There are so many great destinations within easy reach of Singapore that, amongst all the cheap beach retreats and tropical island escapes, it can be easy to forget about certain entire countries like Korea, which might have slipped under your radar… until now! However, Korea has such a distinct culture, plenty of interesting hotspots and some beautiful traditions, that it would be a shame not to pay it a visit.
April is the perfect time to visit South Korea as the cherry blossoms are out and truly spectacular. As the wind blows the petals off the trees, a sea of pink swirls overhead and settles on the roadside, like a floral sandstorm. It’s one of the most mesmerising phenomena I’ve ever seen. Read on for the rest of my one-stop Sassy guide for everything to do, see, eat and party in Korea!
A must see in Seoul is the Seoul Tower, preferably with your lover! Take the bus up and get your bearings from one of the four observation decks. A visit to the Teddy Bear Museum located on the ground floor is also worthwhile, not only is it super cute, but you also learn about the history of Seoul’s different districts. Afterwards walk down Mt Namsan taking in the pretty scenery on the way.
A visit to Seoul would not be complete without a DMZ tour. When the Korean peninsular was split in 1953 it became the only divided country in the world and a 2km zone between the borders, called the DMZ, was created. A day trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (J.M.A) is a unique opportunity to see North Korea. Even though a lot of it is staged and heavily guarded, the chance to see such a forbidden and controversial place is compelling.
As two years of military service is compulsory for Korean men, the chances are you will see many walking around, so be sure to have a photograph taken with one! The highlight of my half-day tour was walking to the end of the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of four tunnels that the North secretly built after the end of the war for a possible invasion. The trip also included a visit to the Dorasan train station, a station that has been specially built for a train to Pyongyang when the North and South are once again united.
Quite possibly the coolest thing I saw in Seoul was the Cooking Nanta show. It’s like Stomp but in a kitchen, following the trials and tribulations of four chefs preparing a wedding banquet. Using all kinds of kitchen items as percussion instruments, they create a sound explosion.
NIGHTLIFE & SHOPPING
The nightlife in Seoul is always buzzing and Koreans clearly love to party. Located in the heart of Seoul is Iteawon, a multicultural district where many foreigners (mostly English teachers and US soliders) mix with the locals. The streets are lined with every kind of restaurant you can imagine. Newly opened Club Mute with its exquisite décor and friendly door policy is definitely the place to be. It’s also a good place to spot celebs; the night we were there we managed to brush shoulders with Lenny Kravitz and a bunch of uber famous Korean fashion designers. Also be warned about the Korean boys, they are tall and dangerously handsome!
But if you are on a budget or want to experience Korea’s club kid culture, then head to the university district, Hongdae. The streets are lined with small boutiques selling super cute clothes, shoes and accessories. Hip students browse the street stalls looking for a bargain, while the delicious aroma of street food fills the air. My favourite was the eggy bread snack for 1000won. This area also hosts a number of American fast food chains such as Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts and TGI Fridays, so if you are craving something from home you can find it here.
Hidden amongst the frenetic energy on the streets are the student bars where you can pound back ridiculously cheap jagerbombs and buckets while listening to the latest dance music. But the best part of these clubs is the crowd – they are totally up for it and actually there to dance (not been seen or hook up). And boy, can they dance! Despite not understanding the meaning of the song lyrics, each group of kids has their own dance moves to songs. I watched in awe as they cut some serious shapes and immediately wanted to be friends with them.
As a vegetarian I was a little worried about eating in Korea, as Korean BBQ is their most popular dining export. But bibimbap became my go-to meal when eating local. You mix the rice, raw egg, sauce and vegetables in a hot stone pot until the egg has cooked and the rice on the bottom hardens – delicious! A lot of etiquette is associated with Korean dining and the most fabulous dinner I had there was a traditional Korean course meal. Each course was delicately prepared and super tasty, my favourite being the pumpkin congee. The feast seemed never ending and I gave up counting the number of dishes as they were cleared away and replaced too quickly, but it was truly amazing. Korean food is typically spicy and always comes with side dishes. Many are an acquired taste, but kimchi flavoured everything will grow on you.
As a daily necessity within the frenzied city lifestyles of Singaporeans, similarly, Koreans are also obsessed with coffee! Chains such as Angel In Us, A Twosome Place, Starbucks and thousands of tiny hole in the wall shops line up next to each other selling pretty much the same thing, making me wonder ‘How can a nation be that coffee crazy?’
To explore other parts of Korea take a trip to the second biggest city, Busan. Just three hours by train, Busan has beautiful white sand beaches (Haeunde is my favourite) and the biggest department store in the world, a shopper’s paradise. The Shinsegae Centum City not only has brands from all over the world but it also houses an ice skating rink, day spa, cinema, art gallery and driving range. The supermarket on the bottom floor is extremely spacious and has lots of yummy treats. Be sure to check out the Kiwi-owned Beached Bar on Gwangan’s beachfront, it’s a great place to socialise with English teachers living in Busan.
About one hour’s drive from the city is the beautiful Tongdosa Temple, which is famous for not having any Buddhist statues. Set on the side of Mt Chiseosan, there are a number of buildings and pagodas to check out. On the northeastern coastline of Busan, perhaps the most stunning location for a temple ever, lies the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. Built in 1376, it houses a Seawater Great Goddess Buddha, cave and three-story pagoda with four lions overlooking the ocean.
Popular with honeymooners and Korea soap operas, Jeju Island was my final destination in Korea. Just one hour’s flight from either Busan or Seoul, it is the perfect island getaway. I highly recommend getting a rental car with GPS as there is pretty much no public transport on the island. If you enjoy hiking, choose one of the twelve Jeju Olle road walking trails to explore. We did the most popular Route 7, which takes you along the stunning coastline. Stop for lunch at one of the seaside restaurants and soak in the relaxed vibe. The walks are well signposted and easy to follow. While on Jeju, be sure to catch a glimpse of the lady divers and sample one of the super sweet native oranges!
There are a number of outdoor activities and theme parks on Jeju and one of the more daring ones (especially by Korean standards!) is Loveland, an ‘outdoor erotic sculpture park’. Take a picture next to a tantric sex statue, on top of the giant penis, or in front of boob hill, don’t forget your sense of humour!
Koreans love to eat, play and shop, so a trip the land of kimchi is the perfect place to indulge in all those things while soaking up a bit of culture too!