In 1943 towards the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula was decolonized and divided in two. It remains divided today between North Korea and South Korea and visiting the DMZ, or de-militarized zone, is an important part of understanding the history and precarious balance between the two war-torn countries. South Korea is steeped in history, dating back to 2,300 BC, which means there is plenty to see and explore on this beautiful peninsula.
Officially called the Republic of Korea, South Korea is home to 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites, ranging from imperial palaces, ancient burial tombs, and shrines to fortresses. The country also has some amazing natural wonders, including Jeju volcanic island, Cheonjeyeon Waterfall, Wolchulsan National Park, and Seoraksan Mountain, to name a few. There are plenty of outdoor activities to be enjoyed, from hiking, biking, and skiing, to rafting, and exploring the numerous islands surrounding the area.
The outdoor Namdaemun market is a great place to explore and find bargains in Seoul. Asian women and Koreans love shopping and fashion and there are more cosmetics companies than one could count in Korea. Whether its snail facial masks or snake cream, the latest beauty fad is just around the corner. Korea also has excellent places to buy leather goods, with great bargains on jackets, shoes made to order, and bags.
One of the good things about Korea is its predictable seasonal weather. The best time to visit Korea is considered to be between September and November in the fall season, which sees pleasant weather and mild temperatures. Hotel rates are reasonable and attractions less crowded. The most expensive time to visit Korea is during the spring when many domestic travelers flock to the cities to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Hotels can be fully booked as most Koreans take their annual holidays during this season.
Korea is becoming a popular skiing destination in Asia and several of the ski resorts now offer international standard facilities and slopes. Most are open November until March and although there are many hotels to choose from, demand increases every year so it pays to book early.
Currency: South Korean Won
Official language: Korean
Civilization on the Korean peninsula can be dated back to 4,000 BC when the region was originally made up of tribes. Over the years, these people banded together to form kingdoms, and Korean history, similar to the Chinese, is broken down into the rule of these kingdoms.
The first was the Silla, which dates from 668 to 935 AD, followed by the Goryeo (918 to 1392). During this period, Korea was invaded by China and the Mongols. This event was followed by the Joseon period (1392 to 1910), when the capital of the country was moved to Seoul in 1394 and the current hangul Korean alphabet was introduced in 1443. Prior to this, Koreans were using the Chinese writing system.
This early history is well-showcased at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. The year 1592 saw Japan invade Korea, which is the reason why there is still animosity between the two countries today. Withdrawing by 1598, the 19th century brought the arrival of the Europeans, primarily for trade, but they also brought Christianity with them. Even today, Korea is one of the most Christian countries in Asia, with roughly 30 percent of the population subscribing to the religion.
By 1910, Korea was again forced under Japanese rule, becoming an annex of Japan to serve primarily as an outsourced agricultural and production center. During this time, many Koreans were forced to learn Japanese and take on Japanese names. The annexation was finally lifted in 1945 after Japan lost WWII. Russian troops landed in the north of the Korean peninsula and American troops in the south, and the country was divided in two along the 38th parallel, which today still remains the Demilitarized Zone. The on-set of the Cold War further divided the two Koreas and in 1950, the north invaded the south, signaling the start of the Korean War. This war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the border reverting again to the 38th parallel.
After the war, South Korea was successively ruled by military leaders and democracy did not really take hold until the late 1980’s. The Olympics came to Seoul in 1988, which helped to expand their global presence and to begin rebuilding the nation. Large Korean conglomerates and global brands such as LG, Samsung, and Hyundai began to dominate the economy. These companies are now helping to reshape Korea’s cultural history by backing institutions such as the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul.
The Korean culture is vibrant in color and steeped in history. Temples and palaces, such as the Gyeongbok Palace, and traditional dresses like the formal hanbok, showcase ancient traditions which you can see at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. Changdeokgung Palace is also a great place to see the architectural heritage of Korea.
In Asia, K-pop, or Korean pop, has also become extremely popular. Known for their dynamically choreographed dance routines and beautiful stars, K-pop groups have obtained serious celebrity staus. Seoul is a great place to buy CDs, DVDs, and goods from groups like Kara, Super Junior, and Shinee. Korean television series have also become well known around the world, which are dubbed into various languages and broadcast around the globe. Whether soap opera or historical drama, these stories showcase life in Korea.
Korea’s weather is classified as humid continental. It has four seasons – spring, wet monsoon, summer, and winter - with distinct temperature fluctuations during these time periods. Temperatures during the fall season range between 45°F and 66°F, and this is generally a dry, pleasant, and popular time to visit. The spring is also popular, especially during the cherry blossom season. This is peak time for Koreans to travel, and many hotels and attractions become full and are crowded. Temperatures can range from 42°F to 64°F.
Summer can be extremely muggy and humid, with monsoon season bringing heavy rains. Temperatures during this time can reach over 80°F during the day. However, little known is Korea as a skiing destination in winter. The mountainous regions get a lot of snow and temperatures can fall well below 30°F.
Most North American and EU citizens can enter Korea without a visa and stay for 90 days. However, visa requirements are subject to change so visitors need to make sure they have the correct documentation prior to arriving in Korea.
Visa requirements can be found at http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/GK/GKEN211.jsp.
Taxis are a cheap and safe option to explore city centers. They are clearly marked with signage on the roof and are metered. They come in two general categories: regular and deluxe. The distinction is price and luxury –deluxe taxis are slightly more expensive and are usually bigger sedans. The regular taxis come in a variety of colors, but you will recognize a deluxe taxi because they’re all black with a yellow ‘taxi’ sign on the roof. Either type can be flagged down or found at stands. In Seoul, deluxe taxis are available from Deluxe Taxi (+82-2-558-8000) and regular from Dasan Call Center (+82-2-120).
Ferries are also an option to get around the Korean peninsula. International connections are available from the major port cities of Incheon (to China), Pyeongtake (to China), Busan (to Japan), and Donghae (to Russia). Ferry times and schedules change according to season, so it is important to check timetables prior to booking a ride. Ferries from these ports are also useful for visiting South Korea’s islands, especially Jeju and Ulleungdo.
Korea has an excellent inter-city train and bus system, making both a great transportation choice for visitors. The KR Railpass is a good way to save money if planning to visit outlying areas or traveling by train a lot. It allows for unlimited rides for a designated period, ranging from one to 10 days.
There are train lines linking most of the major cities. The high-speed train line is still being expanded, but it is already fairly comprehensive. The Korea Train Express (KTX) is the high-speed express which is currently runs from Seoul to Mokpo via Daejoen and from Seoul to Busan. There are also regular train connections to other areas of South Korea from the capital.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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