For most of the 20th century, South Korea was hardly the Land of the Morning Calm, as it has been called historically. From the Japanese occupation to the Korean War to the economic crisis in the late 1990s, life there was mostly about calamity. But the country seems determined to leave its troubles in the old century. It has entered the new millennium with renewed optimism.
South Korea's economy, the 10th largest in the world, has almost fully recovered following a record bailout by the International Monetary Fund at the end of 1997. Growth rates continue to climb, and new office towers are sprouting throughout Seoul, the country's modern capital. In its headlong rush to modernize and get ahead, South Korea has put much of its traditional heritage at risk.
Yet, despite the ever-widening gap between modern and traditional culture, there seems to be a comfortable balance between the two. These days, in any good-sized town there are fashionable areas where you can find discos, karaoke bars, coffee shops and stores selling everything from designer clothing to fresh French bread. But in these same towns you can also find an intriguing maze of traditional outdoor markets where vendors sell dried fish, ginseng and fresh vegetables as their families have done for hundreds of years.
The country's age-old search for tranquility lingers in its traditional culture, remnants of rural lifestyles, and unspoiled scenery that remain. Visitors can experience such calm at Haeinsa Temple, on mountain trails in Seoraksan National Park or while gazing at the moon from a coastal pavilion.
A very mountainous country (about 70% of its land is mountains), South Korea may look small on the map, but it is full of wonderful pockets of culture to explore. The capital, Seoul, is easily navigated without a guide—the subway system is well-marked and street signs are written in both English and Korean. Outside of the large cities, however, the countryside is best explored with a translator, since most people don't speak English (although it is widely taught in schools) and most signs are only in Korean.
Korean culture is focused on balance and harmony—the yin and yang, the hot and cold, the male and female—and the country is best seen with this mindset. The frenzy of the city contrasted with the tranquility of the countryside will give you a solid introduction to one of the world's oldest cultures.
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