Witness true Korean beauty in South Korea's Jeolla province

Witness true Korean beauty in South Korea's Jeolla province
PHOTO: AsiaOne

A trip to South Korea doesn't have to be all about Song Joong-ki, Big Bang and skin care products.

The land of kimchi has a whole lot more to offer beyond its glitzy cosmopolitan facade. And I'm not talking about the crowded beaches of Busan.

In South Korea's Jeolla province, the place where Korea's last dynasty was found, the spirit of Korea's past is very much alive today.

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1) Travel back in time

Jeonju Hanok Village. Photo: AsiaOne

After a seven-hour flight from Singapore, I arrived sleepy-eyed at Incheon Airport, slightly nervous about going to a city I had never heard of before.

Our first stop, the city of Jeonju, is renowned for its historical charm and relaxing vibe. It is so "chill" that it was designated as an International Slow City in 2010 by the Cittaslow organisation, which advocates the slowing down of cities.

Stepping into Jeonju's famous Hanok Village feels like walking out of a time machine. What greeted me at the end of the three-hour bus journey was simply surreal, and any hesitations I had previously were quickly laid to rest.

The village consists of 800 hanoks (traditional Korean houses) which are now used as residences, shops, museums, food outlets and guesthouses.

Among a sea of grey giwa tile roofs, young lovers dressed in traditional hanboks walked hand-in-hand, feeding each other street snacks such as skewered chicken and grilled cheese.

Wanting to immerse ourselves deeper into the atmosphere, we sought out a shop renting traditional hanboks by the hour. The friendly ladies at the shop hand us poofy skirts in our favourite colours, and even style our hair for us.

Later on, we checked-in at traditional hanok guesthouse Hakindang, where instead of a cold and unfriendly hotel lobby, we were greeted by an adorable shiba inu puppy in a beautifully manicured garden.

2) Mother of all bibimbaps

Jeonju bibimbap at Jeonju Traditional Cultural Centre. Photo: AsiaOne

One can't visit South Korea without having a bowl of bibimbap (Korean mixed rice). In Jeonju, bibimbap has historically been a dish prepared for royalty.

Topped with chunky Jeonju beansprouts known for having a loud crunch, Jeonju's version of the bibimbap was love at first bite for me.

When in Jeonju, it is also a good idea to order a kettle of makgeolli (Korean fermented rice wine) at restaurants specialising in the sweet alcoholic beverage. The people of Jeonju are so proud of the makgeolli they produce that it is often considered the most important part of their meals.

And if you're feeling hungry, look for a restaurant serving hanjeongsik, a traditional Korean full course meal that features about 50 (no exaggeration) of the season's best dishes all on one table. The experience is especially unique in Jeonju, which is known across the country for royal cuisine.

3) What history left behind

Pungnammun, a pre-war city gate. Photo: AsiaOne

You know how artistically-inept people suddenly become 'art connoisseurs' the moment they arrive in Paris? Well, that happens to visitors in Jeonju.

It doesn't take long before I realise that there are museums for almost every traditional Korean art here. History buffs will love the extensive collection at the National Intangible Heritage Center, but if you're looking for something specific to explore, Jeonju prides itself on pansori (Korean musical storytelling) and hanji (Korean mulberry paper) industry.

Venturing further into the heart of the Jeonju Hanok Village, we find the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, a historical landmark which was first built in 1410 to signify the reign of King Tae-jo. A tall portrait of the founding Joseon king was hand carried from Seoul by 400 soldiers and displayed here. Nearby, the Royal Portrait Museum provided refuge from the sun's scorching heat as we admired the grand carriage used for the portrait's big move.

We decided to arm ourselves with iced coffee from a cafe in the village as we continued on our walking tour of the elaborately designed structures left behind by Joseon's ancestors. Among them, a 1400s envoy guesthouse called Pungpaejigwan; a 1768 city gate known as Pungnammun, the only one of four still standing today; and Jeondong Catholic Cathedral, built in 1914 and known for its romantic Byzantine-Romanesque architecture.

4) Finding peace

The pond at Deokjin Park. Photo: AsiaOne

Speaking of romance, rich stories from Jeonju's past can be found at almost every street and landmark, making the city an ideal destination for lovers.

If zen is what the travelling couple is seeking, there's a place for that too.

Over at Deokjin Park, located about 30 minutes away from Jeonju Station, some locals were counting dragonflies fluttering above lotuses on the water. In the north-west corner of the pond, a cluster of swan-shaped paddle boats remained asleep, waiting to be awakened by highschool lovers at the end of a long school day.

The sprawling park covers an area of 13,000 square metres, most of it made up of the serene pond which dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty.

Every year in July, its lotus flowers spring into full bloom, turning the lotus pond into a romantic and endless sea of pink.

5) A few smooth moves

Taekwondowon in Muju. Photo: AsiaOne

After leaving Jeonju, we travelled an hour-and-a-half by bus to Muju county, a mountainous region famous for its ski resort, which our guide says the late Michael Jackson was a big fan of.

As we drove into the driveway at our next destination, I madea  mental note of how majestic the encircling mountains were. The buildings we would call home for the next two nights had the capacity for over 1,000 guests, but even they looked insignificant against this backdrop.

Known as Taekwondowon by locals, the all-in-one Taekwondo park occupies a jaw-dropping 2,314,000 square metres. Aside from fighting arenas, it also houses theatres, parks, trails, a museum, lodging and an observatory offering a bird's eye view of the surrounding area.

It doesn't get more Kung-fu Panda than this. For the duration of our stay, we lived as taekwondo masters - hiking up a steep trail to see the whole of Muju bathing in glorious sunlight, then watching an exhilarating taekwondo demonstration, before dipping our toes into a taekwondo experience class.

6) Wild, wild wine

Muju Wine Cave. Photo: AsiaOne

While Muju is known for its ski slopes, there we were, right smack in the middle of June without any snow to be found.

Luckily, we discovered the next best thing something even better - red wine.

There are five wineries in Muju which produce wine from the Korean wild grape meoru. The wine it produces is slightly sweeter than most reds, and has a more refreshing taste.

Fans of this wine travel to the Muju Wine Cave all year round to buy it at a cheaper price.

7) A tiny celebrity

A firefly spotted during the Muju Firefly Festival. Photo: Muju County

Even with all these gems, Muju's biggest star isn't its taekwondo park or its wine. Instead, Muju's biggest celebrity is also its smallest - around 2cm-long to be exact. Oh, and it's also luminous.

Fireflies are so big (not in the literal sense) in Muju that there's an annual festival dedicated to them.

There is also an insect museum at Bandi Land, an attraction for children, which houses over 20,000 species of insects. While it's probably not the best idea for people suffering from insectophobia, it helps to keep the kids entertained while adults enjoy their wine, Muju style.

ljessica@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was made possible by Korea Tourism Organization, Jeonbuk Traditional Culture Institute, Taekwondo Promotion Foundation and Muju County.

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