I’d never thought much about Korea before – it wasn’t featured in many brochures, nobody asked about it – so when the Korean Tourism Office invited me to come and take a look I didn’t hesitate!
Frustratingly I looked for information to learn a little before I left, but what I found was sketchy and most unsatisfactory. So I will tell you what I found, and why I think you should follow me and fall for this amazing country and its wealth of culture and excitement!
Yes – Seoul is modern, vibrant, busy, noisy, trendy, fast, heady and futuristic. Yet if you take a longer look, you will see the beauty of the snowy mountains that the city has snuggled into, the quaint little tiled rooftops with lifted corners hidden between the skyscrapers, and then an unexpected small street off a busy main road takes you to a market of shops, street stalls and incongruously, a Starbucks!
My creature comforts are quite important to me – and I was delighted with my room at the 5 star Lotte Hotel in the centre of Seoul. Crisp white sheets, slippers and a kettle for tea… and from the 27th floor… what a view!
Thus rested I was ready to set off with my typical tourist gear – camera, water, some money and a small packet of tissues – travelling
light! The most famous sight is the UNESCO listed Palace. Pronouncing it is a challenge – Gyeongbokgung, so don’t worry too much about its name – just enjoy! It really is beautiful.
Just let your imaginiation go with your guide as you wander its secret garden and see the various rooms and apartments of the King and his family of the Joseon Dynasty
It’s over 700 years old, but its design is so clever, under floor heating and natural acoustics that needed no microphones for loudspeakers to hear the King loud and clear. I wandered along, listening to our guide telling us stories of the Joseon Dynasty and I was transported to the year 1392 when Korea was a very different place.
Next door to the Palace is the Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum, both fascinating, if you have time. Seoul Tower is also worth a trip to see the view from the top, more enjoyable if you can stay for dinner in the revolving restaurant, 237 metres high!
After this heady introduction to South Korea, it was time to hear more about Korea’s more recent history – and I was curious! The DMZ is about 2 hours north of Seoul. It stands for Demilitarised Zone – but in fact it’s the most militarised border in the world. Situated at the 38th Parallel it marks the divide between North and South Korea. The stark, barbed wire fences and the many observation posts gives an eerie feeling of thankfulness to be on the ‘right’ side of the fence – but also a sense of despair for the people on the other side of the fence. The whole excursion was so interesting, the story of the war and separation unfolding throughout and then a visit into the 3rd infiltration tunnel. There are 4 tunnels already discovered – this one is just over a mile long and 240ft below ground. No steps for us – we rode a funicular train down into its depths.
We also went to see Dorasan Station here – modern, new and shiny – the station and railway were built in readiness for reunification – the day when North and South are reunited – but there are no trains on the departure board. The station stands as a beacon of hope that one day, that day, reunification will happen. It felt surreal.
Lightening the mood – we sped away on the bullet train to South Korea’s second largest city Busan.
Seoul station is ultra modern, designed like an airport and the train was just as impressive. A journey of just over 2 hours, smooth and comfortable – and a buffet trolley filled with soft drinks and snacks passing your seat every 30 minutes.
Busan is the number one trading port – cargo ships, cranes, and containers – international and important. I came here to see the UN cemetery – the only one in the world. South Koreans never fail to thank you and remember all the men from different countries who fought and fell to preserve the democracy and freedom that they enjoy today.
Why are such places so quiet, so peaceful and so beautiful – even in close proximity to the city noise – you are able to quietly stroll and contemplate.
At night the city comes to life – bright lights and live jazz – we had a great evening at Bay 101 – good food, cold beer and time to relax and cheer up! Not that we needed too much encouragement!
But we did have time to venture to see the country near Busan and we chose to visit Bulguksa Temple – a marvellous collection of temples and pagodas – but the beauty that I enjoyed most was the landscape and gardens – it was autumnal and the colours were dazzling in the sunshine – gold, yellow, red and brown – it was perfect to take some time out, find a seat and drink in the colours!
Another highlight was a visit to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site the story of the fort and it’s purpose is intricate and complicated, but simplified, it was built as a tomb for the Crown Prince Sado who was murdered by being locked in a small rice box until he died of starvation. The fortress also served a second purpose and that was, of course, defence. Today, it is an attraction for family days out, with picnics and children running and playing along its parapets and enjoying the lookout at each of the four gates.
My trip was the tip of the iceberg – Korea has so many more treasures to show me – another time.
For now, I am still remembering little moments that bubble up – the people I met, the warm welcomes, the market ladies offering free samples, the children wanting to pose for our pictures…
Why not plan your next holiday to somewhere like South Korea? It’s thought provoking and exciting – a place to touch you, change you and stay with you, long after you’ve left