When I told my colleagues and family that I was going to Korea for almost a month, the declaration was usually followed up the question ‘North or South?’.
Granted, I hadn’t put Korea on my traveller’s bucket list myself, having opted instead for the more well-known Far East Asia destinations of Japan and China. It may not be your average holiday destination given it is a few thousand miles away from the UK, however, after two flights and over 17 hours of travelling, I found myself in Seoul. The first thought that occurred to me upon landing at Incheon Airport was that none of the building signs were in a Latin alphabet (thus far I always found a language I could read whilst abroad), but were in a very much unknown script made up of circles and lines; Hangul. I’ll admit, I panicked, and proceeded to immediately download every free Korean language app available on android. Fast forward 3 and a half weeks later and I can safely say my fears of staying amongst a people and language I was completely unfamiliar with were unfounded, and this is why:
The history is rich and colourful
The Joseon Dynasty were the longest actively ruling royal family in recorded history, having ruled the lands of Korea from the 14th Century to end of the 19th. King Sejong the Great is noted in Korean history for having transformed reading and writing by moving away from Chinese characters and introducing Hangul, a phonetic alphabet which allows those learning Korean to accurately identify and pronounce letters after only a few hours of study. Many beautiful royal palaces still stand, with the most stunning found in the capital Seoul. They are typically decorated in vibrant jade, red and mustard paint and are surrounded by gardens. Hanok villages are dotted in and around the capital and consist of traditional Joseon-dynasty buildings, and some are even used as the sets for historical Korean dramas. The maintenance of traditional villages along with the palaces and shrines has left a strong mark of the past on present-day Korea, and allows visitors to experience a real taste of life in the Joseon Dynasty.
Many of Korea’s historical sites are UNESCO World heritage protected. Just outside of Seoul is Suwon fortress which was built in the 18th Century in response to Japanese invasions which destroyed many palaces and temples. A 5 metre-high fortress wall runs for over 5km and offers panoramic views of Suwon.
The kindness of the Korean people
For those of you who are familiar with Korean dramas, you may wonder how accurate a depiction they are of the people and their interactions with one another. It’s a plausible assumption to think that dramas are exaggerated; do people really always bow whenever they greet or thank an older person? Are they as pleasant as the dramas suggest?
Korean customs are strongly laced with being respectful to elders and those in a higher position, though in general they are respectful and dignified regardless of age and rank. Bowing forms a key part of this, for example when entering a shop or expressing thanks, and the lower and longer the bow, the more honour you are being shown.
During my stay I found the Korean people- those I bumped into anyway – to be very warm. Ahjummas (literally translates as ‘married woman’ but roughly means Aunt) and Ahjusshis (likewise for older men) went out of their way to be helpful and strike up conversation to make me feel welcome. On one occasion I asked a passer-by where a shop I couldn’t find was; he didn’t know but went away and came back five minutes later to tell me where it was! These random acts of kindness were not isolated incidents; on many occasions I looked lost, but frequently a stranger would come up and offer assistance, even when the language barrier made this difficult. People would often stop on the street as well to welcome us to Seoul and wish us a pleasant stay. The family run accommodation we stayed in – CMS Inn – were exemplary in making us feel welcome and comfortable, even taking me shopping in the market to buy a hanbok (a beautiful traditional outfit worn on occasions), organising our transport at a moment’s notice and providing assistance whenever possible.
All in all Koreans radiate happiness and their pleasant manner and customs are enough to make you feel welcome, even if you are on the other side of the world.
They have a range of delicious traditional and modern food
Kimchi, spicy fermented cabbage, is possibly the most famous. It may not sound very appetizing, but the combination of crunch and spice blends well together, and the bonus is that eating it has many health benefits. Wherever you eat in Korea, Kimchi is usually served as a side dish, often accompanied by dried seaweed and anchovies or sometimes even Octopus tentacles.
Everyone enjoys a good BBQ and in Korea you can enjoy one in the comfortable surroundings of a restaurant. Fresh meat is placed on grills and cooked in front of you on the table, allowing you to enjoy the sight of sizzling meat before wolfing it down. Street food also plays a huge role all over the country, and wherever you walk you are bound to come across a street vendor selling something hot and delicious. Battered shrimp, fish cakes and molten sugar filled pancakes were some of my favourite indulgences.
There is a dessert culture in the cities and shaved ice is popularly enjoyed in the summer, which depending on where you eat can have a range of delicious toppings; fresh mango and cheesecake, chocolate shavings and brownies, and my personal favourite, red bean.
The scenery is breathtaking
There is a mountain in central Seoul – Mount Namsan-on which you find Koreans of all ages, young and old, keeping fit by running, jogging and walking. Namsan tower rests at the top and the panoramic view of Seoul is best seen at night, when the thousands of glittering lights of high rise buildings light up the night sky. The countryside is filled with lush greenery and by and large remains unspoilt, whilst in the far southern city of Busan beachgoers can enjoy miles of golden sand. Unlike many hi-tech cities, Seoul has managed to harmonise the high rise buildings with trees, a 10km stream and parks.
It’s a shopper’s paradise
In fact you don’t even need to be a shopper to enjoy what the numerous markets and shopping malls have to offer. You may be interested in taking advantage of grabbing the latest smartphone, laptop or tablet, or just electronic titbits, in which case the sprawling Yongsan market is your place. Girls, go wild on the enormous range of affordable skin products on offer in shops in markets, malls and on the high street.
Myeongdong, Seoul’s most famous shopping district, has a multitude of skincare shops which offer many freebies. Good quality clothing can be bought almost anywhere as vendors are located on the pavement and even in the tube stations; in fact, Dongdaemun station has an underground shopping mall. Busan-Korea’s second city- is famous for Jagalchi fish market, a sprawling area filled with ahjummas selling anything from fresh octopus to gutted eel. Even if you don’t fancy sampling any of the sea creatures on display, visiting the market is a must; you are bound to see something you don’t recognise!
Experiencing the culture and food that makes Korea unique from any other country in Asia has taught me a valuable lesson; never underestimate how much you can learn by travelling, how much shopping you can do and how much delicious food you have yet to try!
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