I have been asked countless times by native Koreans why on earth I like Korea, and why I would choose to live in its capital city.
I just took a three-day trip to Jeonju, famous for being both the ancient birthplace of the Korean Joseon royal dynasty, and also the creation of delicious Bibimbap. This mini trip neatly sums up what is generally attractive about Korea to expats like myself who originate from different cultures.
I will focus on a few Jeonju highlights that I feel reflect Korea as a whole, and which keep me returning to this location year after year.
I traveled to Jeonju with a Korean friend called Sue who had never visited Jeonju before. She wanted to discover what all the fuss was about and why a Brit would bother visiting this place for a third time! We booked a hostel through Agoda (Jeonju Guesthouse Gosadong) in Gaeksa, the young, trendy part of town about a fifteen minute walk from the Hanok Maeul.
I later discovered that our hostel owner, Mr. Che, Wo-Seung, is a famous, talented sculptor who studied in Milan for seven years, and while chatting together, he kindly gave me literature with prints of his art at various galleries.
The entire trip was blisteringly hot and humid, and Sue and I seriously spent most of our time dodging being outdoors. We met up with my University friend, Jo who lives in Jeonju and she watched Sue and I devour our lunch/dinner in a what only could be described as cave-women who had been deprived of food and lacked local decorum! Korean food is a huge attraction for westerners with an adventurous streak! We ordered dakgalbi and cold soba noodles!
Later, we headed to the local shops, also one of my favourite pastimes here. We watched Sue purchase almost every cute scarf design available in order to gift these to her mum, and Jo and I took stupid pix posing with shop items to entertain ourselves.
We meandered into the nearby pretty Catholic church entrance, pretended to be interested in the running church service and quickly made our escape.
We then stumbled upon a store where clients were setting petals onto local hanji (paper) fans to create custom designs while Sue bought another scarf. We watched kids play robots, in what reminded me of a reenactment of the bad Robocop from the Hollywood movie!
We picked up some local makgeolli and headed to our hostel in Gaeksa with the intention of freshening up before heading out to lap up the local bar scene. Jo and I swung our legs upside down against our dormitory wall, and soon, we started drinking and chatting about cultural differences, fellas, Korean obsession with age and things like that. Jo soon discovered that she was allergic to some ingredient in her makgeolli, developed tingly lips and a puffy eye, and we had to leave quickly so she could get a shot at the local hospital!
Sue and I, however, soldiered on and headed to Gaeksa to discover the lack of night life. I joked with Sue, suggesting that we return to our local neighborhoods in Seoul to find some action. We came across a Union Flag, did a mini photo shoot posing beside it, and finally, grabbed some drinks at the local 7-eleven and went back to our hostel to drink on the patio. Sue hated the banana flavor makgeolli, but I thought it was okay. Several mosquito kisses later, we went to sleep.
The following day, Sue and I charged toward the Hanok Maeul as early as we could (around noon or so). Jo was busy on a day trip with her family so Sue and I were left to our shenanigans. We went directly to the Gyeonggijeon, located near the entrance of the Maeul as we wanted to see the famous portrait of King Taejo.
The setting looks like traditional Joseon dynasty palace grounds, and this particular venue attracts plenty of Korean ladies dressed in hanbok traditional dress who all want to get their pretty photos taken in a picturesque setting. I love to visit places like this. The hanok buildings are often restored and provide a little snapshot of the past, so visitors (who are not consumed with taking selfies) can imagine what palace life might have been like several hundred years ago.
Ironically, because the weather was so hot, pretty much all the ladies in hanbok had scowls on their faces while they took their selfies, and this was presumably because beneath these rented hanbok, they were sweating buckets! I felt bad for them!
We popped into the ancient library which now houses the Joseon annals, concise chronological historical records of the Joseon Kings’ affairs. We also viewed the Taejo portrait copy, one of only two that exist today. The other is located in North Korea.
Thereafter, we visited the Royal Portrait Museum located under the main hall. It had several portraits of some of the well-known Joseon kings, as well as royal items that spectators can gawk at.
Later, we visited a fan museum, watched artists draw clients’ portraits and we recovered in a local traditional restaurant packed with people. We had what is probably the best Bibimbap I have ever eaten and ordered Pajeon seafood pancake and makgeolli to go with it.
We then wandered into pretty alleys with interesting street art, and stopped by the local soju museum to rest. Later, we headed once again for an air conditioned cafe (The Story cafe) to recover. It had a pretty brick wall finish, and I tend to visit this cafe on every visit as the location is quite central and convenient. The Art Market nearby was our intended destination. but the insufferable humidity made the tiny ten-minute walk there seem like climbing Mount Everest. The Market is located by Pungnam-mun gate, and on the second floor of the Nambu Market. It was definitely worth the walk.
Local artists sold their stuff there in tiny, wee shops… stuff like canvas bags with crazy designs, Thai-looking quits, jewelry, purses, workshops for painting designs on sneakers and clothing, and lots of cute restaurants and cafes. It reminded me of Hongdae. We finally visited PNB before Sue caught her bus back to Seoul.
When I returned to my hostel, I discovered I had two new roommates, a Korean teacher and a Korean police woman. I thanked the teacher for ‘warning’ me about her friend, so I would be on my best behavior! They seemed thrilled to share a room with a Brit. It was kinda funny.
Next day, Jo took me directly to Imokdae lookout, on the outskirts of Omokdae by Girin-daero.
Located there was a traditional shelter, dating to the early beginnings of the Joseon dynasty. People were sprawled out, napping, sharing picnics and staring at their phones. It was very cool, and located at the top of a mountain.
After a rest, we crossed a nearby bridge and visited Jaman Mural Village. The paths snaked around the mountain face, and cafes and street art on the walls were dotted all along.
We posed by a few murals and headed back into the Maeul.
We desperately sought a restaurant with cold soba noodles and mandu dumplings before picking up my last few gifts for friends before heading back to Seoul. We finally said our last goodbyes at a large, modern cafe with traditional decor.
I’ll see you in a year’s time, Jeonju and Jo, but never again in August!