Cherishing 5,000 years of history and home to nine UNESCO Heritage Sites, South Korea celebrates a fascinating culture of music, dance and exquisite costumes. It features friendly people and the cutest children on the planet. It offers a delicious, healthy and varied cuisine, and is proud of an infrastructure that enables visitors and locals alike to travel and explore easily.
Getting a head start on hospitality, tourism information is displayed on aircraft screens, and tourist help/translation services are only a phone call away. Long on the itinerary of adventurous back-packers from Australasia and Europe and high-rollers from Japan, South Korea now welcomes visitors from around the world from luxury hotels to hiking trips. With a can-do attitude, it has hosted both the Olympic Games and a World Cup.
South Korea is a small land, rich in wonders, its capital, Seoul. The Korean National Tourism Organization publishes a helpful, concise and comprehensive Korea Travel Guide which answers every question possible. The guide isolates each of Seoul's eight far-ranging subway lines, indicates which stop has a worthwhile tourist attraction and provides details such as the correct station exit to use and the distance to the attraction. You may locate everything from ancient tombs to fashion markets, from 'cherry blossom trails' to the World Cup stadium.
Another booklet lists Cultural Festivals and offers an excellent tourist map of the country that outlines the many national parks, places of interest and locations of the festivals as well as a fine tourist map of Seoul that makes finding your way around this city and visiting attractions a piece of cake. It includes four well-designed walking tours that take in many of the city's highlights. Koreans seem genuinely thrilled with visitors and if hesitant about travelling independently in Asia, it's is a great place to start.
I discovered that Seoul lives up to its reputation as a fast-paced, traffic-clogged city of soaring skyscrapers, but amidst the noise and the bustle are ancient parks and traditional gardens with stone bridges and shimmering ponds ...quiet, solemn sites for centuries-old palaces, temples, villas and pagodas, seemingly far removed from the modern world.
Prime among these is the 78-acre Changdeokgung Palace complex, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, that comprises a vast complex of palaces, shrines, halls, pavilions, gates, gardens and parkland lying steps away from modern hotels and subway stations. Some trees are 300 years old. Construction of buildings commenced in 1405 and after fires, revolts, invasions and restorations, the palace remained home to royalty and their entourage well into the last century. Wear comfortable shoes. There lots of walking. You might rest your feet as I did in one of the trendy little tea houses or restaurants on nearby Insadong, a street famous for such eateries as well as for its antique shops, gift stores and art galleries, popular with upscale locals and tourists alike. After a cup of tea or delicious meal, you are ready to explore again. This street and its tempting side alleys is great for shopping, products cleverly incorporating Korean ancient craft traditions with modern sensibilities.
The Korean Folk Village on the outskirts of town was a wonderful outing that entertains and instructs and provides wonderful photographs. Those familiar with living museums such as Upper Canada Village or Virginia's Williamsburg, will recognize a similar site here. As well 260 traditional houses and farms, the village contains costumed guides and 20 workshops displaying cultural crafts such as pottery, basketry, fan-making, musical instruments, embroidery and more.
One charming touch was the sight of a female scarecrow lording it over a vegetable patch, dressed in a beautiful traditional Korean dress! And then there are the costumed performances ... have your cameras ready. The site contains a selection of restaurants serving authentic Korean food where menus are translated into honest
English. There was "Broth to chase a hangover," something to look forward to if you party too hard on Insadong Street!
A visit to Korea House in Seoul, three minutes' walk from the Chungmuro station, beneath Namsan Park hill where the Seoul Tower stands, is a pleasure. Really a collection of houses, it was once the private residence of a member of the royal family. It became the official office for the chief of political affairs during the Japanese occupation and thereafter a guest hall for Korean Government VIP's and their overseas guests, an attractive, traditional group of houses that comprise a theatre featuring cultural performances, a store with beautiful crafts and a delightful restaurant offering traditional 'royal court' food for lunch and dinner.
Accommodations in Seoul vary, with many modern, large international hotels in mixed price ranges to choose from. As most of the old city has been bulldozed in the name of progress, there are few charming, older places to stay. Budget books list some guest houses or yogwan, and I checked a couple. While the welcome was warm and genuine, these properties were more suitable to the room-sharing, back-packing crowd. At the other end of the spectrum, if pockets are deep, SamcheongGak, a cultural complex offers learning experiences, performances, tea ceremonies, music, an elegant restaurant and three traditional houses providing accommodation for visitors, located in a pristine natural setting minutes from downtown Seoul.
SamcheongGak is part of the 'cultural corridor' that includes the Gyeongbokgung palace complex, the National Folk Museum, the traditional Korean preservation district of Gahoe-dong and Insadong Street. SamcheongGak's proximity to the home of Korea's president, the Blue House, insures that the wooded forest surrounding the complex remains untouched. In fact, on the lovely restaurant terrace at SamcheongGak, you sit above the tree canopy and cannot believe that you are so close to the city.
The recreated buildings here (the name literally means "Three Purity Palace" - Jade Purity, Noble Purity, and Great Purity) are home to arts groups dedicated to sharing the traditions of Korea with not only their country's citizens, but also the world. Here, visitors enjoy performances of highly respected Korean dancers, musicians and vocalists, many held out of doors on warm summer evenings or take time to delve more deeply into the heart of Korean tradition with hands-on learning experiences in such subjects as the unique tea ceremony, pottery making, embroidery or dance.
With prices from C$225 per night, some accommodation is pricey, but these suites offer traditional Korean rooms with a large mattress on the floor and an adjoining room with a large western-style bed; thus, if travelling with friends, this memorable site becomes a bargain, especially when you factor in the large Korean breakfast (fish, eggs, kimchi, rice, fruit and more) delivered to your door. Full Korean feasts in the restaurant are around C$65 pp. A stay will make your visit to Seoul an unforgettable experience.
If taking in taxi in Seoul, choose one clearly marked "Kind Call" or "KT Powertel", both of which come equipped with simultaneous interpretation services. On this theme, visitors who require assistance in English need only insert a Won 50 coin and dial the Korea Travel Phone at 1330 to find help anywhere in the country. This number connects the user with the nearest tourist information centre where representatives can help with directions, transportation assistance or translation services. The service is available 24 hours a day.
It's easy to get around Seoul on the subway which is temperature controlled, clean and safe. It is mainly served by escalators, but be prepared for stairs at some stations. The city limit fare is Won 700 (about 77¢); buy tickets from the counter or from a machine if you have coins; insert your ticket in the gate which will spit it out for you to retain as it will be checked at your destination. And for tourists there's also a Yellow Bus (Won 200) serving favourite stops every few minutes.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/