We started our first full day in South Korea with a tour of the DMZ. There are some things that you need to know and plan for well in advance of any trip to the area.
- The DMZ area opens and closes at will. Usually this can be due to several factors, including meetings between the South and the North, military activities and exercises or just the whim of the government. These “closings” can occur on very short notice. It’s also important to be flexible and have other possibilities in mind for your trip as your tour could be cancelled abruptly.
- You can only get into the DMZ with an organized tour. You cannot visit on your own. It is wise to make tour reservations as far in advance as possible with a reputable tour company. Especially during summer months when tours fill up quickly. You will also want to make sure that you ask for a tour with a guide that speaks your language.
- There are many different tours to the DMZ. Some include Panmunjeom/JSA and others do not. It’s important to research in advance what items you want to see in the DMZ, so you book the right tour, remembering that your plans may be altered for you, based upon what’s going on at the DMZ at that time.
- Make sure you bring your passport and are properly dressed. Some areas, such as Panmunjeom/JSA require specific dress, which includes no sandals, tennis shoes, short sleeve shirts or shorts. All passports are checked prior to entry to the DMZ and again at the DMZ checkpoint. Don’t forget your passport or you won’t be going on the tour.
We made our reservation for the DMZ about a week ahead of our visit. Since it was May and prior to the heavy tourist season, this worked well. Little did we know that on the morning of the tour, we were surprised to find that it was almost cancelled due to the entire DMZ being closed. We visited two areas inside the DMZ, as they were the only ones open for the day.
Imjin-gak Park ￼
￼For our tour of the DMZ, we used Tik Tour Service. Our english speaking tour guide picked us up at our hotel at 9AM. Depending upon where you are staying in Seoul, the ride to Imjin-gak Park will take between 30 minutes to an hour. This is as close as you can get to the DMZ without needing permission. Your tour guide will take your passport into the station here where you’ll be prescreened for entry into the DMZ. This takes about 20-30 minutes so you’ll be able to look around.
Freedom Bridge is here, as well as several war monuments. The Imjin-gak River is just a few yards away, where you’ll see South Korean military officers watching the river for any suspected infiltrators from North Korea. Make a note that they DO NOT like you taking pictures towards the river.
Third Tunnel ￼
Our first stop once we passed through the DMZ checkpoint after leaving Imjin-gak, was the Third Tunnel Tour area. Here, there’s a DMZ Visitor Center where you watch a short video presentation of the history of the DMZ. It’s definitely state-of-the-art, with the video “surrounding” you in the circular room.
￼You cross the large parking lot where you can go down and into the “Third Tunnel”. The first tunnel dug by North Korea was discovered in 1974. The Third Tunnel was discovered in 1978, with the latest tunnel being discovered in the mid-1990s. It is believed there could be up to 20 total tunnels under the DMZ.
The tunnels would be used to smuggle in North Korean spies into South Korea. The tunnels that have been discovered are large enough to move tanks and up to 30,000 troops an hour into South Korea from the North. With Seoul being only 15 miles away from the DMZ, the threat to peace in the region is huge. The tunnel is over 200 feet below ground and is reached by walking down a very wide and easy to navigate concrete ramp. You will be issued a hard hat and descend the approximate 10 minute walk to the bottom. Here it’s very damp with water sometimes dripping from the ceiling. You can go approximately .3 miles into the tunnel where you almost directly below the Military Demarcation Line. Here the tunnel is sealed. You’ll see holes on the walls where the North Koreans buried the explosives to blast the tunnel.
For those who may have trouble walking back up the ramp to the top of the entrance, a “roller coaster” type shuttle will take you to the top. Be aware that the shuttle only runs every half hour.
Odu-san Unification Observatory
￼ The next stop on the tour was the Unification Observatory. It’s about a 10 minute ride from the Third Tunnel area. It’s a very hilly area with many warning signs of land mines in the area surrounding the road. There were over 600,000 land mines planted along the DMZ and approximately 300,000 have been discovered. Tours to Odu-San may be pre-empted during the winter months, if there is snow and ice on the roads. Due to the hills, they don’t want a tour bus sliding off the road and hitting an active land mine.
￼Once you’re at the Observatory, you’re ushered into a large building with a 3 story glass wall, with a perfect view of the DMZ and into North Korea. A South Korean soldier will give a short presentation about the DMZ. There’s a large relief map in front of the window, which gives interpretive information about what you are seeing. Once you are done, you can step out onto the observation deck to look into North Korea through binoculars that will cost you a dollar. Photos are not allowed near the railing, so you need to stand back about 50 feet and take pictures from there. The area for taking pictures is marked by a yellow shaded area. The military stands near by and enforces the photo taking rules. Make sure to bring your telephoto lens!!
Dorasan Train Station ￼
After leaving the Observatory, we left the DMZ and went to the Dorasan Train Station. South Korean’s describe this station as not the last train station in South Korea, but the first train station towards the North. ￼While there is no existing rail service into North Korea, they hope that someday there will be. This would connect South Korea to the Trans-Eurasian rail network, which would allow you to travel from Seoul, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal. A big benefit to South Korea, is not only linking it to the North, but it also would provide easy rail passage to South Korea from China. That means a huge plus for the South Korean economy with all of those Chinese tourists!! Just next to the train station, the South is building a huge Customs and Immigration office, hoping for the day the rail line opens to the North.
Here’s where our tour ended and the trip back to Seoul began. Most of the time, tours are dropped off at Itaewon in Seoul, which is where you can purchase just about anything you want. We chose to be dropped off at Gimpo Airport for our trip to Jeju.
We spent two full days on the island of Jeju. Unfortunately, the weather was rather cool for May and it was cloudy or rainy most of the time we were there. We stayed in the Jungmun tourist area on the south side of the island, just outside of Seogwipo. Almost all of the larger hotels on the island are here, as well as the Jeju International Convention Center. The hotels are grouped within a short walking distance of each other and there are quite a few restaurants nearby as well, however, most feature either Japanese or traditional Korean food. Taxi service from Jungmun into Seogwipo is around $3-$6. You can also hop airport limousine bus to go into town as well. For kids, there’s the Korean Teddy Bear Museum in the Jungmun area. Be warned, it’s very popular and very busy. During our first day here, we went into Seogwipo and visited the waterfalls. To get from one set of falls to the other, we walked along the streets of Seogwipo near the waterfront. It’s definitely worth while as you see many different fish markets and storefronts along the way.
Cheonjiyeon Waterfall and Jeongbang Waterfall ￼
Both of these waterfalls are in the Seogwipo area. Cheonjiyeon is located on the southwest side of town. It’s worth a quick visit. It’s a short level hike to the falls where they plunge 65 feet into a large pool. Jeongbang ￼Falls are on the opposite side of the city, about a 20 minute walk. These falls are supposedly the only falls in Asia that fall directly into the ocean. You’ll take a very wide steep stairway down to a rocky shore, where you can see the falls. These falls are about the same size as Cheonjiyeon. Once your finished here, you can continue down the road to the Paradise Hotel. There is another set of falls close by, but also stop in to the hotel and see the very cool stained glass ceiling. You can also pick up the Airport Limousine bus in front of the hotel property.
On our second day, we arranged for a guided tour of the island through our hotel with an English speaking guide. The guide brought her own driver and is one of only 7 English speaking guides on the island. It’s probably a good idea to book ahead if you are going to be traveling during peak season.
Yakcheon-sa Temple ￼
Our first stop of our tour around the south and east parts of the island was Yakcheon-sa Temple. It’s sits ￼between Jungmun and Seogwipo, so it’s a very short distance from the Shilla Hotel. As you drive to the temple, you’ll see groves and groves of tangerine trees.
The Temple was founded in 1930, but underwent an almost entire reconstruction during the 1990s. This temple is the 10th district headquarters for the Jogye sect. The grounds are beautiful and inside is a 45 foot buddha, along with over 1 million little buddhas on the second floor. The temple is open to the public and there is no charge to enter.
On each end of the front of the temple grounds there is a tower. On the one side, the tower holds a large drum. On the other, is a large bell/gong that is approximately 8 feet high.
While there, this sect was collecting donations for a new temple they are building on the mainland. For $10, we were able to buy a copper roof tile, which will be placed under a cement roof tile on the temple. We wrote our names on the tile, which will keep all of us in the prayers of people who visit the temple when it’s complete.
Our next stop was Seongeup. It’s aout a 30-45 minute ride from Seogwipo. Seongeup is a small village about 4 miles inland from the coast that was started in 1423. It is one of the best preserved villages on the island. There are over 300 houses in the ￼village, with over 100 of them preserved as they were some 500 years ago. Some modernization has taken place with houses on the outskirts of town (new windows, plumbing, electricity, etc), but the outsides of the houses are pretty much the same. With walls made of lava rock and roofs of palm fronds, they have stood the test of time well.
As you walk down the streets of this small village, you’ll see farm animals in yards and even an outhouse or two near the pig sty. Huge clay jars sit under shaded pergolas with fruit and other items fermenting in the sun. You also see the prerequisite kim-chee pot buried in the ground as well.
After walking around, there are a couple of traditional restaurants serving the infamous black pork, wheat pancakes (momiljeonggi-ddeok), kim-chee and gosok-ju, a type of fermented rice wine that has a very unique taste.
Seongsan Crater ￼
About another half hour down the road, is Seongsan Crater. You’re now on the east side of the island, near the town of Seongsanpo. Here you’ll find the only black sand beaches on Jeju. Seongsan is an extinct ￼volcano that rises 600 feet above the town along the coast. You can walk up to the top of the rim and peer down into the crater by following a fairly steep stairway. The walk will take you less than 15 minutes assuming you climb at a reasonable pace. From here, you can look out into the ocean and see Cow Island in the distance. A ferry leaves for Cow Island every hour on the hour. The island has 1800 residents and is primarily a fishing and farming area.
A small festival was going on during the time that we visited the crater. We were able to try out a couple of Korean traditions, including making Gal-ot clothing and also playing Tuho, which involves throwing sticks into a jar 6 feet away.
Lava Tubes ￼
One of the major attractions on Jeju is the Lava Tubes. The tubes were discovered in 1947 by a school ￼teacher who was collecting plants in the area. These tubes are supposedly one of the longest lava tube systems in the world. You can walk down into the lava tubes (after paying your entrance fee, of course!) and walk for approximately 3500 feet into the tubes. The tubes themselves stretch almost 7 miles under ground and vary in width from 9-60 feet. It’s fairly well lit, considering what it is. You’ll definitely want to wear good rubber-soled shoes as it’s pretty slippery and wet most of the time. The tube is relatively cool considering the temperature outside, but the humidity is really high. The tubes are definitely worth a visit if you’re on the island. Expect to be here about 45 minutes to an hour.
Jeju City Five Day Market ￼
Our last stop of the day was the Jeju City Five Day Market, held every five days, starting on the 2nd of the ￼month, the market has just about anything you could want. From fresh fish and spices, to tennis shoes and electronics, you’ll be able to find it here. Traffic in and out of the market is a mess, so you’ll probably need to park a ways a way and walk in. The market is very large and things are in no particular order.
You’ll find many food stalls, selling just about anything you could imagine and even things you can’t. From fresh and tasty steamed beetles to chicken skewers this is the place to feed your appetite or lose it. Our favorite item was the Korean Pancakes. A small ball of dough stuffed with cinnamon, sugar and a little flax seed, then fried on a griddle. We highly recommend these! You can easily spend hours here, but depending upon what you want to purchase a half hour to hour is probably sufficient.
Along The Way
As you drive around the island, you’ll see many things you just don’t see elsewhere. One of these is Haenyeo. Haenyeo are local women who since an early age, dive into the ocean water to collect sea food. ￼Many of these women are 60 years of age and older. Many of these women dive and hold other jobs. Some can hold their breath for up to 4 minutes, while they put their “catch” into rope baskets or floating gourds on the surface. Another strange item we noticed as we drove around the island were the sidewalks covered with seaweed drying in the sun. The seaweed is a red color and is used in making seaweed jelly. The seaweed is only allowed to dry for a day or two before being collected.
With only about a half a day to spend in Seoul. Before leaving we concentrated our visits to two shopping areas, Insa-dong and Itaewon.
Insa-dong is easy to get to from just about anywhere in Seoul. Subway lines #1 and #3 stop nearby. It’s very crowded on weekends, so be prepared. This is area is the antique and art gallery center of Seoul. You’ll find ￼many unique, small shops, catering to every type of taste and budget. From small souvenirs to large furniture pieces, Insa-dong has it all. Prices vary widely, even for the same item, so it pays to wait and traverse the entire street before making a purchase. You’ll also find many street vendors here not only selling their wares, but just about every type of Korean food imaginable as well. At the south end of the street, there’s a large open area that usually has some sort of entertainment event going on. You can easily spend 1-3 hours here during any day.
If there was anything that disappointed us, compared to all of the hype we heard prior to our trip, it was Itaewon. Frequented by just about anyone who visits Seoul and members of the local American military, it’s a very busy place. Shops line the sides of the main street, while vendors with carts and stall line the sidewalks. We had heard that you could easily buy knock-offs and factory seconds here at very low prices. The knock-offs were semi-reasonable, but those were the only good deals to be had. Storefronts selling name brand items such as North Face, Nike, etc., were actually more expensive than the states. We tried to bargain with several street vendors, but they weren’t budging on price. Maybe it was the day of the week (Sunday late afternoon) or maybe it was the wrong place in Itaewon to shop, we aren’t sure. The other thing that amazed us was how early the market started to close. Most Asian markets just get going after dark, where here everything pretty much closed up at 8PM. Again, maybe it was just Sunday or some strange cosmic occurance we weren’t aware of.
Last modified: September 1, 2009