Starting with the Gojoseon Dynasty asserting itself approximately 2,700 to 4,000 years ago, South Korea is a nation that has long survived and thrived against the odds. Possessing a land area about the size of Ohio, and with more than 70% of its small area consisting of mountains, this nation is densely populated, packing in 50 million people within the limited territory in which the population can live.
Even with such a small territory at their disposal, Korea has only sought to be left alone so they could determine their own destiny. They had to fight off invaders more than a few times over their history, with the most recent dust-up being the Korean War. This conflict started as a result of the Korean peninsula being divided approximately in half by Soviet and Allied forces after World War 2. Each side declared independence in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung firing the first shots of the Korean War in 1950.
The North made big gains initially, but was beaten back to where the 38th parallel approximately is, forming the basis for the armistice that ceased the Korean War, but failed to officially end it. It occasionally causes issues between the two sides, where rhetoric and rarely, measured acts of hostility, are exchanged, but visitors are extremely unlikely to encounter serious issues resulting from this now sixty year long cold conflict.
The war inflicted traumatic damage on the nation of South Korea, left with a standard of living on par with Sub-Saharan Africa shortly after the shooting stopped. However, due to the inherent hustle of this proud and industrious culture, the people here collectively pulled themselves up from their bootstraps over the ensuing decades, reaching developed world status right around the time that they hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
The result of this intense industrialization has been a society that has thrust itself into the future seemingly, bearing the latest technologies, infrastructure and trends, years before they show up in the West. Indeed, its flagship corporations produce smartphones, TV’s cameras and more with the latest intuitive features, while the culture juggernaut known as K-Pop marches on across the globe unimpeded, with stars such as PSY, INFINITE, and Girl’s Generation leading the charge.
Yet, with all this focus on modern living, the traditional side of Korea endures, manifested in its many revered and preserved temples, forts, and monuments. In short, South Korea is a country that will leave an indelible mark on your soul, no matter how you experience it.
Currency: South Korean Won
What To Do
Your travels will likely have you flying into Incheon International Airport, so let’s start with the major attractions in nearby Seoul. Once you are settled and ready to explore, head to the best example of a Joseon dynasty palace, Gyeongbok-gung. The centre of power in the Korean kingdom in its time, the sweeping grounds of this grand palace was razed by the Japanese on two occasions, in 1592 and in 1910. It has been restored partially since that time, and houses the Korean Folk Museum as well.
Next, take the cable car up to Seoul Tower, which grants sweeping views of the sea of urbanity that is Seoul. If you are traveling with your significant other, be sure to purchase a love lock and sign it with a proclamation of your dedication to each other, and then attach it to the fencing surrounding the tower itself.
Before leaving Seoul, be sure to sign up for a tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). While a ceasefire was declared between the two Koreas more than sixty years ago, the war never truly ended, as evidenced by the North’s occasional threats to turn the city of Seoul into a “sea of fire”. Despite the periodic sabre-rattling, it is totally possible to take a look at an area that has been left to Mother Nature since the shooting stopped decades ago, all while guides give you plentiful information on the Korean War, and the hostile incidents that have broken out along the DMZ since then. WARNING: Do NOT joke around in the conference room in the Joint Security Area. Doing so could easily trigger an international incident, so … don’t jump across the line, try to get a picture with the North Korean guards, etc…!
Further south in Gyeongju, there is a high concentration of temples, tombs and ancient ruins that garnered South Korea its first designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the 7th to 10th centuries, the Silla dynasty built these well-preserved structures, as Gyeongju was their capital for their small empire in the southeastern corner of Korea. There are many fascinating sites here, so take a few days to appreciate part of the ancient culture that this country possesses in spades.
If you are visiting Korea in the summer time, there are a number of excellent beaches where you can cool off and take in what Korean beach culture is like. On the west coast, 10 km from the town of Boryeong is Daecheon Beach. This 4 kilometre long strip of sand delivers some badly needed solitude and space on a hot day, and if you LOVE seafood, you are in luck, as the promenade lining the main beach area is filled with “hweh” restaurants featuring the freshest seafood on the west coast of Korea. In Busan, head for Haeundae Beach for the best summer time social scene in the country (but claustrophobics beware, the loungers and people here are packed in like sardines), or Songdo Beach for a more spacious, family friendly experience.
Finally, almost anywhere you go in Korea, there will be mountains towering above the settlements, making this nation a hiker’s dream come true. For the very best trekking in the entire country, make the trip up to Seoraksan National Park in Gangwon Province, especially in the autumn. Surrounded by craggy limestone and granite peaks, pure mountain streams, and burning yellow, orange and red foliage, you’ll be in a wonderland of peace, serenity and endless vistas here.
What To Eat
No discussion of Korean can even begin without mentioning its super popular side dish Kimchi, so let’s begin here. Kimchi is fermented, spicy cabbage served as an accompaniment to virtually every Korean meal that you will eat in this country, with the possible exception of when you eat at Lotteria (popular Korean fast-food chain).
One of the most delicious dishes in Korea, Bulgogi is Korean BBQ, most commonly made with beef, but is also done with chicken or pork. These meals are served in special restaurants, where you cook your own meal over a grill and underneath your own personal fume hood, making for a unique experience.
Finally, if you are looking for a quick warm up on a cold fall/winter/spring day, then going for a pot of Sundubu Jjigae will do the trick nicely. This stew is a savoury mix of soft tofu, mushrooms, onions, seafood/various meats (including spam), and various vegetables. Tip: Take one of the eggs (yes, eggs) that are frequently given to you in a basket and crack it into your lava hot soup pot right when it is brought to your table. The intensely hot soup will cook the egg quickly, giving you another layer of flavour in an already intensely awesome meal!