SOUTH KOREA (대한민국)
Not a country on many peoples list of places to go, but South Korea has it's own distinct language, culture, food and history, that separate it from it's neighbours in SE Asia. It boasts attractive landscapes and towns that haven't changed in centuries. Korea has suffered over the last hundred years, first with an invasion by the Japanese up to the end of WWII, and then the Soviets and Americans after the war. The Soviets are long gone, but the Americans still remain with the UN. The Japanese were known as brutal oppressors, and many Koreans died under their reign. Seodaemun Prison acts as a reminder of this in Seoul, and can be visited. The Korean War from 1950-52, is actually still going, as a solution has never been found for the conflict, an armistice has existed since 1952. As with Germany, America pumped in lots of investment, and South Korea is now a world leader in technology and advanced manufacturing. It also has a very good film industry, lead by Chan Wook Park.
I only saw Seoul as part of a stopover on the way from Sydney to Tokyo, so can't claim to be an expert. I did find Seoul a frustrating city to navigate, as Latin Script at the time (2004) was very rare. The streets and alleys were small and easy to get lost in without a map, something I didn't have. No one speaks English it would appear, despite the proliferation of language schools teaching English. Even the tourist information centre barely spoke any English. It's also somewhere I was glad I had my Point It book, as most of the food was unrecognisable. Although South Korea is a democracy, it has a slight air of totalitarianism about it. Certain rights are curtailed and protests are common. While there I witnessed huge numbers of riot police sat in the dark near a busy area of Seoul. I was intrigued by the many food stalls set up at night, but admittedly played it safe in a restaurant. As live octopus is a common delicacy, I'd have preferred to have a guide take me through the dishes. If I had the time, South Korea is somewhere I'd happily go again, and spend more time there.
Plug: European 2 round prongs, 220v
GMT: GMT +9
GDP Ranking (IMF): #27 £19,500
Communications: Country code is + 82
Health: No Vaccinations are required, and South Korea has excellent health care. Hepatitis A is something to be wary of, as there is a higher than normal occurrence in South Korea. Health care is expensive, so insurance is vital.
When to Visit: South Korea has northern hemisphere seasons, with a hot humid summer and freezing cold winter (but usually with clear skies). July usually is the wettest month. Spring and Autumn are therefore the better months to visit.
Personal Safety: South Korea has a relatively low crime rate, with the usual precautions in the bigger cities. Korean men can potentially react violently if offended, particularly when drunk. Racism and sexism are also prevalent, with racial discrimination being legal. F&CO advice is here.
Getting Around: Internal flights can cover large distances, with regular rail and bus providing ground based transportation.
What to see/do: Most people are lured to the DMZ, the unofficial and heavily mined border between North and South Korea. A short bus trip north of Seoul, where you'll get to stare at North Korean soldiers for half an hour before being shuffled off. Be sure to check out the nearby North Korean Invasion Tunnel, claimed to be a coal mine. Seoul, like most capital cities, is a destination in itself, with palaces such as Kyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, the areas around the River Han and during the evening at nearby Yeouido Park.
Daecheon Beach is similar to Atlantic City in New Jersey, full of amusement parks, colourful motels and nightlife next to a pleasing beach. Jejudo is home to the world's largest lava tube, next to Hallasan, and extinct volcano, Admire the male genitalia in Haesingdan Gong-won, Hwaseong is a UNESCO site, and can be seen around Suwon. Gochang Fortress is another historical site from the 15th century this time, with well preserved walls.
Food & Drink: The Korean barbecue is the mainstay of a tourists first delve into Korean food. It features cooked meats and various local vegetables in small metal bowls. Bibimbap consists of mixed rice with a plethora of condiments on top, while Gimbap is known as Korean Sushi. Sushi style food isn't the only type it shares with it's neighbour across the sea, Japan. It also shares a love of noodles, including Naengmyeon, Japchae and Ramyeon noodles, all served Korean meats and vegetables according to dish. The other main food, as a sea encircled nation, is obviously seafood. Live octopus being a treat for the brave. More questionable dishes to be found including Dog (served as suyuk), and at certain festivals and the odd Seoul restaurant, whale. More palatable is Hwe, a type of raw fish similar to sashimi. And for those seeking warmth in winter, haemultang is a spicy mix of sea bottom crawling creatures.
Soju is the national spirit, a starch based drink similar to vodka and very cheap! Hite D (Dry Finish) is a good beer to look out for, and OB Golden lager for the less choosy. Stout drinkers might be able to track down Hite Stout.
Other notes: South Korea has a lot of customs and etiquette. Try to study up on them before going, in order to avoid offending locals.