Updated: Oct 30
In our many family road trips through Europe and Asia, we've always relied on Google Maps for navigation. It works great most of the time. However, due to security concerns, Google was not allowed access to South Korean map data. This is understandable, given that North Korea has access to Google Maps.
Google maps can still find and locate many places in South Korea, which is great for finding the closest restaurants, hotels, and shops, but it can not navigate or give directions. We had to download the app Naver for guidance. The problem is this app, even in English mode, does not always recognize the name of places in English, and we did not have a Korean keyboard on our phone. So we had difficulty finding a few places until we figured out how to cut and paste the Korean name from Google onto the Naver map.
On the way from Seoul to historic Gyeongju, we stopped by a gorgeous village that is a Unesco World Heritage site. Andong Hahoe folk village is a traditional village from the Joseon dynasty. People still live under grass-roof houses, farm the traditional way, and keep the ancient traditions including farming and preserving food, they make wooden masks for festivals and played old village games.
It took a couple of hours to walk through the village but you can also stop to eat or shop in various places. It was the middle of summer so there was some crops being harvested while the paddies are still lush green with rice.
We then drove to Gyeongju and check-in to our traditional home rental named Wolamjae. I booked hotel stays for the 5 days that we were in the cities of Seoul and Busan but booked 3 nights at 3 different traditional houses in the towns of Gyeongju, Boseong, and Jeonju to get some different experiences.
The owners got us settled into the house and showed us the way to a very nice restaurant in town for dinner, where we had our first taste of naengmyeon, or cold noodles, with real chunks of frozen broth in the bowl.
I thought my daughters were mad at me when we checked into the registered historical home that was built just outside of Gyeongju in 1543 by an official of the Joseon dynasty. The house was updated for hanok stay in 2009 and had air conditioning and wi-fi. However, the bathroom and kitchen were outside the main house so you need to unlock the front door to go brush your teeth or toilet or shower which can stretch the tolerance level of any teenager who was already having issues connecting their phone to the wi-fi of the house.
The futon mattress was thin and I had to double up on it for my aching back so was starting to regret booking these multiple hanok stays. But then, after a blissfully quiet night of sleep, I awoke to the sound of birdsongs outside the paper window. Then it started to rain as the sky starts to lighten.
I stepped outside to breathe in the petrichor, that unique smell of the earth during the rain, and was surprised to see my son sitting there already. We watched the fog roll in over the hills and listened to the sound of water falling all around.
I used the separate kitchen to cook up some packages of noodles we had brought for breakfast, along with the garlic butter bread and pastries from Paris Baguette. By the way, Korean garlic butter actually has honey in it so it was sweet as well as savory. It was a very nice meal, nothing better than a warm bowl of soup noodles on a rainy day.
The house has some ingenious features like heated floors in the winter. There is a wooden floor in the middle chamber, but tile floors on the two side chambers where the fireplaces are. The fireplaces are also located on the outside of the house under the floors while the chimneys are several feet away from the house to tunnel the smoke away out from the house. There was even an iron pot built-in on top of one of the fireplaces to provide heated water or a cooking surface. We had driven throughout Japan, Iceland, and other cold countries but had never seen such a smart engineering design for heating the house.
It was still drizzling when we checked out of the house so it was a perfect day for an indoor activity like a museum. The museum at Gyeongju was extraordinarily well-curated. It displays artifacts found in the excavations of several royal tombs in the area from the Silla dynasty dating back to 57 BCE. All the displays were in multiple languages.
We drove around the royal tomb area and visited the restored Donggung Palace & Wolji Pond, pretty and peaceful. Then stopped in town for some spaghetti before heading south to Busan.
After we checked in to our hotel in Busan which was located between the fish market and the big shopping centers, it started to rain heavily. We had to wait quite a while for the rain to ease before heading down to the Jagalchi fish market for dinner. Unfortunately, the main market was closed due to Korea's independence day. Plus it was raining so not many street food vendors were open along Nampo-dong food alley. We walked along the street in front of the market looking for a sit-down place that had eel, fish, scallops, and clams. There were so many of these places so we picked one at random, which wasn't the best idea.
The raw fish platter was tasteless and nothing like sashimi. The abalone porridge was bitter and terrible. But the fried fish platter was good, the barbecue scallops were nice, and the grilled lamprey eels were chewy, very different in texture from the usual flaky eels we've had before, so we were all relatively happy.
The next morning was dry but cloudy with rain expected in the afternoon. We drove through some very interesting bridges to go to the beautiful seaside Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. It was a very large temple perched right on the rocky seashore, extending deep into the forest above. and aptly labeled "the most beautiful temple in South Korea". There were multiple shrines where you can pray for everything from healing illnesses, and having children, to passing exams. Bruce and I particularly admired the pragmatism of Korean people when we saw that one of these shrines at the temple was a pagoda for traffic safety prayer.
Afterward, we drove back to Busan center to visit Gamcheon cultural village. This was built originally as a religious community and became a shanty town where the refugees from the Korean war stayed. It was a dilapidated slum and many of the houses were abandoned until the town started a very smart revitalization plan. It offered these houses free to artists who could live there, update the houses, and display their artwork throughout town.
Every corner, every wall, and every staircase of the town became covered with artwork. The steep roads and narrow alleys meander through backyards and neighborhood parks filled with more artwork. There are modern metal sculptures, quaint paintings, tiled pictures, wood carvings, and anime figures. Inside the shops are one-of-a-kind jeans and hats and purses and hairbands, all crafted by the local artist who lives there. There are even empty galleries and walls in houses where creative visitors are invited to contribute their thoughts or drawings.
My family and I wandered, shopped, and ate even after it started drizzling. I think CNN called this the artsiest town in Asia. It even won the 2012 UN-HABITAT Asian Townscape Award.
We got back to our hotel in 15 minutes and had plenty of time to do some normal shopping in the Nampo underground shopping center running along the street in front of our hotel. We got some nifty backpacks and fashionable shoes and clothing.
After a little rest, we walked across the street to the BIFF square to look for food. Some of the kids were happy to order Korean fried chicken and marshmallow waffles to bring back to the hotel. The rest of us stopped in a restaurant for wonton noodle soup.
We even bought some Squid Games cookies to bring home and noshed on. They're actually more like toffee or brittle candies than cookies. No wonder they're so hard to cut out and so easy to break. Among the tens of cookies at the stall, I was able to find only these 3 that aren't already cracked.
The next morning we checked out of the hotel, heading for Suncheon Bay.