My trip to Korea came up as an extra since I was rushing through on my way to Fiji for work. Due to lack of time I had to plan a quick trip of just one week. After my research through the Lonely Planet guidebook, I focused on the Seoul area (the capital of South Korea from the divided Korean peninsula). Of course a trip here wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the DMZ zone, the closest someone can get to North Korea. The Yin and Yang, the blue and red circle at the heart of the South Korean flag, symbolizes the divided Korean peninsula but also the fluid mix of ancient and modern aspects of this country.
For the vast majority of visitors, a trip to this part of the world means spending time in South Korea. Unfairly overshadowed by its bad-boy neighbor, South Korea doesn’t stand out as a tourist destination.
The busy capital Seoul is the powerhouse of Asia’s third largest economy. Calm is likely the last thing you’ll feel. The city is round the clock on the move. In this madness I chose to meet with Rochelle.
Seoul is evolving from a concrete-and-steel economic powerhouse into a softer-edged 21st-century urban ideal of parks, culture and design. From the disinterring and landscaping of the central Cheong-gye stream to upgrading of the Han River parks comes as a surprise to the eyes of the unaware tourist. The UNESCO City of Design also offers several contemporary architectural marvels, including the Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park and the giant glass wave of the new City Hall.
Wandering around on this sprawling metropolis of 10.5 million people you’ll sense the powerful pungsu-jiri (feng shui) that has long nurtured and protected this city. Having endured the catastrophe of the Korean War barely 60 years ago, the ‘Miracle on the Han’ has its eye clearly on the future, while history clings tenaciously to many of its corners. You’ll encounter fascinating fragments of the past in World Heritage-listed sites such as Jongmyo shrine, as well as in the alleys winding between the graceful hanok (traditional wooden homes) that cluster in Bukchon.
Whatever you want, at any time of day or night, Seoul can provide. We started with an early morning temple visit which led us to a palace tour, followed by tea sipping in Bukchon. We fueled up with tasty sushi before we headed out for shopping at the buzzing Dongdaemun market and completed the day partying in Itaewon. By the time I looked at my watch (mine because Rochelle had bought one that lasted less than 24 hours) it was dawn again. Public transport in this part of the world is simply excellent, so there’s no excuse for not stretching your travel horizons beyond the Fortress Walls.
Another thing that most visitors can’t hold themselves from is the drawn to the fearsome modern-day barrier: the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, splitting South from North Korea. Daytrips here are a must and nearby is the charming arts and culture village of Heyri (we didn’t have the chance to visit it). To the west, Incheon is a fascinating port where the modern world came flooding into Korea at the end of the 19th century, while to the south is Suwon, home also to impressive World Heritage–listed fortifications.
Seoul is heaven for passionate foodies. Whether tucking into the snacks of commoners or the cuisine of kings, you just can’t lose. A hanjeongsik (multicourse banquet) is a feast as much for the eyes as the tummy, as are the creations of chefs crafting neo-Korean dishes. Equally satisfying is scoffing down piping-hot, crispy hotteok (pancakes with sweet or savoury fillings) on a street corner, or delicious, fresh and fiery crab soup in Noryangjin Fish Market. And don’t get me started on the wonderful universe of teas served in charming teahouses. This is where the soul of Seoul lies.
Get further off the beaten path, something that we didn’t have the chance to do. You could sail to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk will welcome you into their homes and simple seafood cafes. Or sample the serenity of a Buddhist temple retreat where the honk of traffic is replaced by meditation and the rhythmic pre-dawn chants of shaven-headed monks.
If all this sounds a little too peaceful for your traveling tastes, rest assured the Koreans also know how to rock. A countrywide itinerary of lively festivals and events means there’s almost always a celebration of some sort to attend. Friendly Koreans will happily share this and other aspects of their culture with you, regardless of language barriers.
South Korea is a dream destination for the traveler, an engaging, welcoming place where the dazzling benefits of a fully industrialized, high-tech nation are balanced alongside with tradition and the ways of old Asia.