Introducing South Korea
Yin and yang: the blue and red circle at the heart of the South Korean flag neatly symbolises not only the divided Korean peninsula but also the fluid mix of ancient and modern aspects of the country officially called the Republic of Korea (ROK). For the vast majority of visitors a trip to this part of the world means spending time in South Korea. Unfairly overshadowed by the headline-grabbing antics of its bad-boy neighbour, South Korea is a dream destination for the traveller, an engaging, welcoming place where the dazzling benefits of a fully industrialised, high-tech nation are balanced alongside a reverence for tradition and the ways of old Asia.
Academics still quibble over whether the Land of the Morning Calm (a term coined by travel writer Percival Lowell in 1885) is an accurate translation of the old Chinese characters by which all of Korea was once known. Dive into Seoul, powerhouse of Asia’s third-largest economy, and calm is likely the last thing you’ll feel. This round-the-clock city is constantly on the move, its ‘work hard, play hard’ population the epitome of the nation’s indefatigable, can-do spirit.
South Korea’s excellent transport infrastructure and compact size mean that within an hour of the urban sprawl more tranquil moments are achievable atop craggy mountain peaks enclosed by densely forested national parks threaded through with picturesque, challenging hiking trails. Get further off the beaten bath than you could believe possible by sailing to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk will welcome you into their homes and simple seafood cafes. Or sample the serenity of a Buddhist temple retreat where the honk of traffic is replaced by meditation and the rhythmic pre-dawn chants of shaven-headed monks.
If all this sounds a little too peaceful for your travelling tastes, rest assured the ROK also knows how to rock. A countrywide itinerary of lively festivals and events means there’s almost always a celebration of some sort to attend. If nothing else your tastebuds will be tingling at the discovery of one of Asia’s least known, but most delicious cuisines. Friendly Koreans will happily share this and other aspects of their culture with you, regardless of language barriers.
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There’s a noticeably absent cosmopolitan feel in this port city known for raw fish and a harsh dialect that people in Seoul sometimes find incomprehensible. Underneath the drab urban landscape created by an unimaginative use of concrete, quirky people jump the queue, shout while conversing and giggle at the sight of international travellers.