South Korea

South Korea is one of the smallest countries in East Asia and the fact that almost 50 million people are crammed into it makes that much smaller still. Busses are consistently crammed, shops are always busy, lineups at the post office are never ending and traffic, especially on weekends, is astronomical. The crowds shouldn't be a deterrent, however; they are part of what gives this country its amazing character. Despite its size, South Korea has many attractions - old and new - to share. One could spend a number of days in Seoul and still not hit all the highs, which include Jongmyo Shrine, Namsan Park, Changdeokgung Palace, Lotte World and the touristy Itaewon, to name a very few. There are an endless number of sites throughout the rest of the country as well, and naming some - such as the peaks of Jirisan, Haeundae Beach, Manjanggul lava tube on Jeju Island, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gyeongju and the DMZ that separates the country from North Korea - would be a proverbial drop in the bucket. South Korea is one of the most homogenous countries on the planet, with nearly everyone there being ethnically Korean. People here are often considered notoriously xenophobic, and really, who could blame them? The country is surrounded by water and powers that have tried to control it, on and off, for the last two thousand years. What is perceived as such, however, is more often than not a shyness in front of strangers rather than genuine fear of them; when visitors are able to get through to the real heart of the people, however, they see that Koreans are friendly, kind and always ready with a welcoming smile. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara


Jongno: Trying to fit in

Jogno: Part of Seoul's nitty grittyFor me, the must-visit area of Seoul for any tourist who really wants to get under the skin of the city is Jongno. This is the slightly gritty heart of this international metropolis, where the Western tourist will see things on the streets that he will not be used to seeing at home, such as old men cobbling shoes while others look on. In fact, this is as much the province of old men as it is young nightclub-goers and hagwon students, and for everyone else from those who congregate in huge numbers in Tapgol Park to those who observe endless games of baduk and Chinese checkers outside Jongmyo shrine.

I was befriended by just such a chap, one sunny, Sunday afternoon. He was a sprig 91 year old, who led me to the park where we shared Hite [ed. brand of Korean beer] and crackers (I was terrified, but afraid to contradict him when he attempted the opening of these with a rusty Stanley knife), then onto Cheongyangi station to see a performance of traditional Korean drumming, where he promptly fell asleep.

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 Full name: Republic of Korea

 Population: 48.86 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Seoul

 Largest city: Seoul

 Area: 99,720 sq.km. (38,502 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Korean, English widely  taught

 Major religions: Christian, Buddhist, Other

 Monetary unit: South Korean Won

 GDP per capita: US $31,700

 Internet domain: .kr

 International dialling code: +82

 Source: CIA World Factbook