As one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’, South Korea’s economy has been booming for decades, making it one of the most prosperous countries in Asia. But whilst its economy continues to go from strength to strength, Korea’s popularity as a tourist destination has evolved at a much slower rate. Thankfully in recent years things have started to change. As Korean food, music and culture permeates around the globe, more and more people are waking up to the charms of this delightfully surprising country.
Travelers to South Korea will invariably know about Seoul and the DMZ, but to visit these two places alone would mean missing out on some truly unforgettable sights and experiences throughout the country. Sometimes when you visit somewhere without preconceived notions you come away with the most treasured memories, and this was certainly the case for me. I would like to share just some of my experiences from a recent trip to the “Land of the Morning Calm”.
I traveled to South Korea in April, the best time of year to visit for one reason, cherry blossoms. Japan may grab all the headlines when it comes to these fleetingly beautiful trees, but I’d argue that the blossoms on show at Maisan Mountain are every bit as spectacular. Located about two hours south of Seoul, Maisan or “Horse Ears” Mountain is a sacred site for Buddhists and is home to about 80 conical stone pagodas. This sight alone is worth the visit, but when the approach is framed by row upon row of cherry blossom trees in full bloom, it becomes truly breathtaking. When the wind kicks up the petals are easily lifted from the branches and rain down upon all that’s below, creating a snow like film on the ground.
The whole experience was enhanced for me by the distinct lack of tourists. Despite it being the height of cherry blossom season, it was easy find secluded areas where I could experience and appreciate the beautiful scenery without bumping into scores of travelers. True, there were numerous Korean families out immersing themselves in the cherry blossom leaves, but to the wider world, it seems that word has yet to get out about this hidden treasure.
Fully intending to stay off the beaten path, I traveled from Maisan to Muju to learn more about the national sport, Taekwondo. In Muju the finishing touches were being put to the brand new Taekwondowon, a stunning university open to people from all over the world who wish to learn and master this complex form of martial arts. The campus is scheduled to open in the coming weeks, but I was fortunate to receive a sneak preview of the state of the art facilities.
After being greeted by Archie, one of the Taekwondo masters who lives on campus, I was put through the paces with a crash course in the basics. Coordination has never been a strong point of mine, something that was only emphasized as my defence was regularly breached by Archie’s simulated right and left smashes to the head, but I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing this art form at such close quarters.
Next it was time to watch the professionals, and in the brand new stadium I was treated to a masterclass in Taekwondo, where the agility and technique of the performers left me spellbound. Black belts leapt through the air, smashing wooden blocks with their bare hands and feet. It was a show that illustrated just how technical this form of martial arts really is, and how dedicated these youngsters are to achieving perfection. After my less than successful attempt to grasp the fundamentals, I was more than happy to simply be a spectator and witness this impeccably synchronized demonstration.
After the performance I had the privilege of sharing lunch with the students in the Taekwondowon restaurant. The whole experience is one that will live long in the memory, and something that I would highly recommend to anyone who chooses to visit this wonderful nation.
I cannot write about Korea without taking the opportunity to praise the food. On my last day in Seoul, my guide Adela took me to Gwangjang Market to educate me in traditional Korean cuisine. This is no market for tourists, but is a must for any foodie who is planning on spending time in Seoul. Korea is of course famous for kimchi, and there are countless varieties of fermented vegetables on sale in Gwangjang. The specialty of Gwangjang is Pajeon, which is a Korean pancake made with a batter mix and filled with any number of fillings, including seafood, pork, and of course kimchi.
After surveying the food stands in the market we retired to one of the numerous humble restaurants, where we dined on Pajeon and kimchi, all prepared with the freshest ingredients available. Every mouthful was so flavorful, and it’s easy to see why this cuisine is becoming so popular in the western world.
A recurring theme throughout my time in Korea was the hospitality of the people. Everywhere I went local people were enthralled to see western tourists, and delighted in showing me the best of everything the country has to offer. The numerous daily flights from USA to Seoul with Korean Air and Asiana makes the country a very popular transit hub, but I would impress upon all to treat Korea as a destination in its own right, and spend time exploring this exciting, surprising and friendly ‘Asian Tiger’.