I have yet to blog about the rest of my Aussie trips, but I figured I’ll skip right along to my South Korean sojourn with my bff earlier this summer. My first bit of advice about Korea: NEVER go to South Korea during Summer (July/August) because the weather is scorching and humid – way worse than Singapore!
Most people combine Seoul with a visit to Jeju, but the air tickets there from Seoul happened to be really expensive (about S$200 when it is usually less than $50) so I decided to skip Jeju and head down to Busan instead. We spent a total of 10 days in South Korea – 3 days in Busan and the rest in Seoul, and I still feel as though we have barely skimmed the surface of Seoul! Definitely reason to revisit – especially since I want to head to Nami Island during autumn for the beautiful scenery. My Korea series begins with Gamcheon Culture Village (감천문화마을), also known as Taeguekdo Village, which is a very kitschy little village located less than 30 minutes away from Busan’s famous Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장).
I would never have thought of visiting this place, but I had popped by Korea Plaza prior to my visit, and this was one of the places they had recommended I visit in Busan. I was instantly sold when I was told that Gamcheon is “Santorini of the East” and “Lego Village”.
Now, Gamcheon has a fairly interesting history. Appparently, it used to house the city’s poorest people, but during the Korean War, refugees fled their homes for Busan, which was the only area which was free from fighting. In fact, the North Korean People’s Army had pushed back UN forces to a 230-kilometer line near the southeastern tip of Korea, which is known as the “Pusan Perimeter”. Interesting fact, this was the only part of the peninsula the North never held. These refugees fled to Busan, but the areas near Jagalchi quickly became overcrowded and the refugees eventually flooded Gamcheon as well. Many quickly built shanty homes along the hillside (which is why Gamcheon reminded me of the favelas and slum areas in Brazil). At the same time, or slightly before the influx of refugees, a person called Cho Cholje, the founder of a new religious called Taegukdo (a religion that believes in yin and yang), had moved his religious headquarters to Gamcheon. Interesting fact: Gamcheon is also known as Taegukdo Village. Cho told the refugees that he would help them if they believed in Taegukdo, and the refugees did. Together with the Taegukdo followers, the refugees rebuilt their shanty homes into concrete homes which we see today.
Gamcheon however remained poor, until 2009, when the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in South Korea launched a project to model the village into a creative community. The streets were decorated with graffiti and the homes transformed into studios and galleries. Of course, the other reason why Gamcheon has gained so much popularity of late can be credited to the series Running Man. If you don’t know what Running Man is, you might be living under a rock. Click here to find out more!
There is no entrance fee to Gamcheon, but the map of the village is not free (it’s 2000KRW). If you intend to get the map, do participate in the stamp scavenger hunt – basically you visit the listed locations (9 of them), get your card stamped (by yourself) at each location, and return your card at any shop in the village to get a free souvenir (a postcard)! To get the map,head to the village’s Haneul Maru Tourist Information Center and Observatory (which is a few metres away from the bus stop at the entrance of the village). The village is open from 9am to 5pm, and because the village is still inhabited by residents, there are numerous signs (albeit in Korean) asking you to keep your noise level down, especially in the evening.
My friend and I were cheapos, so we opted for aimless wandering about instead. You just have to follow the fish mounted on the wall, which are actually directional signs guiding you throughout the village. As I was wandering through the narrow pathways, 2 things popped into my mind – how do the residents, many of whom are the very same war refugees and are therefore really old, make their way about the village? Even healthy young robust people have problems climbing those steep steps and navigation the hilly pathways, so I really salute those old people! The second thought which came to mind was – I really do pity the postman! Each higgledy-piggledy house has its own mailbox, and mind you, it’s not easy to navigate in the maze which is the village!
There’s also an art installation of the Little Prince, which I absolutely love, but I sadly do not have a nice photo of it to post here. Basically, it was so hot that my friend and I only bothered taking out our iPhones to snap quick photos, while trying to fan ourselves and keep ourselves cool from the sweltering heat. Again, I repeat, DO NOT VISIT KOREA IN SUMMER! All in all, we spent about 3 hours wandering about in Gamcheon Village before finally surrendering to the cold bliss that was Shinsegae Centum City (신세계 센텀시티), also known as the largest shopping complex in the world!
To get to Gamcheon Village: There are several ways to get to Gamcheon, and what I did was to take bus 2 (or 2-2) from Chungmu-dong after having taken the metro there. Alternatively, from wherever you are, take Line 1 to Toseong Station (토성역). Walk straight out from Exit 8 following the road until you reach the bus shelter in front of the PNU Cancer Center. Take mini-bus 2 or 2-2 to the top and get off at Gamcheon Elementary School (감천초등학교).
I would highly recommend using your T-Money card to make payment for the fares, because the bus drivers don’t really speak English and if you don’t understand a single word of Korean, you probably wouldn’t know how much fare to pay (it’s 800KRW). From Chungmu-dong, it’s a short but hilly 15 minute ride before you arrive at Gamcheon Village. Most people will get down at this stop, but if not, tell the bus driver Gamcheon or look out on your right for a sign that says Gamcheon Village – it’s a colourful sight so you’re unlikely to miss it. To go home, hop onto the same bus on the other side of the road, and tell the bus driver “Chungmudong Gyocharo” (충무동교차로) if you want to get back to the same spot you boarded the first bus at.