you have to do is ask.
Some offer tour packages, while others will plan a customised itinerary for you.
Diane Kim, assistant manager of to Hyundai Medis, a medical tour agency, says that her agency's "friendship tours" are particularly popular with Japanese women as a graduation trip or hen party.
On such a tour, you and your BFFs can go for massages as well as a tour of the filming sites of popular Korean dramas before getting Botox and fillers.
Hyundai Medis also has packages that cater to brides-to-be who want to look picture-perfect for their big day.
For instance, a basic 4D3N itinery (6,096,000 Korean won or S$7,082) includes brightening skin treatments and a pre-wedding photo shoot.
For a negotiable fee, you can swop the skin treatments for light surgical procedures such as double-eyelid surgery, and get a small wedding ceremony and honeymoon on Jeju Island (the latter is apparently a hit with young Chinese couples who long for a K-drama-worthy wedding).
James Kang, CEO of the newly established Sam Joo Healthcare isn't fazed when I ask if he can arrange for add-ons like personal shoppers in Seoul.
He says it's possible to link customers with reputable companies in South Korea that offer such services for a "reasonable price".
3. Posh hotel, cheaper nose job
Across Seoul, luxury hotels are partnering cosmetic surgery clinics to offer medical tourists sweet deals.
"When a customer calls or e-mails the hotel to make a room booking, we'll nominate the hospital partners we have. We tend to work with just two or three," reveals Nicholas.
Guests at the Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Times Square hotel, for instance, can enjoy 10 to 15 per cent off treatments at Beseto Plastic Surgery Clinic, a two-minute walk away - the clinic is located in a shopping mall that's connected to the hotel via a lift.
There are also other perks that come with staying in a four or five-star hotel.
Staff at these hotels will likely accede to special requests.
"Most of the requests we receive are related to food. Guests usually don't want to go out to eat when they're recovering from surgery," said Phimphicha Nuchpakdee, sales and marketing director of Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Times Square.
Some hotels may even take into account your dietary needs after surgery - for instance, if your doctor has instructed you to eat more iron-replenishing foods to replace lost blood - and get their chefs to prepare suitable meals.
Then there's the all-important privacy. Nicholas has shielded post-op guests from stares by smuggling them into the hotel via deserted lifts at the loading bay area or secret elevators at the back of the hotel, which bypass the crowded lobby.
He says that hotels can even section out an area of their executive lounge for recovering guests to read and surf the Internet if they're sick or staying in their rooms.
"We're like a one-stop shop," he quips.
4. Newer and cheaper beauty hubs
For years, the ritzy neighbourhood of Gangnam has been known as South Korea's "Beauty Belt", with hundreds of plastic surgery clinics lining the streets.
But for those in the know, Gangnam is no longer the only place to go when you want to get work done.
In the nearby province of Gyeonggi-do, beauty hubs are sprouting up. The city of Goyang, for instance, is about a 15-minute drive from Seoul and boasts hospitals that offer the same treatments as those in Gangnam for about 20 per cent cheaper.
"Goyang's often referred to as the bedtime of Seoul. It's quieter here. People who don't like the city now have an alternative," said Kim Chinsol, who works at the strategy office of Goyang City.
The rise of suburban beauty hubs may be why two-year-old beauty complex Skin Anniversary Beauty Town decided to set up shop in Paju, a city in Gyeonggi-do.
The massive 15,000-sq-m building has 400 treatment beds and is a popular destination on the nip-tuck circuit.
Though it doesn't offer surgical procedures, busloads of tourists head there after their surgeries for gentle facials and body massages.
"We've had about 50 Singaporean customers this year," said Ian Shin, sales and marketing director of Skin Anniversary Beauty Town.
On the first floor of the complex, there's even a makeup store to complete your transformation.
Staff will recommend cosmetics to mask scars and teach you how to emulate the makeup styles of halyu celebrities like Kim Tae Hee and members of girl group Kara.
For some, this is the last stop to freshen up before heading to Incheon Airport (just 30 minutes away), all ready to fly home and debut a new face.
|Get a copy of the March 2014 issue of Her World, Singapore’s No. 1 women’s magazine. Her World is published by SPH Magazines and is available at all newsstands now.|
Check out more stories at Her World online, www.herworld.com