Bird Watching

The Charms of South Korea: Stunning Views, Seafood, and a Purple Island

July 20, 2022

SEOUL – South Korea Standing at the edge of the fortress wall, I have a splendid view of an ancient folk village illuminated at golden hour.

I traveled back in time to Naganeupseong Folk Village, reputed to be the best-preserved fortress town in South Korea. Its 200 inhabitants live in houses with thatched roofs and still maintain the customs of yesteryear.

The city, located at the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula in the Jeollanam-do region, is still a secret to most travelers.

Tourism has only recently arrived in Jeollanam-do, the greenest and least developed province in the country.

Covered in rolling hills and towering mountains and bordered by 6,100 km of coastline with thousands of islands, the region is famous for its vistas, seafood and festivals.

People here are extremely proud of their food. Compared to the Korean barbecue that many Singaporeans are familiar with, Jeollanam-do’s cuisine, rich in gifts from the sea, is more delicate, complex and fresher.

My guide, Mr. Dennis Kim, explains that Jeollanam-do’s unique food culture can be linked to the diet of political exiles with expensive tastes sent here in the 16th century.

Even in modest restaurants, I am amazed at the number of exceptionally tasty banchan (side dishes) that are brought to my table. The simplest dishes are prepared with special care.

ST PHOTOS: WANG HUI FEN

The warm climate in the south of the province makes it a leading agricultural region. The long coastal area means the seafood is fresh out of the ocean, probably still swimming in the waters in the morning before landing on my table.

During my seven-day trip, I see an octopus “dancing” in hot soup at Purple Island and an abalone wriggling on a hot stone slab in Yeosu City. Cooler and I’ll have to dive into the ocean to catch it myself.

Before landing in Jeollanam-do, I feel like it is an ajumma (Korean for an older lady) destination, with all the festive and cultural attractions.

That changes when I arrive on Purple Island. Located on the southwest coast of South Korea, it is one of the most photogenic islands I have seen.

The local farming community has turned their home into the perfect Instagram spot. Once part of a group of neglected islets, which were struggling due to its rapidly aging population and lagging economy, Purple Island is inhabited by some 200 people.

A group of Korean visitors, dressed in purple, taking photos in the lavender field of Purple Island. ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

As part of a movement to turn things around, Sinan County launched a “purple project” in 2015, turning the two adjacent islets – Banwol and Bakji – into a major tourist attraction.

Everything on Purple Island – the bridge, the roads, the houses and the fields – is washed in purple hues. The color pays homage to the bellflower flowers, also called purple bellflowers, which are native to the region.

The project involved planting over 21,500 square meters of lavender fields and growing 30,000 New England asters as well as vegetables such as kohlrabi and beets. The roofs of more than 400 buildings are also painted a beautiful shade of lilac.

Chromotherapy works on me. The calming and sedative effects of fresh lavender flowers make my mind wander.

I fill my lungs with the magic potion of Jeollanam-do.

What to see and do
1. Suncheon Open Filming Location

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: 24, Biryegol-gil, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do

K-drama fans can take a trip down memory lane here.

It is the largest film set in South Korea, with over 200 houses. It consists of three villages, each reflecting a different era from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The site has been used for over 700 movies, dramas and variety shows such as East Of Eden (2008 to 2009), Baker King, Kim Tak Goo (2010), Gangnam Blues (2015), Love, Lies (2016) and Running. Male (2010 to present).

Walk all the way up, visit the houses and learn how Koreans lived at that time.

For 3,000 won (S$3.30) you can rent an old-fashioned school uniform and shoot your own mini-movie.

Soaking up the view of the 1970s Bongcheon-dong village on top of the hill is one of the highlights for me.

2. Naganeupseong Walled City

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: 30, Chungmin-gil, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do

Naganeupseong Walled City is a walled village established during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910).

It has well-preserved fortress walls, traditional government buildings and thatched-roof houses preserved in their original state.

The city is highly valued as a historical and cultural resource for the study of traditional folk customs.

Visitors can enroll in many hands-on programs such as Korean traditional music and wood craft making.

The best vantage point to capture the whole village in pictures is from the top of the fortress wall. You can either climb the steep stairs or take a longer detour cutting through town.

3. Suncheonman Bay Wetland Reserve

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: 513-25, Suncheonman-gil, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do

The fields of Suncheonman Bay are covered with a thick layer of reeds taller than an adult man. It is the largest reed colony in South Korea.

Standing among the reeds and watching the golden fields sway in the wind is like watching the waves on the sea.

The fields are home to many plants that thrive in wet conditions, such as common reed and starwort.

Avid bird watchers should bring their binoculars. Among the world’s wetlands, Suncheonman Bay is known to attract the most rare birds.

It is a natural habitat for over 140 species of birds, including migratory and endangered species such as the hooded crane, white-naped crane, eastern white stork, black-faced spoonbill, and l oystercatcher.

4. Daeheungsa Temple

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: 400, Daeheungsa-gil, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do

After a 40-minute hike up a long, densely forested hill, I arrive at Daeheungsa Temple.

The echo of a monk’s chant is so soothing that I forget my aching feet.

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

The temple, which sits on the slopes of Duryun Mountain in Haenam County, plays an important role in the country’s Buddhist culture. It was built during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC to 668 AD) by Adohwasang, a monk from Silla (one of the Three Kingdoms).

Take your time to enjoy the tranquility of this sacred temple and the surrounding mountains.

I am given an hour there and would like to have several more.

5. Mokpo marine cable car

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: 240, Haeyangdaehak-ro, Mokpo-si, Jeollanam-do (North Station)

On my left, a bird’s eye view of the old downtown of the city of Mokpo. To my right, the sun is setting against the backdrop of the Mokpo bridge.

Here is my stunning view from a cabin of the Mokpo marine cable car. Traversing 3.23 km at a height of 155 m, it is the longest and highest cable car in South Korea, and was established to be the main attraction representing Mokpo’s cultural tourism.

6. Purple Island

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: Jeonnam, Sinan-gun, Anjwa-myeon, Banwol-ri

Purple Island is made up of two islands, Banwol and Bakji, which are connected by a 1.4 km bridge.

Looks like a giant pot of purple paint has been poured over the island. The bridge, roads and buildings are painted purple. The flowers are the same color. Even the rice is dyed purple.

Food is served on purple plates and the locals dress in purple.

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

The Purple Project was launched in 2015 as part of South Jeolla Province’s initiative to create attractive island destinations and was inspired by the purple bellflowers (also called harebells) that are native to the region.

The rebranding worked so well that the United Nations World Tourism Organization named the Crimson Island the best tourist village in the world last year.

Entrance to the island costs 3,000 won (3.30 Singapore dollars). However, if you are wearing purple (like a shirt, hat, scarf, or shoes), you enter for free.

If you are coming from Seoul, take the KTX (Korea Train eXpress) to Mokpo Station. The trip takes about 2.5 hours.

Then take a bus to the Anjwa-myeon intersection (or Anjwa village), where another bus will take you to the Purple Island bridge.

7. Yeosu Art Land

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Where: Muslimmok-gil 142-1, Dolsan-eup, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do

I head straight to the outer part of the Media Art Sculpture Park, which is home to the most Instagrammable spot in Yeosu Art Land: the Midas’ Hand sculpture.

According to Greek mythology, everything King Midas touched turned to gold.

Feeling adventurous, I sit on the Extreme Swing Swing, which swings back and forth with my legs dangling 100m above the ground while admiring the mesmerizing view of Yeosu Sea.

ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Currently, 10 travel agencies in Singapore – Nam Ho Travel, Azza Travel, Hong Thai Travel, Jun Air Travel, Splendor Holidays, Chan Brothers, CTC Travel, EU Holidays, New Shan Travel and Super Travels – offer tour packages to Jeollanam- do.

Some other agencies will launch packages at the Natas travel fair, which runs from August 12-14.

There are no direct flights from Singapore to Jeollanam-do. You can fly to Seoul and take another flight from Gimpo Airport to Gwangju Airport in Jeollanam-do.

Alternatively, take the KTX (Korea Train eXpress), a bullet train, from Seoul Station to Gwangju Station in Jeollanam-do. The trip takes about two hours. Go to this website.

There are also intercity buses. Learn more about this website.

For cities like Gwangju, Mokpo, and Yeosu, locals would take the KTX to get there quickly. If you want to go slow, take intercity or express buses.