It is a land where melting icicles drip from trees, where people are unfailingly polite and where dreamy-eyed young and beautiful women line the streets.
These were my idyllic impressions of South Korea before I arrived there for a visit recently - that it was nothing else but a whimsical and beautiful place.
I admit that I, like many other females in the late teens to early 20s, got this profile of the island from watching Korean dramas such as "Winter Sonata" and "Full House".
However, when I boarded the plane home after my stay, only one of those ideals remained.
My first whiff of the cold Korean air was in the small village of Jeju to which we arrived via a connecting flight from Incheon, the main airport. The place is notable for its luxuriant flora and a reconstructed historical village.
Scenic beauty aside, my tropical Singaporean skin, unused to the bitter cold, took a beating immediately especially when the wind whipped up and dug its icy fingers into me. It took me a while to adjust to the winter sting, chapped lips and a dry throat every morning.
Swinging gourds at Nami Island
On the coach going through the streets of Seoul towaards our hotel, I glimpsed from the window signs reading "Buy the Way".
Puzzled, I resolved to find out what it meant. It turned out to be the name of a 24-hour convenience store. It was a cute pun. Already the city was beginning to take on a very interesting character.
As the bus passed by one of the many traffic crossings, I saw a withered old woman, but with posture still erect, with a cloth wrapped bundle balanced atop her head. She took dainty little steps across the street and winding her way through traffic, and only stopped once to reposition the bundle. Wow. That took some skill!
The next eight days passed by in a whirlwind of shopping, touring and scenic sightseeing. Since it is impossible to include every moment, here are my top 10 "must visit" places in South Korea:
- Located just out of Daegu is Spa Valley, a destination which promises to relax the most tired or stressed-out customer. The room I went to allowed the full Korean experience of bathing nude! A must-try is the body scrub.
Tel: (053) 608-5000-8;
Fax: (053) 608-5004
- One always reads about Korean ski-resorts in the newspapers. But nothing beats a visit to one. It is a personal expedition you will remember as an excellent blend of adventure and beauty.
Do check out Dragon Valley Resort.
Address: 130 Yongsan-Ri Doam-Myun, Yongpyong Pyungchang-Gun, South Korea;
Tel: +82 33 3355757;
Fax: +82 33 3350160
Travellers on a larger budget can stay at the Dragon Valley Hotel.
Address: 232-950 Gangwon-do, Pyungchang-gun, Doam-myeon, Yongsan-ri 130
- Korea's street clothing and food stalls, the hub and blend of cultural activity is sure to get you piqued about the rest of the city. Moreover, you never know what bargains you can discover there! Try the Dongdaemun Market and the Hwanghak-dong Flea Market in Seoul.
- A grocery store, where snacks are packaged in the most attractive wrappers imaginable. Being relatively affordable, buy some back as gifts for your friends!
- The Ritz-Carlton (Seoul) - it is the ultimate in luxury, and houses many top-class restaurants. Its bathrooms are a real treat for a bath and can easily keep you occupied for an hour or more.
Address: 602-4 Yoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu;
Tel: (02) 3451-8000; Fax: (02) 3451-8188
- Nami Island is the place where "Winter Sonata" was filmed. Many enter feeling nonchalant but leave feeling starry eyed.
- The Ginseng Center sells quality Koryo Ginseng at a reasonable price. Once inside, there will be a tour explaining the general impact ginseng has on health, which means you will never look at ginseng the same way again.
Address: 26-4 Yongdu-dong Tongdaemun-gu, Seoul;
- The street nightlife is particularly interesting and gives an insight into the kind of life Koreans lead. Witness the stag groups and hen parties roaming the streets.
- Sangsoo's Herbland is a farm which blends herbs for health boosts and is aid to have provided the essential supplements for Korea's beauty queens.
Address: 480 Oicheon-ri Buyong-myun Cheongwon-gun Chungbuk;
Tel: 82-43-277-6633 (Customer Service Centre)
- Everyone needs some fun once in a while, and to be thrilled and ecstatic like a kid.
Visit Lotte World theme park, a part of the Lotte Complex which also houses a shopping mall, and hotel under the same brand name.
Address: 40-1, Songpa-Ku Chamshil-dong, Seoul, Korea;
Tel: (02) 411-2000
Another recommended theme park is Everland.
Tel: (031) 320-5000
The roof design of Changdukgung Palace
My personal favorite, not on the listing as it deserves a few paragraphs of its own, is the Changdukgung Palace, a Unesco World Heritage site which has stood since 1405.
There we saw the very bench where the emperor of the past "met" his concubine. Their "bed" was actually a cold and hard marble bench, and although prettily decorated and surely made of well crafted stones, I myself would not have appreciated sleeping on it!
Another quirky encounter was during the tour around the palace grounds, when we stopped at the entrance to the courtyard of the main palace. Surprisingly, there were different-sized doors for entry, a taller one for males because they were generally better built than women.
However, certain glimpses of Korea made me realise that my idylic vision of Korea is not all it is cracked out to be.
During one of our shopping trips to an up-market district of Seoul, I spotted in the midst of the milling crowd a beggar lying on the ground. The throngs just walked past him without so much as giving him a glance.
He was asking for money, and alternated between pushing himself up with both hands, and then moving the box in front of him by a few inches. His lower half was bound up in a leather bag which covered what remained of his legs.
He didn't look capable of looking after himself and I was left wondering how he would survive.
Another "painful" incident happened in a Korean fast food joint, where our family visited. In a world where you can see words but can't read them, the act of basic everyday communication can be very trying.
I managed to order only after much gesticulations, hand signals exchanged between the waitress and myslef.
It was then I wished I knew some key Korean words other than my drama gained "sae-daeng-hae-you" which means "I love you".
In all, much of the wintry landscapes in Korea were beautiful. The images I saw, human and otherwise, formed deep impressions. I saw icicles on trees. Not all Korean women are beautiful. And they are not unfailingly polite.
Whilst cataloguing photos of the trip two weeks later, I realised that during my Korean sojourn, the country's character was what touched me the most.
I stared at a picture of myself in traditional Korean garb and the memories returned.
Kamsa hamnida (thanks for everything), Korea.
Photos: Esther Chew
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