Lose your heart to Seoul

by Andrea.McVeigh

The South Korean capital of Seoul may be Asia's best-kept secret but its 12 million residents are happy to share its yin and yang sides, from spiritual temples to futuristic toilet seats


Forget super-futuristic Japan, mellow Malaysia and all the other jewels in Asia's crown, because Seoul, capital of South Korea, has a pretty good claim on being the real soul (pardon the pun) of the region. Yet, for many people, all they know of Korea they learnt from M*A*S*H. Hawkeye Pierce has a lot to answer for. As I mingled with the locals and the rest of the tourists in the city's busy Insa-dong district, filled with tea rooms and souvenir shops, I saw a T-shirt with a slogan that said it all: 'Korea - the best kept secret in Asia'.      

Seoul is a tale of two cities, suitably yin and yang, by turns frenetic and serene. When the Korean War ended in 1953 it was one of the poorest nations on earth; now it's one of the richest - and it shows. Like Tokyo, this heaving megalopolis of 12 million residents is one of the world's most densely populated cities. Trendy teens sport Hello Kitty handbags, the hotels boast heated toilet seats (try the downtown Lotte hotel, with its women-only floor for solo female travellers and spacious rooms) and the flashing neon advertising hoardings on the high-rise buildings provide the beating pulse of the city.  

Yet step away from the bustle and you'll find a deep serenity and spiritual balance, in historic 14th-century palaces such as Gyeongbokgung, one of five grand palaces in central Seoul, with its surrounding parkland. (Korea is 70 per cent mountainous, and the capital is surprisingly green.) 

Around every corner there's a treasure, whether it's a traditional Buddhist temple or the modern Seoul Tower, on the summit of Namsan Park mountain, with its amazing views over the city and revolving restaurant. Or it may be simply a chance meeting with a curious local who is as keen to know about you as you are to know about them - the compassionate Buddhist and Confucian traditions associated with Korea have created a nation of respectful, genuinely friendly, people.  

If you want to ditch the hotel experience altogether, you can seek enlightenment with a Temple Stay.  You'll be expected to share in the daily life of a Buddhist temple, joining in with everything from working in the gardens to Zen meditation sessions and 4.30am wake-up calls for pre-dawn Buddhist rites. Accommodation is usually very basic, and you may have to sleep on a floor with others in a shared room. But what price enlightenment?    

You can even stay with a local family, courtesy of the Home (or Hanok) Stay programme. Homes range from the traditional (with hole-in-the-floor toilets) to the comfortably modern and offer the chance to eat, sleep and hang out with the locals.  

One of the biggest treats of the home stay experience is usually dinner, and Korean cuisine, which is colourful, tasty and filling, is a spicy pleasure that favours the adventurous (gochujang is a hot pepper paste that adds a kick to many meals). While there's no controversy in beef barbecues, vegetables and rice, still-wriggling octopus tentacles and fried silk worms may prove more challenging to a Western palate.  

If 'conflict tourism' and visits to former troubled spots, in the likes of Northern Ireland and Eastern Europe, is one of the next big things in travel, then Seoul has what must be the biggest, and possibly the weirdest, tourist attraction of them all - the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). With North Korea still largely closed to foreigners, and north and south still divided, this stretch of no-man's-land north of Seoul, which separates the two countries, offers a look into the workings of the still functioning border between the two.  

An organised tour (there's no other way to do it; it's not the sort of place you can go wandering around yourself) will take in the village of Panmunjeom and what's known as the Joint Security Area. You need to bring your passport and adhere to a list of rules and a dress code (no ripped jeans or flip-flops), but it's worth it to play the role of extra in a real-life Cold War thriller.  

A good tip if you've got a while to wait at Incheon airport is to book a transit tour from the specialist desk in the international terminal. A one-hour tour will bring you to Yonggungsa Temple, founded in AD 670, with its impressive 11-metre-high statue of Buddha.     

There's more than enough to delight and surprise you in Seoul, but if you want to explore outside the city, the port of Busan (which is also, confusingly, known as Pusan) lies three hours south by high-speed KTX bullet train. Its Jagalchi Fish Market and International Film Festival have put it on the map, and you can shop for designer replicas and cheap T-shirts in the market. Outside the centre lies the UN Cemetery, where thousands of foreign soldiers who died during the Korean War are buried.  


With many years of experience in journalism under her belt and a well-stamped passport in her back pocket, writer, broadcaster and DJ, Andrea McVeigh, thinks that any time spent at home is time wasted when there's a whole wide world of fun, culture and adventure to discover. Whether it's climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, sipping cocktails in West Hollywood, eating fried silk worms in Korea, or giving visitors the low-down on her home city of Belfast, Andrea has been there, done that and bought the tourist T-shirt (not to mention the key-ring, bumper sticker and souvenir pen).