A taste of Korean culture and cuisine
If you're a Korean serial drama fan, then you must visit Nami Island. -The Star, ANN
If you are one of those swept away by hallyu (or "Korean wave", the term used to describe the craze for Korean pop culture), a visit to Nami Island is a must.
Situated 63km from Seoul, in the middle of the Han River, the island was one of the main shooting locations for the popular drama series Winter Sonata, which aired in 2002. Although it has been six years since, the island continues to attract countless Winter Sonata fans all year round.
Nami is famous for its beautiful, tree-lined roads, which are a hit with couples and families.
I travelled there with three Asean journalists on the invitation of the Korean Tourism Organisation. It was a memorable visit, which I later extended so I could continue exploring on my own.
Named after General Nami, a hero who died in battle in 1469 at age 27, the island retains its rustic landscape because all electrical wiring is buried underground so there are no ugly electric poles and cables in sight.
You can take a three-hour walk on the island to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Some may opt to ride a bike around the island to sightsee. Every season offers a different kind of scenery on the island, with fall being the best time of year to visit as the leaves start to turn gold.
Winter Sonata fans will want to stay at the Jeong Gwan Ru Hotel, especially the rooms used by lead actor Bae Yong-joon and actress Choi Ji-woo while they were filming the series. I got a glimpse of Room 203, Bae Yong-joon's - it was a simple room with two single-beds.
Pictures from the series are hanged on the wall, and you can find pages of the script from it in the room. A one-night stay costs about 99,000 won (about RM300) on weekends or 66,000 won during weekdays.
Further afield from Seoul, five hours' drive away, is Naganeupseong Folk Village in Sucheon, where traditional Korean culture comes to life.
Ahn Youn-soon, 46, a resident at this village which receives thousands of visitors daily, is unperturbed by the army of tourists who move about near her thatched cottage, a traditional residence.
"I'm used to living under the scrutiny of the tourists. I will carry out my household chores as usual whether there are tourists or not. I love to stay in this traditional residence; it is where I grew up.
"In the evenings, when all the tourists have gone, I laze in the garden listening to the birds chirping and enjoying the breeze. It is wonderful to be able to enjoy the beautiful scenery in a quiet way. It's so peaceful and relaxing to be here," said Ahn.
Ahn's traditional house, like the others in the village, has two rooms and is surrounded by three other smaller thatched huts, which house the toilet, kitchen and storeroom respectively.
What makes Naganeupseong special compared to other traditional villages is that it's not a tourist gimmick but a living village - families continue to live here. Some 230 people live in 100 thatched cottages here, and the government offers them a yearly allowance to maintain their cottages just as they are.
Besides the traditional houses, the village also has well-preserved Choson Dynasty government buildings, a market place, a village school, a bird-breeding farm and an old prison.
Be sure to climb to the highest point of Naganeupseong's fortress walls to catch a spectacular view of the entire village.
You'll notice, though, that modernity has crept up on these traditional abodes from the TV antennas and heaters that have somewhat incongruously attached themselves to the thatch-roofed houses.
Suncheon is also near to Boseong, which is famous for its green tea plantation. The temperate climate in Boseong, on the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula, is ideal for green tea cultivation.
The beauty of the green tea fields here, looking like a soft green carpet from a distance, is such that they often form the backdrop in Korean TV dramas and advertisements.
Less than an hour's drive from Boseong is Damyang, another interesting city famous for its bamboo. The daily life of the locals are closely associated with bamboo. They cook rice in bamboo, use toothbrushes made from bamboo and sleep on bamboo beds.
The Bamboo Theme Park is a must-visit if you are in Damyang.
Don't forget to sip water from the bamboo trees at the entrance of the park. Locals believe that the water will rid the body of toxins and make you look fresh and good.
Don't worry about having nothing to do in Seoul because the shops stay open past midnight.
Even in the wee hours you will find people shopping for clothes, accessories and shoes at the Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets. The markets, which are open all night and are full of shoppers every hour of the day, make you think that the evening is still young.
Although the clothes and fashionable stuff are nice and eye-catching, they don't come cheap because Seoul is one of the most expensive cities in the world. But if you have the patience and time, you can still find cheap and nice clothes in the city.
Beauty products, though, are cheaper here than in Malaysia. It is no wonder then that Malaysian visitors to Korea often keep an eye out for cosmetics, facial and body products.
After shopping, you can head to Itaewon by subway, where the bars, nightclubs and ethnic restaurants are located. If you do not have any particular place to visit, you can ride on the subway and get off at any station and voila! there is bound to be a tourist attraction or two.
Seoul is also a good place to people-watch. Koreans are said to spend hours in front of the mirror before stepping out of the house. If you are lucky, you might even bump into a Korean actor or actress on the streets.
I was lucky enough to see actor-cum-model Lee Dong-wook (the lead actor in drama series My Girl) shooting at the Insa-dong, a place famous for traditional culture and shopping.
He was there shooting a TV series and attracted quite a following. Many young Korean girls were beside themselves, screaming out his name and snapping pictures of him on their cellphones.
Before I came to Korea, I had limited experience with Korean food, thinking there was just BBQ or kimchi. But the Korea Tourism Organisation has helped open my eyes by introducing various types of local delicacies.
Besides kimchi, there is bibimbap, a healthy Korean meal that truly represents Korean dining. It features a bowl of steamed rice mixed with a variety of vegetables and red pepper paste. Another must-try meal is samgyetang (chicken ginseng soup), young chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, garlic and Chinese dates.
To si rok or lunch box is also a popular dish among Koreans. Parents started preparing this lunch-box meal for their school-going children in the 1980s, comprising rice, kimchi, and egg packed in a tin box and set on top of a heater to keep warm.
You have to shake it up so that all the ingredients are mixed up. But be sure to use oven mitts when picking up the tin!
The fun is in the exploration
Han Kok mal he yo mood (I do not understand Korean language).
This was the first Korean phrase I picked up during my one-week stay in the Land of Kimchi. As I moved on my own from one place to another in Seoul, the locals kept talking to me in Korean whenever I asked for directions.
It didn't matter if I was speaking English; they still insisted on answering in Korean. Yes, communication is a real concern for Malaysians who are planning a free-and-easy trip to Korea. But this should not stop you from visiting the country, as the hospitality of the Koreans go a long way in helping to overcome the communication barrier.
The Koreans were always willing to help whenever I asked for directions, by pointing out the location on a map. I could roughly figure out what they were trying to say by studying their body language and gestures. Some will even make sure that you are on the right path by waiting at the roadside and making sure you don't take a wrong turn. English is not alien to every Korean, though.
Many among the younger generation can speak fluent English.
My Korean friend says it is probably a good idea to ask primary school pupils for the directions since they can speak English better than the adults.
In Seoul, you can move around easily by yourself because the public transportation system, especially the subway, is very convenient and cheap. It will get you to the major tourist attractions and shopping areas. With the buses, you can ask the driver by pointing to your intended location on a map. If the driver nods his head, you should sit right behind him so that he can tell you when to get off.
It was a fun learning experience for me to travel alone. There were many light moments when I tried to understand what they were saying; for instance, the elderly couple who took pains to explain to me that I had missed the last bus to my hotel in Jeju Island. The flipping of hands and gestures were endless, and in the end, we broke into laughter.
For me, the best way to better understand this country with many attractions is to talk to the locals.
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