Lately South Korea has propped-up as one of Asia's most tourist haunted destination.
Like Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, its vibrant capital Seoul claims to be a great stopover destination for travellers, whisking west or down under with Korean Air or Asiana Airlines, the nation's two flagship carriers.
However during my recent visit, I discovered that South Korea's offerings are more than just a destination to fill in couple of days in an ultramodern metropolis, browsing landmark sights, shopping and perhaps attending a cultural show. From nature and history to culture and cuisine, spanning from antiquity to modernity, the welcoming nation has something on the menu for everyone.
Squeezed onto its small patch of hilly peninsula, it's a pretty compact nation, just an hour by plane from north to south. So it's easy to tour around and experience its ensemble of delights.
Like India, South Korea was born as a nation in 1948, when the prehistoric land was divided into two, based on political alliances. Today it stands as one of the most progressive quarter in the region and doesn't waste time to electrify visitors with its quantum of development in the last six decades, despite carrying burdens of a turbulent history. It impressed the world by hosting two major sporting events- Summer Olympics in 1988 and World Cup Football in 2004, demonstrating its capability and strength to bring the entire globe under its umbrella.
While modernising, the nation has well conserved its cultural relics; that's why ten of the nation's sites of historical and cultural significance, have gained a place in UNESCO's World Heritage List and my mission is to explore some of them.
The sojourn starts in Seoul, the epicentre of politics, economy and culture since 14th century, when it was established as the nerve centre of the famous Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea for almost six centuries. The city, amongst several attractions, proudly boasts of five royal palaces, each of which is an architectural marvel, however only the 1405 built Changdeokgung Palace, has found a place in the elite list, being an outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design. We visit the 58 hectare-acre citadel-compound on a guided night-tour and enjoy the mystical beauty of the illuminated treasure, once home to members of royal family. Not far from here is another World Heritage site , Jongmyo, the oldest and most authentic Confucian shrine from the Joseon period ,the importance of which is enhanced by the persistence of an important element of the intangible cultural heritage in the form of traditional ritual practices and forms.
From Seoul we take the high -speed KTX train, similar to the bullet train in Japan, to arrive Gyeonju, located 340km south west of Seoul. In 57BC, when Julius Caesar was subduing Gaul, it became the capital of the Silla kingdom and remained so for the next 1000 years, holding more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, palaces castes and gardens than any other place in Korea. Perhaps that's why it's often referred as the museum without walls.
There are three World Heritage Sites in the area, the most significant being the 5th century built Bulguksa Temple. It's a testimony to both, the skills of Silla architects and depth of Buddhist faith. While most of the wooden buildings have been rebuilt over centuries, all the stone bridges, stairways and pagodas are original and well preserved. Some of the wooden panels in this temple have carving of the "om" symbol, signifying the link of Buddhism with ancient Hindu philosophy. The other two sites are; the Seokguram Grotto, a Silla period Buddhist shrine surrounded by bodhisattvas and guardian deities, with a central Buddha statue gazing out across the sea into the horizon; and the Yangdong village, developed during the 14th century but still reflecting the traditional Confucian philosophy of the Joseon era in setting, culture and lifestyle.
My last stop in the world heritage circuit is Jeju Island, a short flight from Daegu, neighbouring Gyeonju. This picturesque island with a romantic-tropical image is popular location for Korean films, as well as for honeymooners, I am told. Its central feature is Hallasan, the tallest mountain in South Korea and the dormant volcano. Blessed with spectacles of nature created by volcanic activities, the entire island and the lava tubes are all World Heritage Sites.
A highlight of Jeju Island, now a finalist for the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World global poll, to be decided on 11 November this year, is their women divers performance. Held every day on Umutgae shore around Sungsan Ilchulbong Peak, we see how women divers, whose age varies between 50 and 80, go underwater and collect octopus, filefish, sea squirt, etc just using their hands.
The World Heritage Sites gives visitors a taste of Korea's cherished past, but it's only the tip of the iceberg from a Korea-tourism point of view. There are lots of other things to see and do in this country of 60 million friendly people.
Nature aficionados enjoy its breathtaking landscape of picturesque hills and valleys or volcanic vista of its two largest islands; religious minded listen to Buddhist monks chanting verses in colourful temples; history buffs explore relics of ancient Korean dynasties along corridors of royal monuments and national museums; while urban babies stick to big cities relishing every bit of 21st century attributes from shopping at glitzy malls to partying till early hours at trendy night clubs and bars. It's hard to fit in all of them in one visit, so I leave Korea with a promise to come back.
Getting There: Fly Korean Air (www.koreanair.com) from Mumbai or Asiana Airlines (www.flyasiana.com) from Delhi to Seoul.
Currency & Exchange Rate: South Korean Won ( KRW) , 1 USD= 1100 KRW
Visa: Check with South Korea Embassy in New Delhi (Ph- 011 42007008) or Consulate in Mumbai ( Ph-022 23886743)