I was able to go on a few smaller trips during COVID, but really missed seeing the rest of the world. You can appreciate how glad I was when I finally boarded an aircraft, to take me to a different continent.
I have visited South East Asia several times, but have never been to South Korea, and this was an exciting prospect. I am happy to say I was not disappointed, and learned a great deal about this society of 50 million. They have had nothing but turmoil for more than 100 years.
My flight was 14 hours and the time difference was 13 hours, so you can imagine my body clock was totally confused. I left Toronto shortly after noon and landed in Seoul at 2:30… the next day. Fortunately, my luggage was waiting for me, as I had a connecting flight to beautiful Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea.
A thirty-minute subway ride took me to the domestic airport, and an hour later I touched down on this beautiful island, between the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
Jeju Island is about 75 km from one end to another, and has a population of 600,000, making it quite sparse, by comparison to the mainland. The island is volcanic and very mountainous, and if you enjoy hiking, there are no ends to the treks you can take.
My first stop was Mysterious Road, which is one of those optical illusions, similar to the magnetic hill in Moncton, NB. I did not stay long, as there was so much more to explore. I wanted to trek up Mount Halla, the highest mountain in South Korea, and was astounded by the thick, bamboo foliage everywhere. The walk took the better part of the morning, but the views from the top were amazing.
Korea, being very mountainous, also has an abundance of waterfalls. Jeongbang falls is unique, in that it plunges 25 metres (80 feet) into the ocean. The area is a tourist mecca, and many wooden walkways have been built for people to enjoy it.
Buddhism is the main religion, and there are many beautiful temples to explore. The artisanship in construction is amazing, and the attention paid to detail is spectacular. Most of the temples are active, and many have ‘temple stays’, an opportunity to spend a night with the monks.
After four days on Jeju, I flew to Busan, the second largest city in the country. Busan was the only area not occupied by the communists during the invasion of 1950. Korea was occupied by Japan in 1910, and was besieged until 1945, when Japan lost the war. The grandfather of current dictator, Kim Jong-Un, led the communists in the north. Aided by the Chinese, the ill-prepared south was no match for the invading forces, and it was the United Nations, which came to the rescue. The war lasted 3 years, and a line was drawn separating north from south.
I toured a small village, now an artist colony, but formerly the location of refugees from all over the country. Today the houses are painted bright colours, and many have been converted into boutiques and eateries.
Before leaving the southeast, I visited several markets and realized the Korean people purchase their necessities on a daily basis. Many fish stalls, sell a vast variety of seafood, most of which is still alive and consequently very fresh.
I drove up the coast and saw spectacular vistas everywhere. The volcanic rock of the shoreline changes with every curve in the road. It was difficult not to stop at every corner for a photograph. I came upon beautiful Woljeonggyo Bridge, built in the 7th century. It connects a village with the main road, and seeing how people lived in days gone by was quite interesting.
The city of Seoul is a metropolis of 22 million people. It has rows and rows of white apartment buildings as far as the eye can see. I visited the Lotte Tower, the 5th highest building in the world, and really saw how large this city was.
Traffic flows well across any of the 27 bridges that span the river Han, and pedestrians walk quickly, in an organized manner. Restaurants are equipped with robots, serving meals and collecting empty plates, and technology has really made an impact on the Korean way of life.
I took a drive to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and was amazed at the volatility of the region.
North Korea has unsuccessfully dug four tunnels in an effort to invade the south. Barbed wire, and a section of no man’s land, separates the two nations, the security of which seems to balance on a fine line.
People go about their business on a day-to-day basis, but have a constant concern about the unpredictability of their northern neighbours.
The culture and history, coupled with the modernization, make Korea a great destination to visit. If you get the chance, and do not mind sitting in a plane for 14 hours, I would highly recommend a visit. My November photosNtravel show highlights the country, and is available on Rogers and YouTube.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. The November 6th episode features South Korea. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com.