South Korea is one of the smallest countries in East Asia and the fact that almost 50 million people are crammed into it makes that much smaller still. Busses are consistently crammed, shops are always busy, lineups at the post office are never ending and traffic, especially on weekends, is astronomical. The crowds shouldn't be a deterrent, however; they are part of what gives this country its amazing character. Despite its size, South Korea has many attractions - old and new - to share. One could spend a number of days in Seoul and still not hit all the highs, which include Jongmyo Shrine, Namsan Park, Changdeokgung Palace, Lotte World and the touristy Itaewon, to name a very few. There are an endless number of sites throughout the rest of the country as well, and naming some - such as the peaks of Jirisan, Haeundae Beach, Manjanggul lava tube on Jeju Island, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gyeongju and the DMZ that separates the country from North Korea - would be a proverbial drop in the bucket. South Korea is one of the most homogenous countries on the planet, with nearly everyone there being ethnically Korean. People here are often considered notoriously xenophobic, and really, who could blame them? The country is surrounded by water and powers that have tried to control it, on and off, for the last two thousand years. What is perceived as such, however, is more often than not a shyness in front of strangers rather than genuine fear of them; when visitors are able to get through to the real heart of the people, however, they see that Koreans are friendly, kind and always ready with a welcoming smile. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is one of the many things that make the two Koreas – North and South – famous. Riddled with land mines, the 4km-wide DMZ cuts across the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel and runs 250km from coast to coast. Despite being one of the most militarized borders in the world, the DMZ is a major tourist attraction for visitors to South Korea and while you can’t go into it, you can most certainly go under it! Tours to the DMZ include visits to tunnels that the North Koreans dug a number of times over the decades since the Korean War unofficially ended in an attempt to get to Seoul.
A great way to spend a weekend in Korea is to visit and explore the beautiful valley of Boseong County, located on the southwest coast of the peninsula. The region, established in 1957, is home to rolling hills that reach heights of 350m and green tea fields as far as the eye can see. The temperate climate of this region is ideal for green tea cultivation and, today, Boseong accounts 40 percent of Korea’s total green tea production and some of the southern area's most beautiful scenery. We started our journey from Daegu early in the morning, arriving at the tea fields five hours and two busses later. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the place was like an emerald green blanket cascading over the hillsides, and we immediately felt calm and at peace - not always an easy transition to make in such a densely populated and sometimes bustling country.
Like anyone else who has lived or travelled in Korea, I spent much of my time there experiencing new and wonderful - and sometimes strange - things. I'll never forget the first time I went to a jjimjilbang, or a traditional, family-style bathhouse. In case you're wondering, that's exactly what it sounds like: a public facility for getting the gritty off, publicly. Yup. Naked. If you go to Korea, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit one. The experience alone will give you stories to last a life time, and the relaxation you get from the visit is worth almost as much as the inevitable shift in perception. You probably shouldn't attempt to go it alone, though, at least not for your first time; you'd have no idea what to do. Thankfully I had fellow expat Alex. She brought me along with two other girls, and showed us the ropes just as a Korean friend had shown them to her.
South Korea may not initially appear at the top of the list when you compare its culture and tourist sites with the likes of the famed Louvre or the Coliseum. However, once you’ve had the opportunity to see one of the intricately detailed palaces or temples that are all over the country, or the artistically manufactured river that flows through the middle of Seoul, or the sexually provocative statues at Jeju Island’s sex-themed park Love Land, you begin to realize that this smallish country is a diamond in the rough. The list of cultural and tourist activities in Korea is surprisingly extensive, and I could go on and on about a number of them for thousands of words. However, one of my most memorable experiences has more to do with the food culture of this place than it does with its tourist attractions, and takes me the country’s second largest city, Busan.
A few weekends ago in Busan, Korea, my friend and I just happened to get on the topic of eating dog meat. When I asked if he had ever eaten it he said yes; I never did and I was a bit surprised that he had, being from New Zealand. After all, my friend didn’t look like someone who would eat dog meat. By that I mean he didn’t have long arms with knuckles that dragged the floor when he walked or oversized fangs protruding from his mouth. He looks like a normal person. My friend then said, rather cheerfully, that he loved it and that it tasted like beef or mutton, "depending on how it's cooked." I thought to myself how disgusting and terrible it is to eat what we westerners consider to be 'man’s best friend' and, on top of that, say that it tastes like a farm animal. The next thing he did, almost inevitably, was to ask if I'd like to try some. I laughed. I like to try new things, but this was newer than I'd expected. 'Heck I'm in Korea, so why not?", I thought, and answered in the affirmative. I suddenly wondered to myself, did I just say yes to eating dog meat? I love dogs. Ever since I was a child I have loved dogs. I still carry a picture of my own beloved though long-dead pooch in my wallet. How could I have so readily agreed to partake in such an act of treason to my dog’s memory? But it was too late. My friend already had the plan in motion, which included inviting his Aussie friend, who also loved Bosintang, to witness my canine treachery. Wonderful!