Exploring the South Korean Peninsula
Before going to South Korea, I have to admit I knew very little about the country or it’s people. After spending two years working in South Korea and returning home, although I now know infinitely more than I did, there remains a lingering feeling that I still only just managed to scratch the cultural surface.
My first few months on the Peninsula were spent musing that I had found some secret microcosm of utopia. A superficial combination of clean streets, friendly people, and everything one could possibly need within easy access, led me to this rather naïve notion. Then came the inevitable culture shock, a renewed negativity, followed by acceptance and the gradual upward motion of revived positive emotions, taking me ever towards a more balanced view of the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’. Now, having acquired a taste for all things Korean and reflected objectively upon the experience from a safe distance, I am sure that I will return to Korea in the near future to learn more.
So what does your average Western ‘Joe’ know about South Korea? ‘It’s Communist isn’t?’ is a popular response by those who shy away from world affairs. Those who are better informed might tell you that the North and South Korean nations are officially at war. Although this is true, the war is very much a ‘cold’ one, and it has been for decades. The DMZ (demilitarised zone) spanning across the borders of North and South Korea is a foreboding place where guards eyeball each other across the neutral area from one nation to the other. The North Korean soldiers send propagandist messages across the border by means of loudspeaker and radio, whilst the southern sentinel counterparts keep a close eye on activities across the border. The Nations are locked in a perpetually passive and political battle, which does not seem like being resolved anywhere in the near future.
The politics of the Korean Peninsula in truth, should not be an issue when deciding whether or not to visit South Korea. South Korea is a peaceful, prospering democratic nation with a friendly, hardworking and business-minded people. Although the nation is known as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ for the tradition of not mixing very much with foreigners, it is also true that the Internet is revolutionising the way that the current Korean generations, particularly the youth, are thinking. South Korea is indeed one of the most wired countries in the world as far as being in the online community is concerned. The Koreans are streets ahead of us when it comes to telecommunication systems, and this can be quickly observed by taking a walk around the urban metropolis of Seoul. Korean’s are becoming increasingly interested in all things western whilst still retaining the essence of their traditional heritage.
A resounding fact is that not many people go to South Korea to take a holiday. Most people who decide to travel to the Far East opt for the more popular and well-known destinations of Thailand, Japan or even Cambodia or Vietnam. South Korea remains something of an unknown quantity for your average tourist. Those with first hand experience of Korea tend to be business people, foreign correspondents or English teachers. In fact, Korea is currently one of the most popular places in Asia to teach English due to the growing demands of International Commerce and extremely high standards of education in Korea.
If you come to South Korea, your first impression might be that it is a clean, affluent country with a rich and ancient heritage poking through a capitalist, commercial and modern society. Ancient traditions of Confucianism and patriarchal social hierarchies bleed between a society that embraces the global post post-modern era celebrating brand names and technology. This creates a confusing chimera of the old and the new that is difficult to grasp.
The Peninsula is abundant with Buddhist temples and even the overpopulated urban capital of Seoul has several ancient temples and monuments to explore. These temples are curiously the remains of an ancient kingdom that has now been surrounded by the mass urban sprawl of modern high-rises and business blocks. Here, one can visually see a symbiotic relationship between the old and the new, which perfectly depicts the very nature of Korean culture.
By following a trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, you will eventually find your way to the honeymoon destination of Cheju Island, which is a large volcanic Island on the southern tip of Korea. Here, in contrast to the buzzing, disorientating atmosphere of Seoul, you will find peace and serenity and a traditional Korea that can be explored at your own leisurely pace. You might see the notorious Korean diving women, who dive under the sea for minutes on end without oxygen in order to make a living. Or you might go to one of the traditional villages on Cheju and soak up some tangible, authentic and original Korean culture. It is certain that you will come across the world famous Korean sidedish of Kimchi whilst you are taking lunch somewhere, and you will also encounter a variety of other sidedishes too, as Koreans love myriad sidedishes with their meals. You might eat Bibimbap, or Kimbap, or Mandu, or a whole host of other delicious Korean foods that you will probably have never eaten before. After spending some time in Korea, you will begin to wonder why it is not a more popular tourist spot. I suppose most people prefer the road well travelled.
With the nearby natural paradise of Thailand and the technologically impressive Japanese Islands close by, Korea often fades away in the tourist industry like a great-undiscovered tomb holding ancient treasures. If you are brave enough to excavate the tourist map and look beyond the hotspots, you just might just find something wonderful that you never expected.
By Jason Gaskell