I think we all remember our first time with fondness. We look back at that first awkward kiss or that first game that turned us into a fan, and it brings a nostalgic smile to our faces.
The same holds true for travel. My first tentative steps out of the relative comfort of Australian life took place in the chill November winds that whipped around Incheon International Airport.
Thus began my two year love affair with the peninsula country that likes to call itself the land of the morning calm.
Reasons To Love Korea
Too few people include South Korea on their travel itineraries, but I hope reading through my reasons for loving the country will maybe get you to rethink your travel plans and give the often forgotten Asian country a chance.
There are a lot of reasons why Korea will always hold a special place in my heart, but below you’ll find the eight that stand out above all others.
#8 – Cheap Transport
Getting around South Korea is criminally easy. The country’s fantastic bus network means you can get virtually anywhere in the entire country for under $30. Shorter trips can come in at under $5! City buses, while occasionally crowded, aren’t likely to set you back more than the equivalent of $2.
While buses are cheap and plentiful, they aren’t the only way of getting around. The train network, including the super fast KTX, also provides plenty of destinations for affordable rates. It’s possible to get from Busan in the South East to Seoul in the north in less than three hours and for less than $50. Not bad at all.
Larger cities also boast subway networks of their own. Those in Seoul and Busan are particularly good, and tickets rarely creep over the $5 mark.
A string of international and domestic airports dot the country as a result of Korea’s hosting of the 2002 World Cup, and taxis (while erratically driven) can get you around the city at very affordable rates as well. At least compared to cabs in the western world.
There’s less awkward small-talk too.
All of this adds up to making Korea one of the most easily accessible places in the world once you’re there. Want to spend a weekend on the beach? Go skiing in the winter? Shop in the massive malls in Seoul or Busan? You’ve got a slew of affordable options available to you.
#7 – Jejudo
While mainland Korea is not without its charms, the semi-tropical island of Jejudo off the southern coast is a drawcard all of its own.
A volcanic island littered with lava tubes, volcanic craters, and black sand beaches – Jejudo is labelled the ‘Korean Hawaii’. And while it might not be quite the tropical paradise that Hawaii is, there’s certainly a lot to love about the island.
Grassy Sangumburi Crater is worth a look, but Seongsan Ilchubong (Sunrise Peak) takes the cake with some absolutely stunning views. The Manjanggul Lava Tubes are pretty impressive as well.
In addition to its natural beauty, Jejudo’s status as a tourist spot means it has plenty of restaurants, resorts, and tourist attractions. From the adults only playground of Love Land to kid friendly spots like Mini Mini Land and the Gimnyeong Hedge Maze, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied.
Jejudo is accessible by plane (fast, but boring) or on the more entertaining ferry. Take the leisurely route and enjoy the atmosphere on the crowded ferries that boast karaoke, restaurants, gaming rooms, saunas, and live performances.
#6 – Cheap Alcohol
This may not appeal to every traveller, but Korea is truly a land where you can indulge your inner alcoholic.
While Korean beer isn’t much to write home about, there are a number of imports available to compliment the local selection that includes soju (a distilled spirit similar to vodka), meoggoli (rice wine), and plum wine.
The night life is king in Korea. Rare are the bars with curfews and they’re of a variety that should cover all bases. Seedy soju bars, crowded foreigner friendly establishments, smoky clubs, full service noraebang (karaoke rooms)… Hell, even the convenience stores stock and sell a good selection of booze. I spent many a summer afternoon camped out front of a 7-11 sipping suds.
There’s no open bottle law in Korea either. Rejoice with wine in the park or beers on the beach.
#5 – Rich History
While Korean history may not be quite so well known to westerners as that of neighbouring Japan or nearby China, there is still a rich and proud history on the peninsula that stretches back centuries. While a lot of the ancient temples were destroyed or defaced during the Korean War, you’re still able to visit a good number of them.
Highlights include tranquil Daewonsa near Gwangju and seaside Yonggungsa in Busan.
Seoul’s Insadong area gives a tourist friendly cultural experience for those wishing to do a bit of shopping, and Gyeongju (Korea’s former capital) is steeped in history for those wanting to see Korea as it was prior to its post Korean War boom. Exploring Jeju Island is a favorite weekend getaway.
No matter where you are though, you’re likely to find a temple or historical site worth checking out. It’s inevitable in a country as old as South Korea.
#4 – Festivals
Korea is a country that loves a festival and they’ve got them for just about everything. There’s the wildly debauched Boryeong Mud Festival, the stunning Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, the stinky Gwangju Kimchi Festival, beautiful Jinju Lantern Festival, slightly damp Jindo Moses Miracle, and the inexplicable Cheongsando Slow Walking Festival.
And that’s barely touching the surface. There are festivals in Korea almost every weekend and as you can see, the variety is immense.
#3 – Hiking
I don’t consider myself much of an outdoorsman, but Korea gives you plenty of opportunities to explore the great outdoors.
A naturally mountainous country, most of Korea’s mountains are accessible to the public with a variety of trails to walk (or climb). It’s not unusual to see a whole family out on a sunny Sunday afternoon complete with full hiking gear and heels for the ladies.
While it’s true that much of Korea’s mainland is urban sprawl, it’s only a short bus ride to get you back in touch with the quiet serenity of the natural world.
#2 – Koreans
You can’t run off a list of reasons to love Korea without including the natives!
Korean culture is a fascinating blend of old traditions being merged with western ideals. It’s a surreal juxtaposition to see a McDonalds looming ominously over a traditional tent restaurant, but it’s not uncommon at all.
Korean music, whether it’s traditional throat singing or syrupy sweet K-Pop, is another of those blends of old and new.
While there is an underlying xenophobia that occasionally rears its ugly head, I found Koreans in the most part to be polite and enthusiastic about sharing their pride in the country. There’s a real enthusiasm for learning more about western culture that extends from wide eyed kids to chatty ajoshi (old men) that is really endearing.
It doesn’t hurt that Korean girls are amongst the most beautiful in the world, either. I hear tell that Korean guys aren’t too bad either.
#1 – Korean Food
If there’s one facet of life in Korea that I miss on a daily basis, it’s the food.
Korean food doesn’t look like much at first. There’s a heavy reliance on rice and meat in the Korean diet, but there’s enough variety to ensure you’re not bored too quickly. Traditional dishes such as bulgogi (marinated beef), galbi (Korean BBQ), and bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and egg) are relatively tame introductions to Korean cuisine.
Me? I miss spicy ddeok galbi (chicken with chewy rice cakes); savoury pajjang (seafood pancakes); and the street treats such as twigim (deep fried goodness), odeng (processed fish on sticks), and toasties (an import from America).
Korea also boasts a fascination with coffee shops and bakeries. There’s no shortage of Starbucks clones to pick from, but I’m a fan of Tom & Toms with its sweet or savoury stuffed pretzels. While Western food staples like pizza and KFC are available, they’re done with a quaint Korean twist.
Expect corn on your pizza and the offer of a kimchi side with your happy meal.
It’s not just the flavours though. Korean food is, first and foremost, ridiculously affordable. It’s entirely possible to eat three meals a day outside of your own apartment or hotel room without spending more than $20. And that’s eating big.
Maybe I’m a little bit biased because I called Korea home for two years, but I see a lot of reasons to love the place. There’s a great blend of the old traditions, temples, and cultural quirks alongside the fact that the country is one of the fastest developing technological powers in the world.
Have you been to Korea? What did you love about the place?
Connect With Chris
This is a guest post by Chris Walker-Bush, the man behind Aussie on the Road travel blog and Multiple Nerdgasms – a site dedicated to all things geeky. Chris and I share the same enthusiasm for travel and we’ve both taught in South Korea for several years. He’s a great guy and his blog posts are an eclectic mix of travel information, humour and personal reflections. Make sure to follow him on the following social media platforms: twitter, facebook and youtube.