Over the years, the reasons for my annual trips to Korea have changed.
Originally I managed to tack a visit onto the back end of a business trip to Hong Kong and so the timing of my trips were determined by my job (which, as it happens, has nothing to do with Korea). But at least the long-haul part of the trip was paid for by my employer.
As I got to know and love the place and the people more, I started paying for my own trips. The first completely self-funded trip was in 2009, as I seized the opportunity of a visit during a welcome break between jobs. It was not terribly well planned, but I still managed to get to three-and-a-bit UNESCO World Heritage Sites1, interview a four-star general, see old friends and meet in real life people I’d previously only come across online.
The first really serious trip was 2010, when I was offered a place on the Foreign Media Fellowship Programme by the Ministry of Culture. As part of the application process I had to write a proposal of the topics I was interested in and the articles I would write. I did not know (and still don’t) whether my application was a mere formality or whether I was in competition with others, so in order to improve my chances of success I packed my proposed agenda with serious meetings, important festivals, ceremonies and all the sorts of things that I thought might resonate with the Ministry and align with their cultural tourism and heritage agenda. The agenda was thankfully approved. And I enjoyed the visit, wrote the book and was eager for more of the same.
That trip, of course, was funded by the Ministry of Culture, but having got the cultural tourism bug I have tried to replicate some of the buzz of that trip in subsequent visits, albeit without an interpreter, driver or funding provided by the Ministry. I have thus packed my trips with cultural and historical experiences, timing my visit to coincide with a particular festival or a tour by the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, and have relied on patient and generous friends for their companionship and interpretation skills on the trail. The most carefully-planned visit was 2016 which was so rich in content, planned virtually in half-hour chunks for the whole 10-day visit, that I have still not completed the diaries: the stories of Korean tea and the complex ideas behind Joseon dynasty garden design have so far proved too much for me. Since that peak, I have become gradually less ambitious in terms of agenda, leaving more and more free time in the schedule. Nevertheless the trips still feel just as rushed because I want to travel to see all the friends that I seem to be acquiring in different parts of the country.
As well as Sancheong, the county of which I am goodwill ambassador, Taean on the West coast now seems to be a fixture on my itinerary. And the Gwangju area I can see as becoming a regular feature too, all thanks to friends in each part of the peninsula. I wish I had time to fit in Mungyeong and Gangneung too, but I only ever have at most twelve days to spare each year.
This year, the plan was to visit friends in Taean-gun, catch more of the coastal scenery there and see the Anmyeondo tulip festival. Next, a return to Damyang to revisit the Soswaewon, which I didn’t have time to enjoy fully the 2016 visit (which had been a complete surprise). I’d be there on the last day of the Damyang Bamboo Festival too, and that might be worth a look. The obligatory visit to Sancheong had no other objective this year than to spend time with the people there; while my final weekend in Seoul, and thus the trip as a whole, was scheduled to climax with Buddha’s Birthday celebrations at Giweonjongsa and Bongwonsa.
As happened last time I went to Gwangju and Damyang (in the part of the 2016 visit that I haven’t managed to write up yet), the trip was full of wonderful surprises and interesting experiences that will provide lasting happy memories, thanks to the incredible generosity of my friends there, particularly Jihae. And elsewhere in Sancheong and Seoul I made new friends whom I hope I shall see again in future years. The warm hearts I seem to encounter everywhere are what keeps me wanting to come back.
Those warm hearts belonged, among others, to the following friends:
- Chris for driving me down to Taean, and Eunok for spending time with Chris and myself there.
- JK and Judy for being open-minded enough to volunteer to be companions to this unknown foreigner for a couple of days in Gwangju, Damyang, Gochang, Jangseong, Hwasun and Sancheong
- Jihae for the warm welcome and the generous and unnecessary gifts, and Mr Yang for his hospitality in the Soswaewon, and to both for organising so many happy memories
- Mr Ham and Hi Mae for welcoming me in Gochang and Jangseong
- Ms Baek and Mr Yoon for the time they spent with me in Sancheong
- Ms Kim from the Sancheong Tourism department
- Ms Yoon and Ms Lee for welcoming me to the Chunggangwon on the slopes of Jirisan
- Gary and Suzy for the splendid evenings in Seochon
- Dan for accompanying me to Gwacheon and sharing some fun times there
- Anthony for taking me along to Giweonjeongsa for Buddha’s birthday, and the monks there for their hospitality
The schedule for the trip ended up as follows. Links will follow as I write up the highlights.
|Thu 2 May||Arrival|
|Fri 3 May||Seoul and Taeangun|
|Sat 4 May||Anmyeondo, Taeangun|
|Sun 5 May||Seosan and Damyang|
|Mon 6 May||Damyang, Hwasun, Gochang, Jangseong|
|Tue 7 May|
|Wed 8 May||Sancheong|
|Thu 9 May||Yangsan|
|Fri 10 May||Sancheong, Seoul|
|Sat 11 May||Seoul, Gwacheon|
|Sun 12 May||Seoul|
|Mon 13 May||Departure|