Written and photographed by Kristyna Zaharek
Raise your hand if you are the type of person to visit only major attractions – the places where tourists frequent, where there’s hardly enough breathing space to go ’round, where you have to keep a hand on your pocket or your purse because it’s so crowded that you aren’t sure who might try to steal something from you.
Now raise your hand if you are the type of person who skips out on those attractions and heads for the hidden gems – the places where crowds only come around for particularly special occasions, but for the most part, remain a secret to most foreign tourists.
I am the latter. When friends say they come to Korea to just visit Seoul, I always smile sadly and ask if they’re planning to visit anywhere else in this beautiful country. They’re usually too excited about this wildly vivacious hub of tourism to think about anything else. Besides, foreigners don’t hear about other towns in South Korea. It’s Seoul or bust.
But to those who enjoy the true beauty and nature of South Korea; to those who enjoy delicious, natural, and homemade foods; to those who enjoy stepping back in time for a day or two; this article is for you.
Allow me to introduce you to the beauty that is hidden in Suncheon, South Korea. Within this area is the hidden Suncheon Bay Ecological Park, Nagan Eupseong Folk Village (낙안읍성), and temples aplenty.
Upon entering the city, it won’t seem to be all that spectacular. Yet, hop on the bus, and you’ll find yourself a world away.
Though you could definitely spend a lot of time at the Suncheon Bay – which I highly recommend for sunsets – I had only one place in mind: Nagan Eupseong Folk Village.
I’m going to back up for just a second. When I first visited, I really wanted to say that I spent the whole day in this awesome town, but I unfortunately made the wrong decision to leave the apartment too late, and then to get a bus to the wrong location. Instead of buying a ticket for Suncheon, I picked up one for Sunchang. It’s a pretty easy mistake, I think. It’s a mistake that cost me dearly. I lost hours in a place I intended to spend a whole day.
By the time I got to Suncheon, it was already 3 p.m. No restaurant was open for lunch. I was hoping for some fantastic food (Suncheon is the food capital of Jeolla Provence!), but there was no time to eat.
Though you can take the 63 or the 68 to Nagan Fortress, the bus only comes once every 80 minutes – plus the 50-minute ride. I had just missed the bus, and I wasn’t going to sit around in the heat and wait. Instead, I grabbed a taxi. It set me back around 25,000 won, but it got me to the village in 30 minutes.
Biting my lip in anticipation, I looked up at the high walls surrounding the village. This castle town has existed since the first millennia and has been fully flourished since the 1300s. I even knew that many of the buildings were the originals! My heart beat so wildly I thought others around me could hear it. As a writer and lover of fantasy and histories, I knew that I would find my muse here.
After buying my ticket, I entered through the Eastern Gate. Only a few stores lined the inside of the walls; but walk a little further, and there are so many things to do! I followed the path, winding around lush, mini-gardens and between narrow alleyways surrounded by the clay houses with thatched roofing.
In this village, you can have many cultural experiences such as natural indigo dyeing, listening to traditional music, visiting a carpenter or a blacksmith, and even learning about a traditional Korean wedding! When I arrived, many of the activities were closed. (Maybe it was off-season?) Still, I took a walk around the houses, smiling ear-to-ear. This village was exactly what my writer’s mind needed.
My favorite moment, though, was taking a short trek up the wall for some beautiful photographs. The spread of the valley, mountains, and thatched roofs was enough to make a grown woman cry. (No – seriously!) I even remembered passing by some cottages with “stay-over” signs in the windows. One could spend the night in this village if he or she wanted. It made me wish I hadn’t been so involved during the weekends. That I had discovered this place a year ago and stayed over for a night or two and worked in the gardens or dyed cloths.
But what really saddened me was my inability to eat in the village. The one restaurant at which I wanted to eat was closed down for a K-drama shooting (I didn’t get the name). I wasn’t able to eat there. Hungry and a bit put down, I took the bus back into town and looked for another place to get some famous Nagan paljinmi (팔진미), or “eight precious tastes.”
Unfortunately for me, the dish is only served in Nagan – go figure.
Instead, I found an awesome restaurant serving sogogi bibimbap (쇠고기 비빔밥). Though it wasn’t what I’d been hoping to eat in Suncheon, it was still a stellar meal with a bunch of side dishes to choose from.
Had I had a full day in Suncheon, I probably would have started at the Folk Village, eaten lunch, and then moved on to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park for dinner and a sunset. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’d lost time because I hadn’t bought the correct bus ticket.
Even so, I fell in love with this village, and I think you will, too.
Tickets from the Gwangju Bus Terminal are 4,000 for adults, 2,500 for teens, and 1,500 for children.
December–January: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
February–April: November, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
May–October: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Kristyna lived in Gwangju, South Korea, for two years. She is a hopeful novelist with a heart for travel. She also really likes dark chocolate.