Written by Peregrine Travel Centre Team Member Monica.
In April I enjoyed a two week “Discover South Korea” tour with Exodus and there are many highlights in a country full of culture, history, natural beauty, and kimchi (fermented vegetables with chilli). These are just a few and I hope you enjoy my journey.
I found Seoul to be an exciting city to immerse myself in and discover its secrets underneath the contemporary culture. My favourites are the palaces and city gates from a bygone era, the huge market areas that come alive at night (where you can eat and buy just about anything), and the lovely peaceful Cheonggyecheon canal cutting through the heart of the city.
A day trip to the DMZ and JSA areas was surreal but a must see. It’s the only area where North and South Koreas can be seen in the same place and it’s very tightly monitored (lots of security checkpoints to get through). The line is clearly visible defining both countries, both inside and out of Freedom House. We are not allowed to touch anything or take photos other than when instructed.
In the mountains on the east coast I spent a day in the beautiful Seoraksan National park. There are many walks available, a cable car, and an enormous Buddha statue and temple. There were a few trees with stunning cherry blossom still in flower (they had already been and gone in Seoul), curious squirrels, and many birds calling in the trees overhead.
There are a few staples in Korean cuisine and as I am not a fan of chilli or fermented cabbage, I tasted more of the rice dishes. On a visit to a Cultural Centre, where they ferment their own vegetables, I was shown how to make Bibimbap, a dish of rice and vegetables (with optional chilli paste). The ingredients were all so fresh and lovely and mixed together and served with hot green tea and side dishes of pickled and fermented vegetables, soup, and pancake. It was delicious!
I also had an opportunity to make gimbap (which I love) and it looks similar to sushi rolls. At a cooking school I donned my apron and at my station followed the hands on instruction on how to cook the ingredients and roll the perfect gimbap. The ingredients include seaweed, rice seasoned with sesame oil and salt, carrot and cucumber strips, fishcake and pickled radish strips. Once made, our rolls were presented to the lady who owned the school for inspection – she said I did very good. I agreed and they tasted fantastic. I’d love to make this again, but have to find the pickled radish first.
The Haeinsa Temple stay was a standout, even with a 3am start to participate in the morning ceremony and meditation. Accommodation is quite basic with heated floors and sleeping mats and the food provided is vegetarian.
The afternoon we arrived at the temple we received instruction in the correct and mindful way to walk and act at a temple, and then put on our ‘robes’ for our stay. The monk in charge of temple stay participants was extremely welcoming and helpful and eager for us to sample a small part of Buddhist life.
After taking tea with the monk and enjoying ourselves making beads and asking questions, it’s lights out at 9pm for the early morning wake-up. We started the day with the monks bringing forth the day by awakening the animals, spirits, and underworld, and then chanting in prayer in the temple.
This was followed by 108 prostrations and morning meditation and zen practice. Whilst I found sitting cross legged uncomfortable, my leg went to sleep, and it was hard to clear my mind during meditation, it was great to try something new!
I find homestays or guesthouses are always a highlight on any itinerary, and the one in Gyeongju was fantastic. Our group had the whole homestay to ourselves and it is series of elevated rooms set around a garden courtyard. It was a very peaceful and relaxing place. Once again there are sleeping mats on the heated floors.
There’s a lot to see in Geongju and in the two days there I visited Cheomseongdae (the oldest astronomical observatory), Seokguram Grotto which is now hidden and protected by a man made cave, Anapji ponds in the royal palace grounds, and the beautiful Bulguksa Temple.
Thanks to a tv gardening programme I have wanted to visit Jeju Island and more particularly, the Spirited Garden, for quite some time. At the end of our trip I had two days on Jeju to discover it’s delights and history. The Spirited Garden started as wasteland and is now a beautiful bonsai garden thanks to one man’s vision. It has over 100 trees and I tried my best to see them all. They really are so lovely and I saw some species I would never expect, like wisteria and camelia, as bonsai trees.
This is only a small taste of the discoveries to be found in South Korea. I experienced a lot in that time and I found myself missing Seoul on my return home. If you want to know more, please come in and see me!!