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KOREAN WONDERLAND


The breathtaking vista from the mountain peak in Yongpyeong Resort.
There's more to Korea than kimchi and romantic TV shows

Story and photos by PEERAWAT JARIYASOMBAT

Amidst the country's remarkably fast-paced technological development, South Korea remains surprisingly dedicated to maintain its cute and romantic side.


Impressive view on Nami Island.
Koreans in red coats, like Santa's helpers, ring bells while jogging, trying to keep warm in the freezing winter breeze. In Chuncheons Myeong-dong, the shopping street, couples in love stroll romantically. They giggle, laugh and blissfully linger on the narrow street lined with beautiful shops.

After walking for a while, if you look carefully, you will notice the face of a man with glasses and a curl of brown hair beaming at you from various souvenirs such as key chains, postcards, neckties, posters, pillows and even from a pair of socks.

He is Bae Yong-joon, a Korean star who plays the lead in a romantic TV series called Winter Sonata. The series uses Gangwondo, a province in northeastern South Korea, as its backdrop, and Chunchoens Myeong-dong, is among the romantic locations that captivates its audience.


Safari staff in Everland
So, it is no surprise to find teenagers, and especially couples, walking around with cameras in hand, giggling while taking pictures of lamp posts.

For those who haven't seen the TV show _ including me _ it's a bit difficult to understand how romantic it is. But I got a good idea when I am taken to Nami Island.

Nami, a small island just 30 minutes drive from Chunchoens, is a centre for Winter Sonata fans. Its landscape is actually romantic enough to make you feel lonely if you venture there without your true love. The narrow roads on the island are lined with pines, Ginkgo trees, maples and redwoods, creating a truly romantic atmosphere. The view is simply beautiful and it makes all roads seem too short for those in love.

Hong Ji Hee, or Tukata, my Thai-speaking Korean guide, points to a sign saying "First Kiss", where lots of Korean girls stop. I learn later that Nami is an important location used in the series.


A sweet moment in Everland
The "Forest of Sweethearts" is where the main characters, Yujin and Jusang, have their first date. Their childish snow fights and awkward first kiss also took place here. After reading this I understand why so many people are taking photographs of empty paths, the freezing lake and seemingly empty scenes.

It was nice to see Korean people enjoying such romantic things.

Korea's landscape is truly beautiful, and this probably affects the minds of Korean people _ if you travel to the North, you will find generous people who enjoy life in the mountains, far from the pollution found elsewhere.

I travelled to the most northern tip of the country, to Hwachoen, the coldest town in South Korea, and found the people there preparing for a big festival: Fishing Mountain Trout.

When the Hwachoen River is frozen and the ice is over 40cm thick, people make holes in the ice and fish for the trout.

The extremely clean river means extremely clean and healthy trout, which in turn attract lots of fish lovers. While celebrating New Year Eve among various activities such as a parade, ice carving and winter games on the frozen river, visitors to Hwachoen love to eat the trout fresh. They just slice the fish very thinly, dip it in sauce, and chew.


Daepo market serves very fresh seafood from the East Sea.
Korean people believe ice is a symbol of good luck. Visiting the town during New Year will keep them lucky all year long.

Korea people love fishing. Along the lake and river, you will find many fishing resorts, which offer tiny private rafts the size of a bedroom, for fishermen to concentrate in fishing, in the tranquil privacy of nature.

Another major event for fish lovers in Korea is the Icefish Festival in Inje, a town in the centre of a very clean forest.

Each year, around one million tourists visit Lake Soyangho, which is frozen and is the main habitat of a tiny fish _ around 5 to 6cm. It lives in water below 6C and doesn't eat during the winter, hence its name: bing-eo, or "empty fish", and Koreans find the small fish simply delicious.

Having bing-eo fish is quite easy because you don't need a skilful chef to prepare it, as with sashimi. Even Tukata can do it. She just catches the fish with her chopsticks, dips it in the sauce and puts in her mouth.

"Umm ..." is the only sound heard _ the sound of pleasure indicating how delicious it is.


Anglers come for trout at Hwachoen.
I follow her lead and find the live fish is not smelly at all. Anyway, after two, I decide to stick to fried fish.

But our fish-eating adventure in Korea takes a new direction when we visit the Daepo market in a town called Sokcho, located by the East Sea. Restaurants along the road illuminate their fish tanks, showing the swimming squids, sea bass, mussels and gigantic size crab, some 50cm long. To make sure the customers can enjoy very fresh fish, they serve most dishes raw.

I come across a lady grabbing a swimming squid from the water. The squid tries to defend itself by preparing to spray the last of its defensive ink. Its body suddenly turns into a small balloon but it is too late _ a sharp knife cuts along its body before it can escape. The knife cuts off its eyes and then its parrot-bill mouth. All of this in five seconds.

Tukata leads me into a big restaurant, and of course, fish is the specialty. Koreans love fish and pride themselves on their sashimi. Tukata orders sashimi and it is served very quickly.

I put a thin piece of raw fish into my mouth with chopsticks, appreciating the sweetness of the fresh fish. The fish is sliced to a film thin and arranged on glass noodles decorated with the head and tail of the fish.

I put the second piece of raw fish into my mouth and notice the fish's head, whose flesh I am chewing, is still trying to breathe.

Some great chefs can even cut the fish and release it back into the water, where it swims away, Tukata explains while my jaw drops.

Tukata enjoys the fish a lot, and the restaurant owner offers her another specialty. He grasps a small octopus, the size of his palm, and holds a sharp knife in his other hand.

Koreans believe that eating raw octopus makes men healthier and women's skin more beautiful.

It is getting colder and colder outside. The temperature goes down a bit every day. For those from tropical countries, unusually low temperatures can cause real suffering. I have no idea how to cope with the freezing breeze, how to dress up in the clumsy clothes, should I drink as much water as usual and many other problems.

But when I come across with snow, these problems don't seem important at all.

Tukata takes me to the colourful world of Yongpyeong ski resort, which has 31 slopes and 15 ski lifts. The lively world of the resort makes me forget about the coldness for a while.

Yongpyeong is a place of activity. Teenagers, groups of friends, couples and young people come to relax and challenge themselves on the slopes.

Tukata manages to get me to take a short course for beginners, knowing that most Thai tourists would not hesitate to try. Snow is always something delightful for Thai people.

After 30 minutes of lessons, I manage to get up a slope, not heeding warnings that beginners should practise in a limited space at first.

I slowly ski down, trying to limit my speed and avoid other people. Like your first driving experience, skiing is exciting and thrilling, particularly when you keep going faster and faster ... and before you crash.

Tukata leads me to another world of snow and ice at Vivaldi Park, another ski resort. After countless falls and lots of bruises, I find this lively ski resort has other icy attractions.

The Ice Sculpture Festival is a unique exhibition packed with ice carvings _ over 400 of them, including sculptures and world famous buildings. Children love the exhibition and play hide and seek among the ice carvings.

However, I find the world of snow and ice just a temporary pleasure.

After a while my running nose and cold feet make me hesitate.

After days in the snow and ice, I finally realise that a warmer world is much easier.

We happily leave the white snow and the chilling ice world to enjoy an easy trip in a amusement park called Everland. No ordinary amusement park, it is actually a huge theme park with three main areas: Festival World, Caribbean Bay and Speedway.

Festival World is a western-themed park where children can see real western performers in various shows such as the American Adventure. Caribbean Bay is a big water park with a wave pool, and Speedway is a race track for motorists.

There is also a small zoo with lions, tigers and big bears to add excitement to the safari park.

The park is a great place with something for everyone to enjoy. Children are excited by the colourful setting while teenagers love the thrill of the exciting rides. It is also a great place to see how Korean people enjoy life.

I notice girls in the latest fashions with weird hairstyles and mini-skirts, boys with extra-long scarfs that reach to their knees, couples being romantic and the smiling staff tirelessly waving to everyone. Big smiles are all over this huge theme park.

Anyway, though this setting is totally different to other places in Korea, it has one thing in common with most: the gift shops have pictures and souvenirs of the series Winter Sonata.



MoreINFO


The Korean National Tourism Organisation in Bangkok can provide tourist information.

The Web site www.tour2korea.com (with English pages, but no Thai) provides useful information for planning a trip to the country.

The Korea Thailand Communication Centre, a Korea-based tour operator, can provide package tours with a Thai-speaking guide. For more information call 02-715-0874/5.>

Sunmoon Tours also offer various tour programmes to Korea, call 02-254-3320_8 for more information.

The Trout Festival of Hwacheon is held in January each year. The local authority welcomes foreign tourists and provides assistance in planning excursions and finding accommodation. For more information, visit the Web site at www.icefestival.co.kr or call +82 33 441 7575.

The Ice Fish Festival is held every year during January and February at Soyangho Lake in Nam-myeon, Inje, Gangwon-do. For more information visit either www.injefestival.co.kr or www.injefestival.net or call +82 33 460 2086.

Yongpyeong Resort has 31 slopes and 15 ski lifts. Besides skiing, tourists can also enjoy nearby attractions such as the Botanic gardens, Wolijeongsa Temple and Mt Odae National Park. Visit the www.yongpyong.co.kr for more information.

Vivaldi Park is located in Palbong-ri, Hongcheon-gun of Gangwon-do province. With over 400 pieces of ice carving, the ice sculpture festival in the park lasts until March this year. For more information visit www.daemyungcondo.com

The Everland amusement park is located in Yongin-si of Gyeonggi-do province. For more information visit www.everland.com







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