Korea's countryside charms

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 29, 2013

The weather was damp; the air, thick and humid. Still, plenty of people were out walking at a wetland park in Suncheon Bay, South Korea.

Scenic landscapes and cultural sites are not exactly the first things that come to mind when I think of South Korea. But walking along a boardwalk in an endless sea of green willowy reeds and breathing in fresh air, I realised that South Korea has so much more to offer beyond K-pop, K-drama serials, plastic surgery and make-up. One just needs to venture beyond the capital city of Seoul.

On a week-long media trip, I made my way around the Korean peninsula. Travelling with others invited by the Korea Tourism Organization in a hired mini- bus, I explored several provinces and counties, including the south-western provinces of Jeollanam- do and Jeollabuk-do, the coastal city of Gyeongju and the north-eastern province of Gangwon. We visited temples and traditional folk villages, and trekked up mountains.

At the Suncheon Bay Ecological Park, or the Field Of Reeds as it is also known, it was easy to see why the place had been awarded the Star of Korean Tourism two years ago. The title is given by the Korea Tourism Organization and the Ministry of Culture, Sports for its scenic beauty and well-preserved natural environment.

Located in the South Jeolla province, three or four hours from Seoul, the eco park is like a giant labyrinth that could take hours to explore, thickly covered with reeds taller than myself. Visiting during the low-peak season at the start of July, which saw mostly overcast skies or rain and mist-shrouded horizons, I felt the gloomy weather added to the park's sublime serenity.

Close to the wetland is a shining new jewel in South Korea's tourism, the Suncheon Bay Garden Expo. Spanning 330,000 sq m of land, with 82 types of gardens, the Garden Expo brings botany and garden landscape design from around the world to one location.

Somehow, the South Koreans have managed to replicate themed gardens inspired by various countries in a vast open-air enclosure: a French-styled garden complete with a white terrace overlooking the geometric layout of shrubbery, a Dutch-styled garden filled with tulips and an actual windmill, and a traditional American rose garden were among those I saw. The small plots were not majestic by any means but worth viewing as a collection.

Ironically, the feature that stood out the most for me had nothing to do with the flora and fauna.

Instead, a 140m-long bridge connecting the main expo site to a wetland centre caught my eye. Built from old shipping containers, the Dream Bridge is covered with more than 140,000 colourful square tiles, each decorated with drawings and writings by children all over world. The bridge stands as an emblem of hope, that the kids' dreams will be carried off in the wind and shared with people.

Driving east for a few hours from Suncheon will get you to Busan. In Gijang-gun in north-eastern Busan, a temple took my breath away. The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple faces the sea, perched on a mountain slope along a rocky coast.

Park at the top of a cliff and walk down 108 steps to reach the temple. The climb down may be tiring, but the view once there is breathtaking. Watching locals meditating in front of a giant statue of Haesu Gwaneum Daebul (Seawater Great Goddess Buddha) and enjoying the sea breeze, I found myself utterly at peace.

Those up for a short trek should head to the coastal city of Gyeongju, in the north Gyeongsang province, about five hours away from Seoul. There, you will find the famed Seokguram Grotto, a Unesco Heritage site famed for its 3.5m-high statue of Buddha, accompanied by three bodhisattva, 10 disciples and two Hindu gods along the wall of the rotunda within the grotto.

The fresh smell of pine greeted me as I trekked up the winding slopes of Mount Toham, a 745m-tall mountain on which the grotto lies. The artificial grotto was built from granite to house the monumental sitting Buddha statue, which looks out to sea in the bhumisparsha mudra ("earth witness") position, with his left palm upwards in his lap and right hand touching the earth.

Visitors were not allowed to take photos of the statue, but what made up for it was the fantastic view from the mountain top, overlooking what looked like villages and miles of farm land down below.

Just down from the grotto, I came across a booth where tourists could purchase roof tiles to write their wishes on.

Among the pile of "wishing tiles" that were stacked neatly on the ground in rows, one grabbed my attention. Handwritten in white ink, it was a wish from a fellow hoping for a nice condominium in the prime area of District 9 and a girlfriend. A Singaporean, I thought, amused.

The travelling time it took to get from place to place by mini-bus also allowed me to take in the countryside beauty outside South Korea's metropoles - misty mountains, endless rice fields and shrimp farms, and the pleasant seaside coastline.

Aside from the temples and eco parks, I managed to get a taste of traditional village life in Andong, in the North Gyeongsang province.

A picturesque place called the Andong Hahoe Folk Village is nestled along the winding Nakdonggang river ("Hahoe" means "winding river") in Pungcheon- myeon, five hours from Seoul. Quaint clay and straw-roof huts pepper the land, which offers an amazing view of the towering Taebaeksan Mountains, which reach a height of over 1,500m.

Dating back to the 16th century, the village and its layout is typical of a traditional clan village from the Joseon dynasty. Venture into it and one can see architecture of the period, such as tiled-roof residences and thatched-roof servants' homes to distinguish between the aristocrats and the lower working class.

The village appeared to be relatively uncommercialised. I spotted only a small souvenir shop selling wooden crafts, and we seemed to be the only group of international tourists there. As I wandered through the narrow dirt roads, surrounded by lush greenery and enormous beds of lotus plants, I marvelled at how the place is still unspoilt.

A standout for me in the folk village was a neighbouring 64m-high cliff known as the Buyongdae. From the village, you can admire the stunning cliff that wraps along the Nakdonggang river. Weary travellers can rest on carved wood benches placed along the river bank.

Back in Seoul after a week, I found myself with a new understanding of and appreciation for the country's natural wonders. Still, old habits die hard: I departed Incheon airport with a whole lot of face masks and make-up in my bag.

The writer's trip was sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 29, 2013

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