South Korea I believe is the hidden gem of Asia. A gentle country, ‘Land of the Morning Calm’, it enjoys its solitary existence. Whilst not unwelcoming of tourists, you’ll be hard pressed to find detailed tourist information on or in the country. South Korea’s tourist economy is not booming; there are no tours of the country sold by companies. They target their Chinese counterparts over Westerners. Although, everywhere in South Korea, you’ll find plenty of printed English, in train stations, museums and shops – but don’t expect them to speak it!
What I loved about South Korea was the fact it could sustain both a modern, technologically advanced veneer as well as beautiful traditional culture. Seoul is a cityscape of towering, shiny skyscrapers, high-speed rail and a population very much attached to this pseudo-galaxy. A permanent fixture on the horizon is the impressive Namsan Tower that is not unlike our own Telstra Tower. Here, lovers attach padlocks to its fence like in Paris. Bustling modern neighbourhoods include Myeong-dong, where you’ll find bountiful makeup shops such as ‘Etude House’ (my personal favourite) and the ‘Lotte Department Store’. So too, there is Yongsan-dong, where technology lovers will discover a treasure trove of bargains; I myself picked up a Nikon camera lens and Polaroid camera on the cheap!
Dotted around Seoul are wonderful alcoves of traditional South-Korean architecture from the Joseon Dynasty. The Koreans have rebuilt most of the buildings that were destroyed during the Japanese Occupation and it gives the city an old-worldly sense about it. Great examples of this are Gyeongbokgung Palace and Dongdaemun Gate. Amazing museums offering Korea’s tumultuous modern history and very interesting pre-occupation history include the National Museum and the Korean War Memorial.
I stayed in the neighbourhood of Hongdae for a month, a place named after it’s University. It offers suburb houses and a very hipster student hang out. The other two weeks, I was privileged enough to stay in a Jimjilbang (traditional bathhouse) Guest House called Itaewonland for 14,000 won/night. For that price I had a free run of the entire place – all four stories!
If you want to escape the rush of Seoul, high-speed rail and cheap plane tickets can get you to the edges of South Korea. I managed to get to the ‘Hawaii of Korea’, Jeju Island and a small coastal town called Yeosu for the 2012 World Expo. I also made small day ventures to the DMZ (which is as fascinating as it is morbidly tourist obsessed), Bukhansan National Park and the Donggureung Royal Tombs. Here, sprawling bright green hills and mausoleums house the past Kings and Queens of Korea.
The heart of Korea is the kindness and generosity of the people. Many a night were spent at around a Korean BBQ where you paid 8,000 won a person and drank 900 won bottles of Soju. It is enriched by the local proprietors speaking in broken English, telling humorous South Korean stories and feeding us free Doenjang Jjigae (traditional Korean soup), which they insisted was good for the heart! Strangers off the street helped me find my hostel and young girls fixed my dress if it got stuck in my bag.
If you’re looking for somewhere different to travel to next, I urge you to put South Korea somewhere on that list. You can survive on less than 10,000 won a day ($10) and experience a unique place that is little explored and that is what makes it special. But thanks to Psy and Kpop, it won’t stay a hidden gem for long!