Rhonda visits South Korea

Staff member: Rhonda // Trip date: Dec 2010


Left Melbourne on a very wet Saturday morning at the end of October to catch a direct flight to Seoul flying Korean Airlines.

I was to join a group of 12 travel agents and 2 travel journalists from all over the Australia for an 8 day famil of South Korea. Only one other agent from Melbourne was going, so we met up at the airport and sat together in our spacious Exit Row seats to Seoul. Korean Airlines were excellent and I would have no problem recommending this airline. Food onboard was a choice of Western or Korean cuisine.

Korea is only 2 hours behind Australian Eastern Summer Time, so no jetlag. We were due to get in at 6pm local time and meet the main group on the plane from Sydney. Seoul's airport is located in Incheon, the 2nd largest city, like going from Melbourne to Geelong. This new airport has been voted the world's best for 2010. Once everyone had arrived we met Mia, our English speaking guide, who would be with us for the next few days.

South Korea has a population of 48 million people, with 10 million residing in Seoul alone. Most of the country was rebuilt after the Korean War of the early 1950's and has 5,000 year history. The country is mainly Buddhist but there has certainly been an increase of Christianity in the cities.

We checked into the Paradise Hotel in Incheon and would be here for 2 nights. We all had our own rooms for the entire trip, and this was a very comfortable 4 star hotel, with all mod cons, good size bathrooms, plasma TV's, mini bars etc. We met in the foyer at 8pm for a 5 minute walk to Chinatown and a late dinner. Lovely meal with mostly spicy food and a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Korean foods. Tried Kimchi, the local dish of spicy cabbage, mixed with radish, onion, garlic, ginger and chili, and fish sauce. This food staple is served with every meal in Korea. Our meal was chicken and prawn soup, squid with veges, chili fish, sweet and sour prawns, mixed veges, etc and Korean beer. Enjoyed by all. When we left the restaurant the owner handed us all a crepe paper lantern, with a small tea light candle at each end. We all lit the candles and as the lanterns fill with hot air, you let go and they all float off into the night sky. These are for good luck and soon the sky was full of these spectacular lanterns. Fabulous start to the trip.

Day 1 - Incheon to Gwanghwa Island.

We all slept well and when we opened the blinds in our rooms this morning, we realized we are overlooking the Incheon Port with many container ships in the harbour. Didn't hear a thing. Breakfast every morning was buffet and a choice of Western or Korean food or of course you could have a combination of both. Today, was fine, sunny and about 17c. Today we drove to Gwanghwa Island, the northern most tip of South Korea. First stop was the Gwangsungbo Fort, used hundreds of years ago to stop the Japanese invading. One old canon is still at the fort. My first Buddhist temple was the Jeondeungsa Temple, high up hill, we all huffed and puffed up a very steep road and many stairs but at the top was beautiful, heavily decorated wooden temple. On top of the hill were a handful of temples, all with different meanings and styles. The main temple had monks chanting prayers, burning incense and large gold Buddha statues. Shoes must be taken off to enter and devotees must come in and bow on their knees and get up and do this several times. Fascinating and very busy place. Another temple there was called the Heaven Hall where family members come to pray for their deceased loved ones and the 3rd temple was a Fertility temple, where couples trying for a baby, write their names and prayers on pieces of paper that are then hung on the ceiling to be answered by the gods. The temple area also had a meditation room and a huge ancient drum and bell, which was used at sun up and sunset to let people know to come to prayer.

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After this we had lunch at a very modern restaurant and had our first Korean BBQ. Most Korean meals have a huge amount of side dishes, and with gas burners in the middle of the table, our lunch was cooked. The majority of our dishes were beef. Beef is expensive and eaten on special occasions.

After lunch we headed up to the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), very, very close to North Korea. The bus went through a military check point with soldiers and guns. We could see the border fence with tons of barbed wire etc. A small strait of water is all that stands between South and North Korea, only a distance of 2.8 kms. The Observatory Building was built in 2006 and you can easily see the villages across into North Korea. This building has a history of the country, much to read about the Korean war and a "Reunification" room. Again South Koreans, put prayers and names of separated family members on pieces of paper and these are hung from the ceiling. They are praying for the reunification of the two countries and South Korea has been planning for this for many years and are convinced it will happen eventually. In the entrance to the Observatory building is a huge bronze plaque from the Australian Armed Forces, outlining Australia's contribution to the Korean War as one of the first countries to come and join the fight to stop communism. The building sits in the "Peace Park" and a giant sculpture symbolizes a seagull or bird that can fly between the two Koreas and reunify. There were also old tanks in the park.

After this, we stopped to do a craft class. We all had a go hand weaving straw mats. Wow, very tough on your hands, using fishing wire to weave the coloured straw. It was fun and there were many laughs.

Our next stop was a UNESCO world heritage site. There are 70 around Korea. This was a Dolmen, an ancient stone burial sties, with massive stone boulders on top, and probably as old as Stonehenge. These burial sites were for Minor Royals or Noblemen.

We were back to Incheon by 7.30pm for a traditional Korean dinner at a fabulous restaurant all made of wood and mud bricks. We had a private dining room with one huge long table and cushions on the floor. Oh boy! I am nearly the tallest female on the trip! We managed! Many new side dishes to try and this time I tried Zucchini Kimchi, sweet potato dishes, dried anchovies, jellyfish noodles, chili turnips, rice with beans, vegetable pancakes etc. Full! Back to hotel about 9pm.

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Day 2 - Incheon to Suwon

At 8.30am, we all met in the foyer for a walk to "Freedom Park". Up very steep streets and on the walls of the local high school, was a huge tile mural outlining the history of Korea through the ages. Very well done and lots to read in both Korean and English. Freedom Park overlooks Incheon Port and is dedicated to American General Douglas McArthur. OMG, there really is a MCARTHUR PARK!!! Lots of jokes about leaving cakes out in the rain! There is a huge statue of McArthur. The Koreans deeply respect this man for bringing in the Americans to help in the Korean War against the Chinese backed Communist north! After the war in 1953, the country was divided along the 38th parallel. The Americans helped put South Korea back together and modernize it, like they did Japan after WWII.

Off to Suwon which is only an hour away and we went to the Pongmi Food Company. They make and export Kimchi all over the world. First off, we had a Kimchi demonstration with the biggest cabbages I have ever seen. Initially the cabbage is cut in half longway, salted with rock salt and soaked in warm water for 12 hours. After this, it is mixed with the radish, onion, shallots, chilies and chili powder, fish sauce, ginger and garlic and mix! This is the traditional method. In autumn (now) housewives all over the country make enough of this to last all winter. The Kimchi is put into huge ceramic pots and buried in the garden to ferment, keep cool and last all winter.
Out came the aprons and scarves and it was our turn to make Kimchi. Fun and lots of laughs, even more laughs after we all got into Korean national costume for a Group Photo. Lots of very bright colours. We were then ushered into the Kimchi factory, and were surprised to see the factory workers doing everything by hand.

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On to Suwon, and parts of the city run through the massive World Heritage Suwon Fortress. The Fortress goes on for miles and miles and was basically a walled village. This was the home of one of the Kings from one of the Korean Dynasties. Many, many buildings used for all the different needs. All buildings are wooden with inner courtyards, 4 massive gates, watchtowers, secret entrances, torch towers, flood gates (as a large stream ran through the middle of the fortress and now runs through the middle of the city) etc. One corner of the fortress is an archery area. Many kings and now many Koreans are very good at archery. We all had a go with the bows and arrows. From the top of the fortress there are lovely views over Suwon. Our hotel in Suwon was the Ramada Plaza. Large modern, 5 star hotel. Massive King size beds, enormous marble bathrooms, even bigger Plasma TVs. Dinner tonight was excellent, again in a private room but with western tables and chairs. In the middle of the tables, were BBQ grills, not the gas hotplates we had last time. The meal tonight was different, BBQ'd pieces of beef and cloves of garlic cooked on the grill. Beef pieces, bbq'd garlic, mixed with chili paste, and wrapped in lettuce and straight in your mouth. Wow. Also, Kimchi, salads, fish, pickled turnips, lotus root, chili prawns, and pumpkin fritters. Fabulous dinner. After dinner we had some time at the Suwon Night Market.

Day 3 - Suwon to Gyeongju

We all enjoyed the Ramada very much and the breakfast restaurant located on the 5th floor was stunning. Huge modern restaurant with lots of natural light and windows looking out to mountains. Huge choice of western or Asian dishes. On the bus and headed to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty who ruled from the 14th century to 1901. (When Japan invaded and occupied until 1945). The park is very large and is divided into 3 areas. Entrance, Ceremonial and Burial. Entrance has Tomb keeper's house, stream and Forbidden Bridge; Ceremonial area has the gate, royal kitchen, worship road, shrine, and guard's house. The Burial area has the hill with stone horses, tigers, sheep and stone officials overlooking the burial mound. The coffins are located in a chamber underground and a grass burial mound, built on top. Tourists usually, can not go passed the fence and onto the burial mound itself, but we were given permission. Very interesting but cold morning (7c) and we were all rugged up in our coats and scarves.

Next stop the Korean Folk Village in Ghana. This village is on 243 acres and has 260 traditional houses / dwellings from the last Dynasty. The village reflects the different classes - farmer / servant, middle class and nobleman. Most Koreans were farmers and only the noble class was educated. Noble and middle class families had their own family shrines / temples. We then attended a traditional male performance with men with drums, cymbals, and long white ribbons on the back of their hats. This was very colourful, loud, and skillful especially when the men danced and the ribbons made patterns when they moved. The autumn leaves and maple trees, this time of year, are stunning with so many red and orange trees. We came across our first squat toilets on this trip. Some toilet stops had both Western and Squat loos, so we all kept queuing for the normal toilets.

From here your drive from the Folk Village to Gyeongju was 4 hours. Our new tour guide was called Honey and she told us lots of stories and history of the area as we headed south. Dinner on the way to the hotel, was again in a private room, sitting on the floor. The restaurant had underfloor heating so we got hot bottoms! Good for some laughs. We arrived at the beautiful 5 star Hyundai Hotel in the dark and the rooms were lovely and some of us enjoyed the Piano Lounge for the 2 nights.

Day 4 - Gyeongju - Fine & Sunny 16 degrees

This morning when getting in the glass, external lift to go down to breakfast, we were stunned to see, we overlooked a massive, beautiful lake, in the mountains. This morning we drove to the World Cultural Heritage Seokguram Grotto and Temple. The whole mountain seemed to be full with primary school children, who were keen to talk to us, shake our hands and ask where we were from. Jenny, one of our tour organizes, has red hair and got a marriage proposal from a 12 year old boy. The Grotto and cave, houses a giant stone Buddha (apparently the best in Asia) and is 1,300 years old. Over the centuries the Buddha had been forgotten, as there had been countless, invasions from both China and Japan. The Buddha was rediscovered about 200 years ago and the giant statue is now behind glass, but still stunning. For me, this was definitely a highlight, such a huge statue made out of a single piece of rock. Lunch was another beef meal with lots of traditional side dishes.

The afternoon was spent with numerous stops to Royal burial mounds, the Anapji Pond which is surrounded by Temples. Many relics in this area are from the 3rd and 4th centuries and were found at the bottom of the massive pond. These are now in the Gyeongju National Museum, which we went to.
Before dinner, we were taken to a pottery studio and did some hand building and then all had a go on the pottery wheel, making bowls or vases etc.

Dinner was in one of the hotels and not a traditional Korean meal. Buffet dinner with good Western choices.

Day 5 - Gyeongju to Andong

Up, on the bus and it took 1 ½ hours to get to Andong and visit the Hahoe Village. Again, a mix of types of houses and community buildings. Some people still live here. At the entrance to the village were big wooden totem poles, to scare away evil spirits. This village was visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999 and there were photos up of her and a plaque where she planted a pine tree. In the village there is a 600 year old tree, where you can write your wish on a piece of white paper and then tie your wish on the rope surrounding the tree. Very cool.

Traditional lunch today was very nice chicken stew, with potatoes and carrots, and all the normal other dishes. After this, we went to a traditional paper factory. The bark of the Mulberry tree is used, and it can sit in storage for 1-2 years at a time. The bark is then soaked and you are left with a white, soft, fleshy material type substance. From here using traditional methods, this substance is spread out and soaked again, into very thin sheets of paper, then each sheet is put on drying racks. Dyeing and patterns come later. The finished product is beautiful and of a high quality.

Our next stop was the Sosu Confucianism Academy, introduced into Korea about 15th Century. Dinner was another chicken dish and then we drove up the mountain in darkness to the STX Resort. We each had our own apartment with kitchenette, lounge etc.

Day 6 - STX Resort to Mungyeong - Fine & Sunny 18 degrees but very chilly start

Woke up and we could finally see where we were. Totally gorgeous, on top of a mountain, surrounded by mist as the sun came up. We were given a western breakfast this morning, and we were trekking 6km from Gate 1 to Gate 2 of the Dungeon Fortress, a 3 hour walk. Gorgeous autumn scenery and we soon got warm walking. The area is known for its apples and the local market stall holders use Snow White to market their apples. Korean BBQ was pork ribs, but I was given beef and we also had a very sweet red wine that tasted like port. Yum.

We then drove to Seoul, a huge city of 10 Million. Our hotel the Provista Hotel is an old building that used to be a department store. After checking in, we were going shopping, lots of excitement. We had time in a large indoor basement type shopping area. I brought mainly jewellery and could not get shoes to fit me (Aussie size 9 or European 40). We got the Metro back to our hotel, 2 stations.

The subway lines are colour coded, just like in Paris. These stations have self serve machines in both Korean and English. You type in which station you want to get off at and it will work out the line you need and cost etc. Put in your coins or notes and you get a subway card like the London Oyster and Melbourne Myki. This was a single journey card. You swipe the card and go through the turnstyles. On the metro platforms all the passengers stand behind glass barriers. For safety reasons there is no access to the tracks. The train pulls in; the platform barriers totally align with the train doors and both doors open. On the train it was crowded but quiet with no pushing etc. There are maps in both Korean and English, so you really cant get it wrong.

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Tonight was our last dinner together so we dressed up a little. This was the best meal of the trip. We were taken to a very upmarket, very popular Seafood Buffet restaurant in Seoul. We had a private room with western tables. The restaurant was huge with Korean, Asian and Western food, tons of staff and chefs cooking. The sushi was to die for and so many different varieties, all fresh and beautiful. Tons of smoked salmon, trout, giant prawns, BBQ'd scallops, and huge variety of cooked fish as well as hotpots, tons of salads and veges etc and desserts and profiteroles were lovely. Excellent meal. Next, into the Seoul theatre district to a performance of Nanta. This is described as "Charlie Chaplin meets Masterchef". This Korean comedy troupe were very clever and also skillful in the kitchen with the food. The story was about a group of young chefs putting together a wedding feast. The performance also requires very little language spoken, so it was perfect for tourists. I have never seen so many vegetables go flying across the stage. A heap of fun and lots of laughs.

The Seoul Stream is a small river that runs through the centre of the city. Due to the G20 Summit due to start in a few days, the Stream was lit up for kilometers by huge paper lanterns. The lanterns were huge, attention to detail was amazing and they were made of paper.

lanterns jpg

Then we did some shopping in a modern building, with open type shops on each floor. The bus back to the hotel, the traffic was crazy and very heavy and it was nearly midnight.

Day 7 - Seoul - Last Day

The weather was quite mild and at 9am we went to a palace / temple (Gyeongbokgung Palace). This one is probably the most famous in South Korea and used by the last King and Dynasty. The huge outer square looks like Beijing's Tiananmen Square but the Koreans built theirs first. I liked the contrast between the old traditional buildings with the modern city buildings in the background. We saw a very colourful performance of the "Changing of the Guard", with men in costumes of red, blue and black, hitting huge drums and carrying flags. The Palace itself was on massive grounds and goes for miles. The King even had his own private garden.

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Next stop was the Blue House or "White House" equivalent, that houses the Korean President. You cant go in, just look from the distance. This building would take centre stage, just a few days later for the G20 Summit in Seoul. The square opposite the Blue House was full of young soldiers practicing drills and formations for the Summit.

Next was Insadong - Seoul's most famous tourist shopping street, this is a fairly long street with many shops. Then it was something different, up the top of The Seoul Tower. There were no views from the top due to the fog, but nice Korean meal, our last. Once back down the tower, outside there was an interesting "tree", made up entirely of hearts and padlocks. Couples come to cement their love by writing their names on a plastic heart, tying a padlock to the heart, putting it on the tree and throwing the key over the fence and down the mountain!

Off we go, next stop - straight to the airport!

In conclusion, I enjoyed the experience and did learn a lot about the country, it's history and customs. Even though I did not do a train trip I know that that trains are fast, modern, safe and that a Korean Rail Pass would be great value for money

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