As promised, here are my highlights of South Korea. As with the neighbourhoods, there were many sites and attractions that I visited but these were my favourites. So enjoy!
Korean Folk Village
This was actually my first tourist stop! I had just gotten into Korea having done the 17 hour journey (including the unplanned emergency landing in Siberia!!), and my friend, Mirinae, was adamant that we hit the ground running and would not let me sleep, even for a minute! So we headed to the Korean Folk Village in Gyeonggi with her parents.
It really is a beautiful site, showing every aspect of the traditional Korean way of life, from the traditional houses (“hanoks”), to the clothes, the animals, the cooking utensils and even the penitentiary system! We got there in time to see a traditional Korean wedding procession and even some b-boys breaking it down in traditional costume too! I can’t think of a better way to have kicked off the trip!
Gyeongbokgung was the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty and the largest of the five grand palaces in Seoul. It was also the only palace I got round to seeing ha! It really is a remarkable site given that most of the buildings were destroyed first during the Japanese invasion in the 16th century and then during the Korean war. Restoration work is ongoing on the grounds although less than half of the buildings have been restored to date.
Still! It is an imposing landmark and walking through the grounds, I got a sense of the grandeur of the palace. I got to see the changing of the guards, as well as a few maidens in full traditional costume. There are also free English language tours available for the palace although I chose to roam free on my own, armed with my guidebook ha! There was a lot of ground to cover and it was rather exhausting, especially walking under the midday sun but it was definitely worth it!
This was definitely, without doubt, the experience I was looking forward to the most prior to visiting Korea. It just seemed like such an incredible experience – visiting what some call “the most dangerous place on earth” – the Demilitarized Zone, ironically named as it is probably one of the most heavily guarded places on earth! I didn’t realise until I got there, that it is technically a war zone, with both sides standing face to face everyday. Again, showing my ignorance, I didn’t realise that technically and legally Korea is still at war, as there is no peace treaty between North and South Korea and there was only an armistice agreement that was signed in 1953 by both sides, which ended the fighting.
At first, it felt more like a school field trip – our first stop was the Dora Observatory where we watched a military short film on the Korean War before heading to the Third Tunnel for the hike of our lives (I really was scared I wouldn’t make it out of there, that tunnel is STEEP and felt like it went on for MILES!!!). Next stop after the Third Tunnel was Dorasan Station whose mission is yet to be realized – to connect the two Koreas by rail.
After the train station, we headed to the Joint Security Area, and things got serious very quickly. I saw the signs for mines in the streets which freaked me out, I won’t lie! We had to sign a waiver acknowledging that we were entering hostile enemy territory and waived any claim against the US government for injury, torture or being taken hostage – crazy!! I don’t know what I expected but it definitely didn’t include seeing the South Korean soldiers standing at attention and the North Korean soldiers in the distance. My heart was beating really fast at this point!
The pictures you see below here are the ones we were permitted to take – at various points we were instructed not to take photos and instructed to refrain from making any gestures whatsoever towards the North Korean side of the MDL (“Military Demarcation Line”).
Amazing and unique experiences, these were the highlights for me on my trip! I’ll be following up with a food post next, so look out for that!