Travel to Northern South Korea – Episode 485

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Travel to Northern South Korea - Episode 485

Hear about travel to northern South Korea as the Amateur Traveler talks to Katie of about the area of South Korea where she is living.


Katie says “The northern part of South Korea has pretty much everything you want in a travel destination. It’s got cities and countryside and mountains and beaches. It’s very modern but also has tons of history. It’s really a good place for someone if they are coming to Korea for just a week or two because chances are they are flying into Seoul. Rather than spending their one week vacation traveling all the way to the south around the whole country, everything in the northern part is pretty accessible, just a couple of hours bus ride or train ride.”

She takes us on a series of short trips or day trips out from Seoul. First, we head east via Nami Island (the site of numerous Korean dramas) to Chuncheon with its temples, white jade mine, and railroad bikes. We learn why you should try the taste of dak galbi and why you may want to try out the services of a Jjimjilbang.

Katie tells us about the Korean hiking culture as we hike around Seoraksan National Park near Sokcho. Learn about families hiking with full table settings, Kimchi, and fermented rice wine (Makgeolli) in brightly colored outfits. she tells us that she has been invited to join a feast at the top of a mountain on more than one occasion. Katie favors the beaches at Sokcho over the better-known ones in the south. But be aware that if you wear a swimsuit you may be the only one on the beach who is.

We head to Suwon near Seoul for a visit to the fortress of Hwaseong, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and to the Toilet Museum… which isn’t. Katie makes a case for staying in a love motel if you are looking for cheap housing in South Korea.

Katie takes us next to Paju near the border with South Korea. You can get there via a bus, the subway or even a foreigner bus from Seoul. You can see North Korea from the Odusan Unification Observatory. You can also try the fried eel the area is known for.

Near to Seoul, Katie sends us to Bukhansan National Park for more hiking and experiencing the hiking culture. She recommends the hike to the Gold Buddha.

We talk about coffee culture, soups, stews, festivals, and all the other details you need to know to visit this part of South Korea.

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Show Notes

Around the World in KT Days
Travel to Seoul, South Korea – Episode 157
Gangwon Province
Nami Island
Top 100 Korean Dramas
Cheongpyeongsa Temple
Dak galbi
Gangchon Rail Park
Seoraksan National Park
Ochingo Sundae aka Stuffed Squid fried in egg batter
Abai village (in Sokcho)
Division of Korea
Suwon Toilet Museum
Our Stay at a Korean Love Motel
Odusan Unification Observatory
Travel to North Korea – Episode 361
Bukhansan National Park
Hiking in Bukhansan National Park: Bagundae Peak

Travel to Northern South Korea - Episode 485


Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 485. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about hikes and temples, a jade mine and the demilitarized zone as we go to the Northern part of South Korea. Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Without further ado, let’s talk about South Korea. I’d like to welcome to the show, Katie from Katie is coming to us from and coming to talk to us about South Korea. Katie, welcome to the show.

Katie: Thanks Chris, thanks for having me.

Chris: First of all, where are you now, because we’re gonna hear some school sounds in the background.

Katie: Yes, I am at my school in Northern South Korea, about 30 minutes Northwest of Seoul.

Chris: And we say your school, a school where you are teaching, not a school where you are studying.

Katie: Correct, yes I am teaching English, it’s a private school. It’s about 9:30 and the kids are coming in, getting ready for their day of full English immersion.

Chris: Excellent! Tell us a little bit about why should someone come to South Korea in specifically the area that you’re gonna tell us about.

Katie: So, the Northern part of South Korea has pretty much everything you want in a travel destination. It’s got cities and countryside and mountains and beaches. It’s very modern but also has tons of history. It’s really a good place for someone if they’re coming to Korea for just a week or two because chances are they’re flying in to Seoul rather than spend their one-week vacation traveling around all the way to the South around the whole country. Everything in the Northern part here is pretty easily accessible and just a couple hours’ bus ride or train ride. I think it’s great, you could even base yourself in Seoul if you don’t want to constantly be traveling to different hotels, you could stay in Seoul and then just take day trips to all these different places.

Chris: Excellent! And we have done another episode on Seoul, so just so you know, Katie isn’t skipping Seoul because she isn’t thinking about going there but because I instructed her that we’re gonna focus on some of the other areas. What is the itinerary you are proposing for us?

Katie: I would suggest starting in Seoul. And if you wanna know more about Seoul, definitely listen to that episode that you did because I would recommend all the same things to do.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: And then from Seoul, I would head North to Gangwon Do, which is the province to the Northeast of Seoul. This province is so beautiful. People in Korea say it’s the most beautiful province in the country just for the mountains and the ocean and all the space and there’s so much to do here. So I would start by heading to a town called Chuncheon. You get there from Seoul, you can take a bus, you can take a train, it’s about an hour and a half to two hours depending on which mode of transportation you take and actually on the way I would stop at this little island called Nami Island, it’s on the train line right on the way to Chuncheon and it’s a really nice little side trip, a beautiful island that’s very, very popular with Korean travelers because…

Chris: And you say an island, an island in the river?

Katie: Yes, it’s in the river that separates the two provinces, Gyeonggi Do province is where Seoul is and then Gangwon Do province which is right above it. So the river separates the two and right in the middle of the river is this island called Nami Island.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: And it’s very popular because famous Korean drama was filmed here. I don’t watch Korean dramas, I don’t know anything about them but it’s apparently very, very popular. You’ll see lots of women and teenagers and couples coming here to kinda reenact the love story of this Korean drama.

Chris: And you say a very popular Korean drama, it has come to my attention as someone who doesn’t also watch Korean drama that they’re not just big in Korea…

Katie: No.

Chris: But all over Asia basically.

Katie: Yeah, and now I guess in America. I have friends at home saying do you watch….no, I don’t watch. I don’t watch it but it’s taken storm pretty much all over but the island, it’s really beautiful and it’s quiet and serene. The island has a bike path that goes around it and you can walk it and take bike rentals or one of those big family bikes.

Chris: And is it a village kind of area or are we talking about countryside area?

Katie: No, it’s like a village. The island’s very small, you can easily walk around the whole thing in an hour or so. It’s a really nice getaway from Seoul, from the busyness of the city. People come here to just kind of relax and enjoy nature and the best part to me is this is so Korean, that in the middle of the island is a massive field with about 12 ostriches and I have no idea why they’re there. Places I go in Korea, you just get very surprised with things that you see and this is a good example about it.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: So I’d spend a couple of hours there and then head back on the train to Chuncheon. Chuncheon is called the city surrounded by water because there are many lakes, there’s a river, there’re streams, there’s lots of beautiful nature and water nature around.

Chris: I know it’s like a very mountainous area from what I’m seeing on the map.

Katie: Yes, and I was really surprised before I came to Korea how mountainous the country is, especially this Northern part. I did not realize 70% of the country I think I read is covered in mountains and it’s really a hikers’ and outdoor enthusiasts’ great travel destination for people looking to do that. In Chuncheon, there’s a lot to do here. I would recommend checking out a temple called Cheongpyeongsa Temple, a small temple on Obongsan Mountain.

Chris: And you say a temple, this is a foolish question, is it a Buddhist temple?

Katie: Yes.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: Honestly, anywhere you go in Korea, any mountain, little villages, there’re so many small to very large old Buddhist temples all over and they’re all beautiful. You might say you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, but I love checking out these temples. They’re all kind of similar but unique in their own ways. So this temple is on a mountain called Obongsan Mountain, but you don’t have to hike the mountain to get there. You take a ferry across the Soyang Dam, it’s the largest gravel dam in Asia and it’s really beautiful you’re kinda like expecting it, you’re going up the mountain road and then you see this huge dam and then a big lake behind it and it’s really beautiful. You take a ferry across to the mountain and it’s just about a 20-minute stroll to the forest to get to the temple.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: And I’d hang out there for a little while, check it out and then I’d go to the jade mine. This is next to the Soyang Dam, it is it the only jade mine in Korea and the only white jade mine in the whole world. Yeah, I have not been, I’ve read about it, I’ve heard about it but you go and you can take a tour of the caves and then there’s like a cave experience with museum exhibits, the ground water that pulls up in the caves. People come here to drink it because it’s said to cure various ailments. And then there’s a Jjimjilbang here, which is a Korean bath house and sauna. It’s a very big part of Korean culture, going to the Jjimjilbang and sit in hot pools and cold pools and saunas and I’m sure, it’s a jade mine so jade, saunas, which you can find different gem stones I guess, jade saunas and crystal saunas and other things that produce or fix various ailments in your body. I feel like I’ve said that back…

Chris: It’s okay, I don’t know that I’m getting it but I think it’s not because the words I think it’s because of the cultural things. So the idea is that you sit in a sauna with precious and semi-precious stones and somehow this is supposed to have curative properties?

Katie: Yeah, and not necessarily stones. Each different sauna is a different element. Jade sauna would fix some sort of ailment and then like an ice room is another element and then like a jasmine steam room or jasmine bath is another element so that you can find it in Jjimjilbangs.

Chris: Okay, interesting!

Katie: While you are in Chuncheon, you must eat dak galbi. Dak galbi is chicken barbecue and it originated in Chuncheon. You can find it all over Korea but the best is here and I’ve never had better dak galbi than I had in Chuncheon.

Chris: Even though the first word of that is dak, that just happens to be a different Korean word, it’s not really…you’re not really saying dak as in duck but, okay.

Katie: No, it’s not duck, it’s dak, that means chicken. You sit on table and there’s a big frying pan in front of you and they put chicken marinated in spicy sauce and cabbage and rice cakes and potatoes and other vegetables and you cook it in front of you. It’s really spicy and in Chuncheon it’s really fresh. When you’re finished, you add rice to the pan and you cook and fry the rice and all the drippings from the chicken sauce it’s one of my favorite meals in all Korea.

Chris: And you say spicy, we’re talking chili pepper paste I think I’m reading here. So spicy hot!

Katie: Spicy hot, you can get mild or really spicy!

Chris: Now, are we still in our first day of our itinerary here?

Katie: I would spend two days in Chuncheon.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: I would say, so go to Nami Island, come up to Chuncheon, check into your hotel, go eat some Dak Galbi and then the next day do the hike to the temple, the jade mine and I would also check out the rail bike. The rail bike is an old abandoned train track where there are now two- and four-person bikes that go on a track and you peddle them, it’s about five miles long I think, and you go through different tunnels that have been decorated, romantic tunnels, disco-ey tunnels, yeah, it’s fun and there are few rail bikes all over Korea but I’ve only done this one, in Chuncheon. So that would be your next day.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: Yup. And then from Chuncheon I would head to your next stop, Sokcho and it’s about two and a half hours on the bus from Chuncheon. So Sokcho sets between the East sea and the mountains. The mountains here are the Taebak Mountains and Seoraksan National Park, and the mountains really seem that they almost touch the sea. It’s really incredible sight, the water is really blue with the back trap of the mountains. It’s been my favorite place in all of Korea that I’ve gone so far. I would spend two nights here. Your first day, I would head to the national park, Seoraksan National Park. If you like hiking, fantastic hiking here, but you don’t have to be a hiker to enjoy the park. The beginning of the park before you start really going up a trail is very gradual, there are temples, there are waterfalls. When I did it, families were doing it, people of all ages. And there’s actually a cable car if you wanna get to the top but don’t wanna hike it, you can take the cable car almost all the way up and then walk for about 30 more minutes to the top. So it’s really accessible for any kind of traveler, whether or not you’re into hiking adventures. Really beautiful park, definitely a great place to experience the Korean hiking culture.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: Which is very different.

Chris: Okay, I was gonna say, is there anything different about the Korean hiking culture than say the U.S. hiking culture?

Katie: Oh yes, Koreans take hiking very seriously. They show up in full hiking gear, usually neon colored.

Chris: For safety reasons or?

Katie: I have no idea. Almost everybody looks like they went to the store, saw the outfit on the mannequin and said “I’ll take it!” They wear hiking gloves and hiking jackets and hiking pants and top of the line boots and then they all hike with backpacks that I would take on a multi-month trip somewhere. They pack food and makgeolli, which is rice wine. I think the best sight I’ve ever seen in Korea was hiking to the top of a mountain and at the top, the first thing that hit me was the overwhelming smell of soup and kimchi because you look around and there’s people everywhere spread out on blankets enjoying these huge meals. They have bowls and plates and grills and it’s very unique.

Chris: No freeze-dried kimchi up there?

Katie: No. No granola bars. You bring hot meals and soup to go hiking in Korea. Korean people are very friendly and they’re very willing to share. On numerous occasions I’ve had groups of older people summon me over to share a cup of makgeolli, so it’s really cool to get to be a part of that. So definitely I would check out Seoraksan National Park for a hike, and then the next day you’re probably very sore from hiking, if you wanna go to the beach, if it’s end of summer or late spring or early fall, the beaches in Sokcho: white sand, shallow water, blue water and I think the beaches here are better than the beaches in the South of the country. They’re not as crowded, they’re more peaceful, I personally love going to the beach here. All the guide books say go to the beaches in Busan or the Southern tip of the country and I’m a big advocate for checking out the beaches in the North if you’re here during that season.

Chris: Now I would assume the water would be relatively cold because I think we’re talking about an area that’s actually [inaudible 00:15:20] North of the 30th parallel?

Katie: Yeah, I was just there last weekend, so right at the end of the hot part of the summer and it was still little chilly but bearable. But in Korea when you go to the beach, it is very uncommon to see a person in a bathing suit on the beach. They cover their entire bodies for the most part to go swimming. It’s not uncommon to see people in water suits in August. They do it to protect themselves from the sun but it also protects you from the elements of the water.

Chris: When you say unusual scene, is that also a modesty issue or…

Katie: Yeah, I would say that definitely has something to do with it. I was shocked the first time I went to the beach and I was the only person in a bathing suit and I came home and I asked my Korean co-workers and they said we care about our skin so much, that was the reasoning. So I would hang out at the beach, and there are a few beaches in Sokcho, there’s Sokcho Beach but my favorite is Naksan Beach and it’s about a ten-minute cab ride from the center of Sokcho. This beach is special because sitting on a cliff up above the beach is a very large temple called Naksan Temple. This is the most beautiful temple I think I’ve seen in Korea just because the location and just where it sits right on this cliff and you have views of the whole ocean and all down the coastline in either direction and the mountains behind you. The temple has many sanctuaries and houses and statues. A unique feature to one of the rooms is there’s this little tiny hole in the center of one of the rooms where you get down and put your eye to it and you look down through the hole and you see the original caves where the temple was first built and you can see the ocean underneath. Very cool.

One thing that’s unique about the beaches in Sokcho is you’re very close to North Korea. There are chain-linked fences with barb wire on some of the beaches I’ve read to keep out Northern spies. They were put up many years ago, just haven’t been taken down. The people there don’t even think twice about it, they hang their fish to dry on the fences. While you’re in Sokcho, there are few kinds of food that they’re known for. One would be something called Ojingeo sundae. Sundae in Korean is sausage and it’s actually when it’s spelled in English it’s spelled the same as sundae, as in ice cream sundae.

Chris: Oh, okay.

Katie: So the first time I ever saw a sign for sundae when I first got to Korea, I was like yeah! Let’s go eat ice cream sundaes. I was very mistaken. When we looked at the pictures it’s blood sausage. So Ojingeo sundae is a squid sausage. Ojingeo is squid, they take the squid and stuff it with rice and vegetables and tofu and then slice it up and fry it in egg. This is a specialty of the area. Really delicious, I really love eating this. The area that does it well in Sokcho is this little village called Abai Village and in the middle of Sokcho is this old village that looks like it hasn’t changed at all from when it first was built like in the ‘70s. It was established because people from North Korea fled North Korea and set up new homes here, so majority of the residence are old North Korean refugees.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: And they do the Ojingeo sundae the best.

Chris: Well, the other thing I was surprised at that I saw is that this is an area that before the Korean War was North Korea but basically the 38th parallel’s no longer the border because of the fighting in the war. There’s more of South Korea in the East and then a little less in the West just because that’s where the lines were is basically where they said we’ll stop here, we’ll stop fighting at the spots where we are at right now.

Katie: Yes, okay. I learned something, thank you! Another place you’d want to eat in Sokcho is the Daple Fish Market. This fish market’s a little different than other fish markets in Korea. I think it’s much cleaner, much better organized. It’s just a big U-shape that goes around a harbor and all the fishmongers, where they sell all their fish, also have their own small little restaurants attached to their aquarium, if you will. So you go and you walk through and you pick up the fish you like and then just walk over across to their restaurants and they cook up the fish and the sea creatures that you ordered. And some of the best meals I’ve had in Korea had been at this fish market just because the hospitality here…I don’t know if it’s because I’m a foreigner but you order a bunch of fish and they just keep sending you service and more food and oh, you ate that crab, let me take it and let me stuff it with more rice for you now, just huge, delicious meals here. And it’s sitting on this harbor and watching the sunset over the harbor and fishing boats come in, it’s a really fun experience. So I’d definitely check that out.

Chris: A particular dish that you would recommend or a restaurant in the…

Katie: Well the restaurant that I go to is if you just walk through the whole fish market all the way around the U, to the very last one. That’s the one that I go to. My favorite dish has been a fish called Salchi. I don’t know what the translation is in English, I’ve tried to look it up but it just says Salchi. It’s like a white fish and it’s not very expensive. It’s about 10 bucks for two good sized seven-inch fish and that’s what I would recommend.

Chris: Where to next?

Katie: So next from Sokcho, I would head back to Seoul. I would either stay in Seoul and then take a couple of these day trips or spend a night on each different locations. So my next stop would be Suwon, and Suwon is a little bit South of Seoul. Still in the Northern part of the country but it’s about an hour South. It’s connected to Seoul on subway line and buses. Here is a fortress called Hwaseong Fortress and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally the palace there was like a relaxation palace for the king in Seoul. So they would come here to get away. And the fortress has walls around the whole fortress and you can hike those walls and walk around the fortress in about three hours and then explore the palace, and there’re reenactments and there’s archery in the fortress walls, you can try your hand at archery, so spend time exploring the palace in Hwaseong Fortress and then head over to the Toilet Museum.

Chris: You know, I was anticipating where you might go and that wan’t a…I was gonna say so the Fortress you’re talking about here looks like it’s from the 1700s.

Katie: Yeah, made and completed in the 1796. In Suwon, there’s a Suwon city tour and you can hop on a bus and it just takes you all around the city and it will bring you to the Fortress and it will bring you to the Toilet Museum and there’re some royal tombs in the city that aren’t accessible from just walking around but the bus will get you to the royal tombs. There’s lots to do here but the best things for me are exploring Hwaseong Fortress and then the Toilet Museum. When you come to Korea you have to experience the corky cafe and museum culture. There are so many different themed cafes and different museums and this would be an example of one of them. So it’s a museum in the shape of a toilet. It’s just the history of toilets and toilets in Korea, different images of toilets around the world. It was made by a former mayor of the city who story says was born in a toilet, so he was known as Mr. Toilet and he created this popular museum.

Chris: Surprised that that would be something he would talk about, but okay.

Katie: And Suwon can be easily done in just a day trip or a few if you want to spend the night there. I’ve never spent the night there but there are plenty of love motels or you can actually stay at the Jjimjilbang, which is the bath house I was talking about earlier and they have sleeping quarters, just kind of you sleep on the floor in a big group room but it’s a very popular low budget option for accommodation.

Chris: And we’re going to back up a little bit here. You mentioned the love hotels, that’s gonna need a little description.

Katie: They are budget-friendly, clean options for…

Chris: This is not something in the red zone district.

Katie: No, no. They’re all over and the reason we can make assumptions, but Koreans typically live with their parents and their families until they get married so having a love motel nearby, they use it how they…I don’t know how I’m gonna say this.

Chris: No one’s going to look or scans at me if I check in to a love hotel either by myself or with my wife.

Katie: No, definitely not. And my parents came to visit and there’s a love motel across the street from my apartment and they were like uh-uh. We are not staying in a love motel. And then they went, it was clean, nicely decorated, almost like a little boutique hotel that just happens to be known as a love motel in Korea. So they’re really budget-friendly, usually like 40$ a night, depending on where you are. That’s the only places I’ve stayed all around Korea have been in love motels. So.

Chris: Okay. And are there…you mentioned themed museums and themed cafes. I’m starting to believe that there are themed love hotels.

Katie: There are themed love hotels. I have not stayed at any. I have read and seen pictures of like Hello Kitty theme, Charlie Brown theme, hotels with rooms that have different designs. One with a bed that’s a giant shoe. If you’re looking for a corky and unique, you can definitely find it here but most of them are just your basic hotel room.

Chris: Just might be useful to check out TripAdvisor first to see that you’re not in one of those themed ones with the S&M.

Katie: Unless that’s what you’re going through, yeah.

Chris: My other understanding here is because these are discreet that there’s less staff interaction than normal.

Katie: Yeah, they’re not gonna going to clean your room unless you ask. I mean most people don’t stay in a love motel for a week, it’s a night. They’re not waiting on you hand and foot if that’s what you’re looking for. So, Suwon and then another day trip from Seoul or an overnight trip would be to Paju. And Paju’s way in the Northwest and from the center of Seoul, it takes about two hours to get there, also on a subway or on a bus.

Chris: And is the bus or the subway a better…when you have a choice like that, which do you chose?

Katie: Yeah, so from where I live, I take a combination of subway and bus. Just kinda depends on where you are in the city, the bus is usually more direct. You hop on a bus. There are also, if you do some research, different tour companies and foreigner shuttle buses that go from Seoul out to some of these outline destinations. I’ve never taken one but I know that they exist. If you don’t wanna navigate the transportation system on your own, there are companies that you can join and tours you can join. But really the subway system is incredible here. It goes so far in all directions from the center of the city, really easy to navigate. The city buses, intra-city buses, it’s all really convenient and easy to navigate. So getting around Korea is not issue.

Chris: And easy to navigate for those of us who speak not a word of Korean too.

Katie: Yeah, there’s a lot of…especially in Seoul there’s most of the signs are in Korean and in English and there’s always someone behind the ticket counter that speaks English and they usually see you coming when you get there, and if the person behind the counter doesn’t speak English, they summon someone who does.

Chris: Okay. In the land of smartphones, I’m assuming that there’s some app we could use that’s gonna help us navigate the bus for the subway system?

Katie: Yes, great! Just Seoul subway app and Seoul bus app. It covers all the transportation in the area. Really easy to use. So I would go out to Paju. Here you visit the Odusan Observatory, and it’s just a tall building. It’s $3 to get in and you can view North Korea from here.

Chris: We’re right here on the DMC.

Katie: Yeah, it is because there’s DMC tours you can take that you actually go into the tunnel and into the area, the joint security area. You have to do that on the tour.

Chris: Okay. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want people wondering that.

Katie: Definitely, if you have time I would definitely do that if it’s safe to do that. Recently we had the scuffle up here but this observatory, the Odusan Observatory, you can just show up and the bus to Paju, if you’re on the city bus, just goes all the way here. It’s the last stop and there’s a shuttle bus from the parking lot that takes you up to the observatory, $3, and there’s a little movie to watch about North Korea and South Korea. Artifacts from North Korea so you can see what a schoolroom looks like and different drinks from North Korea. Apparently here you could get North Korean beer, which is I read the worst beer in the world, rated the worst beer in the world. And so we went to this observatory hoping to try some North Korean beer but the cafe and shop was closed unfortunately. But just looking at North Korea, if you can’t go on a DMC tour, it’s very interesting just to see the contrast. You have 360 degree views of South Korea on one side of highways and busy roads and North Korea was just nothing. Very interesting.

Chris: For those people who are more interested, we have actually done episode of Amateur Traveler on North Korea as well, so you can check that out.

Katie: And also in Paju there’s a little village called Heyri Art Village, and it’s just a little village filled with shops and cool architecture and little museums, very quaint, god restaurants and a nice place to walk around for a couple of hours. So I’d check out the observatory, I’d go to the Art Village and then I’d eat at this restaurant and it specializes in grilled eel, supposedly some of the best eel because it comes from the river between the two countries so the water is pollutant free, there’s no people around, so the eel is very tasty. I don’t know the name of the restaurant. I’ll have to look that up. You sit outside and there’re the barbecues outside and the women cooking, just over the barbecue cooking the eel and they’d bring you the grilled eel and tons of side dishes. It’s a little bit more expensive than other restaurants in Seoul, like about $30 a head to eat here but really, really yummy.

Chris: Versus in Seoul, you can eat for…

Katie: I mean, a typical barbecue meal would be about $12 to $20 a person. So that’s Paju. One more day trip to Seoul would be to Bukhansan National Park, and this is another place to experience Korean hiking culture but it’s closer to Seoul. It’s about 45 minutes to an hour outside the city, lots of different levels of hiking here as well, with temples and streams and restaurants. What I would do here is go to National Park, take a short hike just to experience the nature and see some of the temples and then eat pajeon and drink makgeolli. And pajeon is like a savory pancake filled with pa is green onions. So filled with green onions and usually seafood. This is a very popular hiking meal and all of the restaurants at the base of the park have really good pajeon, so I go on a little stroll, check out some of the temples. One of my favorites is Giant Golden Buddha hidden in the park. The hike is not super difficult, I sent my 60-year old not-in-super-shape parents on this hike and they loved this. So it’s about an hour and you to get to this Giant Golden Buddha, he’s surrounded by ten thousand smaller Buddhas. Very fascinating and there’s a temple up there to walk around as well. That would be about a day or half a day of stuff to do of a day trip from Seoul.

Chris: Excellent! Some follow up questions for some of things you talked about before. You talked about the cafe culture, that there are a great number of themed cafe’s such as one of the most interesting ones you’ve seen?

Katie: One of the interesting themed cafe’s I’ve seen, the Sheep Cafe. It’s in the middle of Seoul and it’s a coffee shop and there just happens to be a couple of sheep that live there.

Chris: Sheep in the…okay.

Katie: That would be the most interesting one I’ve been to. Whoever thought to put live farm animals and coffee together, I don’t know, but it’s very interesting.

Chris: And then you mentioned a soup being a popular dish. If we’re going to a restaurant, is there a particular soup we should try when we’re in South Korea?

Katie: There are soups and stews are very popular and I was never a big soup eater, especially in the summer but being here for a year, I’ve really grown to love it. I would say my favorite is kimchi jjigae and it just means kimchi stew and it’s broth that’s made with kimchi and usually pork and vegetables and it’s served piping hot, bubbling in a bowl. You eat it with rice, very flavorful, not too, too spicy and even if you don’t think you like kimchi, doesn’t taste like you’re eating kimchi. It’s just with all the different flavors combined, it’s really delicious.

Chris: And I probably don’t need to say it, but just in case anybody’s not familiar, we’re talking about the fermented spicy cabbage, kimchi.

Katie: Correct.

Chris: And then any particular festivals or a time of the year that you would recommend the destinations we’ve been talking about?

Katie: I would definitely recommend checking out the Northern part of South Korea either in spring, summer and fall. The winter, it’s cold, you’ll hear people say brutally cold but I know I’m coming from Vermont, so to me, the winters up here have been not so bad at all.

Chris: So you’re used to 11 months of winter and 1 month of [inaudible 00:35:01]

Katie: And one month of mud.

Chris: Yeah.

Katie: But it’s definitely the most beautiful and the best temperature-wise in the late spring, summer and fall. And the colors up here in the North if you come in the fall, there’s really great foliage so, especially with all the mountains, it’s very good time to check the foliage in the area. But festivals, we talked about the Chuncheon earlier, they have so many festivals all year, whatever time of year you come, it’s possible to plan your trip around a festival. In the spring there’s the International Mime Festival, so just a few days of mimes. I didn’t go this year but in the winter there’s a Trout Festival, an Ice-fishing Festival where you go and fish for trout on the river and catch trout with your bare hands at an icy pool. There’s a Puppet Festival in the fall and marathons. A lot of festivals to choose from.

Chris: One warning you would give people? Before they go to South Korea, they should know that…

Katie: One warning, they should that Korean, the language, is hard to get by if you don’t know a little bit. Many people speak English but they’re very shy about speaking English to you, so a lot of times you’ll try and speak or point and just of get sideways glances but if you just travel with them, even just a sheet of comment phrases written in Korean, that way you can kind of point to something. But I would also recommend if you know you’re coming to Korea and you wanna make your life a little bit easier, the written language, the alphabet is not hard to learn.

Chris: It’s a phonetic alphabet, unlike its neighbors. Unlike China or Japan.

Katie: I learned it in one day, just the basics and then practice. If you’re coming to Korea you can easily learn the letters and once you know the letters, it would make your life a lot easier to be able to read even just town names, or ordering in a restaurant, food names, if you know some of the letters and the words. So I recommend learning that before you come.

Chris: And just to save myself some emails when I say unlike Japan, I mean unlike Congee in Japan because they do have a phonetic alphabet as well. One place that the tour books say you should go that you skipped, that you don’t think is worth the time. Where the Tourism Board would tell us to go but…

Katie: You know I kind of mentioned it a little earlier but the guide books and Tourism Boards talk about how the most beautiful beaches are in the South of the country. After visiting beaches in the South of the country, I really, fully think that better beach experiences are had in this Northern part, like in Sokcho on the beaches along the Northeastern coast.

Chris: Before we get to our last three questions, what else should we know before we go to Northern South Korea?

Katie: I mean I’ve talked about it a lot, but coming to Northern South Korea doesn’t just mean you’re going to be in the huge city of Seoul the whole time. There is so much nature, so many activities for whatever your interests are. If you love history, it’s here. If you love the outdoors, it’s here. If you want to spend your whole time shopping and bar hopping, you can do that here as well. So a lot of people, you think Northern South Korea, you think Seoul and big city and crowds and traffic, and yes, that’s here, but there’s so much more in this area around it. That I didn’t know about before I came here. I was really surprised to see all the sight and the nature and the history here.

Chris: Well and you mentioned surprise. Besides the Toilet Museum, what else is going to surprise me when I come to that area?

Katie: You might be surprised by the people here are very kind in welcoming but older women here have their own…it’s like it’s a culture in itself if you’re an older Korean woman called an ajumma, and they are feisty and have no problem cutting you in line and look at you and yell at you in Korean and then sprint away carrying their rolly bags and they are dressed in every color and pattern. You could imagine they put on in one outfit and they’re just so interesting and different than what I think of like my grandma at home. These grandmas here are very different than what I’m used to. It’s an interesting part of the culture.

Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say “Only in South Korea.”

Katie: So many things. Only in South Korea are coffee shops not open before 9 o’clock in the morning.

Chris: Oh, wow! Okay. That sounds tough for those of you who are coffee addicted here.

Katie: For a country where coffee shops and the coffee culture is huge, the coffee shops don’t open until 9, 10 in the morning and then stay open until 11, 12 at night. For someone like me who’s up early in the morning, walking the streets looking for a cup of coffee, it’s hard to find. On one street alone, my street has about seven coffee shops on the street. So, only here can you not get coffee early in the morning.

Chris: And finish the sentence, “You really know you’re in South Korea when…” what.

Katie: You really know you’re in South Korea when you see a McDonald’s delivery scooter zooming down the sidewalk behind you.

Chris: Going down the sidewalk.

Katie: Yes. Sidewalks are not just for people here.

Chris: Okay, and if I ask you to summarize Northern South Korea in just three words, what three words would you use?

Katie: I would say delicious.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: Adventurous and historical.

Chris: Excellent. Katie, where can people read more about your travels?

Katie: They can find me on my blog, which is and that’s K-T, just the two letters K and T.

Chris: Excellent! And have you got any interesting articles you’re written recently about South Korea?

Katie: I just recently posted an article. I talked about pajeon earlier, a guy eating this popular hiking meal pajeon in Korea.

Chris: Excellent! Well Katie, thanks so much for coming on The Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love of South Korea.

Katie: Thank you Chris for having me.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

3 Responses to “Travel to Northern South Korea – Episode 485”

Jennifer Schuitema


Islands, beaches, mountains, national parks, temples, and “museums”, sounds like the perfect itinerary. Always enjoy an episode that involves some culture shock. (Loved hearing the students in the background.)



glad you liked it 🙂

Piotr Kulczycki


Great episode. I plan to visit Korea next year!

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