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The juxtaposition of the Orient and the Occident, the traditional and the modern, makes Korea a fascinating destination.

Take Seoul, for example. In the bustling capital city (population: 26 million), Dongdaemun Design Plaza and the wave-shaped Seoul City Hall stand out in vivid contrast to the Jogyesa Temple.

People kneel before Buddha statue in Jogyesa Temple, Seoul.
People kneel before Buddha statue in Jogyesa Temple, Seoul.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Inside the tiled-roof temple pagoda, paper lanterns, painted with requests, festoon the ceiling. Flickering candles illuminate a golden Buddha. Worshippers kneel on straw mats, bending their heads in prayer. A closer inspection jars us back to the 20th-century, as we spot a security camera, mounted high on a lacquered red pillar, recording the centuries-old scene.

The clean, modern Seoul subway has 17 color-coded routes. Most signs are in Korean and English. Although Koreans drive on the right, they walk on the left. Escalators, likewise, go up on the left and down on the right. As creatures of North American habit, we sometimes found ourselves heading in the wrong direction, bumping into the always-orderly, and fortunately forgiving, Koreans.

Traditional markets and modern hotels

Contrasts are everywhere. On our way to Namdaemun Market, we spotted a futuristic silver electric car parked outside a hotel. Minutes later, in the seething streets of the market, we watched porters carrying crates of red chiles and green onions on ancient wooden back frames.

Woman creates calligraphy at Korean Folk Village in Suwon.
Woman creates calligraphy at Korean Folk Village in Suwon.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In the Korean Folk Village just outside Seoul, a costumed craftsman demonstrated the age-old art of basketweaving while listening to mp3 music on his iPad. An old lady told fortunes, using beads, in a traditional thatched home. Outside, on the street, visitors inserted coins into a computerized fortune teller that reads fingerprints.

Soaring glass elevators in Gyeongju's Hyundai Hotel whisk visitors 12 stories above a swimming pool and a golf course. Nearby, mounds of earth shelter the tombs of Shilla kings who ruled the area 1,000 years ago.

Charming Korean children

On the train between Gyeongju and Seoul, a travel companion made friends with a chocolate-eyed three-year-old sitting across the aisle. He sketched her a picture of a kitten. She took the writing pad and drew a doll. He offered her some chewing gum. She gave him some candy-coated peanuts.

Korean children
Korean children
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

He sang Frere Jacques for her. She listened to the French Canadian song, then chanted a Korean ditty with exactly the same tune. (A Korean passenger translated it as Say Hello to a Friend.)

Korea's children are disarmingly charming. In Seoul, we visited the tranquil 16-hectare oasis occupied by the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Our goal was to photograph the colourful, intricately printed eaves and beams under the tiled dragon-back roofs of the buildings.

After capturing the image of a picturesque pavilion, reflected in a lotus pond, we spotted some preschoolers, picnicking under a tree. Although they didn't speak any more English than we spoke Korean, they were as curious about us, as we were about them. When we squatted down to allow the youngsters to peer into our cameras, a little guy reached up and gently tugged Ron's beard. The mothers, chaperoning the children, looked on with amusement.

Restaurants and snack bars

Welcome distractions also abound in Seoul's Namdaemun Market. Our quest for designer knockoffs was soon forgotten when we spotted stands laden with pigs' heads and hocks, tubs of crabs and baby turtles, and a shopping frenzy of housewives attacking a pile of bargain-priced clothing.

The merging of East and West is evident in Korean foods and drinks. Take the breakfast buffet served at the elegant Jeju Shilla, on the southern island of Jeju-do. Besides the bacon, eggs and fruit, we found rice porridge with abalone and seaweed. Cans of Diamond nuts in our room's mini-bar contained roasted almonds, as well as tiny salted silver fish.

Snackbars in the airport sell Coca Cola and orange juice in addition to honey ginseng tea and fermented rice punch (which tastes much better than it sounds). Order a 'cider' and you get 7-Up. Ask for pancakes and the waiter brings pindaettok, made from ground mung beans, rice flour, pork, and green onions. Infinitely more nutritious and tasty than Aunt Jemima's.

Bulgogi and kimchi lunch
Bulgogi and kimchi lunch
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Restaurants in tourist hotels serve steak and french fries as well as Korea's best-known dishes like bulgogi, barbecued beef, and kimchi, spicy pickled vegetables. But the line between Asian and Western is a blurred one. The restaurant in Seoul's Sofitel Ambassador serves a bulgogi and kimchi pizza, while McDonald's sells bulgogi burgers. They look like Big Macs, but are seasoned with garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Climbing Mount Sanbang

Koreans share with North Americans an obsession with fitness and good health. There's an abundance of high-fiber drinks (Sweetie and Fiber Mini) and sport beverages for sale, including one not-so-appetizingly named Pocari Sweat.

Most restaurants are non-smoking. So are flights on Korean Air. Koreans, of all ages, think nothing of climbing several hundred stairs to the 182-meter-high rim of Seongsanpo Mountain on Jeju island, to witness spectacular sunrises over the Yellow Sea. They also effortlessly ascend the 600 breath-wrenching steps up Mount Sanbang to visit a Buddhist grotto-temple.

Huffing-and-puffing tourists, left in their wake, often rest halfway up the mountain, at an elaborately decorated temple. Drawn by the chanting of monks and ringing of bells, they peer inside only to discover the sounds emanating from Samsung electronics in front of the altar.

While few Koreans speak English outside tourist areas, traveling on public transit or walking the streets is safe. You may get lost, but if you carry the directions to your destination, written in Korean, a hospitable local is bound to help you out. Tours are available for less adventurous travellers.


Korea Tourism Organization

More information on Korea:

Guide to Korea