(Republic of Korea)
South Korea’s rapid expansion as one of the world’s tiger economies has seen it become increasingly westernised. This has brought with it numerous improvements in infrastructure as well as a huge increase in facilities for travellers. The good news is that this hasn’t displaced the traditional Korean culture completely and the country at the moment in many ways offers the best of both worlds. While in major cities you will find plenty of shops, bars and clubs you will also find alleys where traditional markets hold full sway and the bustle of a typical Asian city hasn’t yet given way completely to the orderly queues and multi-national chains of the western world.
- Currency: Won (SKW)
- Time Zone: GMT + 9
- Language: Korean
- Telephone Services: Country code +82, International access code 001
- Emergency Numbers: 112 Police, Fire and emergency 119
Like North Korea and unlike many of its Asian neighbours South Korea has four distinct seasons, the hot summer months also contain the monsoon season which is generally in July and August, the winter runs from December to mid-February. The most pleasant time to visit is in the Spring and Autumn which are mild and fairly dry.
Things to see and do
The nations capital is the city of Seoul which offers the sort of pleasant mix of east and west that South Korea is famous for. As well as ample accommodation of all standards ranging from cheap budget hotels to luxury international hotels, the city also offers plenty of clubs, bars, restaurants and of course shopping. Taking some time to explore you will also find vestiges of the countries oriental past. Soel’s most famous attractions are undoubtedly its palaces, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the most well known and have been exquisitely restored following destruction during the Japanese invasion. The highlight of this exquisite palace is the decadent two-storey throne room which was a seat of power for the Joseon dynasty. A somewhat lesser known site is the summer Changgyeonggung Palace which is just a short bridge crossing away from the famous Jongmyo Shrine which contains the 27 encestral tablets of the Joseon dynasty kings. Also well worth a look is the Seoul Tower which is the third tallest tower in the world, the nationally prized Namdaemun gate and the War Memorial.
Next in line on most tourists list, after Soel, is the town of Gyeongju. This town was the capital of the country for some 100 years before Soel displaced it and is now the site of numerous ancient ruins. The key sight here is the Bulguska which is a splendid temple constructed on a stone terrace just outside the town. This temple is world renowned as one of the finest examples of Asian art and within its walls you will find plenty of Buddhist artwork and relics. The other main attraction is Tumuli Park, which is a walled off enclosure containing the tombs of 20 Korean rulers. Just a stones throw away is the Cheomseongdae which is one of Asia’s oldest known observatories.
For those who like a taste of the outdoors, South Korea offers two excellent national parks. The most popular is the Seoraksan Park which boasts an extraordinary selection of scenery ranging from waterfalls, rivers and beaches to rocky foothills and lush forests. Some of the most popular areas are the Osaek Hot Springs which is where most of the accommodation is and the Daecheonbong mountain. Those looking for a more secluded experience and prepared for plenty of good hiking trails might prefer to head for the Songnisan National Park which also boasts the excellent temple of Beopjusa, as well as an enormous pagoda visitors can see a 33m high solid bronze standing Buddha statue which is the largest of its type in the world.
The best way to get around in South Korea, where available, is the rail network. Operated by Korail the network is fast and efficient and also very affordable. There are four classes of train ranging from the high-speed saemaeul to the sedate bidulgi and kkachi classes which lack air conditioning and have more uncomfortable seats. There is a KR rail pass which is available and allows unlimited travel for between 3 and 10 days but these can only currently be purchased from Japan or America.
Local and inter-city buses are safe, fast and incredibly cheap and also make a very good way to travel. You may find that there is little provision for English speakers on the buses but hotel staff will generally be happy to help you select the correct bus. Buses are run by a variety of local companies and in general travel on local buses requires payment to the driver. For inter-city buses you will most often have to get a seat reservation which are only valid on one bus, if you miss it you will have to buy another ticket.
South Korea boasts plenty of modern tourist hotels and all of these are registered with the state. Most hotels offer air conditioning, heating, private baths as well as bars, restaurants and other shops. The Korea National Tourist Organisationmaintains a list of all tourist hotels in the country.
One of the more unique ways to stay in South Korea is in the inns or Yogwans. These traditional inns are famous for providing a unique and traditional Korean experience. Prices are usually very cheap and you will be given a mattress and pillow and will be expected to sleep on the ondol, which is a traditional heated floor system. The Korea National Tourist Organisation can provide a list of Yogwans throughout the country.
There are also over 50 youth hostels in the country which provide dormitory style accommodation. These are mainly centred around the tourist areas and a full list can be obtained from The Korean Youth Hostels Association.
The other option when staying in South Korea is the home-stay and temple-stay programs. As their names suggest the home-stay program allows you to live with a Korean host family and the temple-stay program allows you to stay in various temples and allows you to see the day to day rituals first hand. The Korea National Tourism Organisation can provide details of the home-stay program and templestaykorea.net offers further information on the temple-stay programme.
The health service in South Korea is adequate especially in tourist areas but not up to the standard on Western Europe. Hospital staff rarely speak English and payment will almost exclusively be required up front. It is recommended that comprehensive travel insurance is arranged before travelling to South Korea.
There isn’t any known risk of polio, typhoid and cholera in South Korea and vaccinations against these are not required. There is a slight malaria risk but it exists only in the benign vivax form.
Water is heavily chlorinated and whilst safe may cause mild stomach upsets on first exposure. Bottled water is widely available and should be used for the first week or so of your stay until you can become adjusted to the environment. Milk is not pasteurised so it is safest to boil milk before use and avoid dairy products. Meat should be eaten well cooked and hot, vegetables should be cooked and fruits peeled before consumption. Normal precautions should be observed when buying food from street vendors.
templestaykorea.net offers information on the temple-stay programme.
The Korea National Tourism Organisation>can provide general tourist information, including various forms of accommodation.
Korea Hotel Reservation Centre Book hotels in Korea online
The Korean Youth Hostels Association has information on over 50 hostels throughout South Korea
Korail operates the rail network (site in Korean)