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24th September 2011

South Korea

seoul - korea

I cannot ever imagine a tourist brochure convincingly attracting you to visit South Korea and, in honesty, don’t think there are any tourist brochures trying to do such a thing. However, after having recently spent some time there, I would like to stand up for this unique little piece of land, jutting out of Asia so innocently, and tell you why it is well worth visiting. Perhaps to begin though, I’ll tell you why you wouldn’t visit it – just in case you’re looking for one of those typical holidays you see in brochures…

If you’re looking for long stretches of white sandy beaches lined by palm trees with your days spent in the sun swimming, snorkelling, diving and tanning, Korea is not for you. If you’re looking for night-life, wild parties, and streets filled with drunken youth hurling incomprehensible obscenities at their “friends”, then Korea is not for you. If high mountains, active (or more relaxed) volcanoes, rock climbing, river rafting and a host of other adrenalin-pumping adventures are your thing, perhaps Korea is not for you. Maybe endless rolling hills, quaint country houses, open spaces, some tame wildlife and unspoilt vistas are your thing, well then, Korea is not quite your cup of tea either. Now before you misunderstand me (and I would hate that) Korea has got all these things mentioned above, it’s just that it is not famous for any of them. This is largely due to the fact that in comparison to Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, Laos, Hong Kong, Vietnam – and the list goes on – it can’t come close to satisfying you. Added to all of that, and often the most important factor for me in deciding where to travel, the Korean food is not exactly world-renowned, in the good way at least.

What then, would you say, is a good reason for visiting this far-flung piece of South East Asia? Well, let me have the pleasure of telling you, in a thousand words or so, but firstly thank you for deciding to continue reading, you are obviously not the “touristy type” we true tourists loathe so much.

Well, for one, it has character. South Korea is unlike anything else you’ll experience in the world. You may say “But what about North Korea?” to which I will reply “Good luck getting in there!” or rather, getting out. The history of these two, now separate, nations is quite something as they have largely been isolated from the rest of the world due to their geographical position. Cast a brief glance at a map and you’ll realise that it has only China and a tiny, remote portion of Russia as neighbours. Their other “neighbour”, if you’ll ignore a small strip of ocean, is Japan, who also have done them no favours over the years, having ruled them until as recently as 1945. Thankfully, ships and aeroplanes allow these Koreans to fly over their neighbours nowadays and they’ve finally managed to bring back “treasure” from afar, only a few centuries later than the majority of the trading world. If only they had had a man like Vasco De Gama back in the 1500’s… but then maybe I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be writing this wonderfully enlightening article!

More specifically though, there is the one thing that Korea has that exists nowhere else in the world. It’s taken some time for me to think this through and come up with a good answer but I think it’s just this: “A great combination of some important attributes every country should strive towards.” Koreans are warm and friendly. They are helpful and generous. They are hard-working. They are humble. They do what is right and good. They are remarkably childlike (note: not childish) in their idea of fun. They are incredibly social and most likely have no word for individualism. Some countries have one or more of these but the combination of all of them makes for a remarkable state.

Yes, Koreans are also educated, efficient, first-world, polite, fashionable, musical, multi-talented, creative and a host of other seemingly important things but I don’t believe those things are what give you an affinity for a country. The one major thing that made me fall in love with Korea is the people, and to me you cannot really experience, and therefore enjoy, a country without getting to know its people. I’ve heard hospitality defined as “Love and kindness shown towards a stranger” and if that is true then Koreans are really hospitable, for the most unlikely people showed us the most kindness in our travels there. Being a big fan of stories, especially ones with a moral lesson to it, a la Rudyard Kipling, perhaps I’ll give you a good example.

Place: Pohang (A fairly large city on the South-East coast of South Korea)

Event: World Fireworks Championships

Story: We arrive just in time to watch the two hour fireworks competition at the beachfront, which overlooks the natural harbour so suited to hosting the event. With a huge crowd of people clamouring for seats we just stand awkwardly near the back unaware of where to go and what to do. A friend takes the lead, navigates to the front of the crowd, sits on the beach in prime position by the water’s edge and motions for us to join her. We follow suit and a moment before we sit a Korean family behind us move off their mats, shuffle back a foot or two and offer us the mats to sit on. We politely decline over and over again but eventually their lack of English comprehension wins and we are forced to sit down and stop obstructing their once flawless view of the harbour in front of us. Now seated in pure comfort, and absolutely ecstatic at arriving last and getting the best seats, we become overwhelmed when they start offering us their food as well. I would have probably started crying with wonder at such gestures of unselfishness and generosity had their traditional food (including “delicacies” like fermented cabbage and dead fish) been a little more suited to my taste buds!

The show was spectacular, Korea literally blew away the other three countries (China, Australia and Portugal) with their fireworks show, displaying typical hallmarks of Korean culture: creativity, professionalism, beauty and most especially of all… to the beat of the latest K-Pop song! For the unenlightened, K-Pop is the most popular music in Korea and to understand just how bizarre, amazing and popular it is one must immerse oneself completely in Korean culture – and partake in another bizarre, and slightly too popular, Korean tradition – Karaoke! Karaoke is in fact so popular that many buses are kitted out with a TV and two microphones so that the entire bus can enjoy anyone sing the latest pop songs on your typical five hour journey. Luckily for the people on the bus, the average Korean is quite in touch both musically and culturally and their talent is eagerly displayed on every occasion. Even more luckily, I found that on five hour bus rides, in Karaoke houses, restaurants, airports, libraries, subways, parks, museums (and most probably all the other places I didn’t manage to visit) I found all Koreans to be such wonderful people. In need of some help? Just stand still with a blank look on your face and within a minute a friendly Korean will come up to you and ask if you need any help. It’s like being in a country-sized hotel the level of “service” you get – except you don’t have to pay for it and it’s certainly not insincere – for there is no hidden motive to the millions of people willing to help you.

So perhaps their beaches can’t rival those of Thailand, or their volcanoes aren’t quite as active as those in Bali or Japan, but one thing I can say for this part of the East is that you’ll go on mountain hikes, explore historical centres, navigate yourself through the subways of Seoul all in confidence that around every corner awaits another friendly Korean who will gladly part with their time and money to ensure you enjoy their wonderful country. And to me, that is something no picture on a tourist brochure can rival.