South Korea: A Grassroots Gem
By Christie Belfiore
Hidden within Asia is a most unexpected jewel of the continent: South Korea. It’s a country not inundated with tourists and it is for this reason that it holds so many unknown gems. South Korea is uniquely paradoxical: amazingly advanced in technology and human resources while many of its ancient traditions are preserved and kept alive through daily life. Often one of the last destinations on many people’s travel bucket lists, South Korea is still a wonderful paradise escape without the luxury of a five star resort. Like any destination, there are endless amounts of things to do while visiting for a few weeks or years. South Korea is rich with culture, and widely known for its delicious food, amazing markets, and numerous festivals and attractions. Below are the top events I would highly recommend for a great time and an unforgettable experience.
If you’re into feel-good, fun, communal festivals, then there are two that immediately come to mind. First, is the Boryeong Mud Festival, located on the beautiful Daecheon Beach. Not only is it loads of fun, but also, the mud is believed to be beneficial for the skin, leaving a soft and clean-feeling, despite the fact that, well, it is mud. Many hair and skin products are made from this mud and they are used nationwide. Another great event is Korea Burn, the Korean version of the Burning Man Festival, annually held in Nevada. This is a weekend of camping, fire shows, music, and artistic expression. Both of these festivals are celebrated annually–the Boryeong Mud Festival is held in June and Korea Burn in September.
For the thrill-seeker, there are a few locations to bungee jump. The highest one in South Korea is found at Cheongpung Land, standing 62m high. At this location, there is also the option to go on a giant swing or on a catapult-like ride that flings you into the air. If these options are a bit too extreme for your taste, then why not try an amusement park. The best-known park in South Korea is called Everland, situated in Seoul, which has a couple of exhilarating roller coasters. And if this kind of thrill isn’t for you either, then how about visiting the DMZ, the Demilitarization Zone between North and South Korea.
As for traditional festivals and attractions, there is the Andong Mask Festival or the Traditional Medicine Fair. The Andong Mask Festival is held at the beginning of October, and celebrates the traditional and beautiful Andong masks. The festival is a rich cultural experience, with live performances that are hauntingly beautiful and take you back in time. The subtleties of the mask dances show the appreciation that Koreans have for their culture, and it is interesting how these performances can be so intriguing even with the language barrier. The performances unite the Korean and foreign population with a relatability that can only be experienced through dance, movement, and expression. On the other hand, the Traditional Medicine Fair sheds light on the history of Korean medicine and the benefits it has for the body and mind. It focuses on rejuvenating the body naturally and healthily, promoting feel-good sensibilities. It is a UNESCO event, promoting the collaboration of nations. This is a wonderful and traditional event to enjoy.
Need to relax? Try a bathhouse alternatively known in South Korea as a Jjimjilbang. It is a gender-segregated bathhouse that has showers, saunas, hot tubs, and sometimes massage tables. The beauty of these jjimhilbangs is that anyone can go at any time of the day or night (most are open 24-hours), and focus on relaxation and regeneration. You can spend hours there, and they are also an excellent alternative to a hostel or hotel if you are just looking to stay somewhere overnight before moving on the next day. If you’re looking to take even more time for yourself, a temple stay may be a great fit. You can stay at a Buddhist temple for a weekend or longer, and explore the life of a Buddhist Monk. Buddhism is a leading religion in South Korea, as well as Christianity and Confucianism. This peaceful retreat allows you to experience the spiritual culture of Buddhism, including meditation, chanting, and tea ceremonies.
Another recommended activity is hiking. South Korea is a country of mountains. In any city you visit and in any direction you look, you are guaranteed to see mountains. The hiking trails are endless, and the vistas, spectacular. Koreans enjoy the outdoors and exercise. Hiking blends the two and with the numerous trails, nature is always at arm’s reach.
Last, another favourite activity is visiting the markets. South Korea is filled with these hidden treasures everywhere, bringing you amazing food, and endless independent shops selling everything from clothing to jewellery, to accessories, beauty products, toys, and much, much more. You can find a market in any city you’re in, great for gift-buying, grabbing a bite to eat, or just walking around. The hustle and bustle of a market is something you don’t want to miss when wandering through South Korea. Of course, there are many more events and Korean experiences to be had, but these are some personal favourites. No matter your lifestyle or interests, there’s an adventure awaiting you in South Korea.
Christie Belfiore is currently teaching English in Daegu, South Korea.