Via my first ever epic run through an airport in Hong Kong, complete with a heated exchange with a massively unhelpful security attendant, I arrived in Seoul on May 21st. South Korea is relatively small, you can take a train from end to end and it will only take five hours, so I reasoned that in a week, I could get round three places and gain a decent feel for this mystical country.
Truth be told, in some places it wasn’t quite as mystical as I was hoping. Seoul is brilliant for sightseeing. The metro system could not be more straightforward, with everything in English. In fact, the level of idiocy required to get lost would be quite high, given the multiple instructions and reminders that there are regarding changing lines and where to go. South Korea is known as the global leader of high tech and this is prevalent at the Samsung Museum of Modern Art and even more so at the outstanding War Memorial Museum. With limited time however I tried to walk around as much as possible. The famed neighbourhood of Gangnam is indeed home of the fashionistas, young ones at that, and multiple classy bars (and some not so classy ones), restaurants, and the main nightlife for the teenage population of the city. The mid to late twenties and older crowd head to Itaewon, the former red light district. Here, one could be in London or New York such is the dominance of English on menus, and the western style of the bars and the music being played. Gangnam certainly maintains more authenticity.
If it was authenticity that I was after, I found it on day two on the Shaminist Hillside Walking Tour suggested by Lonely Planet. Live ceremonies were taking place in tiny hillside temple and many other picnics and gatherings were being held around the mountain. The sounds of traditional music echoed around as one went higher. Back in the city, The Secret Garden (accessed only by guided tours) is well worth it for a slice of far eastern horticultural attention to detail, comprising stunningly well kept lakes, gazebos, pagodas, pine trees, gardens and temples.
Gyeongju was my favourite place in South Korea. It is reached from Seoul in just under three hours via the excellent train system that is bettered only by Japan’s bullet trains. Be warned that this is a relatively small town, and the signage in English is limited. Similarly the possibility of a local not working in tourism speaking any more than a very basic level of it is very small. Gyeongju is famed as being an open air museum. There is a perfect loop that can be done in an afternoon comprising tombs, a lake, gardens, a museum and a forest. This is all very walkable.
On day two here, I took a walk in the clean crisp air of a sunday morning up Mt Namsan. The council lays on a free english speaking guided tour every Sunday so we received some information on the various tombs, stones, carvings, and buddha statues that adourn the hiking route that goes through pine trees before reaching a gentle summit of 400m. Very pleasant. Hiking is a serious business in South Korea so we certainly weren’t alone, as the main route was crowded with people in their multi-luminous outfits, it was quite a spectacle.
Finally, I thought that I should try of and fit in one more place and chose Busan, as South Korea’s premier beach resort. This started inauspiciously as the hostel manager told me I couldn’t check in or indeed use their toilet. However, putting this ridiculousness aside, I set out to find Beomeosa, Busan’s most notable sight. It is a trek to get to but is well worth a visit. It is a complex of multiple temples and relgious buildings, as well as a pathway of statues, and a wisteria grove.
The beach possibly would have been quite nice, were it not for the building in progress of multiple sand sculptures which meant that it was dominated by construction equipment. Similarly the seafront is a little over dominated by chain hotels and could have been more tastefully developed. That said, the downtown nightlife is plentiful and bustling, even on a Monday night when I visited.
My overall thoughts on South Korea are that it is very traveller friendly, not as expensive as you might think, and easy to get around. However, unlike Japan, it has lost a level of authenticity and is, in my view, overly westernised in places, especially certain areas of Seoul. That said, I was only there a week so couldn’t delve too deeply but would say that it is a place where the more off the beaten track you get, the more rewarding and mystical it will be.