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Saturday August 31, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday September 2, 2013 MYT 12:28:54 PM
by patsy kam
Holiday-makers at the popular Haeundae Beach in Busan.
With its many lovely beaches and a more relaxed lifestyle, Busan provides the perfect balance for a city and resort vacation.
A CITY is a city, and after a point, they all look the same. Skyscrapers outline the horizon, congested traffic snake along the roads and only the varying levels of pollution loosely demarcate the difference between them all.
The world has become so much smaller, thanks to cyberspace, globalisation and nondescript office structures, and whether you are in New York, Sydney, Seoul or Kuala Lumpur, one inevitably gets swallowed up by the hollowness of city living.
I confess I don’t really care much for Seoul. The only thing that’s etched in my mind about the city is its crazy shopping hours and despite being a self-professed shopaholic, there’s only so much buying one can do at 3am without being incoherent at that hour.
Busan, however, is rather low-key and has more of a resort-feel, and in my personal opinion, a friendlier introduction to K-culture.
The second largest city in South Korea after Seoul, it has a population of 3.6 million people living in a lovely harmony of mountain, sea and city.
It also chalks up a number of “firsts” as it’s home to Korea’s largest beach, longest river and largest trading port (world’s fifth busiest seaport); world’s largest department store, the Shinsegae Centum City; largest seafood market, Jagalchi Market; and one of the few if not the only place in the world where you can find a 3D K-Pop cinema. By the way, Busan is also dubbed Cannes of Asia, and has its own version of Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame, where famous Korean stars leave their imprint on the cemented street.
There was no time to read up on Busan as deadlines were looming so I had no idea what it had to offer when I flew in on Air Asia X’s inaugural flight. Maybe that was a good thing because then, one has no preconceived notions and expectations.
Located on the southern-most tip of the Korean peninsula, Busan is designated as a metropolitan city, and has its fair share of shopping malls and street shops. Apart from Centum City and the many Lotte department stores (including a Lotte premium outlet at Jangyu), there’s stuff to be bought at Seomyeon underground shops, Foreigner’s Street and Haeundae Traditional Market, just to name a few of the places that we visited.
Apart from the Jagalchi Market, a number of smaller fish markets abound, given its reputation as a premier port; just a couple of streets behind Seacloud Hotel on Haeundae where we were staying, there was one. I’m not suggesting that tourists should be lugging back crates of fresh fish and seafood aside, there are really so many interesting sights and sounds to savour from these small (and may I stress, safe) alleys.
Besides the abundance of seaweed (Korea is truly seaweed country) and fish products, I was fascinated by the many small restaurants which more or less offered similar menus – particularly, octopus and eel – and an assortment of shellfish. Eel, I can fathom, as its Japanese name unagi has elevated its status somewhat and it’s actually quite tasty. But I draw the line at eating live sea creatures with tentacles that suck at your tongue while you try to swallow them.
But I digress, as Busan is really all about beaches.
We arrived just a week before the summer school break and already Haeundae beach was thronging with shirtless guys in beach shorts and svelte girls in swimsuits. Which was a bit of a paradox, considering how the Koreans shy away from the sun on normal occasions.
Grace, our Korean tour guide, explained that Busan was South Korea’s summer capital and, in August, one would hardly be able to see the beachline as it would be swamped with tourists and locals alike.
There are over 5,000 hotels providing 52,473 hotel rooms on Haeundae Beach alone, so that gives a brief idea of how brisk summer tourism is for this Korean holiday spot.
Apart from Haeundae Beach, other popular beach stretches include Gwanggalli, Hakdong Mongdol, Sonjeong, Gujora beaches and Geojedo Island, so really, it’s a just matter of choosing your personal hotspot to set up your umbrella.
Apparently, coffee has taken over as the “national drink” in South Korea, as at almost every corner there’s a hip café hangout. The weather was perfect at 27°C with a lovely cool breeze throughout. Sun, surf, beach parties and cafés – what’s not to like?
To cap off a lovely evening, we had a dinner cruise and drank in the night view of Haeundae and Gwangalli as we passed by the Gwangan Bridge. Nicknamed Diamond Bridge, the 7km suspension bridge is the second longest in South Korea, and a spectacular sight when lit at night.
For history buffs, there’s much to learn about Korea’s rich 5,000-year-old roots. Aside from the obvious Busan Museum, Busan Modern History Museum, Bokcheon Museum and National Maritime Museum, we had a chance to see museums off-the-beaten path like the Busan Women’s College (no, not to ogle at college girls) to learn more about tea from the Tea Museum there.
South Korea is predominantly Christian and then, Buddhist, and one of the most scenic temples in Busan is the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple along the coastline. First built in 1376, the temple’s main sanctuary was reconstructed in 1970, and its 108 stairs lead to a prime spot for a magnificent sunrise view. Even there, there’s shopping to be done as seafood, snacks and temple paraphernalia are sold on the walkway to the main sanctuary.
Other places to visit on Busan’s touristic map include the Nurimaru APEC House, Busan Exhibition and Convention Centre, and Busan Cinema Centre (for the K-Pop 3D concert), all of which showcase impressive mod architecture, Haeundae Aquarium, UN Memorial Cemetery and Gamcheon Culture Village, among others.
If you have time to squeeze in a short trip out of Busan, I recommend a night’s stay at the Gimhae Traditional Korean House for an insight into traditional Hanok life at Gimhae. Quite a unique experience as the hotel has been designed to resemble a typical Korean traditional home, composed of seven buildings, including an ancestral hall and servants’ quarters. We had to roll out our own mattress and sleep on the wooden floor, but (thankfully!) there’s no real hardship involved as there is air-conditioning and a modern washroom available. Here, one can sip Korean tea while eating traditional Korean cuisine, and there are even programmes to introduce tourists to the culture.
The short stay at Gimhae included an excursion to King Suro’s Tomb, Gaya historical/cultural village and Gimhae Clay Arch, famed for its architectural ceramics. Busan is also well-known for its unique buncheong ware (which literally means “bluish grey”) which has been enjoying a revival of sorts in recent decades.
Clearly, there are so many facets to the city and I haven’t even begun talking about the food yet.
Considering all it has to offer, it looks like Busan is set to become yet another favourite holiday destination for Malaysians.
Busan is AirAsia X’s second destination in South Korea after Seoul. The long-haul, low-fare carrier flies to Busan four times weekly. For more details, go to airasia.com.
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Lifestyle, Travel, Busan, South Korea, inaugural flight, AirAsia X
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