South Korea is a country swathed in green, prodding its stony fingers skyward, and the Koreans are a people obsessed with nature, and with mountains in particular. Wherever you travel, you'll see Koreans out in the open air, clad in the latest adventure fashions, pushing ever onward and upward.
With China looming to its west and Japan nudging it from the east, it's no wonder the country has played unwilling host to centuries of war games. But no matter how many times its neighbours try to swallow it, South Korea manages to survive intact.
South Koreans attribute their indefatigable culture to the binding agents of Confucianism, language and pride. The stunning landscape has also played a big part in creating a cohesive Korean identity.
Full country name: Republic of Korea
Area: 99,373 sq km
Population: 48 million
Capital City: Seoul (pop 10.3 million)
Religion: 25% Christianity, 25% Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, 50% none.
Head of State: President Roh Moo-hyun
Head of Government: Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan
GDP: US$475 billion
GDP per capita: US$19,600
Annual Growth: 2%
Major Industries: Shipbuilding, cars, machinery, electronics, chemicals, textiles
Major Trading Partners: USA, Japan, China
Member of EU: No
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Visas: With an onward ticket visitors from almost anywhere - except countries not recognised by South Korea (Cuba, Laos and Cambodia) - can stay in the country for 30 days without a visa. If you're from western Europe, Australia or New Zealand, you can get up to 90 days visa-free. Canadians receive a six-month permit and citizens of Italy and Portugal receive 60-day permits. Everyone else has to extend after their first 30 days. Extensions last for around 90 days, and if you know you're going to need one it's worth getting it before you leave home.
Health risks: diarrhoea (To prevent diarrhoea, avoid tap water unless it has been boiled, filtered, or chemically disinfected (e.g. with iodine tablets); only eat fresh fruits and vegetables if cooked or peeled; be wary of dairy products that might contain unpasteurised milk, and be highly selective when eating food from street vendors. If you develop diarrhoea, be sure to drink plenty of fluids, preferably an oral re-hydration solution containing lots of salt and sugar. A few loose stools don’t require treatment but, if you start experiencing more than four or five stools a day, you should start taking an antibiotic (usually a quinolone drug) and an antidiarrhoeal agent (such as loperamide). If diarrhoea is bloody, or persists for more than 72 hours, or is accompanied by fever, shaking chills or severe abdominal pain you should seek medical attention), typhoid (Also known as enteric fever, Typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease. The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhoea and stomach pains. You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity. Seek medical help for any fever (38?C and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating. Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhoea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.Vaccination is recommended for travellers spending longer than a week in Korea adn travelling outside of Seoul), Filariasis (This parasitic disease is transmitted by mosquitoes. There's no vaccine available against lymphatic filariasis. Filariasis is caused by blockage of the lymph channels by long thread-like worms (filaria) which are transmitted by the bite of several varieties of mosquito. There may be no symptoms at all with light infections, or you may get fever, painful swellings of the lymph glands (eg in your armpits, groin or elbows) and, for male travellers, swelling of the testes with scrotal pain and tenderness. Note that symptoms usually develop about six months after infection. If the infection is not treated, you can get permanent damage to the lymph system, leading to swelling of the arms, legs, breasts or scrotum, with associated thickening and wrinkling of the skin that's supposed to resemble elephant skin, hence the name ‘elephantiasis’. If you think you may have filariasis, seek medical advice as soon as possible for appropriate treatment. Infection can be diagnosed with a blood test), hepatitis (Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures), malaria (If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) – it may be worth taking your own, and impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +9
Dialling Code: 82
Electricity: 220V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Korea has four distinct seasons, with a wet monsoon/summer in the middle of the year, and a very cold winter from November to March. Jeju-do off the south coast is the warmest and wettest place in the country.
If you possibly can, time your visit to South Korea for autumn (September to November). It's sunny, the skies are blue, and Korea's spectacular autumn foliage is a real draw. Winter is cold but dry, and a good time to visit if you like skiing, snow-draped temples, a dearth of tourists and crisp (ie below freezing) weather. Spring (April to May) can be beautiful, but it's also the most popular time with Japanese tourists and you'll have trouble getting mid to top-end accommodation. Summer is hot, muggy, crowded, wet, typhoon-prone and expensive.
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Currency: Republic of Korean Won
South Korea is steadily shouldering its way into the big league when it comes to costs - Japan is about the only place that's still more expensive. If you're staying in a hostel or a traditional Korean inn, you might be able to get by on US$30 a day. If you're planning to travel around and would prefer more luxurious accommodation, you should expect to spend significantly more. As for sustenance, the nightlife in Seoul will dig into your coffers, but food is generally quite cheap - US$7 should fill you up. Travelling will up your spending, but happily Korean transport is both efficient and reasonably priced. A high-speed train runs the length of the country and a ticket on this only costs US$40.
US military bases will let you pay in US dollars (should you feel the need to pick up a stealth bomber or two), but everywhere else you'll need won. Cash US dollars are the easiest to exchange, but any other hard currencies, especially yen, shouldn't pose a problem. You'll get a better rate on travellers cheques than cash - those in US dollars will be more widely accepted. There are ATMs all over Seoul, Busan and other major cities, but the instructions are in Korean. International credit cards are widely accepted.
South Koreans don't expect you to tip, particularly as a 10% service charge is added to the bill in many mid-range and all top-end hotels. You'll be wasting your time bargaining in department stores - you'll have about as much chance as you would in K-mart - but you might as well give it a go in small shops and markets. Even fancy-looking tourist shops will usually bend a little on their prices. If you're going to haggle, be polite, smile and don't get grumpy.
South Korea has witnessed an amazing rags-to-riches story over the past four decades. The man to thank for this economic miracle is former dictator Park Chung-hee who ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. His 'government-guided management' model of five-year plans and 'export or die' programmes involved paying low salaries at home, restricting imports and borrowing billions of US dollars in cash (mostly from the USA). Within a decade, South Korea's economic indicators went through the roof and the country joined Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore as one of Asia's 'economic tigers' (also called 'little dragons').
Unfortunately, 'government-guided management' was a two-edged sword. Unlike the other tigers, the South Korean economy was directed by a swelling civil service. In time, the bloated bureaucracy came to control everything from the flavour of ice cream to the price of ginseng. In recent years there has been a sincere effort to slay the red-tape dragon, but the bureaucrats are being wrenched from their desks kicking and screaming.
A key feature of Korea's economy are the jaebol, huge family-run conglomerates that owe their survival to government-subsidised bank loans. The tight-knit relationship between the jaebol and government officials has led to more than a few indictments for corruption, and has made the phrase 'Korea, Inc' more of a truism than the more commonly known 'Japan, Inc'. Officially there are 30 jaebol. The top five, Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo, LG (Lucky Goldstar) and SK (Sunkyong), account for more than a third of the total sales of all South Korean companies and 50% of the country's exports. In 1997, Asia lurched into an economic crisis, and South Korea was badly affected. As a direct result, President Kim Dae-jung has launched a number of bold reforms aimed at reducing the power and influence of the jaebol. The reform process - still not complete - promises to restructure South Korea's economy considerably.
Sharply increasing wages is another big change of recent years. From the late 1980s onward, the country has often been rocked by large and occasionally violent strikes. Nowadays, South Korea is no longer considered a low-wage country. Many companies have responded by moving factories to China, or by hiring illegal immigrants to do the drudge work. It's a scene not unlike that found in many developed Western economies.
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Seoul is an intriguing city transforming itself from the Yi Dynasty capital of the Hermit Kingdom to a major mover and shaker on the international scene, especially in the field of commerce and sports. Nowhere else is the Korean drive to come to terms with a turbulent and fractured past so evident.
Despite its tall buildings and neon lights, Seoul offers the visitor a wealth of cultural sights. The central city area is ringed with royal palaces, and around the old city gates are enormous bustling markets. Skyscrapers jostle with a maze of traditional-style Korean houses and inns.
For 1000 years, up until the 10th century, Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla dynasty. Nearly 1000 years later, Gyeongju is an open-air museum masquerading as a small, provincial town littered with ancient rubble. Those keen on Silla culture or archaeology will be in heaven, fossicking through the remains of temples, tombs, shrines, palaces, pleasure gardens and castles, but more ordinary folk will probably find Gyeongju only has a day's-worth of entertainment.
In the centre of town, Tumuli Park is a huge walled area with 20 royal tombs, one opened in cross section. Across the road from the park, the Noseo-dong Tombs offer a chance to see more Silla burial sites, excavated in the 20th century. A few hundred metres away, Cheomseongdae looks like a pile of rocks but is actually one of the oldest observatories in East Asia. The pile of rocks is a mathematical allegory for the days and months of the year.
The crowning glory of Silla temple architecture is Bulguksa, a magnificent temple built on a series of stone terraces about 16km (10mi) from the town. The eaves and internal painting of this gorgeous temple are one of the artistic highlights of Asia. Stand on the highest level of the temple and you'll look down over a rolling sea of tiles. High above the temple, a seated Buddha (usually crawling with tourists) gazes over Gyeongju from Seokguram Grotto. There are plenty of places to stay in Gyeongju, from backpacker-friendly hostels to super-deluxe casino hotels, and a similarly large range of places to eat.
Seoraksan National Park
Top of the charts in the Korean national park scene, Seoraksan is spectacular. Near the DMZ on the east coast, this is a land of high craggy peaks, lush forests, tremendous waterfalls, boulder-strewn white water rivers, beaches and ancient temples. Colourful Autumn is the best time to visit.
Being so gorgeous, the park is, of course, outrageously popular - don't expect a solitary wilderness experience. The best way to escape the crush is to carry a tent and hike for a few days into Inner Seorak, in the west of the park. The Osaek Hot Springs in South Seorak make a luxurious quick fix.
Songnisan National Park
Central Korea's top scenic spot, Songnisan means 'remote from the mundane world mountains', and indeed it is. The place is a magnet for hikers, with heaps of excellent walks. The thing that really drags them in by the busload though, is Beopjusa, one of the largest and most magnificent temple sites in Korea.
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