Exploring 전라남도 (South Jeolla) with MBC and the Visit Korea Committee

These days, whenever I inform my family and friends of my latest adventures here in Korea, they’re rarely surprised. So many wonderful yet crazy opportunities have come my way in the past six months that, when I recently told them I had managed to snag myself and four friends a free weekend away exploring 전라남도 (Jeollanam-do, South Jeolla Province – the south-west of Korea), they were excited for me, but weren’t particularly amazed. When I added that it would be filmed by MBC, they remained blasé; after all, my parents mockingly asked, just how many times have I been on television here now?

I came across this wonderful opportunity on Facebook, noticing a post in an online community asking last-minute if any foreigners would like to try out a new bus tour the Visit Korea Committee were putting together, in exchange for being filmed throughout the weekend by MBC. It seemed like an excellent opportunity, and I fired off a message straight away – which, thankfully, was only a few minutes after the request had been posted. This is usually the way for me in Korea; I’m just in the right place at the right time. I received a reply instantly, saying that they’d love to have us on the trip, and that was that. This was Tuesday, and we were off that Saturday morning.

We met outside the Donghwa Duty Free shop near 관화문역 (Gwanghwamun Station) at 8am. Of course, being us, we arrived a little late, and everyone else was already on the bus and ready to go. We sheepishly met the organisers from the Visit Korea Committee (which I shall henceforth write simply as VKC) and Michael, who would be our guide for the weekend, and then took our places on the bus. As well as the five of us, there were a few Chinese tourists, some Americans, and a couple of other Brits, plus a Chinese model and her film crew, and three western models and their crew, who would film a little bit of promotional material as we travelled. The main MBC crew and the VKC representatives travelled alongside us in separate cars.

The first stop was 담양 (Damyang), where we arrived after three or four hours. Famous for 죽녹원 (Juknokwon), its bamboo forest, we were excited to explore, but first came lunch. Now I’ve experienced a few spectacular looking meals during my time in Korea, but this was on another level. My friend Hana and I are vegetarian, and the restaurant prepared a special vegetarian version just for us. Jeolla Province is famed for its fresh, distinctive-tasting vegetables (a signature dish being Jeonju’s bibimbap), and because of the nearby bamboo forest, we got special rice presented in bamboo, too.

From here, we went to explore the beautiful bamboo forest. Sadly, due to our packed schedule and it being a trial trip, we were very limited with time here, and desperately dashed around in the hopes of seeing as much as we could. Here we befriended Jongwon, the journalist from MBC, and the two cameramen accompanying him, and he asked if we would mind being filmed and interviewed throughout the weekend. They took a few shots of us admiring the forest, and then interviewed my friends Hana and Elena about their thoughts on travelling outside of Seoul as a foreigner.

Rushing back to the bus, we then drove to another famous Damyang landmark, the 메카세퀴이아길 (Metasequoia-lined Road), which was planted by the government back in the 1970s and in 2002 was selected by the Korea Forest Service as one of Korea’s ‘most beautiful roads’. Sadly, December is probably the worst time of year to visit. No doubt in spring, summer and autumn, the trees look spectacular, but in winter, the bare branches leave much to the imagination. Nevertheless, their height is impressive, and I would like to return and see them in their full glory, particularly in their autumn prime. You actually have to pay around ₩2000 entrance to the 4km long stretch, which certainly isn’t worth doing during winter (we just stayed at the entrance), but would be worth doing at any other time of year.

luckily, the leaflet gave us an idea of what we could see, should we return at a more suitable time

The camera crew didn’t bother filming anything here, which wasn’t surprising. Once again, this was a flying visit, and we got back on the bus after only about five minutes – but honestly, that was all we needed. From here, we drove to 곡성기차마을 (Gokseong kicha-maeul, Gokseong Train Village), where we were due to take a steam train ride through the scenic countryside. After around half an hour on the train, we arrived at a station next to some kind of famed moving bridge, which spanned a beautiful river and gave lovely views of the surrounding countryside.

We hopped back on the train to return to our starting point, where we then went back to the bus and settled in for the drive to 광주 (Gwangju) – a destination we didn’t even know we would be visiting until that morning, when we learned that a cooking class and dinner there had been added to the schedule. We were taken to a special 요리학원 (yori hagwon, cooking academy) where we were met by kind staff and a very knowledgeable teacher, who taught us to make 부꾸미 (bukkumi), pan-fried 떡 (ddeok, rice cake), filled with 팥 (pat, red bean) and topped with 대추 (daechu, jujube) and crown daisy leaves. We cooked in pairs, under the watchful eyes of both the academy teachers and the MBC cameras (no pressure!). Usually any food I prepare tastes okay but doesn’t look so great, but Elena and I were pretty pleased with our result!

After we’d finished our class (we were the last ones to leave, because we were so picky about our presentation), we walked to a nearby restaurant for another delicious meal, which I apparently forgot to photograph – but in terms of looks, it was much less impressive than our lunch, so it doesn’t really matter. Then, back on the bus, we drove for a couple of hours to 여수 (Yeosu), where we would be staying the night. Once we had checked in to our hotel and dumped our things, a few of us made our way to a nearby convenience store (due to a lack of bars in the area) along with the MBC crew and VKC ladies for some drinks and truly hilarious conversations. However, knowing we had to be up fairly early the following morning for another packed day, we eventually headed to bed for some much needed rest.

the view from our hotel room the following morning

Despite still being very tired, I got up with plenty of time to enjoy the breakfast buffet. Because honestly, what greater joy is there in life than a hotel breakfast buffet? Sadly, I was craving a good ol’ Western buffet, but in actuality it was mainly comprised of Korean food – which I love, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been here six months now and there are things you start to miss, especially as a vegetarian in a country with a borderline unhealthy obsession with meat. Still, they had one of those silly rotating toasting machine things, so all was not lost.

Our first stop on Day 2 was the Yeosu Expo Tower, part of an enormous site created for the 2012 Yeosu Expo. According to the very reliable source of Wikipedia, there were over 80 exhibition halls made for a whopping 102 participating countries and 8,000,000 visitors. Even if those numbers are a little off, they still seem very impressive for an event held in this small (but incredibly beautiful) city on Korea’s south coast.

We got to the tower a little after 9am on a Sunday, which meant there weren’t a great deal of other visitors. Of course, as with every Korean attraction, there’s a cafe at the top, and everything was decked out with Christmas decorations, which was nice. Despite this being our first stop of the day, we had so much to pack in before heading back to Seoul that evening that we didn’t have too much time to spend at the tower. But it’s not particularly big, and once we’d wandered around and taken photos of the beautiful views, there wasn’t much else to do.

Back on the bus, we drove the short distance to the entrance of 오동도한려해상국립공원 (Odongdo Hallyeohaesang National Park), where we had an unexpected hike. Still fairly tired from the day before, initially we all (somewhat jokingly) groaned at the thought, but once we saw the views on offer, we shut our mouths. Definitely worth it.

Next on the itinerary was the Yeosu Cable Car, famous due to the fact that it goes across the ocean. I’d taken a similar cable car in Tongyeong, a city not far from Yeosu, back in September (a trip I will eventually get round to writing about, I promise), though this one had remained over land. Jongwon from MBC asked India, Asha and I if we could be accompanied in our car by Hyeongi, one of the cameramen, and have it filmed; meanwhile, he gave a GoPro to Hana and Elena for them to document their experiences too.

The views are absolutely breathtaking, and if you’re ever in the vicinity of Yeosu, I would highly recommend that you go and experience the cable car for yourself. The journey itself isn’t too long, and we found ourselves wishing we could take it back again. However, it was lunch time, and we enjoyed some tasty food and then coffee, all accompanied by more beautiful views. We then waited for a shuttle bus back down to where our bus was parked, and were kept entertained during our wait by a group of stylish ajummas and ajussis, who came over and asked for photos with some of us.

Sadly, we then had to leave Yeosu, and embarked upon the journey to our next and final destination, 순천만자연생태공원 (Suncheon Bay Ecological Park). Our luck with the weather continued, and we arrived to the park bathed in gorgeous golden sunshine. Jongwon handed me a GoPro, instructing us to document our adventures, and we ended up filming anything and everything until the camera died, which resulted in close to an hour of footage – most of which was just us running around and generally being stupid. (Sorry to whoever ends up having to watch all of that in the desperate hopes of finding a few usable seconds…)

The park is famous for its tall reeds, and while reading the information pack the previous day, we had mocked the thought of famous reeds just a little. Because really, regardless of the fact that they might be the tallest in Korea, how much fun can reeds really be? We regretted our scepticism upon arrival though – the place was beautiful. And what’s more, it was pretty busy. It’s quite out of the way, and I hadn’t expected many visitors, particularly for December. The park is also known for several species of endangered birds, which can be very easily heard as you walk around. The lighting and backdrop together were so perfect that, of course, Koreans everywhere were taking photos, and naturally we couldn’t resist taking a few (hundred) photos of our own.

We had a good hour and a half here, and really didn’t want to leave. There was a possibility of staying longer, visiting some kind of museum, and then having food, but a few other people travelling on our bus had obligations back in Seoul that they had to get back for, so we sadly had to start heading home. The journey took a few hours, and we stopped off at a couple of service stations on the way for sustenance. We were all mysteriously ravenous at the first stop, and having been talking for perhaps longer than is normal about roast potatoes while on the bus, we actually found a woman selling them. Needless to say, we cleaned her out, and I for one was so excited and hungry that I ate about 10 potatoes in as many seconds. The rest of the bus journey was spent with a potato-induced stomach ache.

Back in Seoul, we joined Jongwon and Hyeongi from MBC for dinner and drinks, getting to (hopefully) impress them with our Korean skills. Eventually, though, it was time to call it a night, and we all sadly parted ways. The weekend was one of the most hilarious and wonderful I’ve had in a long time, though, and I won’t quickly forget it. In addition to photos, I actually took a lot of video footage, and hope to have it edited together in vlog form soon.

Interested in this trip?

You can find all of the information and reservation details here (available in English, Korean, Chinese). There are also two other overnight tours available – one to Chungcheong and one to North Gyeongsang – as well as day trip to nearby Gangwon. The itinerary is well thought out and has something for everyone, and though it’s a little rushed in places, it does mean that you get to pack a lot in to just two days. The bus is very comfortable, and our guide Michael was so kind and knowledgeable. I would very much recommend the trip, and would like to thank the Visit Korea Committee for a wonderful weekend.

Extra info

The restaurant in Damyang with all of the amazing side dishes is called 금수한방숯불가든, and can be found at 전남 담양군 담양읍 향교리 2구 256-2 / 256-2, 2-gu Hyanggyori, Damyang-eup, Damyang-gun, Cheonnam. Tel. 061-382-3335, 061-381-7892.

In Yeosu, we stayed at the HS 관광호텔 (HS Tourist Hotel), which had large, comfortable rooms, lovely views, and was very centrally located. It can be found at 전라남도 여수시 수정동 215-1 / 215-1 Sujeong-dong, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do. Tel. 061-662-9996.

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