South Korea had been on my original Asia itinerary, but I took it off due to budget. However, after being in North Korea, I wanted to see the South in order to understand the differences between them. It was always a country that seemed a little out of reach and unknown; a country only talked about in great detail by expats. It remains a country that people do not extensively ‘travel’ in outside the capital of Seoul and the beach town of Busan and that also appealed to me.
The thought of facing periods of isolation and dealing with huge cultural and language barriers due to the lack of tourism infrastructure didn’t bother me – I’m an hardened independent traveller and I like the challenges it brings – and with five weeks to pass through the country, I had time for a few hiccups along the way.
Except after a few days, I realised I wasn’t feeling much for Korea at all – and that rarely happens. I choose to visit countries based on personal passions or historical interest (I’m not a country ticker with no care of the outcome of my visit) and whilst certain parts of a country might not live up to much, my time there usually amounts to fond memories and a desire to return.
But with South Korea, I wasn’t as excited as when I first mapped out a rough route that would take me in a clockwise adventure, starting in Seoul. I adored parts of the capital, but overall, it wasn’t a city that really excited me in the same was as Tokyo or Beijing, or which kept me on my toes like Phnom Penh or Yangon. It lacked a certain buzz that I thrive on in Asian cities.
And as I passed through new towns, I realised that locals had told me things prior to my arrival which were filled with an abundance of pride, but which in reality were nothing more than just another nondescript town, with one or two areas of interest.
My biggest mistake was in visiting Japan first. Japan was incredible and after spending one month there, I was on a huge come down. Korea was ugly and cold in comparison – it wasn’t as vibrant and mannered as its neighbour. I missed Japan and its madness and its juxtaposed politeness. I lamented the loss of the ordered beauty, the eccentricities, the ever-changing landscape and the fantastic infrastructure. South Korea paled in comparison.
Yet, we are all guilty of comparing and it’s all too easy to dismiss South Korea without looking at its current state in context.
Following the three year Korean War, which began in 1950 when the North invaded the South, the country was to grow into a major economy. After a long period of political instability, General Park Chung-hee’s military takeover in 1961 led to a formation of a new government. To many he was seen as a ruthless dictator, whose rule saw many abuses of human rights, yet the economy under him developed significantly, known as ‘The Miracle on the Han River’.
This term refers to the post-war industrialisation of Korea, which saw immense technological advancement, rapid urbanisation (including the Seoul subway system in use today), booming high standards of living and educational reforms, the hosting of huge sporting events including the 1968 Summer Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as placing the country on global stage with the formation of international companies including Samsung, Hyundai and LG.
Whilst many remain divided in opinion about his time in power, it is evident the country developed significantly, although rapid growth did come at the expense of culture, tradition and beauty.
The people, who at times appear cold and who can brush you away before you’ve barely finished a sentence, have lived through rapid change from the aftermath of war. Not only that, they are a ‘closed’ people – community and family focused and not willing to take you, the stranger, into their circle quickly – so welcoming tourists with open arms is not something that will come naturally.
Tourism isn’t a lifeline, like how it is in say Thailand or Cambodia. South Korea rose from the ashes and became a strong and prosperous nation, albeit at great sacrifice. They are a nation of staunch hard workers; their children study all day (and most of the night); they are serious yet switched on. Korea is Asia’s fourth largest economy, with a high standard of living. THAT is their pride. Essentially, they don’t need tourism to thrive, and therefore the notion of tourism is misunderstood.
With all this in mind, I made it a personal mission to not immediately dismiss South Korea and leave too early. It deserved a chance. I cut my four or five weeks down to three and vowed not to leave a day sooner and in each place I tried to find something positive, picturesque or interesting.
- I grew to love the arty side of Seoul, choosing the funky student-filled Hongdae as my base and enjoying the atmosphere of Itaewon and Gangnam that is best seen when the sun goes down. From huge markets, old villages, historical palaces, entertainment districts and shopping plazas, there was always something new to try to seek out.
- I visited Andong with the purpose of checking out Hahoe Folk Village – one of Korea’s few ‘preserved villages’. While Andong was bland, it’s historical points of interest, reached by various long bus routes, didn’t disappoint.
- A local romanticised Daegu as a place full of old historical buildings and hidden picturesque spots – we sat for an hour marking key highlights on a map – but I was left deflated when I realised it was nothing more than a sprawling city, and that all the ‘historical’ structures, bar one cathedral, had no real ‘wow’ factor.
- Gyeongju was a highlight, boosting huge grassy tombs, temples and gorgeous parkland, surrounded by mountains. Definitely one of the more interesting cities with a lot of ground to cover.
- Busan, with its lively beaches and mountainous terrain, was a refreshing and chilled break from the brash Seoul. I also got to check out Spa Land – one of Korea’s many ‘walk around completely naked’ spas and a rite of passage for any visitor to Korea!
- I had an incredible few days in the small harbor town of Yeosu staying with my expat friend, Heather (who teaches there), taking random bus trips to temples and scenic areas I would have otherwise found hard to come by. I also got to meet her high school students, which was an interesting insight into the new generation of Koreans who work so incredibly hard.
- Jeju Island was, hands down, my most favourite part of Korea – a stunning domestic holiday spot scattered with stunning beaches and a whole host of UNESCO sites including lava caves, a mountain and incredible viewing points.
A key part of enjoying Korea is knowing people who live there. I was lucky to be able to visit expats friends in Seoul and Yeosu and it made a HUGE difference. I lost count of the number of times expats and former expats told me that you can only really enjoy Korea when people can tell you or show you where to go. Many said that outside of working in the country, it wouldn’t be a place where they would choose to travel or encourage others to travel with enthusiasm. Korea doesn’t shout about its beauty, and its ‘must see’ spots can be hard to find. Knowing someone really is key – take advantage of this if you are considering a visit there as they are also the stepping-stone to meeting lots of local people.
Friends, determination, context and an open mind – I made the most of what I had. Overall, Korea didn’t enthrall me. It didn’t touch my heart. It didn’t bestow on me a whole heap of treasured memories of being on the road.
Would I visit again? Yes, but not for a very long time, and only if it was en route to another destination. There’s still parts of the country that I have yet to see, such as the National Parks and smaller towns which will one day be more accessible to travellers, rather than to those living there who take months to uncover it as they call it home.
For now, I am content with letting South Korea go. You can’t love everywhere, after all.