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Two Totally Contrasting Reasons to Visit Samcheok

In all honesty, there is little reason to visit sedate little Samcheok. The town is a bit of an eyesore thanks to an ugly array of factories shovelling plumes of smoke into the atmosphere around the clock, and the only ‘attraction’ of any note at all is ‘The History of Caves Exhibition,’ housed in an unsubtle building resembling a wedding cake gone horribly wrong. A small bus terminal and smattering of seedy hotels (Samcheok was my first experience of a ‘love motel’ – not what it sounds like – but that’s a whole different story)  pretty much accounts for the rest of the entire settlement. But, and it’s a big but, Samcheok is a handy base to explore two, er, interesting attractions that quite simply couldn’t contrast each other any more… 

Twenty kilometres away (take bus 24 from the bus terminal) in the tiny, unassuming seaside village of Sinnam resides quite possibly South Korea’s most bizarre, and hilarious, attraction. Haesindang Park… A park absolutely jam packed with enormous sculptures of cocks. No, not male chickens. Penises. Yes, you read that correctly. Dozens of wooden totems intricately carved with phallic imagery, nob shaped benches, statues of fishermen grasping their dramatically oversized members and even a penis themed take on the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. It’s an immature adults ridiculous playground that has to be seen to be believed. I’m not sure what’s funnier actually. Wandering around in sheer amazement taking a glut of crude photos to show your friends, or witnessing groups of sixty year-old Korean women giggling like school girls as they grab nobs like no ones business… As can be seen below.


So what on earth is the penis park doing here? In a country where pornography is illegal and sex is still a very taboo subject it seems drastically out of place. Well, legend has it the restless soul of a virgin who drowned in the area was having an adverse affect on the village’s catch. One fisherman discovered, whilst urinating into the ocean, that phalluses had the ability to appease her. Obviously that makes perfect sense, so the village set about constructing the sculptures and even held an annual ‘Penis Sculpture Festival.’ Haesindang Park houses the entries. Now you know. 

The second attraction accessible from Samcheok is somewhat more restrained. Hwanseongul cave (take bus 60 from the bus terminal) is one of the largest in Asia and is a real sight to behold. The cave is awe inspiringly huge, with over two kilometres of steel walkways winding away into the expansive darkness, leading the way past impressive rock formations, gushing waterfalls and impossibly large caverns. This being Korea though, the natural beauty of the cave is not enough. Garish neon lighting illuminates much of the cave and certain spots have been assigned eye wateringly cringey names. ‘Palace of Dreams,’ ‘Summit of Hope,’ and ‘Bridge of Love’ to name but a few. Still, Hwanseongul is well worth a visit. But be ready for a strenuous trek up from the ticket booth unless you’re prepared to pay for the monorail. 

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Penang Island’s Hattrick of Highlights

The island of Penang, located off the northwest coast of the mainland, represents Malaysia’s most diverse, eclectic and rich hub of culture, of which the capital of Georgetown is the enthralling epicentre. Shaped by historical significance -including British colonisation – and trade links with the west, whilst retaining many Asian traditions and charm, the capital is a glorious, curious mash up of ancient east meets west. Venture a little further a field and you’ll find the island has plenty more to offer too. Secluded beaches, tropical forests, stunning viewpoints and rural fishing villages to name but a few. Read on for my hat trick of highlights.

Street Art in Georgetown

Georgetown is Malaysia’s answer to England’s Bristol and Banksy. Hidden across the town on the side of pastel coloured buildings, down secret alleyways and down by the docks you’ll find beautifully creative works of street art that have become symbolic of Georgetown. The art scene here arguably gained international attention after Ernest Zacharevic’s ‘Mirrors Georgetown’ project, a series of murals depicting children, was completed in 2012. Since then an abundance of art has sprung up around the entire island, and it is an absolute blast to explore and discover them. Plus many allow for interaction and some very creative photo opportunities. 



Pretty much every hotel and hostel will carry maps detailing the location of the most popular murals, but the most rewarding way is to simply stumble upon them as you explore the historic town. If you really get in a pickle, mapps.me can locate most of the major artwork too.


Exploring by Moped

So you’ve found every mural in Georgetown and think you’re done here. Wrong. Go rent a moped and follow the coastal road away from the urban sprawl of the capital and into the tropical delights of the island. By sticking to the peripheral road alone, you’ll be taken past sweeping white beaches, up densley foliated mountains and through outlying rural villages. Without any stops a loop of the island starting and ending in Georgetown will take about five hours. So start early enough and you have plenty of time to take some inland detours to the botanical gardens and waterfalls as well as a spot of lounging on the beach. 



Tip: 3/4 of the route circumnavigating the island is picturesque, low traffic road winding slowly this way and that at a rather idyllic rate. The final quarter, in which you must pass the airport, is a loud, busy, chaotic, urban motorway requiring 100% concentration. That part isn’t so nice, or easy. Just so you know.

Penang Hill

Standing some six kilometres away from the centre of Georgetown, Penang Hill rises silently above the skyline, and offers some absolutely spectacular views. By day they are special enough, but seeing the city twinkle and shimmer under the light of the moon from 800+ metres up is just magical. Now you have three methods of reaching the peak. 1.) Pay 30 RM for a return (60 RM for the fast lane) on the funicular train 2.) Pay even more for a lift up in a 4×4 by the entrance to the botanical gardens. 3.) Walk up the tarmacced 5km track for free. Again by the entrance to the botanical gardens. Whichever you choose you will not be disappointed once at the top..


Trust me it’s even better in real life

Tip: You cannot drive a scooter up the track yourself. You will be stooped at the base. I didn’t know this and subsequently had to walk up the very, very steep track in flip flops. I do not advise this approach. Bring decent footwear if you plan to hike up. It will take about 2-3 hours at a leisurely pace.

Bonus 

If you’re staying in Georgetown visit Red Square Foodcourt. It is absolutely crazy and brilliant. Dozens of food stalls form a square around the central seating area and stage.

Step 1: Choose which stall to order from and give them your table number, they will bring your food over when it’s ready. 

Step 2: Roaming bar staff will take drinks orders at the table. 

Step 3: Sit back and enjoy the ridiculously entertaining assortment of singers and drag acts.

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Highlights of the Highlands

High in the hills some 200km from the capital, the fresh air and cooler climate of the Cameron Highlands offers travellers a refreshing respite from the heat and humidity of Malaysia. Developed during the British colonial era, the highlands bear an unmistakable British influence. From architecture and golf courses to arguably the areas most famous characteristic – tea plantations. Rows and rows of green patchwork formed by thousands of tea plants roll away into the distance, conjuring a spectacular and synonymous marvel. But there is far more to the highlands than tea. Hiking trails, ancient forests and strawberry farms coupled with the favourable climate make the area well worth visiting. Unfortunately many have realised, with monstrous building sites and under construction mega resorts blighting the beautiful landscape. Nevertheless, here are my highlights…

The Plantations

The highlands are renowned for their tea plantations and for good reason. They’re everywhere. Miles and miles of fuzzy green slabs adorn the hills for as far as the eye can see. Managed by the British (we do love our tea) in the late 1800s, the many plantations have survived to this day and are still big business. The best way to see the plantations is part of a tour, especially if you’re staying in Tanah Rata, which you probably will be. The guides are not only allowed access to the sites, but can also show you the best viewpoints and provide detailed information on the history of the plantations and how they affect the daily lives of locals. 


I highly recommend the tour from Daniel’s Lodge in Tanah Rata (Sivah is a legend.) As well as seeing the famous BOH plantation, the tour also includes the ancient mossy forest – more on that later – and the BOH factory, where you’ll be allowed to taste and buy the tea that grows on the very hills you’ve walked along. 

Hiking Trails


The highlands are a bit of a hikers dream. Multiple treks wind through the lush countryside, ranging in length and difficulty. From short, easy walks past plantations and strawberry farms (where you can pick your own should you desire) to full day slogs to the 6000+ foot peak of Mount Brinchang, the highest summit in the area. Whichever trail you choose, you’re sure to be treated to a sublime display of nature, especially in terms of flora. Rare and exotic species decorate the highlands with splashes of colour and bizarre plumage, particularly in the depths of the magical mossy forest. The forest is best explored with the help of a guide however as a.) it is very easy to get lost in the enchanting, gloomy myriad of gnarled branches and mossy growths. b.) some of the mosses and floras are extremely rare and can be destroyed by the slightest touch. Guides know how to best explore without damaging anything. The other trails can be navigated alone however, but purchasing a map wouldn’t be a bad idea. 


Tip: As always take plenty of water with you on any trek and it’s also a very good idea to have a raincoat handy. The weather in the highlands can get very wet!

Exploring By Moped

I’ve said it numerous times already, but the countryside in the highlands really is outstandingly beautiful and a fantastic way to explore it, besides hiking, is by moped. The roads are flanked by… You guessed it tea plantations, as well as sweeping green forests and rural settlements. Take your time, stop at the numerous viewpoints and simply enjoy.  Wear a helmet and definitely take a raincoat. It is certain to rain at some point! 


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Kuala Lumpur’s Top 5

Kuala Lumpur is the gateway to Malaysia. An exciting amalgamation of old meets new. Ancient traditions, monolithic skyscrapers and a stirring pot of cultures and nationalities conjure up a quite unique experience. Traversing the sprawling city can be a touch intimidating but thankfully an extremely useful monorail and free bus service can take you to most of the main tourist areas. So read on and find out where exactly they should take you as well as the best Kl has to offer.

The Food

The food. Oh my the food. Without a doubt my favourite aspect of Kuala Lumpur. The rich mix of cultures has led to a quite brilliant infusion of cuisines within the city. Malay, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Lebanese, Western, the list goes on. And it ranges from the budget street food characteristic of the rest of Southeast Asia to high rise sky restaraunts looking out over the twinkling city. Simply put, KL is a foodies heaven. Obviously, it boils down to personal taste, but if you would like my recommendation, get down to Brickfields for a taste of little India. You won’t be disappointed! 


The Towers

An obvious choice, but the Petronas towers, symbolic of the city, really are impressive. Formerly the tallest in the world, the imposing structures, visible from all over KL, are well down the list of tallest buildings now but that doesn’t detract from the marvel. By day they are great, but by night, illuminated against the dark sky, they are awe inspiring. 

Although not as prestigious as the Petronas towers, Menara Tower, standing at 421m, arguably offers better views of Kuala Lumpur. The bulb at the top is home to a revolving restaraunt, observation deck and a hair raising new addition… A glass box jutting out into the open abyss. A must for adrenalin junkies. 


The Sky Bars

The sky bars go hand in hand with the towers, and the rest of Kl’s glitzy high rises for that matter. After a long, hot day of sightseeing there is no better way to relax than to kick back with a cold beer 40 floors up, looking out over the glittering night skyline. There are a cluster to choose from, but my personal recommendations are Heli Lounge Bar and Luna.

Heli Lounge Bar, as the name suggests, is a sheek bar set on an actual helipad – a pretty unique experience. Weather permitting, the views are quite stunning. Luna, directly opposite Menara Tower, is a funky bar complete with open roof and swimming pool. The views aren’t half bad either. 

Perdana Botanical Garden

If/when the manic bustle, heat and claustrophobia of Kuala Lumpur get a little overwhelming Perdana Botanical Garden offers a beautiful, peaceful haven in which to escape. The garden, located within the Tun Abdul Razak Heritage Park in the heart of the city, is impeccably maintained. Hundreds of colourful flora, exotic trees and wildlife can be found throughout the expansive grounds, making for a great afternoon stroll. If that sounds too much like hard work, take a blanket and picnic and chill out by the water. 


Batu Caves

I’ll be honest, the limestone caves at this major Hindu shrine, a short train ride from Kuala Lumpur, are a little unimpressive. Trust me, climbing 272 steps to look around a small cave containing nothing but heaps of trash and a tacky shrine will leave you a little annoyed. But the site is still well worth a visit, to see the cheeky roaming monkeys and enormous golden statue of Lord Murugan, whom the site is dedicated to. ‘Dark Cave’, which requires a guide and entrance fee contains, is slightly more impressive offering up a number of interesting wildlife and rock formations.



The Batu Caves explode into life during the Thaipusam festival, held around January/February, as Hindus around the world descend on the site to celebrate. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the festival you’re in for a treat. Reaching the caves is easy and inexpensive. Just take a regular train from KL Sentral. 

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Jeju-do Island – A Hikers Paradise 

Situated off the south coast of the mainland, less than an hours flight away, lies Jeju-do, Korea’s largest island. The tropical climate, abundance of beaches and lush countryside have long established the island as South Korea’s favourite holiday destination. Besides lounging on the sandy shores and sampling the excellent local cuisine, Jeju-do excels in another, slightly more strenuous art. Hiking. From the highest peak in the country to volcanos and coastline hugging trails, Jeju-do has a wealth of hiking options catering to all levels of experience. In order to be best placed for all the best hiking, base yourself in Seogwipo, a charming city on the south of the surprisingly large island. 

Hallasan Mountain

I’ll start with the big one. At 1950m, Hallasan is the highest peak in South Korea and affords some pretty incredible views of Jeju-do from the top. There are several trails winding up the thickly wooded, dormant volcano but not all reach the very top. The most convenient trail from Seogwipo is Seongpanak. You can catch a local bus from the city centre directly to the start of the trail. It’s advised to start early doors, as you have to be at the midway point before 1pm in order to proceed for the summit. Now I’ll be honest, the route, whilst strenuous in areas, is not particularly exciting or adventurous. A narrow, unmistakable path winds through a dense pine forest, where you can catch glimpses of deer if you’re lucky, requiring little more than placing one foot in front of the other. Eventually after the midway rest area, the route, still heavily babying you through, leaves the monotonous pines behind and opens up to sweeping vistas peppered with colourful flora. Views out over Seogwipo toward the coast get better and better as you climb the numerous steep staircases of jagged rock to the summit. 


No. It isn’t the most beautiful or most challenging hike in South Korea. Far from it. But it’s the highest peak. That’s why you’re climbing it. For the status. And you get a lovely view from the top too. Depending on your fitness/motivation the trail will take around four hours each way. 


Unpredictable wether can obscure views in a matter of minutes

Tip: Take plenty of water and your own lunch with you. The only food available on the course is a wildly overpriced pot noodle at the rest station.

Seongsan Ilchulbong

One of Jeju’s most awe inspiring marvels. A 182m, bowl topped volcano towering right out of the sea. Dark, jagged crops of rock adorned with tropical foliage protrude from the volcano, creating a rather prehistoric atmosphere. Well if it wasn’t for the hordes of tourists I guess. The climb, taking no more than 20 minutes, is hugely popular at sunrise, but to do so, you’ll have to stay in the village of Seongsan-ri overnight. Nevertheless, it is still impressive in the light of day and the view from the top, weather permitting, is stunning. 



Tip: Do not miss the chance to see the famous haenyeo female divers on the beach on the east side of Ilchulbong. You can buy seafood from the restaraunt there and witness a performance by the ladies, many of whom are in their sixties, at 1:30 and 3pm.


The Jeju Olle Trails

Founded in 2007 by a Jeju native, the 26 Olle trails, varying in length and intensity, wind all over the island. It’s said that to complete the entire 430km of trails, marked with coloured ribbons, will take a month, so I recommend doing a bit of research and finding the right trail for you. Olle trail information kiosks can be found in most major settlements on the island.


A particularly scenic option from Seogwipo is trail number seven. From the west of the city, the route follows the emphatic, rugged coastline taking in Oedolgae – a finger of rock protruding out of the sea – and a number of quaint, traditional fishing villages. If you’re pushed for time, leave the trail and make you’re way to The World Cup Stadium. From here embark on trail 7-1 up and out of the city and into the forest, for a contrasting view from your morning by the coast. You’ll wander past picturesque rice fields, up to the summit of Gogeunsan Mountain and through more urban settings on a diverse stretch back to your starting point near Seogwipo. 

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The Best of Busan – The City That Has It All

South Korea’s second city, located on the south coast, is a real crowd pleaser. The formerly humble trading port has literally everything. Shopping – the worlds largest department store no less, beaches, temples, history, hiking, nightlife, museums and one of the finest range of culinary experiences in the country. Plus an efficient metro system to zip around the city to see them all. From the ashes of a turbulent past, regarding the multiple Japanese invasions and Korean War, Busan has developed into a trendy, action packed city bursting with opportunities. Here are my favourite things to see and do:

1. Haeundae Beach & CineStreet

You can’t go to a seaside town and not go to the beach right? Right. And it helps that Haeundae is a particularly attractive beach, bordered by equal amounts of sleek skyscrapers and grassy hills, easily accessible by its very own metro station. Even better, the area is full of hostels and cheap accomodation. Get your swimwear on! 


Facing away from the water, turn left and walk along the pavement. Within a few hundred metres you’ll be on ‘cinestreet’. So called to recognise the many films that have been shot in the city, and the glitzy Busan Cinema Centre, home to the Busan International Film Festival. Come at sunset to enjoy a glorious stroll with gorgeous views out over the bay, as well as to learn more about the cinematic history. 

2. Busan Tower

From 118m high, the panoramic views afforded from Busan Tower give a real sense of scale to the city. From the bustling harbour and huge Jagalchi Fish Market (also well worth a mooch around) to the south, sweeping mountains to the north and white, urban sprawl of Busan in between. A real treat on a clear day. To reach the tower, take Line 1 to Nampo and leave at exit 1. From there it’s a short walk through the rather pretty Yongdusan Park. Admission is W4000.

 


3. Hiking Geumjeongsan 

Busan, like nearly everywhere I’ve written about in South Korea, offers some excellent hiking. A great place to start your hike is at Beomeo-sa temple. Take Line 1 to Beomeosa, leave at exit 5, turn around at street level and take the first left. Walk up to the bus terminal and take the #90 bus. Nestled away in the forest set against an awesome mountain backdrop, the temple is well worth a quick look around before embarking on the hike. 


From the temples entrance signposts point the way towards the north gate of Geumjeong Fortress. Unfortunately all that remains of the fortress are four gates and a ruined wall. The views are still stunning nonetheless. From the north gate, take the moderately strenuous path to the right to reach the highest peak and most rewarding vistas.


When you’ve soaked it all in, return the way you came and continue straight past the gate again and follow the crumbling wall as it undulates over rolling hills and through patches of pine forest. All the while, the distant view of Busan becomes more and more impressive. For me, this stretch of the hike was the most enjoyable. It’s not particularly strenuous, but the scenery is just stunning! And don’t miss the huge rock jutting out over the cliff side above Busan. The view is incredible. 


Eventually, after nearly 9km in total, the path winds up at the south gate. From here it’s a short walk to the cable car – its only fair to treat your legs after all that work. It’s W4000 one way. 

4. Busan Museum & The UN Cemetery

To be honest, the Busan Museum is only mentioned here because of its conveniently close proximity to the UN Cemetery. The Gyeongju National Museum covers much of the same material in superior fashion. Having said that though, the Busan Museum does have an eye opening exhibit dedicated to the Korean War. Worth a look if your history isn’t up to scratch and also highly relevant if you’re visiting the UN Cemetery. And it’s free.

The UN Cemetery, the only of its kind in the world, makes for a sombre, humbling experience. The beautifully maintained lawns are the final resting place of over 2000 people, from 11 nations who supported the south during the Korean War. Please be respectful if you visit. 


5. Gamcheon Culture Village

Formerly a nondescript neighbourhood scattered across the the mountainside Gamcheon received a quirky makeover in 2009 evolving it into a funky tourist destination.The village is now a wash of pastel coloured buildings and hidden street art, complete with edgy cafes and art galleries. Navigating through the warren like alleys in search of the numerous curiosities is a few hours well spent, and the view out over the village towards the ocean is not to be missed. Its best to avoid Gamcheon on week days and public holidays when youngsters descend on the place, determined to take at least 1000 selfies before they leave. To get to Gamcheon, take Line 1 to Toseong Station. From there it’s a steep climb up the hill or a short bus ride. 

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Gyeongju – The Museum Without Walls

Gyeongju is a treasure trove of South Korean history. A living, breathing text book dedicated to the past few thousand years. The country’s highest, and most important, concentration of relics, tombs, temples and pagodas are housed here, many of which are out in the open in beautifully maintained parks. Hence the nickname ‘museum without walls’. The reason for the abundance in historical artefacts lies in Gyeongju’s own history. For nearly one thousand years the city was the capital of the Shilla Dynasty, until its demise. But it’s not only history that Gyeongju has to offer. The surrounding area, peppered with rolling green hills and mountains, offers some of the finest hiking in Korea. Read on for the things you definitely want to include on your itinerary.

The History Stuff:

It’s possible to take in all of the major historical sights in one day, taking a very pleasant walk from the city centre to Gyeongju National Museum and back. From the centre, head to Tumuli Park (W1500), home to 23 tombs of various monarchs and royal family members. The tombs take the peculiar shape of large, grassy hillocks, resembling the Teletubbies homeland. Although they may not be so elaborate, the idea behind them is essentially the same as the pyramids for the Egyptians, and they have yielded some fascinating treasures over the years which are now on display in Gyeongju National Museum. 


Upon exiting Tumuli park at the far side, cross the street and you’ll be in Wolseong Park, a vast, beautiful expanse of green lawns, backdropped by impressive mountains in the distance. Besides being a popular area for picnics and kite flying, the park houses further tombs and a number of relics, most notably Cheomseongdae – the Far East’s oldest observatory. Despite its simple aesthetic, the observatory relates to the calendar with amazing sophistication to say it was built over 1500 years ago.

When you exit the park, again at the opposite side to the one you entered, turn right and walk a few hundred metres to the free Gyeongju National Museum. The museum centres around an informative, if not a little word heavy, set of exhibits detailing human inhabitation of the area and the rise and fall of the Shilla dynasty. Without doubt the most interesting aspect of the museum is the archaeological hall. Here you can find the shimmering treasures unearthed from the city’s numerous tombs, including jewellery, weapons and royal crowns. The other exhibits, housed in seperate buildings, are devoted to pottery, art and the findings from Anapji Pond respectively. Neither of which are essential viewing. 


After that lot you’ll be suffering from a history overload hangover, so take a stop at Anapji Pond on your way back to town… Preferably at sunset, or close after. Formerly a garden to commemorate the unification of the Korean Peninsular under Shilla, Anapji Pond is now a firm favourite with young couples basking in the romantic atmosphere. Several stilted structures, protruding from the placid water are illuminated at nighttime casting beautiful light across the pond. Beautiful, but very, very popular. Prepare to dodge selfie sticks and canoodling couples. 


The Temple Stuff:

Set amongst encroaching pines and beautiful gardens 16km out of Gyeongju stands Bukguk-sa, quite possibly South Korea’s most revered temple. The UNESCO listed temple, set on a series of stone terraces, is a masterwork of Shilla architecture. From the sweeping eaves on the roofs to the ornate paintwork decorations. A modern touch of colourful lanterns, casting brilliant light across most courtyards, adds a refined touch of mystical atmosphere to the experience. To get here take bus 10 or 11 from town.


Sitting amongst the mountains, high above Bukgak-sa, is fellow UNESCO listee, Seokguram Grotto. At the end of a forest trail, alive with brazen chipmunks, you’ll find the grotto facing the East Sea. Inside, behind a thick glass partition, sits an image of Sakyamuni Buddha, surrounded by several guardians. I’m not saying it’s not worth visiting, but the glass partition, and smaller than you’d expect structure detract slightly from high expectations. You have two options of getting to Seokguram, a regular shuttle bus from Bulguk-sa, or a 3km hike up from Bulguk-sa ticket office. I’d recommend the bus up and hike down. 

The Hiking Stuff:

Standing ever sentinel just south of the city is the mighty Namsan mountain. A rewarding mix of gorgeous views, physical exertion and hidden relics strewn across the mountainside, Namsan has a lot to offer. Literally hundreds of paths, varying in difficulty and length weave away past streams, hidden religious monuments and breathtaking viewpoints. It’s impossible for me to tell you which hike to take, but I can tell you that you should definitely do at least one! Take a map and any advice you can get from your accomodation and head to the foot of the mountain on bus #11, 500, 501, 503, 505, 506, 507 or 591. Enjoy!

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A Short Guide To Hahoe Folk Village

If you want to catch a glimmer of the ancient Korea and the peaceful way of life, Hahoe Folk Village is the closest you are going to get in this day and age. Nestled away just a handful of kilometres from the surprisingly ‘happening’ city of Andong – the best place to stay if you plan to visit Hahoe – Hahoe Folk Village, now a UNESCO listed heritage site, has preserved the architecture, traditions and simple way of life of centuries gone by. Set out on a circular patch of land, partly enclosed by the Nakdong River, Hahoe makes a wonderfully picturesque way to spend a day, and there are a whole host of other things to see when you arrive too…

First things first. You need to get to the village. From Andong, bus number 46 runs regularly from 06:20 until – 18:20 and takes a little under an hour. Three buses a day (the 07:50, 11:00 and 14:20) make the additional stop off at Byeongsanseowon Confucian Academy. It’s a relatively attractive building set in stunning surroundings, but if you skip it you aren’t going to lose sleep. Whichever bus you take, you’ll be dropped off at the ticket office next to the Hahoe World Mask Museum. After purchasing a ticket, take the free shuttle bus down the road to enter the village itself. 


Byeongsanseowon Confucian Academy – Pretty but not essential

Upon walking through the gates, especially early in the morning when a slight mist rolls through the narrow lanes from the river, it feels as though you really could have time travelled back a few hundred years in Korea’s history. Until you see the first of many brand new cars that is. Almost everyone living in the village seems to have a fancy car actually. Taking a cut of the entry fee perhaps? Either way, the array of Lexus and Jaguar will do little to spoil the atmospheric charm of the place. Pink blossom trees line the dusty tracks, ornately decorated homes of brick and dark timber leave hefty wooden gates open for the curious and farmland rolls away toward the river and watching mountains in the distance. 


As if simply soaking up the atmosphere isn’t enough, there is a lively market selling local goods by the East river bank, the mystical Mansongjieong Pine Tree Forest and looming Buyongdae Cliff. To reach the latter, cross the short stretch of water on the ferry (W3000) and follow the path to the summit. From here you will be rewarded with beautiful views back over the entire village. Well worth the mini excursion. 


The view from Buyongdae Cliff

For me though, the highlight of Hahoe is the quite brilliant Maskdance Performance. At 14:00 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays (March – December) and Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (April – October) a traditional mask performance, synonymous with the area, is put on in the exhibition theatre by the village. The performance is entirely in Korean, but watching the actors, sporting a variety of interesting masks, dance around and play out easy to follow short stories is quite hilarious. Do not miss this! 

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The Spectacular Seoraksan National Park

Nestled toward the Northeast corner of South Korea is one of the country’s most iconic and beautiful national parks. A beloved national treasure, Seoraksan is a vast expanse home to breathtaking natural beauty, an array of colourful wildlife and some of the country’s greatest hiking trails. Natives descend on the park in their thousands during Autumn to witness the changing colours of the trees, but the park can be enjoyed pretty much all year around. Dense forest, ancient temples and Korea’s third highest peak (Daecheongbong) make sure of that. 

The park is split into three areas, namely Inner Seorak,  Outer Seorak and Southern Seorak. Outer Seorak is the most popular, close to the seaside town of Sokcho and home to a great variety of trails. From Sokcho it’s a 30 minute or so bus ride on either the number 7 or 7-1. Alternatively, stay in the charming little village of Seorak-dong and walk the two kilometres to the park entrance. I stayed in the village, and I’m not sure if it was the time of year (April) or what, but it was a ghost town. No other guests, no one eating in the restaraunts and bars and arcades permanently shuttered up. Something oddly endearing about it though. Anyway here is a run down of Outer Seorak’s best hikes.

Ulsan Bawi (873m) – 4.3km – Moderate – 3/4 Hour Return

From the entrance, continue straight until you come to a wooden bridge. Cross it, turn right and you have begun the trail. The path meanders through lush forest bisected by a scenic little stream and gradually ascends rocky terrain, all the while affording quite stunning views of the granite summit, and opposite peaks if you turn around. Roughly half way up, you’ll come across Heundeul Bawi, an impressive 16 tonne chunk of rock teetering precariously on a ledge. A small group can actually rock the boulder with enough force!


From Heundeul Bawi the route to the top gets far more strenuous, with a seemingly never ending metal staircase playing havoc with the knees. But, the effort is well rewarded. On a clear day, the views out over the valley to Sokcho are a wonder to behold. Whilst you rest, you’ll be accompanied by a troop of brave chipmunks searching for scraps too!



Cable Car Up To Gwongeumseong – Easy – 5 Minutes Each Way


I highly recommend coupling the cable car ride and the Ulsan Bawi trail in one day. You’ll have plenty of time if you start at a reasonable time and the relaxed journey up the opposite set of peaks is bliss after a hard mornings hike up to Ulsan Bawi. The cable car station is down near the entrance to the park. Pretty unmissable. A short walk along a staircase from the station at the top will bring you to a large plateau. Venture towards the edge for incredible views of the imposing peaks and forested valley running between them. The true scope of the park becomes more apparent from this vantage point too. I’m fairly sure pictures can’t do it justice. Quite simply breath taking. And for relatively little work. Bonus.


For those that have a little left in the tank, there is a 20 minute hike to the remains of Gwongeumseong Fortress available at the top of the cable car too.

Yukdam & Biryong Falls Trail – 2.4k – Moderate – 2 Hours Return

A rarely taxing, yet gorgeous hike takes you between the base of two peaks and over a rushing stream. The waterfalls are both worthwhile without proving awe inspiring, but the journey that takes you there is more than satisfying. Plus, you’ve got the optional extra of the observatory station. I highly recommend you take it. Yes the stairs are steep and you’ll want to give up before your knees implode, but persevere and once again you’ll be richly rewarded. Seoraksan is just a glut of incredible views. I think I’ve ran out of adjectives to describe them. I’ll just show you a picture instead. 


As with every hiking spot in South Korea, you’ll be accompanied on the trails by a horde of fanatical native hikers. Appearances are everything for them, so expect to see all of the latest and most expensive outfits complete with completely unnecessary equipment, lugged all the way to the top just to be used for a photo. There is also a tendency with Koreans to play music very loudly during hikes which can totally ruin the natural ambience. Nothing like enjoying a hard earned spectacular view to the backdrop of K Pop… Just so you know. 

Daecheongbong – 14km – Hard – 12 Hours Return 

Unfortunately, the 1708m Daecheongbong peak was closed at the time I visited due to the risk of forest fire. All I can say is check online for regular updates if you have your heart set on climbing it.

 

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Seoul’s Top Five

After travelling the Southeast of Asia for over three months, Seoul came as a pleasant shock to the system. It’s clean, modern, and mercifully absent of the incessant honking of motorbikes. Skyscrapers line the horizon, K Pop serves as an ever present soundtrack and an extremely efficient, easy to use metro system (better than the London Underground in my opinion, there I said it) makes transport across the sprawling city a piece of cake. Bearing the unmistakable influence of the United States and an obsessive reliance on the latest technology – seriously everyone is on their phones 24/7 – Seoul may appear to be a one dimensional 21st century city, heavily westernised following the Korean War on first impression. Dig a little deeper however, and you’ll discover Seoul is an eclectic upshot of modern metropolis meets ancient traditions, complete with a wealth of designated green space so rarely come by in major cities. An exciting city bursting with things to see and do. Here are my top five unmissable attractions in Seoul:

1. Changdeokgung Palace (Line 3 to Anguk, exit 3)

There are five major palace complexes in Seoul. If you only have time for one, make it Changdeokgung. Built in the early 15th Century as a secondary residence to Gyeongbukgung, it was rebuilt and became the primary residence after the Japanese destroyed both in the 1590s. The architecture and grounds have been meticulously reconstructed to as close to original state as possible and provide a fascinating hour or so of exploration. The crown jewel of Changdeokgung however is the ‘Secret Garden.’ You’ll have to pay an extra W5000 on top of the W3000 general fee and join a guided tour for admission, but it is more than worth it. 


Tip: English tours of the ‘Secret Gardens’ run at 11:30am and 1:30pm at the time of writing.

Serene and vividly romantic, the expansive gardens are a beauty to behold. It’s obvious why the Royal Family would come here to relax and ponder. The tour stops at several locations allowing plenty of time for photos and rest. My favourite of which is pictured below.


2. Bukchon Hanok Village ( Line 3 to Anguk, exit 3)

Nestled between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces you’ll find the charming sprawl of traditional Korean homes of Bukchon Hanok Village. Close to a thousand Hanok provide a pleasant hour or two of exploration, their ornately styled construction and tiled roofs contrasting perfectly with the towering metropolis visible in the distance. If you desire, maps are distributed at several information centres dotted around the area, and remember people actually live in the houses so respect their privacy. 


3. North Seoul Tower ( Line 4 to Myeong-dong, exit 3)


Visible from most districts of the city, the iconic North Seoul Tower, standing sentinel atop looming Namsan Mountain, offers unrivalled, panoramic views of Seoul… On a clear day anyway. Here’s a tip for you. If it’s cloudy and misty, don’t pay the W10,000 admission to go up to the observatory deck. All you’ll be observing is a thick cloak of grey cloud and a teenage Korean trying to sell you popcorn. I did that so you don’t have to. The animated elevator was pretty cool though…

Anyway, there are two options for reaching the tower. A) – Hard work. Walk up along the fortress walls to the top of Namsan. B) – Not hard work. Catch the cable car for W8000 return. The tower has become a major hotspot for couples, especially at sunset, with every inch of every chain link railing covered with padlocks bearing young sweethearts names. Cute or sickening. I’ll let you decide. Just be prepared for lots of selfie stick wielding couples. 

4. Cheong-gye-cheon Stream 

It cost $384 million. It required tearing down an elevated highway and cement roads. It – environmentalists look away now – pumps in high quantities of clear water from elsewhere at questionable expense. Buttt, Cheong-gye-cheon urban stream is a visionary masterpiece adding a much needed open air escape from the hustle of the claustrophobic downtown. Stepping stones, fountains, waterfalls and works of art continually offer wonderful visual distraction for the entirety of the 5.8km stream. It’s highly popular with the locals too, with Seoulites taking lunch breaks, conversating and dipping their feet into the water here. Take a walk along any stretch to rejuvenate and prepare for the next sensory overload Seoul has in store.


Tip: The stream looks particularly fantastic when sections are illuminated at night.

5. Cycle Along The Han River ( Line 5 to Yeoui-Naru Station, exit 2)

A short walk away from the metro station mentioned above is Yeouido Park, a beautiful example of Seouls numerous, impressive efforts to breathe nature into the urban sprawl. After taking a stroll around the park, rent a bicycle from the stall situated within the grounds. It costs W3000 for the first hour and W500 for every additional 15 minutes. You’ll need some form of identification to leave as a deposit too.

I recommend heading over Mapo Bridge and cycling West along the designated cycle path all the way to the World Cup Stadium. The route will take you past a wealth of parks by the riverfront, alive with families flying kites, picnicking and relaxing by the water as well as affording glorious views of the city skyline. Follow the signs up to the World Cup Stadium and lock your bike up outside. Now if you’re a football fan like me, you’re in for a treat. For just W1000 you can go into the stadium, appreciate the pitch and even mooch about in the locker rooms. By far the most rewarding use of your time however is to run out of the tunnel to the noise of thousands of fans (made by yourself of course) cheering you on in the World Cup itself. No? Just me?



However you decide to enjoy the stadium, retrace your route back to Yanghwa bridge and continue across the river and along the opposite bank back to Yeouido Park. Or, ignore all of that and explore your own route.