Officially, South Korea is still at war with North Korea. But this has not deterred the over 50 million hardworking and strong-willed South Koreans from growing their country into one of Asia’s powerhouses through innovation, artistic talents, and strong marketing skills.
An economic miracle transformed South Korea into one of the four Asian dragons in the 1980’s. But it was almost slain by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990’s, only to rise swiftly to become one of Asia’s best. It is quite an amazing story.
One would be impressed by the creativity of the Koreans in turning what used to be an urban slum, a smelly fish market or a discarded rail tunnel into major tourist attractions. Tourism is the third largest foreign exchange earner of the country. Busan, on the southern tip of South Korea, is a case in point. It is South Korea’s second biggest city after Seoul, and its biggest port city, with a population of 3.5 million.
Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan is one such showcase. As I walked with my friends under the blazing summer sun, we simply marvelled at the talents and imagination of the Koreans in turning the once-abandoned slum on a hill-slope into a cultural village.
Dilapidated and ramshackle dwellings along the small and winding alleys on the hill have been renovated and turned into stores selling souvenirs, T-shirts and socks, as well as coffee bars, ice-cream parlours and art studios. The roofs have been painted red, green and blue while the walls are just as colourful. On the streets, colourful murals and paintings greet visitors. Even flower pots are not naked: they are clad in discarded jeans!
During the Korean War in the 1950s, masses of people fled here as refugees to escape the war. In 1955, followers of a religious sect also came, and rules were imposed on how the houses should be built using the topography so that no house obstructed another. Their unique features attract lots of visitors. It even has a tourist bus plying its main road! Tourists snap photos, take selfies and view the port city from roof-top wooden decks.
Another example of how imagination and marketing worked well is the huge Jagalchi Fish Market, touted as the epitome of Busan. What? Fly all the way here to visit a fish market? Well, that’s what the tourism promoters want visitors to experience.
Ramshackle stalls run by grandmas selling seafood – ranging from giant squids, red snappers, big clams, slithering eels to all kinds of creepy-crawlies – give you a taste of Korean life.
You can hand-pick your choice of fresh seafood and enjoy it cooked in a restaurant upstairs.
There are also small eateries lining the narrow street leading to the market where you can pick seafood delicacies displayed in huge trays in front of the shops.
A bit further north, the Persimmon Wine Tunnel in Cheongdo, south-east of Daegu, is another popular spot showcasing the ingenuity of the Koreans. Built in 1904, the 1km-long rail tunnel has been leased since 2006 by the Cheongdo Gam Wine Co Ltd, which turned half its length into a wine cellar. The tunnel provides the perfect temperature of between 13°C and 15°C for maturing wine in this region, which also produces the best persimmons.
The company has furnished the tunnel with different elements to make it more than a wine cellar. There are wooden benches and tables where wine lovers can enjoy wine with cream crackers and cheese under special lighting effects.
Romantic? Yes, and it is aptly called the Dream Tunnel. The tunnel is decorated with fairy lights. “Dream cards” in the shape of a bat carrying a wine bottle are given out to visitors on which they can write their dreams or wishes to be hung in designated places in the tunnel.
The company’s marketing director Lee Kap Soo said the temperature is maintained inside the tunnel, whether it is in freezing winter or sizzling summer! Besides wine, the company also produces vinegar which is absolutely soothing to the throat.
There are persimmon orchards everywhere. Even the trees lining the pathway to the tunnel were heavy with fruit which will be plucked in autumn.
The Mabijeong Mural Village in Daegu is another popular tourist attraction which draws tens of thousands of tourists every year, thanks to the Korean TV series Running Man which is very popular in Malaysia.
The walls of the farm houses are beautifully painted, with vivid scenes of cows grazing, grandma cooking in the kitchen, squirrels and magnolia trees, children playing, and more.
But what turned the quiet hillside village of 35 households into a tourist attraction was that Running Man was shot on location there. As expected, there was almost a jostle among tourists to pose with images of their favourite superstars found at strategic points.
But tourist attractions in South Korea go beyond all these cultural and innovative products. South Korea has a long history of more than 5,000 years and boasts of well-kept ancient temples and historical relics. A must-see for history buffs is Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE to 953 CE) which was designated as a Unesco Heritage site in the year 2000. It is a “museum without walls”, with 52 designated cultural assets registered with the Unesco World Heritage Centre, including 35 royal tombs.
Gyeongju, a coastal city in the south-east of the country – with its ancient tombs and temples, palaces, Buddhist relics, notably the Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto – draws some six million visitors a year.
At the Cheonmachong Tomb, the only one excavated and open to the public, we learned how wise Koreans in ancient times used boulders to cover the king’s grave and his treasure so that tomb-raiders would be deterred by the risk of being buried alive when the upper layer of rocks crumbles.
No chance of not being entertained when you visit these attractions!