It is easy to fall under the spell of South Korea. From unique culinary experiences and sobering military zones to picturesque natural landscapes, fashion-forward beauty treats and more, the country offers an adventure that is more complex than kimchi and catchier than a K-pop beat.
On 2 June 2019, 51 participants embarked on the annual AA-Wanbao trip for a 11D10N Fly-Drive South Korea. The trip took place from 2–13 June 2019.
Here’s a glimpse of their itinerary.
INCHEON — more than just an airport
Most visitors to South Korea breeze past the airport city and head straight to the capital, Seoul. But aside from having a casino and golf course in the airport itself, this coastal city also boasts its own street food charms, quirky shopping and war stories.
Hang out with the locals at Sinpo International Market, which is one of the oldest traditional markets in Incheon. Savour a spread of traditional fare, such as Korean mandu, or dumplings, at Sinpo Woori Mandu; they are said to taste as they have since 1971. For those who cannot resist a queue, get in line for the stall selling dalkganjeong, a crispy chicken dipped in sweet and spicy sauce. Some have said that it’s even better than those found in Seoul — totally worth the wait.
To catch a glimpse of life in North Korea, head to Ganghwa Peace Observatory. Apart from specialty shops selling goods originating from Ganghwa and North Korea, there is a gallery of images reminding visitors of the peace that must never be taken for granted. At the observatory facility on level three, you can zoom in to observe North Korean life in the city of Yeonbaik-gun through a highly advanced screen.
Malls are aplenty in South Korea, a fashion- and beauty-forward nation, but the quirkiness of NC Cube Mall makes it a must to visit. Located close to Songdo Central Park, this outdoor mall is built around a canal, with topiaries shaped like chess pieces and whimsical statues in a state of play in the water. The huge development comprising five blocks is a retail and recreation haven, with bookshops, cafes, restaurants and fashion brands that cater to all budgets.
Heart and SEOUL
The capital city of Seoul has many faces. As a grand dame with a history spanning 2,000 years, it is home to five UNESCO Heritage sites. As a gleaming metropolis, it is the headquarter of global technology leaders Samsung and LG, and the birthplace of K-pop and the Korean Wave. So, it is not surprising that a typical day in this dynamic city can take you from a morning walk in a 14th-century royal palace to an afternoon of serious shopping followed by an evening of dazzling light display at a modern cultural complex.
Gyeong Bok Gung (Gyeongbok Palace) was the main palace of the capital city and the largest of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul. First constructed in 1395 during the Joseon Dynasty, the palace has undergone many periods of destruction and restoration over the centuries. If you don’t have time to tour the entire palace, be sure to visit the impressive two-storey main palace building.
The famous Myeong Dong Shopping Street is where you can find your much coveted Korean beauty and fashion products. Skip the international big brands such as H&M and ZARA; instead, check out popular local labels such as SPAO for their trendy designs at affordable prices, and Bean Pole for their chic designer clothes and leather goods.
Enjoy the LED light art display at Namsan Tower, with its changing colours and patterns. This landmark of Seoul, with its highest point at 480m above sea level, is the perfect vantage point to get a gorgeous panoramic view of the city.
A naval presence at PYEONGTAEK
At the modern architectural facility located just off the docks at Pyeongtaek, visitors can get up close to the Cheonan, a real-life warship that sank when it was torpedoed by North Korea on 26 March 2010. The ship was recovered and placed on display so the world can view the impact of the torpedo that tore the steel frame of the ship into two. Documentaries, such as Project Cheonanas well as an episode of KBS TV’s In Depth 60-minutes dedicated to the incident, have been made on the sinking and other battles.
Beauty in nature at DAEJEON
Daejeon, the city of science and technology, is home to research institutes such as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Apart from the traditional Daejeon Central (Jungang) Market specialising in dried fish and seafood, it also has Euneungjeongi Culture Street (Sky Road), a fashion epicentre comparable to Seoul’s Myeongdong shopping district.
But the real gem of this city is the Jangtaesan Recreational Forest. Stroll along a verdant forest of ginkgo trees and bald cypresses, and take in the beautiful views of the Yongtaeul Reservoir. For the most spectacular views, climb up the sky tower via the skyway — if it starts to get windy, hold on tight!
JEONJU — for a taste of tradition
Jeonju is famous for the Jeonju Hanok Village, bibimbap and traditional Korean alcohol. Named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2012, the city is also the protector of the nation’s culinary legacy. Jeonju Hanok Village is a hit with both locals and tourists, who are lured by the charms of its hundreds of hanok — the traditional homes of the Korean upper class — and network of cobblestone lanes. Many of them have been converted to restaurants, boutiques, galleries and accommodations. Rent an authentic hanbok for a day and take a stroll through the village for some Insta-worthy shots.
Of flora and fauna at SUNCHEON
The scenic city of Suncheon cemented its status as an Eco-City of South Korea when it hosted the Suncheon Bay Garden Expo in 2013. The Garden Expo is the flower in Suncheon’s cap, housing over 505 species of trees and 113 species of flowers, including tulips and royal azaleas. Nearby, you can explore the Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve, a bird lover’s paradise with over 140 species of birds, including the rare white-naped crane and Eurasian oystercatcher. For a picture-perfect view, embark on a 20-minute hike up to the observation deck.
The power of art at TONGYEONG
Tongyeong is known for fresh seafood, picturesque seascapes, and a quaint charm. But it is most famous for Dongpirang Wall Painting Village, a place where colourful houses stand pretty against the deep blue ocean. The village was saved from redevelopment after a campaign where university art majors and others decorated the old walls, fences, stairs, chimneys and even water tanks with various paintings. Today, it has become an inspiring attraction for artists and writers, and a popular spot for tourists who wish to flood their Instagram accounts with gorgeous shots.
The heart of the film industry in BUSAN
Busan is a bustling city loved for its spectacular seaside beaches, historic temples, vintage shopping, and amazing food. But it became known as the film capital of the country when it hosted the first Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in September 1996. As you take a walk in BIFF Square, don’t forget to look down and try to spot hand prints of celebrities both local and foreign.
If you get hungry, head to Gukje Market, where an amazing selection of street food beckons. You may want to try yubu-jeongol (fried tofu stew), ssiat-hotteok (sweet Korean pancake stuffed with seeds) and cbibim-dangmyeon (spicy glass noodles). If you are feeling adventurous, go for sundae (blood sausage — sausages stuffed with various ingredients mixed with pig’s blood).
Busan’s Haedong Yonggong Temple is considered one of its must-see attractions, as it is one of the rare few in South Korea to be set by the sea. The temple overlooks the vast open sea, offering one of the most dramatic ocean views in Busan.
Walk back in time at GYEONGJU
Korea’s ancient capital of Gyeongju is often called a ‘museum without walls’. Home to the rulers of the Silla Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 57BC–935AD, Gyeongju was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its remarkable collection of sculptures, reliefs, pagodas, and the remains of temples and palaces from the Silla Dynasty. This historical city is also where many Korean dramas and films were filmed, including Rooftop Prince and The Goblin.
Start your journey at Gyeongju Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, the palace of the Crown Prince. By day, its architectural beauty stands out in majestic contrast against a dramatic mountainous backdrop. Once night falls and the lights come on, the dazzling transformation is almost magical. To view the grandeur of Silla royalty, be sure to check out the Gyeongju National Museum, where you can get a close-up view of their jewellery, weaponry, and even a 5th-century gold crown.
If you come across mounds of verdant green hilly terrain, do not mistake it for an unusual golf course. It is actually the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, and the hilly terrain marks burial mounds of the Silla Kingdom’s ruling elite. There are 23 large tombs, and visitors can enter Cheonmachong tomb, named after the painting of a white heavenly horse on a mudguard saddle flap found within.
Another must-see structure is the 1,300-year-old Cheomseongdae Observatory, which stands tall as a symbol of the ancient city’s scientific influence. Constructed during the reign of Queen Seon-deok (632–647AD), the tower was used for observing the stars and forecast the weather.
However, the true jewel in Geongju’s crown lies 12km away. The Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Grotto form an outstanding example of Buddhist religious architectural complex that flourished in Gyeongju in the 8th century. Both are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Designed to represent the land of Buddha, the Bulguksa Temple complex comprises a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces, which attests to the fine masonry work achieved by the Silla Dynasty. The Seokguram Grotto enshrines a monumental statue of Buddha, surrounded by statues of devas, bodhisattvas and disciples, sculpted in high and low relief on the surrounding walls. These statues are considered masterpieces of East Asian Buddhist art.
Fall in love with the ocean at SAMCHEOK
The marine city of Samcheok offers spectacular ocean views as you drive down the 4.6km Isabu Road along the beautiful east coast of Korea. The road was named among 100 most beautiful roads in Korea.
At Saecheonnyeon Coastal Park, you can make a wish at the beautiful oval-shaped, three-tier Wishing Tower. Built in 2000, its design represents the shape of two hands praying for a brighter new millennium. One of the best ways to capture the panoramic beauty of the landscape and coastal scenery is from inside the Samcheok Marine Cable Car, which hangs from a height of 874m over the ocean!
A view from the top of MT SEORAK
When in Korea, a trip to Mt Seorak, or Seoraksan, is a must. Located in the northeast of Korea, Seoraksan Mountain is one of Korea’s most beautiful mountains. It is 1,708m tall, and surrounded by the iconic Seoraksan National Park, which is famous for its views, clear mountain streams, and vibrant flora and fauna.
There are many lovely hiking trails, but you can also take a shortcut via cable car to the top of the mountain. The six-minute ride offers fascinating views of rock formations of the Gwongeumseong Fortress as well as the popular Ulsanbawi Rock. There are many picture-worthy sights, such as Sinheungsa Temple, where you may be able to spot local monks practising tea ceremonies in the 7th-century architectural wonder. Near the temple sits a magnificent bronze Buddha statue, a symbol of hope for the reunification of North and South Korea, earning it the nickname, ‘Great Reunification Buddha’.
Border intrigues at CHERWON
Located right next to the border separating North and South Korea, Cherwon is a truce village sitting in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The site of bloody battles and tense border conflicts, it is here that you can truly experience the reality of the great Korean division, against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty.
Goseokjeong Pavilion is the starting point for DMZ tours, as the Iron Triangle Battlefield Conservation Office is located here. The two-story tower-style pavilion is also one of the most scenic spots to take in the panoramic view of the surrounding landscape of the DMZ.
A visit to the DMZ would not be complete without going through the DMZ 2nd Tunnel. This second North Korean infiltration tunnel spans a total of 3.5km and sits between 50m and 160m below the surface. The tunnel is wide enough for tanks, and 30,000 soldiers can pass through every hour.
At the Cheorwon Peace Observatory, you will be able to see the Cheorwon plains, the remains of the ancient Taebongguk (nation), and even the faces of North Korean soldiers through binoculars.
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