2 May 2012 by David Ward
An 11-hour flight, but a world away from London, South Korea's ultra-modern cities, traditional temples, ancient palaces and gorgeous countryside and coast are waiting to be explored.Wexas Asia specialist Tim Tan takes some time out in South Korea and finds a country bursting with colour, culture and more than the odd contradiction.
Seoul, the capital of Korea and home to ten million people, is a bustling city. On arrival, as you head from the modern airport, through a maze of sprawling factories, past a myriad of high-rise apartment blocks and into the the heart of the ultra-modern city centre, the impression is one of rapid advancement and technological development; Seoul is a city on the move.
The city centre itself is divided into two distinct districts by the meandering Han River, the fourth largest river on the Korean Peninsula. To the south is the city's business district, where multinational companies such as Samsung are based; visit the D'light electronics gallery for a unique opportunity to take a look at some of the latest gadgets before they hit the stores worldwide. The area to the north of the river is older and home to six Royal Palaces. The oldest of these, Gyeongbokgung has some beautifully ornate architecture and extremely colourful palace guards. The juxtaposition of traditional carved wooden buildings and glass-fronted high-rise towers sums up the city perfectly.
To get a real flavour of the city, stroll around Insadong, a semi-pedestrianised area that's home to traditional teashops, small stalls and some great little restaurants; try Samgyetang or Ginseng Chicken Soup, a local speciality consisting of a whole baby chicken boiled in a broth with dates, sticky rice, garlic, pine nuts and Ginseng that's surprisingly tasty.
Running along the 38th parallel and splitting the Korean peninsula in two, the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a must-see. Easily reached from Seoul on a half- or full-day trip, the journey takes about an hour. At the border town of Imjingak visit the Freedom Bridge, used for the exchange of prisoners of war, and the Korean Peace Bell. Beyond here, enter the DMZ itself.
The first port of call is the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel; discovered in 1978 this tunnel was intended for use by North Korea when invading their neighbour. It's estimated that around 10,000 soldiers could have passed through the tunnel in just one hour. Descend 73 meters in a small tram to see the tunnel first-hand.
From the Dora Observatory get a peek into North Korea. The observatory has its own demarkation line, preventing eager tourists taking any photos of the North, although a series of binoculars give a close-up view of the frankly bizarre "fake towns" along with the world's largest flag pole, built as a result of a tit-for-tat battle with the South.
It's hoped that Dorsan train station, the stop closest to the border, will one day be part of a line from Seoul in the South to Pyongyang in the North, thereby connecting Korea with the rest of Asia and Russia. The empty seats and unmanned desks provide a stark reminder that this ambition is still some way off.
Travel to the UNESCO heritage site of Gyeongju on the Korean bullet train, known as the KTX. The station in Seoul is modern and very clean, as is the train. It's punctual and also extremely fast, covering the 170 miles from Seoul in under two hours.
Gyeongju is home to a number of stunning temples and Royal Tombs many of which are included in Korea's list of "National Treasures". The Bulguksa Temple, a working temple, is regarded as a masterpiece of Buddhist art. Arrive early to avoid the crowds and buses full of Korean school children.
The Seokguram Grotto, a spectacular Buddhist holy site, is perched on the hill above the Bulguska Temple and contains a huge seated Buddha image. Colourful paper lanterns decorate the site and devotees and tourists mingle around the cherry blossomed trees surrounding the grotto.
The port city of Busan lies further south. Spend an afternoon at one of Korea's popular spa centres here, which house a number of sauna and steam rooms, an outside foot spa and several types of mineral baths with water temperatures ranging from "sub-sub zero" to "hotter than the surface of the sun". The bathing areas are separate for men and women due to it being a 100% clothes off affair.
Alternatively, head to Busan's Jagalchi Fish Market, which is huge. It's also Korea's oldest fish market and there's a clear mix of modern and traditional to be seen here. The array of fish and seafood on display is quite amazing. There's also a couple of very good fish restaurants located in the market, where you can try some of the weird and wonderful fare on offer; sashimi is very popular here, as is sushi, which is no surprise considering how geographically close Busan is to Japan.
Jeju Island is the new jewel in South Korea's crown. In 2011, it was recognised as one of the 'New7Wonders of Nature', ranking it alongside the Amazon in Brazil, Halong Bay in Vietnam and Komodo Island in Indonesia among others.
A mixture of pristine beaches, palm trees, volcanic rock formations, green fields and dry stone walls creates the unusual impression of a tropical, volcanic version of rural Wales and demonstrates why this place is garnering so much attention.
Start with a trip to Jungmun Daepo cliffs, towering above the sea and reminiscent of the Giants Causeway in Ireland. Head across the island to the stunning Manjanggul Caves, a huge system of lava tube caves recognised as one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the world. Filled with huge stalactites and giant stone pillars, the multicoloured caverns have a magical atmosphere.
The fascinating Jeju Women's Divers Museum focuses on the traditional working lives of the Haenyo, or "women of the sea", who free-dive by holding their breath for as much as ten minutes at a time whilst decending to depths of over 20 metres, to collect rare conch and abalone. The increase in tourism however, continues to be a major threat to this traditional way of life.
Finally, journey to the eastern side of the island to witness the sunrise over Seongsan Ilchulbong or "Sunrise Peak". This forested crater is surrounded by vertical cliffs that plunge into the sea below and is possibly Jeju Island's most impressive and recognisable site. A climb to the 185m summit offers spectacular views across the ocean and back across the island to Halla-san Mountain, South Korea's highest peak.