I think I like South Korea a bit too much. This place has charmed the brain out of me! People, culture, food, shopping, city life, nature, weather… Top score! Just letting yourself drift through the cities with a bus is the best way of experiencing the whole Korean beauty. What I love about the buses in South Korea is that you can open the windows. There is just something so peaceful about leaning your head out and feeling the fresh sensations on your skin. The smell, the sound, the taste, the view; they all become one single colourful enjoyment in your face. The mix of traditional and modern is surprisingly harmonious, as it reflects the true Korean spirit. Beside a temple there will be a high tech gaming centre, and on the corner there is a shop where you can get your designer dog in combination with a seafood dinner based on a 300-year-old recipe. Even the churches are blending into the busy Korean streets with a cross dipped in colour-changing, flashy lights; you expect to see an ‘open’ sign for a noodle shop, but rather it is a disco-party-open-for-Christianity-sign.
It is extremely hard to find bins, however, the streets are so clean and tidy that it scares you to put your rubbish in your pocket. I have really missed this organised and sustainable social cooperation. Traffic rules is another one… God, I have missed those shiny and reliable traffic lights! Here in South Korea, when an idiot breaks the rule people go “WAAAH, shame on you!”. People are genuine, they are polite and curious about you. The fact that we do not speak the same language doesn’t stop them from having a friendly conversation with you. I had just one of those conversations when I was trying to explain that I did not want the milk froth in my coffee too hot… Ha! A lot of laughter, definitely entertaining theatrical burning movements, and more laughter from both sides ended in me making the milk myself. What can I say, I like my coffee how I like it. The only two things I find hard adapting to are their need of jumping queues and always having to rub against you on the street. I like my own space, and I do prefer ensuring my seat on the bus when I have patiently been waiting for it. The annoying thing is that it is so bloody hard to get mad at them! With their adorable smiles and their humble greetings, you just have to let them do their thing. The other day, two girls pushed their way in front of me. We had been waiting in a cable car queue for 30 min, so their cheekiness was not welcome. I could feel my hair boiling on the top of my head. However, with a kick from Toby, I managed to shut up. When the doors on the cable car opened the two girls jumped straight to the best view area of the cable car, and then they did something I did not expect. Both grabbed my arm and pushed me into the best seat. My hair was cooling off and all three of us had a lovely nonverbal conversation about the beautiful view.
Now, let’s get to the juicy part! My 2 weeks in South Korea was a surprisingly shining highlight on our big backpacking trip. I didn’t really know what to expect when I got here. However, even though we didn’t see the whole country I do feel like I have managed to see enough Korean jewels to define this country as a great place. Therefore, I’m now ready to share these with you!
Short & Sweet Summary
You can easily spend a whole week in Seoul! One thing I have to make clear is that Seoul is not cheap. However, it is possible to not burn a hole in your wallet. For example public; transportation is very affordable, and as soon as you get the grip of having the exact amount in coins per bus journey it is also very easy to get around. Food vice; it is relatively cheap eating unhealthy street food (sorry, diet lovers), though, coffee and more healthier restaurant options were more expensive than London prices. Plus, one thing you must keep in mind when it comes to coffee: it’s extremely hard to find GOOD coffee for less than 6 USD. Speaking of cafes; cat cafes are a must! Read more about it in my previous blog post.
Next on your ‘to do list’ of getting the feel for Korean culture is to sleep over at a Jjimjibang. This is a building meant for total relaxation and mental cleansing. A 24-hour spa house, where you can just embrace an indulgent night. Yes, you can actually sleep here. You do whatever you want; fall asleep in 50 different saunas, dig yourself down into warm sand, soak your body into 50 different baths, shower and scrub all negativity away, read a book, get a massage, or just meditate inside an ice room. The choice is yours. This is definitely a popular activity among the locals, and a night here is also very affordable. I’ll be describing the whole Jjimjibang ritual in more detail under activities for Busan underneath.
And then you… EAT!
In general; Seoul is a really cool city
I’m talking literally one single step into North Korea. To be more specific; you get to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This is something you would have to arrange a few days in advance within Seoul. They will need passport information and there are only specific days this tour can be arranged on, so do your homework. You will also have to bring your passport on the actual tour day. A good starting point is to check out this page. The DMZ is supposed to be one of the most dangerous places on earth (and many argue it is THE MOST dangerous place). Visiting the DMZ was a strange experience. Everything was so over-controlled and so uncomfortable. I don’t understand how this has become a tourist attraction. Other than the fact that you can cross North Korea off your bucket list, I don’t know if I would actually recommend this to anyone. The whole thing reminded me of an ugly and bloody sibling fight. I don’t understand it, but I don’t think many people do either. Just to give you a heads up on the ‘do not’ list:
Over to something a bit more pleasant: This national park was such a beautiful place! You can see more photos in my previous blog post. It was a fresh autumn breath to witness South Korea’s most beautiful season. Make sure you go here around October! The colours are magnificent and decorate the mountains perfectly. I think I have bombarded my social media accounts with photos from this park a bit too much. What was really nice about this place was that you could easily do a day trip from Seoul, so it took about 3 hours on the bus, one way.
After spending quite a lot of time in Seoul we had to move on. This island trip was very much spontaneous. We basically spent our time in Seoul asking locals what should be next on our trip around South Korea, and EVERYONE said the Jeju island. Koreans seem to be extremely proud of this island, however, something tells me that this place is better to visit during late summer or spring. With an aggressive chilly ocean breeze, and none-existing mountain walls to stop the wind from blowing you over, it is rather a refreshing experience. Even for a well-prepared Norwegian, this place made my teeth play drums.
Despite the fact that we experienced Jeju during the autumn it was still worth it. What Jeju is maybe most famous for is its breath-taking UNESCO world heritage site, the Sunrise Peak. I can imagine that flying over this peak would be such an unbelievable view.
A maybe less traditional, though, still very much famous attraction is Jeju’s Loveland. Loveland is a sexpark… Hah! This was actually hilarious! There are so many photos I cannot (unfortunately) post here for obvious reasons.
Our last stop was Busan. This is the second largest city in South Korea, after Seoul. Busan was also the second place we tried out the super Korean sauna experience. For someone who has never been to a Jjimjibang it can be a bit overwhelming. Just a bit… As soon as I entered the doors I must have looked completely lost, which was also the case. The Jjimjibang is divided into one bathing area for women and one for men, which then ends in a common room with all the saunas and resting areas. You get allocated a key to put away your shoes, and you also get two towels and some kind of loose clothing. In the gender divided areas clothes should be removed and locked away. I was the only non-Korean-looking woman at this place, and as I said, I was completely lost. Then, sent from heaven, a English speaking woman approached me, “Girl, you need help?”. Mhmm… “Is it that obvious?”. I guess it was. However, after a lightening course in how to do the Jjimjibang the right way I was ready to take on the Korean spirit. Being a super pale, two heads taller, and redheaded girl I do differ from the Korean stereo-looks, so I was definitely getting a lot more attention than wanted. I felt like a freak! After soaking my body in literally a bloodbath (well, had the colour of it at least), a pine-tree-smelling bath, and wearying temperature baths I was ready to move on from the spot light. Then you go back to the changing rooms and get your cosy spa outfit on. I met Toby in the common area and we jumped from one type of sauna to another one. Falling asleep on Toby’s shoulder, with our feet dipped into the outside pool, was a perfect ending to my Jjimjibang fairytale. Despite the fact that this Jjimjibang, Spaland, is not an overnight type I can highly recommend it if you do stop by Busan. Spaland is actually supposed to be the best Jjimjibang in the whole of South Korea.
By now you need some action, right? Why not fill up your adrenalin pump with some scary night wandering? The Haedong Yonggung Temple is by the seaside, and is normally packed with people during daytime. Toby and I decided that we were going to celebrate a late Halloween by sneaking into this temple area. The temples will of course be closed during nighttime, but this is when the ocean and magical atmosphere wake up. The best thing about this is that you get in free of charge and you also get the whole park for yourself, YEAH! We played with my camera’s funky long shutter speed way too long, but, I think we manage to capture some great stuff.
Just to add on the cat indulgence from Seoul you will of course have to visit the fish market. This is probably one of the best fish markets in the world. Fresher and more diverse is hard to find. Even for people who do not like the fishiness, photographing wise it is still a great experience.
… Our food was killed in front of our eyes
Whenever you go to a new place I believe the best way of getting to know this place is to just walk. By walking around you have time to see what you normally can’t capture otherwise. I have this admiration for South Korea I can’t explain. My camera does a good job in freezing fractions of all the unique moments, but some things will never be possible to recreate through photography or words…
We were now done with one more country for our ‘Big Trip’. It’s sad, it’s so sad. Stay tuned because JAPAN IS NEXT!
Quote Of The Day:
“In South Korea, they believe that when you turn 60, you’ve become a baby again and the rest of your life should be totally about joy and happiness, and people should leave you alone, and I just think that that’s the height of intelligence.”
– Alice Walker