No visit to any SEA country is complete without immersing yourself in its past at some point; this usually involves visitng a temple or a remote town that still mantains its old character, but when this happens it’s because there is an important temple somewhere nearby.
In South Korea there are two cities notorious for their well preserved historical buildings and temples: Andong and Gyeongju. Andong is known for a folk village (read traditional) where everything is still the same as it was over 500 years ago. It is a pleasant walk prone to good pictures (spring and fall especially) that sets you back in time. But not for long. I have to be fair and say that Andong was probably put on the map after a visit queen Elizabeth of England did a few years ago. The result is that Koreans now flok there en masse and the place has become too commercialized with several tickets and fees having to be paid to get in. The good side of our experience was that we hitch-hiked the way back to Andong.
Gyeongju is another story. Yes there are still many tourists (not many foreigners) and many sites have an entrance fee, but at the same time there are many that don’t, and the city is larger (still manageable though) which disperses the crowds.
Places we visited include Yangdong folk village north of town ( had we known it existed sooner we would have given Andong a miss), the botanical gardens, Anapji temple at sunset, Bulguksa temple, and one of the many bakeries that sell Hwangnam bread, a pastry with filling of red bean paste famous in all South Korea but a specialty food here.
Perhaps not a jaw- dropping historical city, Gyeongju is a must if you want to learn about Korea’s past. Cheap accommodation is not hard to find and food is abundant and good.
From here we went to Busan, South Korea’s second largest city. Famous for it’s beaches and nightlife, it is also the only port with ferries to Japan. We spent three days in it, not because there is much to do (weather was still somehow crappy, so beaches were not attractive) but because we still had to book the flight to Vietnam and were unsure about whether to go to Japan or not because of costs. It was high season (still as I write this) and everything is much more expensive than at any other time of the year, but after many hours of internet, gathering info from travel agencies and adding probable expenses we booked a flight to Hanoi from Seoul for August 14th and decided at 1 am to visit Japan for a week using the 7 day Japan Rail Pass and getting there by boat from Busan at 8 am- only 7 hours later! Woohoo!