Poor little Korea tends to be overshadowed by China and Japan. Most backpackers skip over it all together. The few that do stop here seem to only visit Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island. I guess they have their reasons. Frankly, it’s not as exciting. The temples and other historical sites aren’t as impressive. (Maybe because they were almost all destroyed by the Japanese in the 1500′s and rebuilt only recently.) There are some nice national parks here, but again, they don’t compare to the parks you could visit in other countries.
The lack of exposure, though, also makes it a great place to travel. We didn’t see any other Western tourists in some of the cities we stopped in. And the Koreans are so nice. They are by far the friendliest people we’ve met on the trip so far. I feel like I’m back in the Midwest. While we were hiking in Seoraksan National Park, a group having a picnic insisted that we join them and eat some food. Whenever we look lost in a bus or train station, someone always stops to ask where we want to go. In Gangneung on the way to a park, the cab driver kept trying to tell us something. He finally got out his cell phone and started making calls, then handed us the phone when he got a hold of someone who spoke English. Apparently he had been trying to tell us that the park is very far away, and that we may not be able to find a way back into town, so he recommended we not go there at all. We agreed and he just took us back to our hotel, but he didn’t even make us pay the entire cab fare. If the same situation had happened in Southeast Asia, we probably would have been scammed out of hundreds of dollars.
We had our first actual home stay in Gangneung as well. The guy at the tourist office asked if we would like to stay in a guesthouse. In other countries, a “guesthouse” is really just a cheap hotel run by a family.??To our surprise, this one was literally a room in a family’s apartment. This wasn’t a quaint little apartment, though. It was a swanky pad on the 11th floor looking out on the ocean. ??The family we stayed with didn’t speak a whole lot of English, but they were very warm and welcoming.
The only thing that’s really letting me down is Korean food. I’ve given it a chance, but I just don’t like a lot of it. Kimchi, the national dish of fermented cabbage with spicy paste, must be an acquired taste. Many of the side dishes are cold vegetables, either pickled or fermented. It’s not all bad, though. I didn’t mind bibimbap, a mix of rice, vegetables, sometimes meat, and an egg. Meat here is incredible! Bulgogi, thin strips of marinated beef, is delicious. Korean??barbecue??places, where you cook the meat on a grill in the middle of the table, are really exciting (even if we do need help from the waitstaff). And fried chicken is quite popular here. A night of fried chicken and beer is just as much fun as our dumpling and beer nights in China. So I guess we won’t starve here as long as we’re fine with becoming carnivores for a while.
And Korea has the weird category as well. The prime example is our recent trip to the Penis Park in Samcheok. Yes, a park dedicated to the male sex organ. Apparently a long time ago in the little fishing village there, a young man took his fiance out to an island so she could gather seaweed. He left her there and said he would pick her up later. Well, a storm blew up and the girl ended up drowning. After that, the village was suddenly unable to catch any fish. They decided the girl’s spirit must be upset that she died a virgin. As a solution, they made a phallic offering and, sure enough, were able to catch fish again. The result now is a whole shore full of giant wang statues. It was more than a little odd to see, but it was a fun afternoon and, judging from the reactions of the Koreans there, we discovered that penis jokes must be funny in all cultures.
So South Korea might not have the fame and glamour of other countries, but I’d say it’s still worth a visit. If nothing else, at least you can have a laugh with some incredibly kind people.