Among the Asian countries, Korea is almost always not on the top of the list. This is largely due to the misconception that the country and its citizens are not very open about their culture and their industry to other countries. This, however, has dramatically changed over the years. Many tourists are now more aware of the wonderful opportunity they are missing out if they do not include Korea in their travel list. Both North Korea and South Korea are countries worth visiting.
One of the factors that make foreigners make second thoughts about visiting North Korea is the fear of prosecution. While the tourism industry is strictly controlled by the North Korean government, about 6,000 Western tourists are allowed to visit the year annually. All tours are organized by state-owned tourism agencies like Korean International Sports Travel Company, Korean International Youth Travel Company, Korea International Travel Company, and Korean International Taekwondo Tourism Company.
For as long as tourists follow restrictions and veer away from prohibited activities, they are safe. Those who will visit North Korea are heavily advised to never disrespect the nation, its leaders, and all symbols related to the country. They consider it highly offensive and those caught may face imprisonment. While tourists are not allowed to closely interact with locals, they are allowed to buy SIM cards for international calling at Pyongyang airport.
Expats who want to visit North Korea must join a guided tour. More Chinese citizens are given entry as the northern border to China was opened. Chinese visitors are also allowed to drive their own cars to Luo, an area in the region where they can mingle, explore, and take photographs. Foreigners can also visit the country during the winter and visit the Masikryong Ski Resort in Kangwon Province.
Many of the guided tours to North Korea are restricted to the country’s capital, Pyongyang. Tourists may still find their trip worthwhile as the capital city is home to many historic landmarks. This includes Arch of Reunification, Arch of Triumph, Central Youth Hall, Chollima Statue, East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, Juche Tower, and Korean Central History Museum to name a few.
When it comes to South Korea, the atmosphere is entirely different. Almost all of the locals are very welcoming of foreigners who want to have a taste of the Korean culture and lifestyle. South Korea is perfect for adventurers, history buffs, foodies, and families. The country has something to offer each and every one.
Being the largest city of the region, the City of Seoul is full of exciting things to discover and experience. One of the fascinating things about Seoul is its beautiful marriage of old and new Korea. It has carefully preserved the serene temples while masterfully adapting to the changing times with its bustling communities.
One of the worthwhile things to do in Seoul is visiting the palaces. The city is home to five ancient imperial sites including the Gyeongbukgung, a sprawling complex that has some semblance with the Forbidden City of Beijing, only smaller and quieter. Other sites to visit include Gyeonhuigung, Cheonngyeonggung, Changdeokgung, and Deoksugung.
While in Seoul, never miss the opportunity to visit the Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets, both known for having exquisite collections of souvenirs and cheeky boutiques juxtaposed against street foods.
Another must-do thing in Seoul is viewing the city’s entirety via the N Seoul Tower or Namsan Tower. The place is accessible via cable car or hiking the mountain. While there tourists can explore other amenities such as museums, stores, and restaurants. This is the same place where lovers hang padlocks to symbolize the love and devotion for each other.
An unconventional but interesting stop at Seoul is the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone, a mark that divides South Korea from North Korea. There are various tour agencies that offer trips to the heavily guarded border but is only USO DMZ Tour that brings guests to the Blue Room, where they can stand on both North Korea and South Korea.
Seoul is more than just a war memorial. The city is also home to many amusement parks that families with kids will enjoy. Lotte World is the largest indoor theme park in the world and also features luxurious hotels, shopping centres, and a folk museum. Everland, on the other hand, is an outdoor theme park that boasts of T-Express, the fourth tallest and the tenth fastest wooden roller coaster in the world.
The country is a country of festivals. People here seem to find a way to celebrate. Attending one will allow tourists to immerse in the local culture of South Korea.
The Jinju Lantern Festival is held every October as a tribute to the 70,000 people who lost their lives during the Imjin War. Thousands of lanterns will light up the sky as it travels down through the Namgang River. The lantern festival is also a festival of food as attendees can also taste the gastronomic offerings of Korea. The visually stunning display of gigantic and innovative lanterns is worth the detour to the southern area of the region.
Occurring every late April, the Jindo Moses Miracle Festival or the Miracle Sea Road Festival is a celebration of thousands of people as they go down the quaint town of Jindo to cross a temporary land bridge connecting the main island to the nearby smaller island. The cherry blossom may be more associated with Japan, but South Korea also celebrates Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival.
Another way of celebrating the culture of South Korea is by doing what the locals do and eating what the locals eat.
Kimchi is Korea’s signature dish. For newbies, the dish may not suit their palates. But kimchi is a food that grows on you and is something one would love over the years. Gwangju is home to some of the greatest tasting kimchi in the country. Every October, Koreans celebrate the Gwangju Kimchi Festival. The great thing about this celebration is that guests can also try their hand on making kimchi.
Baseball is the country’s most celebrated sport. More than watching the game, most of the attendees rave about the booze and the revelry. Those who are not fond of baseball, may want to watch the K-League, a highly competitive football league, instead.
Korea is home to huge public bathhouses. They are not for the faint of heart, though. It takes guts to strip down and enjoy jjimjilbangs. These bathhouses are open daily, 24 hours a day and offer sleeping rooms, saunas, and public baths.
One of the main reasons why Koreans are now becoming more mainstream is due to the growing popularity of K-Pop or Korean Pop. Watching a K-Pop concert will somehow give a peek at modern Korea. The dizzying choreographed dance routines, catchy tunes, and highly engrossed fans will surely make for a memorable night out.
Koreans love to eat. It is evident in the variety of foods that one can get while in the country. Just as how they festivals are part of their culture, food is also a celebrated activity in South Korea.
Jagalchi Fish Market located in Busan is the biggest seafood market in the country. Guests can eat fresh seafood. They simply have to pick fish from any of the stalls in the market and watch as it is being cooked on the spot. Chuncheon is also a town worthy of visiting. The city also celebrates a Dak Galbi Festival that celebrates the spicy dish. Dak Galbi is a Korean dish made up of spicy chicken, cabbage, sweet potato, and chewy tteok rice cakes. While one can grab this meal anywhere in the country, the best ones are from Chuncheon.
Another famous dish to try while in Korea is the bibimbap. This rice bowl comes with vegetables or kimchi, fried egg, and topped with a spicy gochujang sauce. This can be served in a rice bowl or a hot stone bowl. Like dak galbi, bibimbap is also available across the country but the best ones are from the Jeonju.
Korea is also famous for its Korean BBQ. There are just various ways for locals and tourists to enjoy this signature dish. They can have it as galbisal (beef ribs), samgyeopsal (pork), or dak gui (chicken). The BBQ is best served over a hot plate with lots of side dishes and fresh vegetables. It is also best eaten while downing a beer.
Expats living in South Korea swear by trying the soju, the country’s national spirit. The soju is like a weak vodka best taken with some fried street food (twigim) or spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki) and some great company.
Both regions of Korea is a worthy visit to Southeast Asia. Experiencing the country’s quirky culture, gastronomic cuisines, and warm welcome, foreigners always have something they want to go back for. Some even consider Korea their second home and stay here for good.