By Shahida Sakeri on February 20, 2018
South Korea, to me, is pretty. But it also has a lot of stories, ones that evoke curiosity should you take time to explore them. Take for example of ‘The Three Kingdoms’ period in Korean history, which I found riveting and has completely turned me into an avid fan of its interesting culture. Korean dramas (or K-Dramas as they often called), similarly, are good stories; typically made up of gripping plotlines, stellar cast with enviable wardrobe and incredible settings. They also, interestingly, managed to make the audience want to be a part of the stories; to feel, to see or to taste all the things they’ve seen in the series. Believe me when I say that even my ever lovely grandmother could now proudly name some of the film locations for the K-Dramas after countless hours of watching her favourite shows.
Speaking of film locations, I recently had the privilege to participate in a familiarisation trip to South Korea by the invitation of Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), Malaysia & Brunei Office, to explore various places that have been featured in some of the top K-Dramas in 2016. And hence, below are the locations that I have visited…
Drama – Love in the Moonlight
There is a girl named Hong Ra-on masquerading as a eunuch. And then there is a Crown Prince Lee Yeong who faces challenges to become a king during the Joseon Dynasty. The story unfolds as these two characters develop an unlikely friendship that eventually leads to the revelation of Ra-on’s true identity; starring Park Bo-gum and Kim Yoo-jung.
1. Jeonju Hanok Village
Many foreign travellers that come to South Korea don’t make it further than Seoul, which is a shame because the country has so much to offer. For instance, the slower and quieter Jeonju located in the western side of the country brims with too many allures that should not be missed such as the Hanok Village, which has the largest collection of hanok (traditional Korean houses) in the entire country. While some of these hanok are still private homes, travellers may experience the charm of living in these houses since some of them are now transformed into guesthouses. Sleeping in a hanok here means sleeping on mats on the floor (which is heated with ondol, a unique sub-floor heating system), and doors and windows typically papered with hanji, a traditional tough, fibrous Korean paper.
During daytime, I suggest that travellers spend a few hours exploring the area that is full of mini museums, workshops and historical sites, including Gyeonggijeon Shrine and Jeonjuhyanggyo Confucian School. The former –originally built in 1410 and then rebuilt in 1614 after the Imjin War – holds a significant value in Korean heritage preservation since it stores a portrait of King Taejo, the founder of Joseon dynasty, while the latter was the national education centre during the Joseon era. Also, some of the pivotal moments in ‘Love in the Moonlight’ were shot near to these two notable sites, especially the lush bamboo grove where the Crown Prince meets Ra-on for the first time.
But in between these historical sites and drama’s memorable locations, I would really recommend travellers to try the local food too. Many Koreans swear that the food in Jeonju generally tastes the best; in fact, the city was designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2012. My personal picks are the popular homemade chocolate pies at PNB Bakery, bibimbap (said to be originated in Jeonju) or anything with mung bean sprout, really.
Jeonju city is easily accessible by public transit, but I suggest travellers to take the train as it saves time and gives a more comfortable experience too. In this trip, I travelled with Korean Train Express (KTX) for roughly two and a half hours before reaching Jeonju, and it was undoubtedly smooth. Visit www.letskorail.com to book your tickets.
2. Buan Cine Theme Park
As I tried to recall some of the memorable moments in ‘Love in the Moonlight’, there was one that stood out from the rest: a traditional dancing routine by Ra-on as she disguises as a gisaeng (Korean equivalent of a geisha) which took Kim Yoo-jung two months to practice. Well, I thought the result was marvellous, full of poise and grace that it’s hard to look away. This particular scene was shot at Buan Cine Theme Park, a large film production complex in Gyeokpo-ri that receives its its biggest investment from Korea Broadcasting System (KBS), hence, many KBS’ dramas were shot here. It excellently replicates Joseon Dynasty’s impeccable style, seen through its landscape and architecture including the folk village, village schools, fortress and the replica of Gyeongbokgung Palace (first royal palace built by the Joseon Dynasty). Visitors of this park may take advantage of the various workshops available here like wood craft and soap-making experiences.
3. Hwaseong Haenggung Palace
Unlike Buan Cine Theme Park, Hwaseong Haenggung Palace is an actual remnant of the Joseon Dynasty. Translated as ‘temporary shelter’, a ‘haenggung’ is where a king rests or takes cover from the enemy during a war – and Hwaseong Haenggung was outstandingly the best of all in its scale and functions that some claim that it was the extension of Joseon’s main palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace. When the king was not around, Hwaseong Haenggung Palace was used as the administrative office for the governor. In the drama, however, this ‘haenggung’ served as the palace of the Crown Prince Lee Yeong. Today, visitors can witness the Jangyongyeong guard ceremony and martial arts performance from the Joseon era, among other traditional performances, when they visit between March and November.
4. The Garden of Morning Calm
The garden is the oldest private garden in Korea, conceptualised by Professor Han Sang-kyung who intended to show the world the beauty of Korea’s meticulous landscaping though beautifully manicured grass, colourful flower beds and lovely walkways. I’d say this would be an ideal place to have a romantic stroll with a partner; hence, it comes to no surprise that this is also the Crown Prince’s a favourite spot in the drama. The garden is busy all year round with various festivals taking place in each season: Spring Garden Festival in spring; Festival of Roses, Hydrangeas and Roses of Sharon in summer; Festival of Chrysanthemums and Autumnal Tints in autumn; and Lighting Festival in winter.
5. Gwanghalluwon Garden
Known as the City of Love, Namwon is home to a beautiful garden called Gwanghalluwon, which I feel, is basically the epitome of romance. It was originally built by Hwanghee Jeongseung in 1419 during the reign of Joseon Dynasty’s King Sejong, said to be the location where Lee Mong-ryong and Chunhyang (two lovers from another well-known Korean literary classic, Chunhyangjeon) met and fell in love at first sight. The garden has a lot of attractions but the most significant feature would be the Ojakgyo Bridge where the Crown Prince jumps into the river to save Ra-on. And it also represents the love of Chunhyang and Lee Mong-ryong, in which the couple is forced to live on either side of the Milky Way, only to be reunited when magpies form a bridge, hence its name. Legend has it that if real-life couples cross this bridge together once a year, they will love each other until eternity.
Moreover, in the month of May every year, the garden becomes the venue of Chunhyangjae Festival, one of the ten most celebrated festivals in Korea, to rejoice the deep and lasting love of this famous couple. There is also a beauty pageant during the festival, which has produced some of Korea’s most famous actresses such as Lee Da-hey and Yoon So-na.
6. Changdeokgung Palace & Huwon
Now, these are the places that I would consider must-visit when you are in South Korea, specifically in Seoul. I can boldly say that Changdeokgung Palace and Huwon gave me an entirely new appreciation towards architecture and landscape. Exquisite in its intense detail, extravagant in its scope, these two sites easily become some of Seoul’s most photographed sights. The palace was the principal palace for many kings of the Joseon Dynasty, built following the construction of Gyeongbukgung in 1405. It comprises a number of official and residential buildings and is now recognised as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1997. To visit Changdeokgung is to walk in wonder between structures styled with vibrant dancheong (Korean traditional patterns) and then get lost in the stories behind each cobblestone walls.
Nevertheless, Huwon is truly where my heart fell hard. It is one of those historical sites from an era that you wish you were a part of; I wish I could see the garden during its heyday. Despite the harsh cold wintry weather when I visited the place, Huwon – also known as the ‘Secret Garden’ – looked nothing short of paradise. It was the place where the kings came to rest and be inspired, and it was not hard to see that those kings made the right choice. Huwon’s graceful use of space complements the uneven topography of the 58-hectare site. I reckon the garden would look at its best during spring and fall, when it comes alive with colourful flowers or golden foliage. Do take note, however, that visiting Huwon is permitted only at specific times during the day and must be chaperoned by official guides.
Drama – Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
This popular sageuk (Korean historical period drama) begins when a 21st century woman, Hae Soo, is transported back to the Goryeo Dynasty due to a solar eclipse and meets Wang So, a prince whose character is based on the real-life fourth king of the same era. But this is not just a romantic story, as its dramatic plot also reveals the political battle between the King’s princes to reach the throne – starring Lee Joon-gi and IU.
7. Baekje Cultural Centre
Some may raise their eyebrows when knowing that major parts of ‘Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo’ (for instance, that iconic Wan So-covering-Hae Soo-under-his-cloak-during-rainy-day scene) were shot in a complex from the Baekje Dynasty, when it is supposed to set in Goryeo era. This was the time when I learned that the capital city of Goryeo Dynasty was in Kaesong, which is a city in the southern part of North Korea where Manwoldae Palace (official royal palace of Goryeo Dynasty) used to be. This palace, however, was destroyed during the Red Turban Rebellion in 1361 and was never restored. In 1392, a new kingdom called Joseon (1392-1910) was founded and its capital was moved to Hanyang (today’s Seoul). Thus, there aren’t many remnants of Goryeo era that remain intact.
Baekje Cultural Centre was chosen due to its high aesthetic value. The complex was built over a period of 17 years at the cost of $600 million using exceptional relevant intangible cultural assets such as woodwork, dancheong and calligraphy. The complex features the replica of the Sabigung Palace (Baekje’s Royal Palace), the Neungsa Temple, the Wuiryeseong Fortress, a living cultural village and an ancient royal tombs park in which all carry great importance in Baekje Culture. My personal favourite is the gorgeous five-storey stupa that houses small crystals of Buddha.
8. Hantaek Botanical Garden
This is South Korea’s largest botanical garden and is a favourite spot for Hae Soo and Wang So to meet. But unlike in the drama where all flowers bloom beautifully, I was instead greeted by white snowy beds and frozen river. The timing might seemed off, but there is something about the snow that always brings out the child in me. So my friends and I made snow balls, and threw them towards each other while we explored the rest of this winter playground. But should visitors come in spring, they will be treated to 2,400 species of wild plants and 7,300 species of foreign plants. Expect to spend an hour or so at the garden by wandering deep into the various thematic sections and greenhouses or join in some of the hands-on educational programmes.
“Can you sing for us?” In episode seven when the princes celebrate Wang Eun’s birthday, IU (Hae Soo) shows her artistic side by singing an original sweet melodious song that the singer composed specially for the drama. This comedic yet endearing scene was shot at Wolhuawon, a Chinese garden inspired from the late Ming Dynasty to the early Qing Dynasty with soothing colours like grey, blue and white as its main theme. It is small, but beautiful nonetheless.
Drama – Legend of the Blue Sea
This romantic comedy drama, arguably was the most anticipated drama in 2016 with two South Korean megastars – Lee Min Ho and Jun Jin-hyun – joined forces as its main cast. Their story begins when the son of Joseon noble family (Kim Dam-ryung) is saved from drowning by a beautiful mermaid (Sae Hwa) but ends tragically when they are both are killed in midseason. Interestingly, their fated love continues to the modern day when Dae Ryung incarnates as a charming con-man, Heo Jon Jae, while Sae Hwa as a quirky mermaid, Shim Cheong.
10. Aqua Planet 63 Building
Many, if not all, ‘Legend of the Blue Sea’ fans might know that 63 Building is a significant place in the story besides the Namsan Tower. This is where Heo Joon Jae spends his birthdays every year and also the place where he reunites with Shim Cheong after their separation in Spain. But the iconic scene in front of the huge acrylic glass panel aquarium was actually shot in a different Aqua Planet branch, which is in Yeosu at the southern coast of South Korea. The production team combined the footages filmed in two different locations as if they were all in 63 Building because it would be more natural for Heo Joon Jae to visit there since he is based in Seoul. Nevertheless, there is a stellar mermaid show at 63 Building that is accompanied by dreamlike music and gleaming lights happening every hour, which is bound to remind them of Shim Cheong. Apart from the show, the aquarium also features fantastic underwater coral plants and cute sea creatures like penguins and seals.
11. Hangang Park
Hangang Park is a public recreation area that stretches up to 12 districts along the Han River (Hangang). But out of the 12 spots, Yeouido, Jamsil, and Ttukseom districts are the most popular. The Ttukseom area is known as the windsurfing and water-skiing mecca, while Jamsil for its ferry services. Yeouido area is where all the major TV Studios are located; hence, you will notice that plenty of dramas use this park for their shoots. I suggest visiting this area in October to witness the annual extravagant fireworks, like Heo Joon Jae and Shim Cheong did in the drama.
Drama – Goblin: The Lonely & The Great God
Goblin is yet another successful fantasy K-Drama in 2016, revolving around a goblin who is cursed with an immortal life. He could only put an end to his 900 years of misery in this world by finding a bride that is destined to return him to ashes. But when he finally meets her, they fall in love, thus he no longer wants to leave this world. This drama is starred by Gong Yoo ang Kim Go-eun.
12. Yun So Beon Stonewall Street
First appeared in the pilot episode of the series when goblin meets his bride for the first time, Yun Bo Seon, also known as Jeongdong-gil road, is a popular street designated as the first “Beautiful Street for Walking” by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 1999. It is a nice change of scenery from the usual bustling streets you may find in the city; one that even allows you to be closer to your own thoughts. When you walk further along the road, you will encounter the Seoul Museum of Art; and Samcheongdong area, a hip trendy neighbourhood with a hybrid of modern and traditional feels comprising quirky cafes, flea markets, boutiques and skincare outlets.
However, after all that I have written, what if you haven’t even watched the K-Dramas mentioned earlier? Would these places still be interesting for you to visit? Of course, YES, they are worth visiting. And it’s not just because they look absolutely gorgeous in pictures, but they will also give you good insights on what makes South Korea the country it is today: vibrant, progressive yet staying true to its roots.
Gaya Travel Magazine would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), Malaysia & Brunei office, for making the writer’s journey to South Korea such an unforgettable and eye opening experience. For information on K-Drama tour packages, please browse www.visitkorea.com.my.