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Busan, South Korea – More Than Meets The Eye

SOUTH KOREA

Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, TEDx Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

I’m sad to leave Jeju Island, and determined to return one day. However, I’m looking forward to meeting up with two new friends who I met for the first time in Seoul. We met via my Facebook group for full-time travelers, and hit it off, and I’m delighted we have overlapping travel plans! As a solo traveler, it’s definitely nice to make great connections I can meet in real life.

Due to the windy weather in Jeju and having to rebook my flight, I’m arriving much later than planned. I take a taxi from the airport, and check into the SOYU hotel. It’s a great rate, so I’m not sure what to expect. It’s on a very steep hill, so I’m grateful for the taxi. I check in and find my room is enormous. It has the double door entry I’ve grown fond of. The bathroom is lovely and has a toilet that can do things I never dreamed of with heating and pressure sensing, and I make a mental note to try out all the buttons.

First Impressions

I take a walk in the neighborhood. It reminds me a bit of the movie Spirited Away – there are narrow streets, lots of shops and hotels, and I’m a little overwhelmed. I find a convenience store and a Korean Barbecue restaurant I decide to try. As I read the outside menu for the restaurant, a Korean man is leaving. He speaks to me in English and says the restaurant is excellent and to note that it has a grading for their meat. I decide to go in, and don’t understand why he is now sitting with me. It turns out he knows the owner. I believe that’s why I’m permitted to order only one portion of meat instead of two (though I still have to pay for two portions, which seems standard throughout South Korea.) 

I have to calm down all my assumptions that this man wants something from me. He ends up being a gentleman, gives me his card, and says if I need anything in Seoul, to call him. His friend, the restuarant owner, when we leave, makes a gesture like this man is a nice man. It seems he is interested in me, but, thankfully, hasn’t imposed himself on me in any way. I decide to remember having a nice dinner with him, and leave it at that. I go to the convenience store and stock up on some ramen noodles, and food I can eat for breakfast for my room, and head back for some rest.

Durres port

I’ve booked only a few nights in Busan, planning to find another small town to adventure to. Ultimately, I find myself needing a full week, and really enjoying my time with Matt and Avic from Explore Tayo, the friends I meet up with, so extend my stay to a week. It’s a good thing because Busan is full of things to do! In fact, there’s just too much to fit into one week.

Over my week in Busan, I discover it’s a lot bigger than I realized. There’s not exactly a center. It’s made up of several neighborhoods, and each of those has a kind of center. It’s a little complicated to explain and understand, and since Google Maps doesn’t work for finding directions, it can be more overwhelming. I’m grateful to have a subway stop five-minutes walk from my hotel, and, as it turns out, a bus stop in the other direction. Busan’s main train station is fairly central to everything so if you can find your way there, you can pretty much find your way anywhere. 🙂

There is too much to do in Busan to fit it all into a week, but here are a few of the things I got up to while I was there:

Gamcheon Cultural Village

This was my least favorite place in Busan, so I’ll start here. The subway left me off much farther away than I realized, and I wasn’t in the mood to figure out the bus. I started walking uphill, and kept going up and up and up, trying to use the Korean map apps. Then I learned I had gone the wrong way. I ended up on another street and more uphill. I was pretty winded by the time I FINALLY made it to the cultural village. After a 40-minute uphill trek, I found an overly touristed area. There were a lot of souvenir shops. Sandwiched inbetween was various art work. I did enjoy the whale since the image is well-publicized in Busan. And, Le Petit Prince would be wonderful, were it not for the huge line of people waiting to get their photo with him, and the rude tourists who, when they get to it, take 5-10  minutes as if there is no line. So, I’d give the village a pass if you’re short on time.

This is also not a good place to be hungry for lunch. I could only find coffee shops and sweet treats, or fried chicken. I end up walking down the hill on the other side of the village. Just when I feel completely frustrated, I find a street that calls to me, and, miraculously, a hole-in-the-wall shop with fresh gimbap! The ladies inside are lovely. It’s warm, and I’m soon enjoying a fresh-made gimbap for under $3. I get a coffee down the street, and decide to get the subway back to my hotel. Only, it turns out, I’m in some subway-less zone of Busan. I have a minor freak out. I’m really tired, I don’t feel like paying for a long taxi ride, but I don’t know what to do. I happen upon a small temple and walk inside.

Feeling more relaxed, I look at the map apps again, and that’s when I see there’s a bus stop two minutes walk away! And, it happens to be a direct line to the nearest subway stop, which is a direct line to my hotel! It takes me about 35 minutes, in all, but I make it, and enjoy a quiet night in.

Oryukdo Skywalk

This is another long trip to get to via bus as there’s no subway that goes that far out. The bus drives fast, and if you aren’t seated, you’ll be challenged to hold on. I end up going on a cloudy day, no realizing how windy it is because it’s right next to the ocean. The walkway is made of glass, and we have to put cloth grips over our shoes. If you have vertigo, you might not want to adventure out onto the glass. Otherwise, it’s quite a view both down, and out to sea. I can only imagine what it’s like on a sunny day, but the clouds lend to a stormy, mysterious feel and I enjoy my time here. However, I find myself quite cold and tired afterwards, and not in the mood for the hour bus back to my hotel. So, I grab a taxi back.

Gyeong Ju

This is about an hour bus-ride outside Busan. It’s a perfect way to spend a day and get out of the feel of a big city and into a village. There are several UNESCO sites here, including the burial tombs of ancient royalty, seen as hills. There’s a famous Starbucks, wonderful small streets to walk along, a museum, several parks, some amazing temples, and, generally, a wonderful feel. We also enjoyed some red bean cakes, and great food in an unassuming small cafe. Then again, the food in South Korea is some of the best I’ve tasted in the world. I would consider staying here a few days if I had more time in South Korea. There is so much to see here, it feels rushed to do it all in an afternoon.

Busan Museum / UN Memorial Cemetery

I spend another fun afternoon combining several sites. The Busan museum is excellent. While there, we do both a tea ceremony, and, I put on my first hanbok! They put my hair up, which I learn is for married women. So, Matt pretends to have two wives for our photo. 😉 I love the hanbok so much I decide to rent one in Seoul when I go back. A close walk from the museum is the UN Memorial Cemetery and the memorial for peace. 

bari port

Haedong Yonggung Temple

I unintentionally discover what becomes my favorite place in Busan. I loved the feel of it, the spectacular views, just everything! Getting there is a little tough. I take a loooooong bus ride and try to follow where I am on one of the map apps as I go. Unfortunately, the stop I get off at ends up being wrong. I walk to where I expect the temple to be, towards the water, and it’s not there. There are two giant shopping malls, and then office buildings, and I’m frustrated. More than that, I’m hungry. I go to the only restaurant I can find and I’m blessed to see they have mini Gimbap rolls. They aren’t as good as some of the others I’ve had, but they hit the spot and allow me to take a breath. When I head outside, I’m able to see I can walk a different direction to the temple, and that I simply got off the bus one stop too soon.

About 15 minutes later, I find signs for the temple and feel like a colossal idiot for not going one more stop. In fact, a foreign-looking couple on my bus stayed on when I got off, and I bet they were going here. If only I followed the other tourists, lol! Well, I’m finally here, and eagerly walk to the temple.

After passing the souvenir shops, I get to an area of statues that end up being the figures of the Chinese zodiac! And, everyone is taking photos by the one that represents their year of birth. So, obviously, I head over to mine and snap a photo, too. 🙂

The rest of my time at the temple is a series of holding my breath in awe, and releasing it. My first glance of the ocean is where it starts. Then I walk down some of the stairwell and head across a bridge to a golden Buddha. I hold my breath at least five times. I see metallic leaves in trees and learn they are for making wishes. So, I write mine on a leaf, and hang it on one of the trees, becoming part of the immense collection.

Lee Jeoung street Seogwipo, Heather Markel

The bridge to the temple itself is another series of held breaths and photos and awaiting me once I arrive are beautiful views, an underground cave, a selection of tiny Buddhas, a giant Buddha, and something to admire in every direction. Once at the very top, I am pleased to see a female deity and pause to take in the scene.

Seogwipo Olle Market, Heather Markel
Seogwipo Olle Market, Heather Markel

This temple gave me another take on Busan. I was beginning to feel it’s a giant and bustling city without lots of charm. But this temple changed everything. I’d definitely return to see the beaches and some of the activities I missed.

Busan Tower

Remember the steep hill I mentioned my hotel is on? It turns out, the hill continues straight up to Busan Tower! About 10 breathless minutes later, I find myself at one of the important sites to see in Busan! It ends up being a lot of fun. I head up with Matt, and feel like a kid in a playground with all the different activities and colorful rooms throughout the tower. The view of Busan from the top is wonderful. And, there’s a funny machine where you take your photo and it becomes part of a diver who swims around television screens from room to room as you walk around the tower. My inner child had a great laugh!

A Day Spa

Since spas are a thing in Korea, I had to try one of them. Matt, Avic and I head to Spa Land in Centum City. It’s so much fun! There are a gazillion different rooms to try – hot, warm, cold, salt, meditation, Turkish. We eat lunch there, sit in massage chairs (I had to pull my legs out since the pressure was a wee bit too strong for me!), and most imporantly, wear funny towels on our heads! We do a bath at the end, and, if you’re a Westerner, it’s a little uncomfortable as everyone is naked and going from pool to pool. But hey, you gotta try it!

Texas Street and Biff Square

The theme areas are quite enjoyable. Texas Street is hillarious, and worth a walk around, and you’ll find a Chinatown nearby. Another area to check out is Biff Square. I go there my final night in Busan. I discover the movie street and admire all the recognizable names just like I might see in Hollywood. A farewell dinner is my goodbye to Matt and Avic and tomorrow I’m hopping the train to Seoul to catch up on what I missed!

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