Some Resources for traveling within Korea

Traveling around a country where you don’t speak the language can be a bit daunting, even in a country with such a convenient transport system as South Korea. When I first arrived in South Korea, I didn’t know any more Korean words than “hello” and “thank you.” I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and it was my first time in another country aside from my own and Canada. During my first few months in the country I didn’t leave my city, out of fear that I would get lost if I ventured out too far.

It wasn’t until my second year that I started traveling. both inside and outside Korea. Now that I have started travelling around the country, I really enjoy it and wish I had started sooner. Korea is a small country with efficient and affordable public transport. There’s plenty to do and see to fill up a weekend and makes for a good hobby while living here. That said, it can be a bit difficult to get around without knowing Korean outside of the big cities, and public transportation is less frequent in the countryside. These resources are some of the things that help me when travelling within Korea:

Daum maps — If Google maps isn’t helping when looking for how to get from place to place in Korea, Daum is the way to go. It’s only in Korean, but after reading this English guide to the site written by blogger Liz in Translation, I now use Daum when I need to find a bus route to get somewhere in Korea.

ga82.com — I really wish I had known about this site sooner. Provides the bus schedule between all cities in Korea. A lot of the routes it recommends are really odd, but it does provide a lot of options. Changing the maximum number of transfers from “1” to “0” will narrow out a lot of the strange routes it comes up with, unless of course there is no direct bus or train between the two cities you will travel between.

Korail English site — Has train schedules and booking in English.

Rome2Rio — Provides transport links between cities and towns all over the world. Includes prices and travel times. Usually it says to transfer through Seoul even when not necessary but occasionally can be useful.

Korea Tourism Organization English site — Provides information for specific tourist attractions all over Korea. Includes details on how to get there, how much it costs, and opening/closing hours.

The Tourism Help Line — Just dial 1330 for any and all questions related to transportation or general travel in Korea and they will help.

If you wish to travel around Korea without having to make transport or accommodation plans yourself, joining expat travel groups like WINK Travels, Seoul Hiking Group, and Adventure Korea is a very good idea. These groups are based out of Seoul, but there is also WINK Busan based out of Busan and Enjoy Korea based out of Daegu. Simply join the Facebook group and you will get updates on their trips to various parts of Korea.

It is quite easy to get around within cities such as Seoul and Busan with their awesome metro systems, and getting between different cities with the KTX or Mugunghwa is a snap. However, smaller cities and towns can be a challenge, especially without knowing the language. Hopefully these links can assist any new teachers in Korea who wish to see more of the country they live in.

A Weekend in Gangneung

This past weekend I decided to hit the beach and look at some gramophones in the coastal city of Gangneung. I had only been to Gangneung once before, and briefly to get the ferry to Ulleungdo. Gyeongpo is one of the most popular beaches in Korea, and from my understanding can get crowded in summer, but when I went (mid July) it wasn’t that crowded. It could partly be because the water was still very cold, so it wasn’t a good time for swimming. The beach is said to be the longest on the East coast, at 6 km, and it’s quite a bit bigger than Korea’s most visited beach, Busan’s Haeundae. Gyeongpo has plenty of seafood restaurants, motels, and convenience stores near the beach, but it isn’t nearly as commercialized as Haeundae, which is a huge tourist spot with it’s 5 star hotels, and several bars and restaurants behind the beach.

Before I relaxed on Gyeongpo beach, I headed to the Charmsori Gramophone and Edison Science Museum. Thomas Edison is probably America’s most famous inventor, but strangely enough the largest museum dedicated to gramophones — one of Edison’s most famous inventions — is located in South Korea. The amount of gramophones (more commonly known as phonographs) in this museum is staggering. In addition to the gramophones, the museum features music boxes and old radios and TVs. Unfortunately, most of the item descriptions and the tour are only in Korean. However the exhibits were still amazing to see. The Edison science museum is connected to the Gramophone museum, although it is technically a separate museum. It focuses on Edison’s main inventions, the lightbulb, the gramophone, and the projector. There’s a huge collection of Edison batteries, lightbulbs, and phonographs here as well. The second floor contains old Edison home appliances, dolls, and telephones.

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One of the Edison lightbulbs on display.
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The museum theater, designed to be shaped like a gramophone.
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The museum featured several pictures of Edison and the owner, as well as some interesting old signs.
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Next to the Gramophone and Edison Science museum, is the Son Sung Mok Film Museum, named after the founder of all three museums. The Film museum is newer than the other two. The Film museum calls itself “The world’s best film museum”. I’m not certain if that’s true, as this is the only film museum I have been to, but the film museum certainly has an impressive collection as well. There are several halls of film cameras from all over the world dating from the 1800’s to modern times.

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There are also hundreds of posters of movie stars and advertisements. The poster advertising the film Gone with the Wind is an original. In addition to the poster, the movie houses a camera used during filming.

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A letter written to the first director of Gone with the Wind (later replaced by Victor Fleming) with the movie script inside.
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The accessories used for Scarlett’s bedside table in the movie.
The entry fee for the Gramophone and Science Museum is 7,000 won. The package ticket that allows access to all three costs 17,000 won. If you are like me and enjoy antiques and vintage items, then I would say all museums are a must-visit.

Right outside the museum is the lovely Gyeongpo lake.

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Right by the lake and museum is Gyeongpodae, a historic pavilion that has a nice view of the lake, though unfortunately the beach is not visible.

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View from the pavilion.
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Nearby is a memorial tower dedicated to Gangneung soldiers that fought in the Korean war.

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There are bikes for rental near the lake. There’s a few kinds available, ranging from single bikes to couple bikes to four person pedal cars. After doing a 1km walk down the lake, I arrived at Gangneung pine forest beach.

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I thought the parasols were free…but when I set up under one, I was informed that they cost 10,000 won to rent. I didn’t have the cash so I went to the ATM. When I got there, I realized that 10,000 won is expensive to just rent an umbrella and I can just sit under the pine trees for free if I wanted shade. But when I got back the guy already had put the mat under my parasol so I just rented it anyway. Still not worth the money.

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There’s plenty of beach area without parasols, as well.
I tested the water a bit and it was quite cold. Not really the best beach day I guess since it was so cloudy but for me that just means a lower chance of getting burned. But it’s a beach with a lake right behind it. Can’t get much better than that.

After Gyeongpodae, I went to Anmok to grab dinner. Anmok is where the ferry terminal is located, and the area is well known for it’s strip of coffee shops along the beach. In this area, there is an American style burger joint called Bikini Burger. I ate there once when I arrived back from Ulleungdo, and I told the owner I’d go back next time I was in Gangnung. Both times, I got the bacon cheeseburger.

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Yummy!
It cost 8,000 won for just the burger, 11,000 for a set. Considering how expensive international food in Korea usually is, that price isn’t so bad.

After that I checked out the beach briefly before going back to the hostel I stayed in. IMG_1978[1]

I stayed in Aark house, a really cute small hostel near Gangneung city center. It’s about 20 minutes from the beach, but the owner is very nice and cooks great breakfasts in the morning, much better than the toast and jam of typical hostels. The price was 22,000 won per night for a 6 bed room, but I had the room to myself both nights. There weren’t many guests at the hostel, but for me, at least, that wasn’t a bad thing. The bed was also very comfortable and the beds all had privacy curtains.

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The owner also has very detailed information on how to get to Gangneung attractions. She has a map of the area and the bus schedules. Bus 202 goes to most of Gangneung’s tourist sites, including the lake, Charmsoori museum, the beach, the sundubu village, and the Ojukheon house.I considered going to Jeongdongjin that Sunday, which has a beach and the world record for the closest train station to the ocean, but decided not to go since it was rainy and I had go back to work the next day. But in case I had gone, the hostel owner had a time schedule for the shuttle buses that go to Jeongdongjin station from Gangneung station. The only downside to the hostel was that it was a bit hard to find at first. It’s not that far from the bus stop, but it’s located in a residential area. The owner also doesn’t speak fluent English, but she knows enough to help and speaks it better than she gives herself credit for.

My Top 3 Jeju Spots

In early May last year, there was an unusual long 4 day weekend. The date for Buddha’s birthday that year (May 6th) and Children’s Day (May 5th) happened to be right next to each other. Unfortunately, on long weekends, airfare tends to skyrocket and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a reasonable plane ticket to anywhere, unless booked far in advance. I had hoped to travel abroad during that weekend, but I didn’t plan far enough ahead of time, so I decided to sign up on a WINK (When in Korea, a tour group catering to expats in Korea) tour to Jeju Island.

Jeju is South Korea’s largest and most visited island, and the southernmost part of the country. It is also a volcanic island home to the largest peak in South Korea, Hallasan, or Halla Mountain. During the 80’s, it was the most popular honeymoon destination for South Koreans, partly due to the fact that during the military dictatorship South Koreans mostly could not obtain passports. Since the restriction was lifted in 1989, the amount of Koreans that travel abroad has skyrocketed, and Jeju is no longer the top honeymoon spot for Korean couples. However, it is still a highly popular vacation destination for Koreans, so much so that Seoul to Jeju is the world’s busiest air route. In recent years, Jeju has seen a large influx of Chinese tourists as well, and the Chinese influence is quite apparent on the island, as a majority of vendors, hotel workers, and tourist guides can speak Mandarin. Mandarin can also be heard almost equally as much as Korean on the streets of Jeju City, the largest metropolis on the island. Due to it’s volcanic formations and fame among Koreans and Chinese as a honeymoon and vacation spot, it has sometimes been called “the Hawaii of Korea.”

Despite its popularity, Jeju does have its detractors, and I had read a few comments on social media and travel forums saying that Jeju was overrated and not that impressive. But since I had a desire to travel and the full price of WINK’s Jeju tour was cheaper than any plane ticket available, I decided to visit. Because of the comments I read, though, I didn’t expect to be very impressed by any of Jeju’s beaches, waterfalls, or volcanic formations.

I was pleasantly surprised. While Jeju may not be Hawaii (I assume, I haven’t been to Hawaii), I really enjoyed my trip there and I thought the island was definitely worth seeing while in Korea. The overall scenery isn’t as impressive or dramatic as Ulleungdo, Korea’s other volcanic island, but I thought parts of it were stunning.

The tour I joined covered the main attractions on the island, though there wasn’t much beach time on the trip as it was too cold for the beach in early May. Hiking Hallasan was optional, and I decided to opt out of it since the hike takes all day (about 8 hours), so Hallasan is not included on the list, though for voracious hikers it would probably be Jeju’s main attraction. Out of all the things I did, these were my top 3.

1. Sangbangsan/Yeongmeori Coast

I’m including these two together because they are located literally right next to each other. Sangbangsan is a small, scenic mountain with a temple near it’s base and a cave grotto dating back to the Goryeo dynasty.I didn’t get to the grotto as I had been walking all day and was unwilling to climb the steps in the rain, but the temple near the bottom was lovely.

The Yongmeori Coast, right next to the mountain, has some majestic cliff formations created due to lava. I thought it was the most impressive of the natural sights on Jeju. It’s a bit of a hike, but not that difficult. From my understanding, it can close during high tide, so it’s important to visit during low tide. Both the coast and Sangbangsan have small entrance fees, but they are well worth it.

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2. Udo Island

Udo is a small island located a 15 minute ferry ride east of Jeju. When arriving at the ferry dock, there’s quite a few options to get around the island, such as scooter, ATV, and bike rentals, plus a tour bus. I and several others in the tour used the bus, but the bus is a bit confusing without knowing Korean, and we depended on the Korean tour guide to explain when to get off and which bus to take. I think renting a scooter or ATV would be the best way to explore, but that requires an international license.

Udo boasts a great view of Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak, and has plenty of haenyeo, or woman divers, around searching for catch. The white sand beach is very nice although small. Overall I thought it was a beautiful place to explore.

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3. Seongsan Ilchulbong

Seongsan Ilchulbong, an old volcanic crater,  is one of the most popular landmarks on Jeju, and it’s easy to see why. Supposedly it has a great view of the sunrise, but we went in the afternoon. It’s a hike to the top, but it isn’t difficult at all. At the top, the crater itself isn’t that spectacular, but the view beyond the crater certainly is.

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There are a number of other places we went to on Jeju that I also enjoyed, including the Jusanjeolli cliffs, Cheonjeyeon waterfall, an Olle trail, and the manjanggul caves. Jeju is well known for it’s more kitschy attractions, such as the teddy bear museum, the Ripleys museum, the African museum, and a sex sculpture park, but our tour didn’t go to any of them (except Loveland, the sex park) which I appreciated. In addition to WINK, Seoul hiking group and Adventure Korea do pretty frequent trips to Jeju, so it saves on having to plan out the trip. I thought WINK had a great itinerary, and the motel location was excellent as well. The motel the group stayed in was on Hamdeok beach, which is a very nice beach about 20 minutes from Jeju city. (Featured image picture). I can’t rate it as Jeju’s best, since it was too cold to visit many beaches when we went, but it’s a great place to stay. Plenty of restaurants and convenience stores are around the area.

How I spent a day in Singapore

When I planned a trip to Malaysia last year, I decided to head to Singapore for a short amount of time to check out the small city-state while I was in the area. Unfortunately back then I wasn’t the best travel planner and I should have allowed myself a bit more time given that I came to Singapore exhausted after a couple of days in Malaysia. I only gave myself one full day in the city, and two nights. I flew from Kuala Lumpur in the early morning, landing in Singapore around 11 am. The easiest route to my hostel — called Betel Box — was to take the bus. Unfortunately, as I tried to find my hostel from the bus stop, it started pouring rain, and even buying an umbrella at the 7-11 didn’t prevent me from getting soaked. The rain only lasted about an hour, however, so it didn’t prevent me from sightseeing later in the day.

The Betel Box hostel is a great bargain especially in an expensive city like Singapore. The 8 bed female dorm was only $16 per night (23 Singapore dollars). The room is very basic but it worked for only 2 nights, plus the price can’t be beat. The main downside to the hostel was the fact that it was a bit far from the metro station, but still walk-able — about 15 minutes. It also isn’t located in the city center, but it did have plenty of restaurants and a hawker stand right nearby. Hawker stands are a great way to eat cheap in Singapore. They are basically cafeterias, with different food shops selling various dishes. I liked Singapore chicken rice, so I got that a few times. There are also fruit juice and drink stands, and tables everywhere. The meals cost only a few dollars and the whole place was clean.

Some pictures from the hostel area (Joo Chiat Road):

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At first, I wanted to just rest in my hostel considering I was exhausted and wet, but then I realized I only had one full day the next day, so I decided to start the sightseeing. The first place I went to were the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Gardens, like everywhere else in the city, were very easily reachable by the metro. Singapore isn’t big so it isn’t difficult to get to tourist places by metro, plus everything is in English.

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I really enjoyed the botanic gardens and I didn’t even get to explore it all, as the garden is very very large and I was so tired from walking. They are completely free to enter with the exception of the National Orchid garden, which has a small fee, but I thought it was definitely worth it as the orchids are beautiful.

I was at the gardens until evening, where I headed to the Singapore Flyer. The Flyer is an iconic image of Singapore and I figured it would have a good night view of the Singapore skyline, which it did:

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The ticket cost 33 Singapore dollars.

After the Flyer I decided to call it a night as I was very tired. The next day, I planned to go to as many of the remaining tourist attractions as I could since I was flying out the day after.

My first stop the next day was Chinatown. Chinatown is a historic Chinese area of Singapore that is well known for it’s shopping and eating. Plenty of eateries and souvenir shops lined the streets, and while I wasn’t interested in eating or shopping at that point I found it a nice place to wander around.

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One of the streets contains the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Mariamman.

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On Mosque Street right nearby lies the Jamae Mosque.

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Also in very easy walking distance in the area is the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.

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After Chinatown, I headed to Sentosa island, a resort island on the southern tip of the city state. I chose to go there because one of the ways to get there is to take a cable car. I thought that would be fun so I decided to do that. The ride was maybe about 10 minutes.

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I got off near the huge Sentosa Merlion.

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Sentosa has tons of attractions, ranging from Universal Studios Singapore to Madam Tussands to a butterfly park and various adventure parks. However given how tired I was at that time all I did was walk around the beach.

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The beach I went to is called Palawan beach.

I took the cable car again back into the city at dark. My plan was to then head to the famous Singapore night safari. However when I asked a man working in the subway what time the safari started, I was told that the night safari ran starting at midnight. So I planned to go then, and went back to the hostel. Once there, however, I found out that the safari actually closed at midnight. I’m not sure if it was a misunderstanding on my part or if the guy on the subway told me the wrong time. Unfortunately I couldn’t connect to wifi so I couldn’t figure out the error myself. By the time I found out about the closing time, it was too late for me to go. So I had to miss out on one of the things I really wanted to do, as I flew out of Singapore the next day. So I ended up just going to the Gardens by the Bay, but only to take a picture from the outside as I was just too tired to even think of exploring the inside.

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If it hadn’t been for that misunderstanding, though, I would have been able to do everything I wanted to do while I was there. I had about a day and a half, which isn’t too much time, but it’s possible to cover a lot of ground. Getting around Singapore is incredibly easy, and it’s small so not much time is needed. While Singapore is sometimes criticized for being boring or sterile, I thought it was interesting. The fact that there was a mosque and a Hindu temple located in a historically Chinese area showed the city-state’s history of diversity and peaceful coexistence of Malays, Chinese, and Indians. I don’t feel any burning desire to go back, but that’s partly because there are many other places that I wish to go to.

A visit to Suncheon Bay

One of the best views one can find while visiting Jeollanamdo province in South Korea is at Suncheon Bay Ecological Park. The Suncheon wetlands are actually not the largest wetland area in Korea — that would be the Upo wetlands (which I haven’t been to) but Suncheon’s are well worth the visit. The park is home to a few species of crabs, migratory birds, and mudskippers.

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Not the best picture…but it’s of one of the crabs there.

When first entering the bay, there are several boardwalks to view the crabs and birds before approaching Yongsan mountain. There’s about a 45 minute hike up the mountain to the main observatory, but the view is no doubt worth the hike. It is not too difficult a hike with comfortable shoes. It takes about 30 minutes to get from the entrance of the park to Yongsan.

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There’s a choice between taking “the road of meditation” or “the hard road” up Yongsan…I chose “the road of meditiation.”

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Suncheon bay is well known for it’s sunset views, but we went in the afternoon. The view was still beautiful regardless. There’s a few restaurants and convenience stores just outside the bay area, across from the parking lot. Unfortunately, my friends and I went during a holiday weekend, and all of the restaurants had long lines except Lotteria. So my friends settled for Lotteria chicken while I ate a sandwich from GS mart, as we were hungry for lunch.

Combined with Nagan folk village Suncheon bay made for a good day in the small city. It’s a great place to check out while in Jeollanamdo province.

Love Motel Review: Apple Motel, Yeosu

So-called “love motels” are a common sight everywhere in Korea. Most cities will have entire clusters of them in certain areas, shining bright neon light at night. Love motels became very popular in Japan decades ago and spread to Korea and other Asian countries such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since they were first introduced in the mid-80’s, love motels have received comparable popularity in Korea as in Japan. A large portion of Koreans live with their parents until they are married, and a majority marry in their late 20’s or later, so the motels are commonly used by young couples. During my time in Korea, I have only stayed at a love motel twice, as I generally prefer to book accommodation in advance before travelling, and most love motels can’t be booked in advance without knowing Korean. However, there are a few love motels in Korea that can be booked on Agoda. The Apple Motel in Yeosu is an example of a love motel with an Agoda listing. My friends and I decided to book a motel rather than stay in a hostel, for the sake of more privacy. Love hotels can seem seedy, however the Apple motel was very clean and the room quite nice. We booked a VIP room as it had two large beds and enough room for all of us. It also had a sofa, a large screen TV, a computer, a Jacuzzi bath, a sauna, a cup sanitizer, and a small fridge.

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We never figured out how to turn on the sauna though…

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It also has a separate toilet room and bath room. The room was cleaned every day. Guests at love motels typically have very little contact with the front desk, but the desk staff at this motel were very nice and helped us figure out the entertainment system and helped me order delivery chicken to my room

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The main drawback of the Apple is that it isn’t in the city center. However it’s located close to Yeocheon bus terminal and Yeocheon train station. There were also plenty of restaurants and a Lotte Mart nearby. Despite it being a love hotel, complete with some free condoms provided, I never heard or saw any of the rendezvous going on among other guests, and we were there two nights. The motel is located along the love motel strip in the area but the neighborhood didn’t seem unsafe at all. The VIP room cost $80 per night, which is a great value for money especially splitting the cost with friends.

Folk Villages in Korea Part 2: Nagan Eupseong

I visited Nagan Eupseong folk village more recently as a part of a three day weekend road trip to the Jeollanamdo province for Buddha’s birthday. I went with two friends, and since one of them had a car, we drove rather than use public transit. Nagan Eupseong is the last Joseon era village in Korea with a fortress wall around it. It’s one of the better preserved in the country and located in Suncheon.

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The most obvious difference between this village and Andong’s is that this one has a fortress wall around it and Andong’s does not. Hahoe has the river surrounding it while Nagan has the fotress. The fortress provides good views of Nagan, while the view of Andong is provided by Buyongdae cliff.

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Other than the fortress wall, I noticed that Hahoe had a higher number of hanok homes while the majority of the homes in Nagan are thatched roofs. Apart from those differences, the folk villages are quite similar. Both have residents still living in them, and both have various traditional performances to watch. Andong is known for it’s mask dance, which can be seen in the folk village even outside of the mask dance festival. At Nagan, I saw a traditional instrument performance.

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The village also had a Joseon era jail and courthouse.

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Nagan Eupseong was a lovely village and I was glad to see it although I had already been to the one in Andong. It isn’t on the Unesco world heritage list like Hahoe is, but it is on the tentative list. The city of Suncheon has a number of other attractions that can be combined with Nagan on a trip there, including Suncheon Bay (which we visited on this trip) and a few temples (we didn’t visit those though). My friends and I stayed in a Yeosu love motel on this trip, and not in Suncheon (a post on that is coming up).

Folk Villages in Korea Part 1: Andong

South Korea is home to a number of folk villages, ranging from those recreated for tourism purposes (such as the Namsangol village in central Seoul and the Korean Folk Village in Yongin) and those that have been preserved (though some parts restored from damage) since the Joseon dynasty (such as Yangdong and Andong). Out of all the folk villages in Korea, I have been to two, Andong Hahoe Folk Village and Nagan Eupseong (or Nagan Fortress) folk village in Suncheon.

I visited Andong Folk Village in 2014 during the Andong Mask Dance Festival in autumn. While many popular tourist attractions in Korea can get quite crowded on the weekend and especially during a festival, the Andong Village actually didn’t have unbearable crowds during the mask festival. This is probably partly because the festival runs for two weeks, so people have the option of two weekends to spend in Andong if they don’t live in the area. There were certainly a lot of people there, but not enough to feel suffocating at all.

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Andong Folk Village was added to the Unesco world heritage list in 2010, along with Yangdong near Gyeongju. Descendants of the original villagers who lived there during Joseon live there today. The village is located in a rural area surrounded by rice fields and lotus leaves.

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The village is also nestled into a bend of the Nakdong river, which acts as a sort of protective barrier around it.

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The village was larger than I had anticipated and I would recommend at least an hour and a half to explore it. Some of the houses can be entered and contain artifacts from Joseon-era owners. Others are private residences. As the picture above shows, the houses are a mix of thatch roofs (mostly on the outer part of the village) and hanok roofs. The hanok houses were used by the upper class, while the thatched roof houses were used by the lower class.

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On the other side of the river lies Buyongdae cliff, which offers an impressive view of the folk village for only a 10 minute hike up. There’s a small ferry that takes passengers from the beach on the river to the cliff. It costs 3,000 won round trip, and according to the Korea Tourism Organization page on the cliff, the ferry is only available on weekends and holidays, and closed during winter.

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To get to the folk village, there is a bus that leaves from downtown Andong about every hour. The bus takes about 30 minutes or so. The bus drops off at an area with restaurants, shops, a mask museum, and a tourism information center. From this area, I had to board a shuttle bus to the actual village, which took a few minutes. The information center has maps and the bus schedule of times when the bus returns to downtown Andong.

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For accommodation, downtown Andong has a few motels. I stayed in the Goodstay Galleria Motel, which is a little over $50 per night for a standard room on Agoda. I booked a deluxe though since the standards were sold out, and paid about $60. The motel was nice and clean, had a big screen TV, shampoo, conditioner, towels, a mini-fridge, and a computer. It’s located in downtown Andong near restaurants, markets, a Homeplus, and the mask dance festival area. It’s also a few minute walk to the bus stop for Hahoe and other tourist attractions. Overall it was a really good value for the money. Front desk do not speak English but that is very typical for motels in Korea.