Asian Banquet

Savor South Korea’s enticing beauty, culture and cuisine.
By Sally M. Snell

Late into the night, Seoul, South Korea pulses with life. Restaurants buzz with activity, dishing up steaming bowls of noodles with shots of soju, liquor made from sweet potatoes. Or for a quieter experience, have dinner at The Korea House, followed by a show of traditional dance and music in their theater.

Asian scene

Above: The Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul was the seat of power for Korean kings for centuries. Today, a dozen structures dot the grounds, including halls, pavilions and gates. Visitors can sometimes see ceremonies taking place.

In Title: South Korea’s largest island, Jeju-do, is a beautiful setting with a bonsai garden, tea fields, waterfalls, beaches and “stone grandfather” carvings from blocks of lava. ©Michael C. Snell photos

Half a century after the signing of the armistice agreement, Seoul has grown from a ravaged wasteland to a metropolis of more than 10 million people, ranking it in the Top 10 most populous cities in the world. Residential towers and office buildings punctuate the city skyline.

Navigating Seoul is surprisingly easy for the English-only speaker, thanks to a flourishing relationship with western businesses. Many signs are bilingual, and English-speaking guides are easy to find. The Korea Tourism Organization provides English translation through its travel phone, accessed by dialing a Korean area code plus 1330.

Entertainment venues cater to western visitors by offering non-verbal performances. One of the most popular is “Nanta” or “Cooking” in English. Replacing instruments for the traditional Korean rhythmic performance called Samulnori, “Nanta” uses pans, knives and pots with a dash of comedy to create its popular form of entertainment. There’s no language barrier as the show is presented through music and motion.

Mingled with modern accoutrements are ancient customs, cities and festivals, as well as reminders of the Korean War. All of it makes for a fascinating journey.

Reminders of war

Visitors can tour the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) located approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the city along roads dressed in looping spans of concertina wire. Approximately 2 million people annually visit the DMZ, which contains a small amusement park and shopping district alongside reminders of the conflict, such as the Freedom Bridge where 12,773 prisoners of war crossed to freedom. There also are monuments to President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. forces that fought in Korea.

The ever-present tension along the border is most apparent at the Dora Observatory, where heavily guarded civilians may view the farmlands of North Korea and Propaganda Village. Trams convey visitors deep below the earth to one of several infiltration tunnels built by North Koreans along the border. The third tunnel would have allowed 30,000 troops and equipment to pass through the tunnel in a single hour.

Tourists can get their passport stamped at the Dorasan Station, a modern railway facility at the ready should the border between North and South Korea ever be opened. Many families were torn apart when the border was sealed, and the station is a tangible symbol of hope for the day they may be reunited.

Ancient traditions

Less than two hours southeast of Seoul by the KTX high-speed train, the markets of Daegu are heady with the earthy sent of animal and plant herbal medicines that have been a tradition of the city for 350 years. Antlers and leaves are pounded and pressed into pills that treat patients for seemingly every ailment known to mankind. The benefits of this tradition extend to the local restaurants which specialize in galbi–pork marinated in herbs, cooked on charcoal grills set in the heart of low dining tables amongst bowls of rice, fresh vegetables and kimchi–a traditional, spicy dish of fermented vegetables.

Less frequented by western tourists, Gyeongju, east of Daegu, was the capital of the Silla Kingdom that ruled from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D. The kingdom unified the Korean Peninsula. Treasures discovered here range from delicate gold filigree crowns to dice carved with instructions for a drinking game. Large royal burial mounds, or tumuli, are found throughout the valley floor.

During this era, Buddhism spread throughout the region. Seokguram Grotto on nearby Mount Tohamsan is a stone cave temple built in 751 A.D. Its domed roof shelters an enormous Buddha carved from a single stone, glowing from candlelight as worshippers prostrate before him. When the day is clear, the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan) is visible from the stoop where the pilgrims place their shoes.

Alongside a footpath festooned in paper lanterns, a vendor sells wishes. For about $10, visitors are encouraged to write a wish or prayer on black clay roof tile using a white marker. The tiles are then displayed along the base of a clay fence where they are later prayed over by the temple monks.

Half of the population practices Christianity or Buddhism, but signs of animism, a belief in the power of objects, are still visible in the small, stacked stone towers that are left along fences and temple gardens. Each stone in a tower represents a wish that will come true via the power of the stone.

Travelers who venture outside Gyeongju’s tourist resorts to a neighborhood restaurant will be rewarded by the delicate flavors of chicken ginseng soup and the warm hospitality of a typical Korean family.

Island beauty

South Korea’s largest island lies south of the peninsula. Jeju-do is a volcanic island. Although the ground is too porous for rice production, the countryside is thick with fields of barley, citrus groves and hedgerows of tea. Japanese visitors flock to this island whose beauty lends itself as a backdrop for many of Asia’s most popular movies and televised dramas.

And no visit to Jeju-do can be complete without a stop at Bunjae Artpia, a bonsai garden lovingly built and maintained over decades by a single man who views his garden with the love and commitment of a father to his children.

Fantastic festivals

Travelers thinking about Korea may consider some of the more popular annual festivals to help with timing a trip. Brad Brennan, Midwest marketing manager for the Korea Tourism Organization, said the Boryeong Mud Festival in July is the No. 1 event for foreign travelers. The mud, which contains a high mineral content that’s good for skin, is dug up near Boryeong and trucked to Daecheon beach.

Celebrate Buddha’s birthday with the Lotus Lantern Festival in May. The event in Seoul includes a Buddhist street festival and a lighted lantern parade. Film enthusiasts can attend the Pusan International Film Festival in October in Busan, or the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in Bucheon in July.

South Korea is a traveler’s banquet, and those making the journey can sample the country’s many flavors.

Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Lawrence, Kan.

Nov/Dec 2008 Issue


AAA Travel offers tours to many Asian destinations, including South Korea. General Tours’ World Traveler program has a six-day Korea Sampler tour, as well as a three-night package in Seoul. Other AAA preferred travel vendors–including Pleasant Holidays and Auk World Discovery–offer tours of Korea.

Stop by your nearest AAA Travel office for a brochure or information or call (888) 366-4222 to locate a travel professional near you. AAA also offers passport photos, travel insurance and other services for international travelers.

For more information about South Korean destinations, money exchange rates, customs guidelines and traveler tips–including the Korea Travel Phone and T-Money Card for transportation in and around Seoul–visit the Korean Tourism Organization Web site at


Agents Recommend Asia

Ready to savor more of Asia, especially after watching the Olympics in Beijing? Here are additional must-see stops recommended by AAA Travel agents.

Jane Barnett from the AAA St. Louis’ south county office, had this to say: “A good China tour will cover Beijing with visits to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City. Also, it should take in the terra cotta warriors, which are in the Xian area. If they have the time, they should do a cruise on the Yangtze, as it covers some beautiful scenery.

“Shanghai is an amazing bright city–all lights and glimmer. Japan was spectacular–Tokyo is massive, but really impressive and clean. A must is a visit to the Fish Market and the Imperial Palace. Kyoto was my favorite city–winding streets with a lot of activity, an interesting history with the geisha district. Nara was a great spot to view Buddhist statues and pagodas. I loved the mountainous area around Mount Fuji/Hakone–spectacular scenery.”

Ruby Goldberg from the AAA Evansville office liked China.

“In China, I would say to go to Beijing where you can climb the Great Wall in a day trip, visit Tiananmen Square, and the shopping is absolutely fabulous. Designer brands (knock-offs) for cheap. Pick pocketing is an issue, especially on the streets. Also, fly to Xian and see the terra cotta warriors–there is not much else to see out there, but it is awesome.”

Great Wall
China’s Great Wall astounds visitors with its size and scale. General Tours photo

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