Probably the most popular official tour in Korea is the DMZ. Most people say the same thing about this tour; it’s eerie, surreal and definitely worthwhile. Soldiers on both sides of the line eye each other menacingly, machine guns at ready. Through a looking glass, tourists observe a fake North Korean village meant to impress upon us the benefits of immigration. Now, the DMZ may seem your basic tourist attraction, with way too much structure and not enough booze, but it also has an interesting history. In 1976 for example several U.S. soldiers on a tree-pruning mission inside the zone were brutally murdered by North Koreans soldiers, with their own tree-pruning clippers. Nowadays the DMZ is peaceful albeit tense. It is so peaceful in fact that it’s a known sanctuary for creatures almost extinct elsewhere else in Asia. Musk deer, wildcats and river otter are safe within its borders, from the voracious palates of Asian men seeking more stamina.
For shopping and your basic day of tourism in Seoul there is Itaewan, which has a lot of great restaurants and plenty of foreigners. Foreigners can be very helpful because Korea is not known for its international population. Foreigners in Korea understand that you’re basically alone in a not-so-international country and can’t read the street signs. They understand that you just might be a bit burned out on the overwhelming local hospitality as well, and need something a little closer to home, somebody to dump your adventures on to. So, they may take you on a personal tour or invite you to crash on their couch. They may even have some unmentionable treats, certain substances hard to come by in Korea.
Within Itaewan is Hooker Hill. This is one of Korea’s few international neighborhoods, with Philippina, Russian and even an occasional Korean hostess girl. In the company of these hostesses are the American military men and sailors from around the world. Don’t be intimidated; even Russian Mafiosos appreciate a free English lesson. Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Burmese, Pakistanis and Sudanese can all be found here and they’re all very happy to have a drink with anyone in need of a drink. This is also a good place to go when one gets sick of the same old Korean dishes. Russian, Philippine and Chinese restaurants are common, as well as a few commercial American restaurants like Outback and TGI Friday’s.
In Pusan there is a smaller version of Hooker Hill known as Texas Street. This is conveniently located right across from the Pusan Railway Station. Also, in Kukje Market, only a few subway stops down from Pusan Station is an international Market full of rip-off Gucci, Polo and Burberry labels. The clothes here are cheap for a reason – the quality is generally poor. But it’s a fun place to have a look and there are also some good deals. In this same area is Jagalchi, the fish market. The fish prices are very reasonable so if you like fish it’s worth your time to come for a meal. The sushi in Jagalchi Fish Market is fresh, with plenty of choices, from tuna or mackerel to sliced eel and sea squirt.
Pusan is known as a beach resort town, although this is hard to recognize, as it’s just as dirty and industrial as any other town. The beach, in Haeundae along the second subway line, is fun enough and the local restaurants are excellent. Particularly notable at this beach in summertime are petite little high school and college girls swimming in nothing more than a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt (remember, Confucian cultural values). A smaller, prettier beach to check out in Pusan is Song Jung Beach. This is a quieter beach by Korean standards, and does have a cozier feel to it. The water is also cleaner.
Spas like the famous Hoshimchang, near Pusan Women’s University are relaxing and interesting. These bathes, by the way, are not co-ed. Korean Mafioso frequent many of these spas and are recognizable by their koi fish tattoos and surgically enhanced, scarified penises that are said to please countless prostitutes.
University spots are fun in any Korean city, with an endless supply of soju and beer bars, clothing shops, computer rooms, karaoke joints and video-game parlors. This is also where one finds the foreign expatriate bars. In Seoul there is Shinchon and Ehwa Universities, along with Yonsei and Hongdae or Hongik. In Pusan you have Pusan University and Kyung Sung University.
For a traditional glimpse of Korea, Kyungju is the place. It’s interesting but sterile. To enjoy it more I suggest a couple dollar bottles of the local liquor, soju, which can be purchased anywhere at any time, and can be drunk on any street corner.
Another tip: go rural. The Korean countryside is not a big deal for most Koreans, who all prefer to vacation in hot, dirty and overpopulated fun parks. So the countryside is left mostly unspoiled. Take a train or bus, or rent a car and hit farm towns along the way. Find a minbak, which is a bed and breakfast, buy some soju and take it easy. The hiking is good in Korea also. All you need to do is walk up the nearest mountainside and you’re bound to find a path. In the hills are pheasants, weasels, even an occasional small musk-deer. In the mountains near Chili San and Seorak San, deer, goats and wild boar, even feral dogs in some rural spots, are common. Korea also has endless rural islands worth a shot. Just go to the ferry terminal and take your pick, or just remain on the ferry and enjoy the ride from island to island.
The island of Cheju far south of the peninsula and is geographically unlike the rest of Korea, with clean blue water and black sand beaches. It also has beautiful mountain hikes, nice bathhouses (some with carbonated water) and cheap hotels. Early summer, before the crowds hit is the best time to get a good room on Cheju, but the winters there are said to be nasty.
If you like the beach, rent a car and follow the coastline. Every little farming town has a beach that the rest of Korea has yet to discover.