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South Korea, the democratic half of Korea, is in many ways similair to its northern neighbour. They share history, culture and language. But for the obvious reason of its liberal government, South Korea is a much easier place to get to.
Its mountainous landscape is ideally suited to skiing, hiking and mountain bike riding - or just viewing with 'oohs' and 'aahs', if you're not quite so energetically inclined. South Korea counts to its name 20 national parks; interestingly, though the Japanese destroyed much of the country's natural environment while they occupied Korea during WWII, regrowth is happening vigorously fast. Economic regrowth is happening at a fast pace too, as is best seen at Seoul, where skyscrapers are charging up and modern development is marching ahead. What makes Seoul captivating for visitors, though, is its wealth of historical and cultural delights, including ancient temples, palaces and pleasure gardens.
Korea began with the founding of Joseon in 2333 BC by Dangun. Gojoseon expanded until it controlled much of the northern Korean peninsula and parts of Manchuria. After numerous wars with the Chinese Han Dynasty, Gojoseon disintegrated, leading to the Proto-Three Kingdoms of Korea period. Of the various small states, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla grew to control the peninsula as the Three Kingdoms. The unification of the Three Kingdoms by Silla in 676 led to the North South States Period, in which much of the Korean peninsula was controlled by Unified Silla.
After the North-South Period, successor states fought for control during the Later Three Kingdoms period. The peninsula was soon united by Emperor Taejo of Goryeo. Like Silla, Goryeo was a highly cultural state. The Mongol invasions in the 13th century greatly weakened Goryeo. After nearly 30 years of war, Goryeo continued to rule Korea, though as a tributary ally to the Mongols. After the Mongolian Empire collapsed, severe political strife followed and the Goryeo Dynasty was replaced by the Joseon Dynasty in 1388.
King Taejo declared the new name of Korea as "Joseon" in reference to Gojoseon, and moved the capital to Seoul. The first 200 years of the Joseon Dynasty were marked by relative peace and saw the creation of Hangul by King Sejong the Great in the 14th century and the rise in influence of Confucianism in the country.
Between 1592 and 1598, the Japanese invaded Korea. Toyotomi Hideyoshi led the forces and tried to invade the Asian continent through Korea, but was eventually repelled by the Righteous army and assistance from Ming Dynasty China. In the 1620s and 1630s, Joseon suffered from invasions by the Manchu who eventually conquered all of China.
After another series of invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace. King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo especially led a new renaissance of the Joseon Dynasty.
However, the latter years of the Joseon Dynasty were marked by excessive dependence on China for external affairs and isolation from the outside world. The Joseon Dynasty tried to protect itself against Western imperialism, but was eventually forced to open trade beginning an era which eventually led to 35 years of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). After the end of World War II, the Japanese surrendered to Soviet and U.S. forces who occupied the northern and southern halves of Korea, respectively. For more information also visit the Brief History of North Korea.
From the 1960s until the early 1980s, South Korea had several military coups and quite a few problems regarding politics, economics and social life. Since then, South Korea has become a stable and quite a wealthy country and in 1988 the Olympic Games were held in Seoul.
South Korea occupies the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, which juts out of the Asian continent. South Korea is a mountainous country bordering the Yellow Sea to the west and the Sea of Japan (or East Sea as South Korean like it to be named) to the east. The southern tip of the country borders the Korea Strait and the East China Sea. South Korea is a mix of high mountain ranges, valleys, narrow coastal plains, river basins and rolling hills. The majority of the country is very mountainous making only 30% of the land arable. South Korea also has claims to over three thousands islands, most of which are small and uninhabited. The largest island is Jeju that is also the site of South Korea's highest point Hallasan, which is an extinct volcano that is 1,950 metres (6,398 feet).
South Korea is divided into eight provinces (do), six metropolitan cities (gwangyeoksi) and one "special city" (teukbyeolsi), which is Seoul.
Metropolitan cities (gwangyeoksi):
Located a short flight, or a long ferry trip across the Korea Strait, south of the mainland, Jeju combines beautiful volcanic landscapes with fantastic beaches and is one of the favorite places for South Koreans to spend their holidays during the warm and humid summer months. If you can, avoid the busier months of July and August and come in May or October when crowds are less, temperatures are much better and humidity is lower.
Mount Seorakson (설악산) is the highest mountain in the Taebaek Mountains and the third highest mountain in all of Korea. Located in a national park near the city Sokcho this mountain is one of the most visited tourist spots in all of South Korea. There are great hikes, stunning waterfalls and insightful Buddhist shrines to be enjoyed while visiting Mount Seorakson. The best time of year to visit is during the autumn in order to enjoy the wonderful yellow leaves.
If looking for a great night out or some new designer digs Seoul is the place to go. This Asian Tiger has shot up in the last decade as one of the hottest towns in the world for drinking and shopping. Start off a night in a tent drinking soju and eating Korean food then progress to one of the hot clubs, maybe even running into a Korean pop star along the way. After waking up with a massive hang over head out to the main shopping district and spend even more money then the previous night out on some high end cloths or electronics.
Taekwondo (태권도) is a very popular martial art and the national sport of South Korea. It is also the most popular martial art in the world with the most practicers world wide. That means while travelling around South Korea remember that most people might have learned to kick some butt along the way. Taekwondo has vanished from Korean culture several times during its history but has always come back in some form or another. After the Japanese occupation ended taekwondo became really popular again because of its nationalistic appeal. Taking a couple of taekwondo classes on a trip to South Korea could be very worthwhile. Taekwondo is also an official Olympic sporting event.
Korea is a small country and the weather tends to be the same everywhere. That being said the weather can be extreme in Korea. There are brutally hot summers that have a temperture range of 22 °C to 29 °C with very high humidity. This does make for nice beach weather, and the Korean beaches can get very crowded during the height of summer heat. The cold winters are not better than the summers with a temperature range of -7 °C to 1 °C. Due to the cold here there tends to be a lot of snow fall, especially in the northern parts of Korea. This makes for some pretty good skiing in Korea. Other than that walking around Korea in the winter time can be a very chilly experience.
Weatherwise, the best times to visit Korea are spring and autumn. The weather is mild and enjoyable April through May and September through October. In April, gorgeous flowers abound, especially cherry blossoms, azaleas, and lilacs. In the fall, the brilliant hues of red, orange, and yellow can be seen all around in the trees.
Due to North Korea not allowing any people to cross its border with South Korea has caused an interesting situation. It has made this peninsula country really into an island. With no overland borders that will let anyone cross them, South Korea has an island like transport system with heavy reliance on air and sea travel.
Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) serves as the gateway to Seoul and South Korea. It is one of the busiest airports in the world, located around 50 kilometres west of the capital and has been ranked one of the best airports in the world, together with the ones in Hong Kong and Singapore. Korean Air serves dozens of destinations in Japan and China, as well as other cities and countries in Asia. It also has connections to about a dozen cities in North America and even more to European cities. It has flights to Australia, Sao Paulo and Pacific destinations like Fiji and Guam on top of that.
Another big airline is Asiana Airlines with just slightly less destinations further away but even more in both China and Japan.
Other international airports:
The South Korean government built a railroad all the way to the border of North Korea. The North Koreans have not finished it yet or are just going to ignore it. Therefore at the present time it is impossible to get in and out of South Korea by train.
Other then day trips to one mountain in North Korea it is impossible to take a bus in and out of South Korea. This bus line is cancelled from time to time by the North Koreans as well.
There are several ferries linking different Korean cities to other countries. It is possible to take ferries from Busan and Incheon to Osaka, Tianjin and Shanghai. Usually the boats have several different classes and the lowest class is usually filled with Chinese migrant workers while the highest class is private rooms with wonderful views.
There are dozens of sailings on an almost daily or twice daily basis between Japan and South Korea. For example with Korea Ferry to and from Busan. Mirajet has high speed ferries between Busan and Fukuoka, taking only 3 hours. Japan based JR Beetle offers the same service.
The Camellia-line ferry service is much slower (15 hours) but almost twice as cheap.
The most popular and cheapest route is between Busan and Shimonoseki. The Kampur Ferry Service's vessels Kampu or Pukwan leave Busan at 6pm and arrive in Shimonoseki at 8:30am the next morning on a daily basis.
There are many options of travelling by boat between China and South Korea.
Huadong sails between Incheon and Shi Dao, while http://www.weidong.com/english|Weidong]] travels between Incheon and Qingdao. Dandong Ferry plies the route between Incheon and Dandong and Musung has boats between Busan and Yantai.
Other possible connections to and from the South Korean port city of Incheon include those to and from the Chinese cities of Yantai, Dalian, Shanghai, Tianjin and Weihai. These cities can be reached from Busan as well, including Yingkou.
Asiana Airlines, Korean Air and Jeju Air are the main carriers and together have an extensive domestic networks. Cities served include Seoul, Incheon, Cheongju, Gwangju, Jeju, Gimhae, Daegu, Seoul Gimpo, Wonju, Gunsan, Phang, Ulsan, Sacheon, Mokpo and Yeosu.
Korean National Railroads has a fast reliable network of domestic services. There are three types of trains. The Korea Train Express (KTX) is the country's high-speed train line going east to Busan and west to Mokpo (check route map online). It has both first and second class carriages. Then there are Saemaeul trains which are express, first class trains and Mugunghwa trains are more of the local and second class type. There are railpasses of 3, 5, 7 or 10 days with unlimited service on all lines.
Many international as well as local companies offer rental cars at major airports and cities. You need to be 21 years of age and have an international driver's licence as well as at least one year of driving experience. Roads are generally in a good conditions and signs are often in both Korean and English. Still, driving can be chaotic and you might want to hire a car with a driver if you feel the need.
There are both intercity as well as local bus services. The aircon express buses are fast and comfortable buses opertaing between all major cities and are a good alternative for trains. Local buses are sometimes a bit crowded and slower but can be of use for travelling to smaller places.
Port cities with ferry terminals are Incheon, Gyeokpo, Mokpo, Yeosu, Jeju, Gunsan, Wando, Tongyeong, Geoje, Donghae and Boryeong. Most of them have connections with either eachother or to some of the smaller islands. Ferries connect Busan with Jeju Island and there are also car ferries operating this route.
See also Money Matters
The Korean unit of currency is the "Won" (ISO: KRW) with the symbol "₩".
(US$1 = ₩1,100 - 1,200 approx.)
Korean is the main language of South Korea.
References to the "calming and stimulating' effects of drinking Green Tea in South Korea date back to between the 2nd to the 4th centuries. By the 6th and 7th centuries, Buddhist monks had a tradition of tea rituals (Cha-rye) and since then they have been the custodians of the 'Way of Tea' throughout Korean history. A revival in recent times of the drinking of Green Tea was sparked by the liberation of South Korea from the Japanese in 1945.
Although tea has been made differently in places such as China and Japan, in South Korea it has traditionally been processed in six steps; first, the top 3 leaves of the new shoots are 'Picked' early in the morning, ideally on the eve of a full moon; the leaves are then 'withered' by resting them outside overnight and bathing the picked leaves in moonlight; next, the leaves are 'steamed' at very high temperatures until they have wilted, preventing fermentation; then 'rolling' or rubbing leaves against a coir mat, which adds flavour to the finished product; 'drying' to reduce the moisture in the leaves; and finally, 'roasting' the leaves slowly for 2-3 hours, often with grains such as brown rice, barley or wheat.
South Korean Green tea leaves are divided into categories based on when the leaves are picked. The first leaves, called Ujeon, are picked in the middle of the third lunar month (sometime in April). The second harvest of leaves picked is called Gogu, followed by Sejak and Jungjak. Ujeon is considered the highest quality amongst the types of green tea and it is the most fragrant.
The revival of green tea consumption by the general public has been fueled by the 'well being' movement which took off in South Korea in the 1990's and as a result of the drinking of green tea reputedly having major health benefits. One of the major Green Tea attractions can be found at the Boseong Tea Plantation and surrounds in the South Jeolla Province.
Along with beer (Mekju), Soju (much like Japanese sake) is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in South Korea. This popularity is probably due to its great taste, many different varieties, an alcohol content between 10% to 20%, ready availability and its great overall value for money.
Soju is traditionally drank from small shot glasses then someone should always makes a toast before drinking. Most of the time the drinker finishes the drink in one go. Because of these customs it is very easy to get extremely drunk within in a few minutes while drinking with South Koreans. A traveller can tell how much damage someone has done to their body in one night easily by counting the number of empty little green soju bottles are on the table. The count of bottles goes up much quicker then you would think because soju does not have a strong taste therefore be careful on a heavy soju night.
See also Travel Health
South Korea has a great health care system. With some of the best hospitals in the world getting sick or injured in South Korea is no issue to worry about. Remember that in many hospitals the doctors will be able to speak English but the staff may not be able to.
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to South Korea. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to South Korea. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. Only in rare cases is vaccination against Japanese Encephalitis recommended.
Malaria does occur in South Korea, but only in remote areas in the northern remote areas of provinces like Kyonggi and Kangwon. Malaria pills are not necessary; just use mosquito repellant and wear long sleeves if you can when it is dark.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
One of the advantages of South Korea is its extremely low crime rate. One can expect to feel very safe in South Korea, even in the mega-metropolis of Seoul. As with any city, use common sense and don't leave valuable items unattended. In the end, you will feel very safe among the kind and gentle people of Korea.
South Korea is the world's most wired country and Internet cafes, known as PC bang, are ubiquitous through the country. Most customers are there for gaming but you're free to sit and type e-mails as well, typical charges are about ₩1,000 to ₩2,000/hour. Like anything, it may be more expensive in more "luxurious" places. Also, snacks and drinks are available for purchase in most PC bangs.
There is also a lot of free wifi available throughout South Korea. Just check for an unencrypted signal, although using open wifi hotspots is a potential security risk anywhere in the world so be careful what you use it for. Many coffee shops offer free wifi with no registration required.
See also International Telephone Calls
International dialing prefixes in South Korea vary by operator, and there is no standard prefix. Check with your operator for the respective prefixes. For calls to South Korea, the country code is 82. Emergency numbers include 112 (Polie) and 119 (Ambulance and Fire).
The country has three service providers: KT, SK Telecom and LG Telecom. They offer prepaid mobile phone services (pre-paid service, PPS) in South Korea. Incoming calls are free. South Korea uses the CDMA standard exclusively and does not have a GSM network, so most 2G (GSM) mobile phones from elsewhere will not work. Even quad-band GSM phones are useless. However, if you have a 3G phone with a 3G SIM card, you can probably roam onto the UMTS/W-CDMA 2100 networks of KT or SK Telecom; check with your home operator before you leave to be sure. 4G LTE has recently been made available in Korea; again, check with your provider. Mobile phone coverage is generally excellent, with the exception of some remote mountainous areas.
If you want to buy a prepaid SIM card, you should be able to get a prepaid SIM card at one of the olleh expat locations. However, you must have been in Korea for at least 3 days, and you must bring your passport. The fee for a prepaid SIM card is ₩5,500, and you have to charge at least ₩10,000 at the spot. You must also have a compatible phone. All modern iPhones (3GS and later) should work.
Korea Post is the national postal service and has fast, reliable and well-priced services. Postage for a postcard anywhere in the world is ₩370, while letters and packages start from ₩480. On their website you can find more about pricing details, as there are many different rates, depending on the zone (which country) you want to send it to, how much it weighs, wether it is air or ground service etc. Generally, post office hours are from Monday to Friday 9:00am to 6:00pm, though the larger central post offices tend to be open until 8:00pm and sometimes also on Saturday or even Sunday, usually only mornings. If you want to send package internationally, you might also check international companies like TNT, FedEx, UPS or DHL, as they have fast, reliable and competitively priced services as well.
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Ask dream.big. a question about South Korea
I've got a lot of friends from South Korea and I've been travelling for two weeks there, so I can say I'm accustomed with their culture and their life style. I specifically know a lot about Seoul, the capital and largest city of South Korea.
Ask gypsierose a question about South Korea
I went to an international school in Korea and go back nearly every year - I pretty much know the city (Seoul) but don't know the outskirts very well. Can advise on the culture, places to shop, things to do... ask, I'll try my best to help.
Ask mindputty a question about South Korea
I have been living in South Korea for a year and 4 months. I can do my best to answer any questions you may have about what to expect, some cultural hints, things to see, etc. etc. I also maintain (off-and-on) a weblog about living in South Korea. My experiences last year are archived at http://bensjourney.blosgspot.com/
Ask chumpette84 a question about South Korea
I have been living here for the past 6 months and have had to figure out things on my own. I feel I am quite confident to venture out on my own now- I even bought myself a bike to ride around the city!
Ask rozzles a question about South Korea
I have lived in Korea for one year in the South of the country teaching English. I have grown a fondness for this country, and would love to help others feel as welcome and comfortable here as I have.
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