Kor-blimey... prepare for a trip like no other!

Megan (left) and Katherine stand guard at the entrance to the Gyeongbokgung palace in the heart of Jongno, Seoul. The soldier's beard might not be real but  there's no doubting his commitment
Megan (left) and Katherine stand guard at the entrance to the Gyeongbokgung palace in the heart of Jongno, Seoul. The soldier's beard might not be real but there's no doubting his commitment
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For centuries it was known as the Hermit Kingdom – a place strictly out of bounds to outsiders.

Tucked away on the edge of Siberia, Korea remains off the beaten track and unexplored by tourists.

You can’t get to it by land. South Korea only has one land border and it’s the most heavily militarised in the world. Crossing from the People’s Democratic Republic is not option, unless you want to indefinitely extend your holiday in a Gulag.

But to get to the South from right here in the North West is surprisingly doable.

From Manchester Airport, the easiest way to travel is to change at Amsterdam.

And if you do choose to venture east you’ll be rewarded by discovering a place quite unlike any other.

The author (left) just feet away from the front line in Panmunjom.

The author (left) just feet away from the front line in Panmunjom.

Modern air travel may well have shrunk the planet but South Korea and its capital Seoul still remain ‘out there’.


What a wonderful name for a city.


You would expect it to be a place of peace and tranquillity – it is in fact the heart of one of the world’s biggest economies. I’ve been here several times and love it but it would be fair to say that this place is just a little bit different.

Seoul is like an ant heap some giant has kicked over - frantic and very, very busy.

The planet’s second largest metropolis (after Tokyo) is a place where 25 million shop, work, drive, eat, drink, sleep, play and invent the latest semiconductors – and it seems everyone is doing all those things at the same time. And they’re all doing them really quickly.

In the historical centre of Seoul, known as Jongno, think nothing when people walk into you and push you out of their way. It’s nothing personal. Don’t worry about the mopeds driven at you at speed on pavements and inside buildings - just be sure to step out of the way at the last minute. Many will be making deliveries through the rabbit warren of back streets to the small workshop factories making the latest fashions to sell at the market.

The busiest clothes market in Jongno is in Dongdaemun, a definite stop for the visitor.

The cramped maze of stalls and shops sell garments, popular all over the Far East and China. Under fluorescent lights and blaring K-pop music, people are shouting and exchanging money right through the night.

It is the city that never sleeps.

Or so it seems (or seams).

Scratch the surface and you’ll soon discover, as if by some innate necessity, this great city’s tranquil parks, palaces and mountains.

Running through the heart of downtown Seoul is a £500m stream, called Cheonggyecheon.

Once a polluted flyover, the road was ripped up and the culverted waterway uncovered. What you see now is an artificial wonder and lovely to walk along on a hot day. The route will take you from Dongdaemun to the five palaces of the Choson Dynasty.

These vast traditional buildings and their large gardens are an oasis of calm and a pleasant contrast to the ultra modern infrastructure around you.

Just as you begin to relax however you may notice that the costumed characters, such as those carrying out the ceremonial changing of the guard, are all wearing false goatee beards. It’s like walking round a Korean TV costume drama – just a little bit different.

Many of the former royal buildings are reconstructed but they give you a taste of the old Korea – a unified country before the 1950-53 war which destroyed the originals.

For many people in England, the word ‘Korea’ like ‘Vietnam’ is a war not a country.

And a coach trip to the border village of Panmunjom is a must on any tourist itinerary.

It’s as bizarre and contradictory as anything you will encounter here.

You’ve probably seen pictures of the strange theatrics played out here. Soldiers from North and South stand just yards apart, staring at each other all day every day.

You’ll probably stop off beforehand at the Bridge of No Return in the Joint Security Area. Here you can see the train that used to run to North Korea, quite literally stopped in its tracks. There’s also a merry-go-round and an ice cream van for your enjoyment.

As you drive into nearby Panmunjom the tour guides will shout at you if you point at anything of interest.

Pointing, which is rude here, may, the guides say, provoke the North Koreans into firing off a volley from their Type 58 assault rifles.

Once these theatrics have all played out you’ll drive a few hundred yards down the road to the army camp gift shop.

Don’t forget your DMZ fridge magnets, badges, stickers and beer.

After a day being shouted at it definitely will be time for a drink.

The most common drink among Koreans is soju, which tastes a bit like weak vodka. You’ll drink it neat and in small shooter glasses in one or two sips. Make sure you learn the strict drinking etiquette.

Koreans love their food and always eat when they drink.

Why not eat a live octopus?

Chew quickly or the suckers will cling onto the wall of your oesophagus and choke you to death.

According to the Hairy Bikers, Korean food is the next big thing to hit the UK and you will find great restaurants everywhere in Seoul.

In short, it’s meaty and very spicy, it is hearty, delicious, filling and, like Indian food, great to have after a few drinks.

Sampling the food is almost worth the price of a ticket itself.

There is also a stunning selection of street food snacks, found across the capital.

A very common one, and certainly the most pungent, is boiled silkworm larvae - challenging but ultimately delicious.

Just remember to watch out for those mopeds as you savour the bugs’ meaty juices, or it could get very messy.