Asia

South Korea Off the Well-Trodden Tourist Paths

written by | Posted on July 1st, 2009

This region of Korea is set in a peaceful milieu of beautiful and calming solitude. Seogguram Grotto in the same area may easily be Asia’s most magnificent Buddhist shrines and should not be missed.

The Gyeongju area is rich in history: more and equally magnificent burial sites are in Tumuli Park near the city center, where more than 20 ancient royal tombs were discovered as recently as 1973. The district overflows with temples, pagodas, bridges and museums, as it lies in one of the most astounding natural settings in the country.

Travelers contemplating a visit to Korea would be well served to book with one of the growing number of tour companies determined to place Korea high up on the tourism map. SITA World Tours offers Korea at a Glance, a 5-day excursion that takes visitors to Seoul, Gyeongju, Busan and other bucolic places. The tour visits the most prominent historic and rural sites and costs approximately $1,950 dbl.

The true flavor of rural Korea is alive and well in Jeju-do, an island off the southern coast full of sprawling beaches, great seafood and dominated by a spectacular volcanic peak and crater.

This is an idyllic place that’s been compared to Bali and Hawaii and runs contrary to the popular notion that Korea is a mountainous country buffeted by frozen Siberian winds.

Visitors will thrill at the view from atop Hallasan, South Korea’s highest peak, a 6,400-ft. volcano towering above the island. A visit to Seongeup, a fishing village crisscrossed by stone walls, will reveal claustrophobic alleys and charming houses.

On Jeju-do’s northwest shore, the Hallim weaver’s village creates some of the finest woolen products outside of Ireland and it’s a favored stop for newlyweds who have made the island known as Korea’s honeymoon capital. The relaxed, rural way of life seems centuries removed from the bustle of Seoul.

Charming Asia Tours, a company with long experience in Korea, offers a 9-day package that includes stops in Seoul, Gyeongju, Jeju-do, a chance to explore the lava tubes of Jeju Islands and other UNESCO World Heritage sites that lie off the well-trodden tourist path.

Stopping at deluxe hotels along the way, this package runs approximately $1,395 dbl and includes land and air travel. The tour is an ideal way to begin to know this often complicated country.

Visitors seeking a “different flavor” would not want to miss a visit to Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—the intimidating belt of real estate that separates the two Koreas, and a point of contention since the end of the Korean War.

Unbelievably, only 35 miles from peaceful Seoul, the threat of war is a harsh reality. To bring home the point, the South Korean government and the United Nations tolerate one of the world’s strangest tourist day trips: a visit to the DMZ to see all the acrimonious tension that has haunted the area for decades.

Visitors are escorted around a heavily guarded perimeter known as the Joint Security Area where military personnel explain the ground rules about visiting the zone while peppering the lecture with interesting details about how some incidents have come close to open warfare.

From Checkpoint Number Three, one can see a panoramic view of North Korea: propaganda posters glare in the sunlight and loudspeakers blare communist propaganda ‘round the clock. This is where one can also catch a glimpse of North Korean soldiers smoking cigarettes and taking pictures of the tourists taking pictures.

Another bizarre stop along the tour is “The Tunnel of Aggression,” one of several underground passages the North Koreans dug to sneak commandos into the south.

The DMZ stop is one of the most popular requests for Pacific Holidays, a New York-based tour company and a leading tour operator for Asia, the South Pacific and Latin America. Its Korea in Depth package visits all the most popular areas of South Korea including the DMZ. The 8-day tour prices vary with the season, but generally run anywhere from $2,680 to $3,345 for land and air packages.