Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 3) – If I Had 365 Days in Yeosu…

I would try to visit each of the 373 islands sprinkled around Yeosu (여수), Korea’s beautiful southern port city. Granted, most of these islands are uninhabited and some are just pieces of rock jutting out of the East China Sea, I may already have my work cut out. But if given the chance, I would really love to spend a year here, because Yeosu’s coastal scenery is breathtakingly gorgeous.

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Island hopping wasn’t really on my agenda on my recent visit because I only had three days there. It was also my first visit there. I had previously written about my love for Busan, but Yeosu (여수) stole my heart the first day I arrived. The entire city exudes such a relaxed vibe, so different from the crazy bustle of Seoul.

IMG_20180502_151001This vibe was perhaps best personified by the guesthouse owner, who made me feel so at home when I first checked in. I had just arrived from Suncheon (순천), wet and cold because it had been raining since morning.

With nowhere to go due to the inclement weather, I hung around the reception area, and quickly struck up a conversation with the staff (which comprises the owner and her lovely mum). She spoke little English, but with my patchy Korean, we managed to get by. One of her first questions to me was how long I intended to stay in Yeosu (여수), to which I replied “3 days”.

천천히 놀려 도돼요,” she said. (which means “You can take your time to enjoy Yeosu”).

Indeed, “천천히” (slowly) became a phrase I constantly reminded myself during my stay in Yeosu.

IMG_20180502_181656The rain eventually cleared up sometime during the evening, and I decided it’s time to explore the neighbourhood. My first stop was Yi Shun-shin Promenade, whose statue stood proudly over this coastal city. IMG_20180504_185556_1A much revered Korean admiral during the Joseon dynasty, Yi was most noted for his amazing naval tactics against the invading Japanese, in which his fleet of 13 “turtle-ships” repelled a 133-strong fleet of Japanese warships. There’s even a mock-up model of Yi’s turtle-ship,  that invites visitors to step in and experience (with life-size dioramas) how life on Yi’s ship might be like in those days as they set out to battle the Japanese.IMG_20180504_144940Yi Shun-shin Promenade was a place I would return to over the next two days, not because I had nowhere else to go but because it’s a fabulous place to wind down the day, and to truly appreciate the beauty of Yeosu. The sleepy promenade comes to life in the evening, when a long strip of red-and-white striped tents (Korea’s ubiquitous pojangmacha 포장마차) line the promenade.IMG_20180502_190604However, unlike the ones you would find in Seoul, those in Yeosu (여수) are bona fide “restaurants” in their own right, and serve mainly seafood hotplate. I joined the queue at Tent no.13, apparently a hit with the locals on Instagram. That night, despite strong gusts of wind that threatened to blow away the canvas roof at some point, I enjoyed a succulent meal, and even managed to exchange small talk with a group of locals seated at the next table.

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IMG_20180504_180729Just as prominent, the twin arched bridges that framed the promenade on either side, were places I would return over the next two days. Brilliantly lit at night, the twin arches almost formed a perfect mirror image. I probably crossed the twin bridges at least half a dozen times over the rest of my stay, examining the sights of Yeosu from different vantage points, from Dolsan Island (돌산도) to Odongdo (오동도).IMG_20180504_164309There’s also no shortage of cafes, where you could grab some excellent beans and kick back at the rooftop terrace. One of these cafes, I discovered, even doubles up as a steak restaurant. Hmmm….interesting fusion!! On my last day, after my descent from Dolsan Park (돌산공원), I just stopped by a convenience shop to grab a beer so that I could just sit outside and gaze at these beautiful bridges.

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The buses here still terrified me though, as they whizzed through heavy traffic with scant regard of road humps. For example, the bus that took me to Hyangiram Temple (향일암), a Buddhist hermitage located on the opposite end of Dolsan Island (돌산도), accomplished the journey in under 40 minutes, although according to Google, the journey would have taken 1 hour 37 minutes.IMG_20180504_103710I alighted from the bus a little shaken but I was immediately welcomed by a breath-taking view of the ocean. Perched atop a cliff, Hyangiram (향일암) is an oasis of calm. You would have to negotiate a relatively steep road, lined on both sides with restaurants and locals touting the city’s famous gat (or mustard leaf) kimchi 갓김치 before you even reach the entrance to the temple. They even offer to deliver the kimchi to your residence.

Before you begin your pilgrimage to the top, why not load up on some carbs with ganjang gejang (간장게장) – raw crabs marinated in soya sauce – a local specialty. Trust me, your bowl of rice will be gone in no time with these delicious crustaceans!!IMG_20180504_103835IMG_20180504_104015Another massive flight of stairs awaits you from the entrance to the top of the Hermitage. Fortunately, a trio of “See No Evil”, “Hear No Evil”, and “Speak No Evil” Buddha miniatures are strategically placed along the steps to offer you a brief respite, and excellent photo opportunities.IMG_20180504_105012The Hermitage is made up of a cluster of smaller temples, for which getting there is half the fun. For example, you have to pass through an extremely narrow (and dark) alley, created by nature’s forces, to get to one of the temples housing the Goddess of Mercy. Once there, you find yourself surrounded by a necklace of islands shimmering in the East China Sea.

Now if only there’s a café here as well…

천천히”      LS

IMG_20180504_114710Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 2) – Take It Slow In Suncheon

IMG_20180429_170047_HDRSuncheon (순천) is the kind of small-to-midsize suburban city that would probably not feature very high (if, at all) on the list of one’s travel itinerary in South Korea. With a population of just under 300,000, Suncheon is only the third largest city out of five that collectively form the South Jeolla Province, or Jeollanam-do (전라남도).

However, to a nature enthusiast, Suncheon is a biodiversity treasure. The city brands itself as the “ecological capital of Korea”, and rightly so. Boasting an area of over 25 square kilometres, the Suncheonman Bay Wetland Reserve (순천만습지) is one of the five largest coastal wetland reserves in the world.IMG_20180501_154820Here, rows of reeds stretch as far as the eye can see, and if you’re lucky, you may just catch a glimpse of some rare migratory birds such as the hooded crane, white stork and black-faced spoonbill. If not, you can still enjoy listening to the reeds rustle in the wind, and let your thoughts (and worries) drift away.

Suncheon is a place you want to enjoy slowly.

To be honest, prior to my visit, my itinerary in Suncheon was based largely on an article I had come across on Pheuron Tay’s travel blog, A Korea Travelogue. Ms Tay had written several articles on Suncheon, brilliantly detailing her travels to a few places in Suncheon. So, if you would like a more comprehensive review of the places to go in Suncheon, I would highly recommend you have a read as well.IMG_20180429_175144_HDRThis post is more of an attempt to summarise the main attractions, coupled with my personal experiences and thoughts about Suncheon as a whole.

My sincere apologies for the quality of the pictures in this post, as they were all taken using my smartphone. My once reliable Sony α 5N had decided to call it quits regrettably.

My first impressions of Suncheon upon arrival at Suncheon Station were that I might have possibly glimpsed a part of Seoul in the late 90s. Fronted by a massive roundabout, the city spreads out gradually, in rows of shop-houses no higher than four stories.IMG_20180429_184541_HDRA river (as well as a huge flyover) slices through the city almost abruptly, dividing the urban sprawl, which continues to spread out on the opposite bank of the river. While glitzy motels with neon signs blaze at night on one bank, the opposite bank is almost in a perpetual blackout, save for a long column of restaurants that run parallel to the river.

Here, you can savour some of the best gourmet fare that Suncheon has to offer.

The city is famous for mudskipper (a species that can be found in abundance in the Bay) soup, hanjeongsik (한정식), or a full-course meal filled with yummy side dishes.

However, it was to the warm comforts of a bowl of piping hot dwaeji-gukbap (돼지국밥), or pork-and-rice soup that local residents flocked to on this chilly spring evening during my visit. Take note, though, that the pork slices in the soup are often mixed with pig intestines, liver, kidney or other entrails, in case you are not a big fan of animal innards.

I loved them!!IMG_20180429_190520_HDRIMG_20180501_184214On the other hand, despite its purported health benefits, my first experience of the mudskipper soup (pictured above) wasn’t all that exciting. I had ordered the soup, as part of a hanjeongsik (한정식), but the fishy taste of the soup didn’t sit quite well with my taste buds.

Suncheon fare is not all meat and mudskippers though. In fact, it is surprisingly rich in greens. You can order a wild vegetables hanjeongsik (산채한정식), which translates literally as the “wild vegetables full course meal”, with some over 20 side dishes of vegetables freshly harvested from the mountains.

And the best place to savour one of these is right after your pilgrimage to Seonam-sa (선암사), a Buddhist temple. The 1 km hike to the temple grounds from the bus stop is about as delightful as exploring the temple itself.IMG_20180430_105538If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even continue on from the temple to the peaks of Mt. Jogyesan before finishing at another temple, Songgwang-sa (송광사). If you intend to do the full course, leave early so that you can reach the other temple before sundown.

The temples also offer accommodation if you book in advance. However, do note that Koreans usually do temple stays to purify themselves, or simply to escape the bustle of city life for a quieter, more meditative environment. Be prepared to observe strict ground rules and attend Buddhist rituals if you choose to stay.

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Temples are not the only places in Suncheon where you can immerse yourself in quiet contemplation.

I stumbled upon a spanking new café with a rusting industrial feel, and sipped gourmet beans as I people-watched. It seemed like a gathering space for the city’s young and trendy. A rare sight in an increasingly greying city.IMG_20180429_184004_HDRIMG_20180429_180812_HDR

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I let my thoughts drift away as I wandered among the straw houses at Naganeupseong Folk Village (낙안읍성), imagining what life might have been in an era gone by. The photos in this post do no justice at all to the splendour of this historical castle town. I would suggest you pop by over Ms Tay’s blog for more stunning pictures and a beautiful review of the place.

IMG_20180430_163948_editI paused to do panoramic shots at every knoll I “circled” in the artfully manicured landscapes by renowned postmodern American landscape architect, Charles Jencks, at the Suncheon Bay National Garden (순천만국가정원).

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I trudged up every winding staircase and narrow alley at the Suncheon Open Film Location (순천 드라마 촬영장) to steal glimpses of daily life in Seoul in the 1960s, right up to the early 90s.IMG_20180502_111253_HDRI even relived my Street Fighter adolescence at the local arcade there. Boy, did I suck at using Ryu. I didn’t fare much better with M. Bison either. It cost me a grand total of 1,000 won for two tokens, but brought back a ton of memories.IMG_20180502_104616_HDR

If not for the dare-devil buses (equally crazy and reckless as the ones in Seoul, if not more so), that remind you that you are still very much in Korea, Suncheon is a place where you should really take it slowly, almost contemplatively.    LS

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 1) – Hongdae in a Heartbeat

Hongdae is never the same.

Every time I visit Seoul, there’s no other place I would rather base myself at than in Hongdae (I stayed in Mangwon during my first visit there five years ago). The reason?

Firstly, guesthouses or backpackers’ hostels are aplenty here, and features some of the city’s more stylish and hippest ones too.

Secondly, you are smack right in the middle of possibly the most “happening” districts in Seoul. Hongdae is the heart of Seoul’s youth culture, and possibly a few subcultures as well. The district is abuzz with people (mostly teenagers, college students and young working adults in their twenties), pubs, cafes and restaurants .

Speaking of which, I realised during my second visit in November 2014, that my favourite chicken and beer restaurant, endearingly called 치맥 (read as “chimaek” by the locals) has vanished without a trace during my second visit. And for subsequent visits, I also realised that some other shops have gone. Longevity is a real issue here in Hongdae. Because of stiff competition and high rental leases, today’s “go-to” pub / restaurant / café quickly becomes nothing more than a memory tomorrow.

Hongdae is never the same.

Even the people that frequents this area of Seoul has decidedly changed over the years.

These days, the crowds have become more varied, not only in terms of age groups, but also more cosmopolitan. When in the past, you are more likely to find enclaves of foreign tourists in specific areas (for example, Americans in US-millitary stronghold Itaewon, Asians in Insadong or Myeongdong). Today’s Hongdae draws an increasingly international hoard. It is a hive of activity here almost 24 hours a day, and even more so on weekends, when buskers (mostly “K-pop idol” hopefuls in their twenties) draw huge audiences and cause massive “traffic jams”.

IMG_20180427_175013Likewise, during my most recent visit, I have chosen to base myself in Hongdae. Stepping out of Exit 3 of Hongik University Station to Yeonnam-dong, I was greeted by a familiar vibrancy. Groups of young Koreans sat on picnic mats strewn across a long green patch of lawn. I dragged my suitcase past trendy cafes, where people not only congregate to chat and have coffee, but also to see and be seen. And just as I was about to turn the corner to cross the street, I discovered that Yeonnam-dong has changed too. A section of the road at the end has now been completely paved over, and now spots an artfully designed water feature and sculpture installation.

Hongdae is never the same. But I will always choose to stay here in a heartbeat.    LS

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More Chinese Than China

Forget the Great Wall of China, or the Forbidden City if you want to trace the ancestry of the Chinese race. These UNESCO World Heritage sites may have been legacies of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), often referred to as the greatest era of Han Chinese rule. However, do you know that much of ancient Chinese traditions and culture from the Tang dynasty (also known as the Golden Age of Chinese civilisation) reside in the Korean peninsula today? That’s a good 750 years before the Ming dynasty.

During the Three Kingdoms era of Baekje (백제), Goguryeo  (고구려) and Silla (신라), which pre-dates even the Tang dynasty, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies have become deeply entrenched in Korean society. The Tang dynasty, in particular, made Korea a vassal state during its reign. The Chinese written script was the de facto mode of communication and language until King Sejong (세종) the Great introduced the hangeul  (한글)  –  the script that you see in modern day Korea  – in 1446. Even then, much of the vocabulary had been preserved from an original Tang Chinese vernacular in hangeul.

Today, all Koreans still have two versions of their name – a hangeul version and one written using Tang Chinese script. Confucian traditions and rituals, including funeral and ancestral worship rites, are still religiously practiced and propagated in many Korean families, down to the very last detail. On the other hand, Confucian philosophies have almost disappeared from modern Chinese society, except perhaps in some of the less developed regions in China. No wonder the Koreans often refer to their country as Dae Han Min Guk (대한만국) – which literally translates to “The Great Han Nation”.  Indeed!   LS

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When Nature Calls

Seogwipo (서귀포) is a mistake. Unless your idea of a holiday in Jeju (제주) is to stay in a five-star luxury resort and romp around kinky sex dioramas. Because you had really come here to soak in Jeju’s natural beauty. And that makes Seogwipo a mistake because Jeju’s “upmarket” area also happens to be furthest away from Jeju’s most captivating sights.

For those not intending to drive, it will be more sensible to base yourself in Jeju-si (제주시), the island’s city centre just 4 km east of Jeju International Airport. From Jeju-si, two of Jeju’s highlights are less than an hour away. First up, the Manjanggul (만장굴) is an awe-inspiring 13.4 km-long cave (the world’s longest) carved up by molten volcanic lava thousands of years ago.

After your underground escapade, head further southeast until you see the ocean. Along the coast stands a juggernaut of an extinct volcanic crater – the Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산일출봉). It takes only 20 minutes to scale up the stairs to the best view in the whole of Jeju. And if you’re crazy enough (like me), give Hallasan (한라산) – Jeju’s highest peak at 1,950 metres – a holler! There are five hiking trails to choose from, in order of increasing difficulty: Seongpanak (성판악), Yeongsil (영실), Eorimok (어리목), Donnaeko (돈내고) and Gwaneum-sa (관음사).  LS

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Seoul Comforts

Saying goodbyes is probably the toughest part of any trip. Some cities leave you desiring for more. Other places leave you feeling relieved that you are getting the hell out of that place. Some cities leave you caught in between.

I found myself pondering over what Seoul meant to me. Before this trip, I had studiously made a list of the places I wanted to go, restaurants I wanted to check out, and things I wanted to do. While I had managed to tick most of the boxes, I also felt kind of short-changed when some of the places I had been looking forward to visiting didn’t quite pan out the way many over-zealous bloggers had described. Of course, travelling is a mixed bag of hits and misses, and I’ve long come to accept that as part of the package.

Despite the disappointments (my excessive walking has left me walking with a limp), what I really treasured the most is the friendship that I made along the way (or in the past). I am thankful for the chance to meet up with my Korean friends again and catch up on each other’s lives.

It’s easy to see Seoul as a city of cafes, of restaurants, of Joseon dynasty palaces, and perhaps even cosmetic surgery. The Korean language is daunting to the visitor who had absolutely zero knowledge of Korean. I know some would disagree and say that many foreigners, especially those from English-speaking / European countries, get by just fine without any inkling of Korean. But do you know that Koreans themselves are similarly daunted by the English language? The younger generations in general fare better, due to the emphasis on the teaching of English in mainstream schools these days. But by and large, most Koreans stil prefer to communicate in their native language.

And that is the secret to enjoying Seoul, or even Korea, for that matter. Today’s younger Koreans are more forward-looking and they open up to foreigners more easily. And they would be very happy to offer a helping hand to you – especially when you speak to them in Korean. You do not have to be fluent. You just have to learn simple Korean greetings and useful phrases that could help you get around and order your food. Even with my rudimentary grasp of the language and spitter-spatter of Korean, I realised it opened doors and allowed me to appreciate Seoul, and Seoulites from a different perspective.

DSC08268DSC08247I appreciated the advice given to me by this wholesaler at Noryangjin market (노량진 수산시장) on how to enjoy wriggling “live octopus” and raw sea cucumber. (He happened to be enjoying an early lunch and round of soju with his fellow colleagues at an adjacent table). I felt the warmth and dedication of the ahjumma who placed a bowl of hot piping kimchi stew on my table. I thanked the couple who told me that it was okay to order “half and half” when I couldn’t decide between having original or spicy fried chicken.

DSC08258DSC04870At the end of the day, what I found most comforting about Seoul is its people. Seoulites, young and old, work hard. Very very hard. And they drink even harder. Working life is tough and stressful here because of the rigid social hierarchy that still dominates many companies. So drinking helps Koreans to forget their troubles, their stress, their bosses. And when tomorrow comes, they fight another battle at the office.

There’s a saying that Seoul never sleeps. Literally. There’s probably no other city in the world where you can order a bowl of hot piping tofu stew, fried chicken, pizza (in fact, almost any kind of food you can think of) at 3 – 4 a.m. in the morning, and have your orders delivered to your doorstep in minutes. That’s because some Seoulites work around the clock to provide that delivery service, and even that service itself sees some serious competition. Many also balance several part-time jobs to eke out a living in a city with a phenomenally high cost of living. Well, at least alcohol here is cheaper than coffee!  LS

DSC08512DSC08498DSC04922DSC08350Final reporting from Incheon International Airport, South Korea.

Lost And Found

I suspect I’m my worst enemy when it comes to travelling. Okay, maybe not ‘suspect’. I am sure I am. Because when I set my heart on finding something, say a particular sight or a recommended restaurant / cafe  or whatever, I have to find it. This dogged determination and tenacity has served me well on a few occasions (for example, new discoveries, experiences or even meeting new people) and of course, caused frustration on others.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have got lost trying to find that “off-the-beaten-track” attraction. I know what you must be thinking right now. You are either nodding your head in agreement or snarling at me in disgust. Perhaps, that’s why I find travelling alone easier. The time is yours to use it the way you want it. And if it means getting lost trying to find your favourite restaurant, my blistered feet are the only ones complaining.

Getting lost is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, I discover something really cool and fascinating, and the rewards and sense of achievement I feel justify the sores on my feet.  Sometimes, getting lost is a way of finding what you want in life. The thing is, people nowadays are too afraid to get ‘lost’. Getting lost is like making a mistake. And in today’s society, making mistakes is a weakness, a flaw, something that makes people sigh and shake their heads. It’s imperative for these people to know what is going to happen 5 years from now, 5 hours from now, and in extreme cases, 5 minutes from now.

To this day, I still find myself getting lost in Seoul on many occasions. I get off at the wrong station.   I amble along blind alleys, wander around inconspicuous neighbourhoods and trudge along dirt tracks. Sometimes, I walked till my bladders threatened to burst. Getting lost is not always fun. But if getting lost helps you find your direction in life, I think it’s worth the trouble from time to time.  LS

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Coffee With A View

I’m exhausted. After a 30-minute and more strenuous-than-expected “walk” up a hilly road, I realised I desperately need to lose weight. Damn all that beer (and these days, soju / makkeoli)!! And the reason for my industry – to seek out this picturesque cafe in the middle of nowhere.

Buamdong, according to my Korean friend, is nicknamed the 사장님동 (Korean for ‘CEO’). That’s because many of the well-heeled and some Korean celebrities live in this neighborhood. And its star attraction is undoubtedly Sanmotoonge (산모퉁이), otherwise known as the filming location of popular Korean drama series “Coffee Prince”. Its breathtaking views justify the steep climb (and prices) I suppose. A cafe latte will cost you 7,000 won, almost twice the price for a cuppa in the city. Cakes start at 7,000 won a piece too. In cooler seasons, the alfresco area would have been fully occupied, but as it is summer, the heat drove me indoors. The view is great, but air-con is what I need at the moment.

Off-the-beaten-track enthusiasts have waxed lyrcial about the quaintness of Buamdong, its charm and mix of art galleries and cafes. Can I be brutally honest? It’s not exactly worth the hike (or the hype). Thankfully, I had also pencilled in an afternoon at Samcheong-dong (삼청동). This is still the place for some aimless wandering, cafe hopping, or leisure shopping at the local designers’ stores. In other words, a wonderful place to bum.

On hindsight, I felt a little silly, having trekked all the way to Coffee Prince Cafe earlier when there are so many fantastic options to choose from in Samcheong-dong. Seoul is caffeine city. There are probably more cafes in Samcheong-dong (or in Seoul for that matter) per square metre than vehicles that you wonder how they actually manage to balance the record books. But who’s complaining? An afternoon at Samcheong-dong is the perfect way to while away that lazy Saturday afternoon in Seoul. And if you’re tired from all that walking, treat yourself to a cuppa at one of those cafes with a rooftop terrace and a “Coffee Prince” view.  LS

DSC08109 DSC08111 DSC08116 DSC08121 DSC08154DSC08167DSC08162DSC08181DSC08176 Cafe hopping at Samcheong-dong, Seoul.

Oh Silla! Where Is Your Glory?

Believe it or not, Korea had, once upon a time, been one unified country instead of the current North and South divisions. For nearly a thousand years, the Silla () dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) ruled over a unified Korea after vanquishing the Goguryeo (고구) and Baekje () kingdoms in 668 AD during the reign of King Munmu (). And Gyeongju was her capital.

Today, Gyeongju is a forgotten capital. And perhaps, (whispers) even a forgotten city. Lonely Planet generously dubs Gyeongju as the ‘museum without walls’. True, in the sense that much of the landscape is littered with royal tombs or tumuli (대릉) that appear as dome-shaped grassy mounds. There’s also the regal Anapji Pond (안압지 연못), which yielded thousands of ancient Silla relics. However, much like the lone standing Cheongseongdae (첨성대) – which could have been an astrological marvel during its time but nothing more than an anachronistic totem today – in the city centre – these royal ruins are mere remains of Gyeongju’s glorious past, and like the rest of the city, risk being forsaken, and forgotten.

The real gems are actually tucked away in the outskirts of the city centre. Bulguk-sa (불국사) and Seokguram (석굴암) are Buddhist temples built during Silla times, and designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, if you’ve had your dose of temples and regal ruins, it’s possible to just while away the whole day in a nondescript café and appreciate the tranquillity of the city. On top of that, your latte comes served with freshly plucked (and peeled) persimmons. LS

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