From the standpoint of South Korea’s niceness, this week has been pretty typical. Monday stands out because it began with an 80-year old man walking us ten blocks toward our destination to a police station — where two police officers took us the rest of the way in their police car. (Really, that was so cool). Our coffee house hostesses took photos of us and then thanked us profusely while giggling. On my subway ride back to our hotel, a young man gave me his seat next to a group of women who shared their popcorn with me.
So much niceness here in the southern part of the country, where valleys of forest and farmland are surrounded by mile after mile of green mountains. The cities are not beautiful or rich or trendy. None of them is likely to be on your short list of places to visit before you die but maybe that is why we like them so much. It is easy to feel the Korea that is real people and real stuff. And each of our destinations has offered plenty to see and do.
Gwangju is Korea’s center of democracy movement. In May 1980, after many years of oppressive national leadership, the community here organized a series of protests. The nation’s military responded by murdering more than 2,000 unarmed people. A few years later, South Korea adopted democratic principles. Gwangju can and does take a lot of credit for that. The “5.18” uprising is remembered in a wonderful museum that tells the story with art, official documents, video and archival photos.
Jeongju was once considered the spiritual capital of the Joseson dynasty, which ruled Korea for 500 years until 1897. Today, Jeongju is a major tourist destination for Koreans because of its historic hanok village, where you can stay in guest houses built hundreds of years ago.
Jeongju is also one of South Korea’s foodie destinations because of the local specialty dishes, which include “bibimbap” (rice and vegetables and meat), and an elaborate meal you get when you order a kettle of rice wine called “makkoli.” If you ask me, a vegetarian, the food was bland, overcooked and greasy. But Diane loved it and we both loved the Bourdain-esque-ness of the restaurants.
And I can’t complain — I ultimately got a veggie burger and Jeongju’s famous “hangover soup,” which is a healthy blend of noodles, vegetables and an egg.
Suncheon is a small city at the mouth of a bay that opens to the East China Sea. We went there to see its famous wetlands, which are recognized by UNESCO as among the most important in the world. Like most of the attractions we have visited in South Korea, it is super easy to reach by bus and designed for your non-flashy, user-friendly enjoyment. Bring your kids and a picnic.
We also rode a bus about 20 miles into the hills to visit a traditional folk village, where the houses are still roofed with thatch. About 200 people still live there, many operating the village’s tourist infrastructure.
Next stop, Jeju Island, south of south South Korea.