If you’re after top-notch food, craggy coastlines, vistas of undulating green fields, and islands on which no foreigner has ever set foot, go no further. Jeju Island has its rock formations and palm trees, and Gangwon-do pulls in nature-lovers by the truckload, but it’s the Jeolla provinces (전라도) where you’ll find the essence of Korea at its most potent – a somewhat ironic contention since the Jeollanese have long played the role of the renegade. Here, the national inferiority complex that many foreigners diagnose in the Korean psyche is compounded by a regional one: this is the most put-upon part of a much put-upon country. Although the differences between Jeolla and the rest of the country are being diluted daily, they’re still strong enough to help make it the most distinctive and absorbing part of the mainland.

The Korean coast dissolves into thousands of islands, the majority of which lie sprinkled like confetti in Jeollanese waters. Some such as Hongdo and Geomundo are popular holiday resorts, while others lie in wave-smashed obscurity, their inhabitants hauling their living from the sea and preserving a lifestyle little changed in decades. The few foreign visitors who make it this far find that the best way to enjoy the area is to pick a ferry at random, and simply go with the flow.

In addition, Jeollanese cuisine is the envy of the nation – pride of place on the regional menu goes to Jeonju bibimbap, a local take on one of Korea’s favourite dishes. Jeolla’s culinary reputation arises from its status as one of Korea’s main food-producing areas, with shimmering emerald rice paddies vying for space in and around the national parks. The Jeollanese people themselves are also pretty special – fiercely proud of their homeland, with a devotion born from decades of social and economic repression. Speaking a dialect sometimes incomprehensible to other Koreans, they revel in their outsider status, and make a credible claim to be the friendliest people in the country.

Most of the islands trace a protective arc around Jeonnam (전남), a province whose name translates as “South Jeolla”. On the map, this region bears a strong resemblance to Greece, and the similarities don’t end there; the region is littered with ports and a constellation of islands, their surrounding waters bursting with seafood. Low-rise buildings snake up from the shores to the hills, and some towns are seemingly populated entirely with salty old pensioners. Yeosu and Mokpo are relatively small, unhurried cities exuding a worn, brackish charm, while further inland is the region’s capital and largest city, Gwangju, a young, trendy metropolis with a reputation for art and political activism.

The same can be said for likeable Jeonju, capital of Jeonbuk (전북; “North Jeolla”) province to the north and one of the most inviting cities in the land; its hanok district of traditional buildings is a particular highlight. Green and gorgeous, Jeonbuk is also home to four excellent national parks, where most of the province’s visitors head; in addition, the arresting “horse-ear” mountains of Maisan Provincial Park accentuate the appeal of Tapsa, a glorious temple that sits in between its distinctive twin peaks.

Brief history

Jeolla’s gripe with the rest of the country is largely political. Despite its status as the birthplace of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea from 1392 until its annexation by the Japanese in 1910, most of the country’s leaders since independence in 1945 have hailed from the southeastern Gyeongsang provinces. Seeking to undermine their Jeollanese opposition, the central government deliberately withheld funding for the region, leaving its cities in relative decay while the country as a whole reaped the benefits of the “economic miracle”. Political discord reached its nadir in 1980, when the city of Gwangju was the unfortunate location of a massacre which left hundreds of civilians dead. National democratic reform was gradually fostered in the following years, culminating in the election of Jeolla native and eventual Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung. Kim attempted to claw his home province’s living standards up to scratch with a series of big-money projects, notably in the form of highway connections to the rest of the country once so conspicuous by their absence. Despite these advances, with the exception of Gwangju and Jeonju, Jeolla’s urban centres are still among the poorest places in Korea.

Boseong

The town of BOSEONG (보성), midway between Yeosu and Mokpo, is famed for the tea plantations that surround it; visitors flock here during warmer months to take pictures of the thousands of tea trees that line the slopes. They may not be as busy or as verdant as those in Sri Lanka or Laos, for example, but they’re still a magnificent sight, particularly when sepia-tinged on early summer evenings. Pluckers comb the well-manicured rows at all times of year, though spring is the main harvest season, and if you’re lucky you may be able to see the day’s take being processed in the on-site factory. Green tea (녹차; nok-cha) rode the crest of the “healthy living” wave that swept the country in the early 2000s, and here you can imbibe the leaf in more ways than you could ever have imagined. A couple of on-site restaurants serve up green tea chicken cutlet, green tea bibimbap and green tea with seafood on rice, as well as a variety of dishes featuring pork from pigs raised on a green tea diet. There’s also a café serving nok-cha ice cream and snacks – if you’ve never tried a nok-cha latte, you’ll never get a better opportunity (though, admittedly, it’s on sale at pretty much every café up to the North Korean border).

East of Jeonju

With few urban areas to speak of, it’s bucolic countryside all the way east of Jeonju. Easily accessible on a day-trip from the provincial capital are the wonderful twin peaks of Maisan Provincial Park. Between these lies Tapsa, one of Korea’s most distinctive temples, surrounded by otherworldly spires of stacked rock that, though built without bonding agents and attacked by regular typhoons and snowstorms, continue to stand tall. Pushing on further east you’ll soon hit the slopes of Deogyusan National Park, home to the popular ski resort Muju.

Maisan Provincial Park

Korea’s pine-clad mountain ranges tend to look rather similar to each other. One exception is tiny MAISAN PROVINCIAL PARK (마이산 도립 공원), or “horse-ear Mountains”, so-named after two of its peaks. It’s easy to reach Maisan by bus on a day-trip from Jeonju, via the small town of Jinan (진안). The park is within walking distance of Jinan’s decaying bus terminal, but most opt for taking a taxi along the lake to the main entrance north of the park – the fifteen-minute trip should cost around W4000, though many drivers will try to get you to go to the more distant Tapsa entrance for around three times that price. At the northern entrance are restaurants and a couple of places to stay, and from here steep flights of energy-sapping stairs take you between the horses’ ears and over the scalp, where you’ll probably need a rest. Unfortunately it’s not possible to climb the peaks, which were closed for regeneration at the time of writing; the path up the western ear is due to reopen in 2014. Despite the threat of heavy fines and the fact that hikers stand out like a sore thumb, people still flout the rule.

If you continue between the peaks, you’ll soon come to Unsusa, a dainty temple surrounded by flowers in warmer months, while further down the mountain is the highly popular temple of Tapsa (탑사), Maisan’s real gem, which sits in a surreal clasp of stacked rock. Mildly Gaudíesque in appearance, the near-hundred-strong towers were the work of one monk, Yi Kap-myong (1860–1957), who apparently used no adhesive in their construction, even though some are over 10m high.

Gwangju and around

The gleaming, busy face of “new Jeolla”, GWANGJU (광주) is the region’s most populous city by far. Once a centre of political activism, and arguably remaining so today, it’s still associated, for most Koreans, with the brutal massacre that took place here in 1980. The event devastated the city but highlighted the faults of the then-government, thereby ushering in a more democratic era. Other than a cemetery for those who perished in the struggle, on the city outskirts, there’s little of note to see in Gwangju itself, except perhaps the shop-and-dine area in its centre. Largely pedestrianized, this is one of the busiest and best such zones in the country – not only the best place in which to sample Jeollanese cuisine but also a great spot to observe why Gwangjuites are deemed to be among the most fashionable folk on the peninsula. Also in this area is “Art Street”, a warren of studios and the figurehead of Gwangju’s dynamic art scene. Although most funding is now thrown at contemporary projects, the city’s rich artistic legacy stems in part from the work of Uijae, one of the country’s most famed twentieth-century painters and a worthy poet to boot. A museum dedicated to the great man sits on his former patch – a building and tea plantation on the slopes of Mudeungsan Park, which forms a natural eastern border to the city.

On the art trail in Gwangju

Outside Seoul, Gwangju is by far Korea’s most artistically inclined city. Much of this can be ascribed to the fact that it’s the largest city in Jeolla, which during the 1970s and 1980s was a hotbed of political activism; the gruesome massacre of 1980 saw raw emotion splashed onto many a piece of canvas. Regional tensions have long since subsided, meaning that present-day Jeollanese have a little less to say, but it’s still worth taking a stroll through some of the city’s many galleries.

The best place to go hunting is a narrow road in the city centre, affectionately known as Art Street. This is a funky collection of shops and studios selling art materials and works by local artists. There are similar streets in other Korean cities, but this one is larger, much more accessible and forms an active part of the city’s life. Traditional art styles remain dominant but they’re complemented – and sometimes sent up – by a more contemporary set. A few arty cafés and restaurants can be found in or just off the road, though as this area is also Gwangju’s centre of after-school education, the discussions you’ll hear are more likely to be about pop than Picasso. Near the eastern end of Art Street is the contemporary Kunsthalle Gwangju gallery, a regional offshoot of the facility in Seoul, and similarly fashioned entirely from shipping containers. It’s a temporary facility, filling the vacuum left by delays to the still-under-construction Asian Culture Complex, set for completion on an adjoining plot in 2014.

More traditional in nature is the work of Ho Baeknyon (1891–1977). Better known by his pen name Uijae, he was an important painter-poet-calligrapher, and in uniting those fine arts was likely one of the main catalysts behind Gwangju’s dynamic art scene. His old house and tea plantation, as well as a museum (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm) dedicated to his work, stand on the slopes of Mudeungsan (무등산), a pleasant park bordering Gwangju on its eastern side, and easily accessible by bus from the city centre. The most interesting piece on show is a ten-picture folding screen, whose images are said to represent the world’s rainbow of personal characteristics: are you bamboo-, blossom- or orchid-like in temperament?

Lastly, those visiting in the autumn of even-numbered years will be able to attend the Gwangju Biennale (wgb.or.kr), the biggest and most important art festival in the land. Most of the action takes place at a huge dedicated hall north of the train station, and there’s so much to see that even a full day is unlikely to be enough.

The Gwangju massacre

Away from the bustle of Gwangju, in what may at first appear to be a field of contorted tea trees, lie those who took part in a 1980 uprising against the government, an event which resulted in a brutal massacre of civilians. The number that died is still not known for sure, and was exaggerated by both parties involved at the time; the official line says just over two hundred, but some estimates put it at over two thousand. Comparisons with the Tiananmen massacre in China are inevitable, an event better known to the Western world despite what some historians argue may have been a similar death toll. While Beijing keeps a tight lid on its nasty secret, Koreans flock to Gwangju each May to pay tribute to those who died.

In an intricate web of corruption, apparent Communist plots and a presidential assassination, trouble had been brewing for some time before General Chun Doo-hwan staged a military coup in December 1979. Chun had been part of a team given the responsibility of investigating the assassination of President Kim Jae-kyu, but used the event as a springboard towards his own leadership of the country. On May 17, 1980, he declared martial law in order to quash student protests against his rule. Similar revolts had seen the back of a few previous Korean leaders (notably Syngman Rhee, the country’s first president); fearing the same fate, Chun authorized a ruthless show of force that left many dead. Reprisal demonstrations started up across the city; the MBC television station was burnt down, with protestors aggrieved at being portrayed as Communist hooligans by the state-run operator. Hundreds of thousands of civilians grouped together, mimicking the tactics of previous protests on Jeju Island by attacking and seizing weapons from police stations. With transport connections to the city blocked, the government were able to retreat and pool their resources for the inevitable crackdown. This came on May 27, when troops attacked by land and air, retaking the city in less than two hours. After having the protest leaders executed, General Chun resigned from the Army in August, stepping shortly afterwards into presidential office. His leadership, though further tainted by continued erosions of civil rights, oversaw an economic boom; an export-hungry world remained relatively quiet on the matter.

Also sentenced to death, though eventually spared, was Kim Dae-jung. An opposition leader and fierce critic of the goings-on, he was charged with inciting the revolt, and spent much of the decade under house arrest. Chun, after seeing out his term in 1987, passed the country’s leadership to his partner-in-crime during the massacre, Roh Tae-woo. Demonstrations soon whipped up once more, though in an unexpectedly conciliatory response, Roh chose to release many political prisoners, including Kim Dae-jung. The murky world of Korean politics gradually became more transparent, culminating in charges of corruption and treason being levelled at Chun and Roh. Both were pardoned in 1997 by Kim Dae-jung, about to be elected president himself, in what was generally regarded as a gesture intended to draw a line under the troubles.

Jeonju

The small city of JEONJU (전주) is a place of considerable appeal; though finally starting to attract domestic tourists in the numbers it richly deserves, it remains largely off the radar of international visitors. This is ironic, since it’s possibly the best place in the land in which to get a handle on Korean customs. Most visitors make a beeline for the city’s splendid hanok village of traditional wooden housing, which contains more than enough for a full day of sightseeing, as well as being a good introduction to Korea’s indigenous arts and crafts. In addition, spring sees Jeonju hosting JIFF (weng.jiff.or.kr), by far the most eclectic major film festival in the country.

However, it’s food that Koreans most readily associate with Jeonju. Many of the differences are too subtle to be noticed by foreigners – and in the cheapest places, nonexistent – but you’re likely to find a greater and more lovingly prepared number of banchan (반찬; side dishes) here, and a slightly greater emphasis on herbal seasoning than on the somewhat less cultivated tastebud-tinglers of salt and red pepper paste. Particularly notable is the city’s take on the tasty Korean staple, bibimbap. The only downside is that Korean food just won’t taste as good when you’ve moved on elsewhere.

Jeonju’s ginkgo-lined streets help to create an ambience notably relaxed for a Korean city, but this disguises a hidden historical pedigree – this unassuming city marked the beginning of one of the longest lines of kings that the world has seen. It was here in the fourteenth century that the first kings of the Joseon kingdom were born, and the dynasty went on to rule Korea for over five centuries. Overlooked as the dynastic capital in favour of Seoul, today’s Jeonju is not brimming with historical riches, but it has its charms, and is well worth a visit.

The hanok village

Jeonju’s main attraction is undoubtedly its splendid hanok village (한옥 마을), a city-centre thatch of largely traditional housing. Highlights include a cathedral, an ancient shrine and a former Confucian academy, as well as museums for calligraphy, paper and wine; almost all sights are free, and there’s enough to keep you busy for a full day. The best way to enjoy it is simply to turn up and wander around – whether it be a museum, a traditional restaurant or a photogenic house, there’s something to see around every corner. There are no opening times or entry fees to the area and it remains a functioning part of the city, one that’s particularly beautiful at night when most of the tourists have gone. The area has a distinct north–south divide – the north is far more polished and home to an ever-increasing number of bars and cafés, while the southern section is a pleasingly authentic and untouched slice of old Korea, with locals meandering up and down the narrow lanes as they have for decades. Musical pansori performances are frequent, and you may even be able to participate in traditional activities such as lantern-making or calligraphy.

The best place to get your bearings is Taejoro, a road that bisects the hanok village. Lightly trafficked and studded with small lights that glow at night, it has two information offices that can provide you with maps of the area. The eastern office offers free bike rental, though you’ll probably have to get there early to nab one.

Pansori

Usually marketed to foreigners as “Korean opera”, pansori (판소리) performances are a modern-day derivative of the country’s shamanist past. Songs and incantations chanted to fend off evil spirits or ensure a good harvest slowly mutated over the years into ritualized presentations; the themes evolved, too, with tales of love and despair replacing requests to spirits unseen.

A good pansori may go on for hours, but each segment will be performed by a cast of just two – a female singer (소리꾼; sorikkun) and a male percussionist (고수; gosu). The sorikkun holds aloft a paper fan, which she folds, unfolds and waves about to emphasize lyrics or a change of scene. While the gosu drums out his minimalist finger taps on the janggo, he gives his singer words – or, more commonly, grunts – of encouragement known as chuimsae, to which the audience are expected to add their own. The most common are “chalhanda!” and “olshi-gu!”, which are roughly equivalent to “you’re doing good!” and “hm!”, a grunt acknowledging appreciation, usually delivered with a refined nod. Just follow the Korean lead, and enjoy the show.

Traditional arts and crafts in the hanok village

Near the eastern end of Taejoro, the road bisecting the hanok village, you’ll find the Traditional Craftworks Exhibition Hall, a traditionally styled wooden structure which holds crafts created by Jeonju artisans – a great place to hunt for souvenirs. If you’re lucky you may get to see one of the traditional song and dance shows that are occasionally held just outside the complex – there’s a list of performance times on the hanok village map. North of Taejoro, exhibits in the Traditional Wine Museum aren’t terribly interesting, but the beauty of the hanok building – and the fact that free tipples are occasionally handed out – make it worth a quick peek. Of more interest is the Korean Paper Institute, where beautiful examples of products made with handmade paper (한지; hanji) are on display, many available to buy; if you ask nicely, you may even be able to try your hand at making a kite or lantern.

South of Taejoro, and overlooking the stream that marks the hanok village’s southern boundary, is the Gangam Calligraphy Museum; stored inside are wonderful examples of writing from some of Korea’s best-known calligraphers. Artistic beauty of a different kind can be found a five-minute walk east along the streamside road, at the Traditional Culture Center, which puts on pansori shows every Friday. The mournful singing and sparse drum-raps are well complemented by the old-fashioned beauty of the building, the performers are usually of an extremely high standard, and the shows are not over-long, making this an absolute must-see. Other nights see similar performances, though of slightly lower quality. Other programmes run by the centre include a free tea ceremony course, and irregular cheap lessons in cooking, fan-making, traditional music and the like; consult a tourist office for details.

Lastly, there are a few interesting craft shops in the hanok village. Abo sells jewellery made in a vaguely dynastic style, and the earrings, bangles and bracelets are all reasonably priced. Practically next door, Midang sells beautiful silks and traditional attire made with a contemporary twist. On the other side of the road, you’ll find a few decent pottery shops.

Jeonju bibimbap

Jeonju’s most famous dish is, without doubt, its bibimbap (전주 비빔밥). Regular bibimbap – a mixture of vegetables served on a bed of rice, with a fried egg and meat on top – is available across the country, but in Jeonju they’ve picked up the formula and run with it. Recipes vary from place to place, but the ingredients are always well chosen and may include anything from pine kernels to bluebell roots or fern bracken in addition to the usual leaves and bean sprouts. In addition, your meal will invariably be surrounded by up to twenty free side dishes, made with just as much care, and an even greater variety of ingredients. Beware, however, of restaurants that claim to serve authentic Jeonju bibimbap – many places, particularly around the train station and bus terminals, will simply give you a regular version of the dish (though genuinely made in Jeonju, and thereby circumnavigating Korea’s already weak product description laws). One way to sort Jeonju wheat from Jeonju chaff is the price – for the real deal, you shouldn’t be paying less than W8000, but even at double this price it’s likely to be money well spent.

Mokpo

The Korean peninsula has thousands of islands on its fringes, but the seas around the coastal city of MOKPO (목포) have by far the most concentrated number. Though many of these are merely bluffs of barnacled rock poking out above the West Sea (also known as the Yellow Sea), dozens are accessible by ferry from Mokpo; beautiful in an ugly kind of way, this curious city gives the impression that it would happily be an island if it could.

Korea’s southwestern train line ends quite visibly in Mokpo city centre. The highway from the centre of the country does likewise with less fuss, but was not completed until fairly recently. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, public funding also ran out before it hit southern Jeolla – poor transport connections to the rest of the country are just one example of the way this area was neglected by the central government. For much of this time, the main opposition party was based in Mokpo, and funding was deliberately cut in an attempt to marginalize the city, which was once among the most populous and powerful in the land. Though the balance is now being addressed with a series of large projects, much of the city is still run-down, and Mokpo is probably the poorest urban centre in the country. Some Koreans say that taxi drivers are a good indicator of the wealth of the cities, and here cabbies have a habit of beeping at pedestrians in the hope that they want a lift, occasionally swinging around for a second go. Things are changing, however, especially in the new district of Hadang, which was built on land reclaimed from the sea, but it’ll be a while before Mokpo’s saline charms are eroded.

Formula 1 comes to Mokpo

In 2010, the Formula 1 circus finally came to Korea, with the inaugural Grand Prix taking place at a brand-new track just east of Mokpo. The first hosting of this event was fraught with problems: the track was only given its safety certificate days before the race, spectator enclosures were hastily put together, and there were only three acceptable hotels in the whole of Mokpo. Most fans, and even some VIPs, were forced to stay at love hotels – one BBC journalist returned to her room to find that it had been used in her absence (a used contraceptive on the floor providing the evidence).

Race day itself was also memorable for the wrong reasons. Traffic jams resulting from poor access to the track meant that thousands of spectators arrived late – and in some cases, not at all. Rain didn’t help matters, with the newly built track stubbornly refusing to drain; concerns about driver safety led to the race being delayed for over an hour, and at one point the embarrassing possibility of cancelling the event entirely was raised. In the end, the clouds parted, and after several notable drivers had spun off the slippery track Spanish driver Fernando Alonso emerged victorious.

Some, inevitably, questioned the wisdom of hosting the Korean Grand Prix in this out-of-the-way corner of the country – the simple truth was that Jeonnam province had made the most generous offer to the F1 powers. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, F1 is likely here to stay, and the lessons learned by local authorities will eventually make Mokpo one of the more comfortable stops on the motor racing calendar.

Wolchulsan National Park

A short bus-ride east of Mokpo, WOLCHULSAN NATIONAL PARK (월출산 국립 공원) is the smallest of Korea’s national parks and one of its least visited – the lack of historic temples and its difficult access are a blessing in disguise. Set within the achingly gorgeous Jeollanese countryside, Wolchulsan’s jumble of mazy rocks rises to more than 800m above sea level, casting jagged shadows over the rice paddies.

Just five buses a day make the fifteen-minute trip to the main entrance at Cheonhwangsaji from the small town of Yeong-am; alternatively, it’s an affordable taxi ride, or an easy walk. Yeong-am itself is well connected to Mokpo and Yeosu by bus. From here a short but steep hiking trail heads up to Cheonhwangbong (809m), the park’s main peak; along the way, you’ll have to traverse the “Cloud Bridge”, a steel structure slung between two peaks – not for vertigo sufferers. Views from here, or the peak itself, are magnificent, and with an early enough start it’s possible to make the tough hike to Dogapsa (도갑사), an uninteresting temple on the other side of the park, while heeding the “no shamanism” warning signs along the way. There’s no public transport to or from the temple, but a forty-minute walk south – all downhill – will bring you to Gurim (구림), a small village outside the park, on the main road between Mokpo and Yeong-am. A couple of kilometres south of Gurim is the Yeongam Pottery Centre (daily 9am–6pm; free). Due to the properties of the local soil, this whole area was Korea’s main ceramics hub throughout the Three Kingdoms period, and local artisans enjoyed trade with similarly minded folk in China and Japan. Sadly, the centre is as dull as the clay itself, though the on-site shop is good for souvenirs; you may get a chance to throw your own pot for a small fee, and there’s a decidedly brutalist sculpture outside the main entrance which would look at home in Pyongyang (were it not for the South Korean flag). The downhill walk from Gurim to the centre is much more interesting – the town remains an important base for pottery production, and accordingly many of its houses have eschewed modern-day metals for beautiful, traditional tiled roofs. There are few concessions to modern life here.

Western Jeonbuk: the national parks

You’re spoilt for choice for national parks in the western half of Jeonbuk province – there are three, and each offers plenty of outdoor activities. Naejangsan lies closest to Jeonju, and is famed for its riot of colour in the autumn. Seonunsan, near the Jeonnam border, is Korea’s big draw for rock-climbers, while on the coast is Byeonsanbando, a rural peninsula park that’s also the scene of a controversial land reclamation project. Note that these parks are all to the south of the province; there’s also Deogyusan east of Jeonju.

Byeonsanbando National Park

In addition to the usual mix of peaks and temples found in Korea’s parks, BYEONSANBANDO NATIONAL PARK (변산반도 국립 공원) throws in some wonderful sea views. Best accessed by bus #100 or taxi from the town of Buan (부안), the park is spread around a small, rural peninsula on the west coast from which it takes its name (bando literally means “half-island”). However, it’s in the process of being hauled towards the mainland on its northern side with the aid of a 33km causeway, a development that will yield thousands of hectares of new farmland, but has caused one hell of a stink with Korean environmental groups.

Naejangsan National Park

NAEJANGSAN NATIONAL PARK (내장산 국립 공원) is one of Korea’s most popular parks, with its ring of peaks flaring up like a gas ring in the autumn. Maple trees are the stars of the show in this annual incandescence, with squads of elm, ash and hornbeam adding their hues to the mix. The many trails and peaks across the park keep hikers happy year-round, though most visitors head to the amphitheatre-shaped mountain circle in the northeast, where the nearby village has plenty of accommodation and places to eat. The area’s topography allows for two hiking routes: a short temple loop around the interior, and a far more punishing circuit around the almost circular ridge.

Seonunsan National Park

SEONUNSAN NATIONAL PARK (선운산 국립 공원) has more than a few aces hidden up its leafy sleeves. It offers some of the country’s best rock-climbing and a few enjoyable hikes; these may not be as well signed as others in Korea, but some may find this liberating. A streamside path, lined with stalls selling delicious mountain berry juice in the summer and autumn, heads straight from the main entrance to Seonunsa (선운사), a dusty collection of buildings, stupas and the like that appear to have been thrown together with little care. It’s quite possibly the least satisfying temple complex in the province, and the small hermitages strewn around the park are of more interest.

Once past the temple, you’ll have a diverse range of trails to choose from. Hikers should head for the hills; the peaks are puny by Korean standards, rarely reaching above 400m, but this makes for some easy day-hikes, and you may be rewarded with occasional views of the West Sea. For more hardcore thrills, continue further on the temple path, across the river; hidden a ten-minute hike behind a small restaurant is a spectacular rock-climbing course. This is a tough route and should not be attempted alone or without equipment – see wwww.koreaontherocks.com for climb details, and to contact the few Koreans (and expats) au fait with holds, conglomerates and juggy overhangs. Back towards the entrance, an underused side path heads along the temple wall and up a gorgeous valley lined with rows of tea trees and a few rustic dwellings. You’ll soon come across a small, beautiful farming village, where one house offers minbak accommodation; if you don’t mind sharing a bathroom and sleeping on the floor, it’s the best place to stay in the area.

West Sea islands

Looking west from Mokpo’s Yudalsan peaks, you’ll find a sea filled to the horizon with an assortment of islands – there are up to three thousand off Jeolla, and though many of these are merely bumps of rock that yo-yo in and out of the surf with the tide, hundreds are large enough to support fishing communities. The quantity is so vast, indeed, that it’s easier to trailblaze here than in some less-developed Asian countries – many of the islands’ inhabitants have never seen a foreigner, and it’s hard to find a more quintessentially Korean experience.

Much of the area is under the umbrella of Dadohae Haesang National Park, which stretches offshore from Mokpo to Yeosu. The two most popular islands in the park are Hongdo, which rises steeply from the West Sea, and neighbouring Heuksando, a miniature archipelago of more than a hundred islets of rock. Further down the coast are Jindo, which owes its popularity to the local tide’s annual parting of the sea, and Wando, connected to the mainland by road, but surrounded by an island constellation of its own.

Islands around Wando

Heading further afield, you’ll be spoilt for choice, with even the tiniest inhabited islands served by ferry from Wando-eup. Maps of the islands are available from the ferry terminal, where almost all services depart, with a few leaving from Je-il Mudu pier, a short walk to the north.

At the time of writing, Cheongsando (청산도) was the island most visited by local tourists, mainly due to the fact that it was the scene of Spring Waltz, a popular drama series. Naturally spring is the busiest time of year here – and quite beautiful, with the island’s fields bursting with flowers. More beautiful is pine-clad Bogildo (보길도), a well-kept secret accessible via a ferry terminal on the west of Wando island – free hourly shuttle-buses make the pretty twenty-minute journey from the bus terminal in Wando-eup. In the centre of tadpole-shaped Bogildo is a lake whose craggy tail, stretching east, has a couple of popular beaches.

As the coast curls northwest towards Mokpo, the bewildering array of islands shows no sign of letting up. Jindo (진도), one of the most popular, is connected to the Korean mainland by road, but every year in early March the tides retreat to create a 3km-long land-bridge to a speck of land off the island’s eastern shore, a phenomenon that Koreans often compare to Moses’ parting of the Red Sea – this concept holds considerable appeal in an increasingly Christian country, and “Moses’ Miracle” persuades Koreans to don wellies and dash across in their tens of thousands. For the best dates to see this ask at any tourist board in the area, or call the national information line on t 1330. Visible throughout the year is the secluded temple of Ssanggyesa (쌍계사), which is best accessed by hourly bus (W1000) or taxi (W7000 from the bus terminal); if you’re choosing the latter option, arrange a pick-up time with your driver, or at least hang onto his business card.

Jindu is also famed for the Jindo-gae, a white breed of dog with a distinctive curved tail; unique to the island, this species has been officially classified as National Natural Treasure #53. The mutts can be seen in their pens at a research centre – fifteen minutes’ walk from the bus terminal – which occasionally hosts short and unappealing dog shows, as well as a canine beauty pageant each autumn.

Wando

Dangling off Korea’s southwestern tip is a motley bunch of more than a hundred islands. The hub of this group and the most popular is WANDO (완도), owing to its connections to the mainland by bus and Jeju Island by sea. Wando also has plenty of diversions in its own right – a journey away from Wando-eup (완도읍), the main town, will give you a glimpse of Jeolla’s pleasing rural underbelly. Regular buses run from here to Gugyedeung (구계등), a small, rocky beach in the coastal village of Jeongdo-ri, and to Cheonghaejin (청해진), a stone park looking over a tiny islet which, despite its unassuming pastoral mix of farms and mud walls, was once important enough to send trade ships to China.

Yeosu and around

Charming in an offbeat way, YEOSU (여수) is by far the most appealing city on Jeonnam’s south coast. Ferries once sailed from here to Jeju, but though these have been discontinued there’s more than enough here to eat up a whole day of sightseeing. It’s beautifully set in a ring of emerald islands, so the wonderful views over the South Sea alone would justify a trip down the narrow peninsula. Though parts of the coast remain rugged and pristine, the area around Yeosu has been heavily industrialized, especially the gigantic factory district to the city’s north, and consequently many of Yeosu’s few foreign visitors are here on business. However, in 2012 Yeosu played host to an international Expo, an event that helped to put the city back on the tourist map.

Despite Yeosu’s sprawling size, many of its most interesting sights are just about within walking distance of each other in and around the city centre. These include Odongdo, a bamboo-and-pine island popular with families, and a replica of Admiral Yi’s famed turtle ship. Beyond the city limits are the black-sand beach of Manseongni, and Hyangiram, a magical hermitage at the end of the Yeosu peninsula.

Admiral Yi, conqueror of the seas

"…it seems, in truth, no exaggeration to assert that from first to last he never made a mistake, for his work was so complete under each variety of circumstances as to defy criticism."

Admiral George Alexander Ballard, The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan

Were he not born during the Joseon dynasty, a period in which a nervous Korea largely shielded itself from the outside world, it is likely that Admiral Yi Sun-shin (이순신; 1545–98) would today be ranked alongside Napoleon and Horatio Nelson as one of the greatest generals of all time. A Korean national hero, you’ll see his face on the W100 coin, and statues of the great man dot the country’s shores. The two most pertinent are at Yeosu, where he was headquartered, and Tongyeong (then known as Chungmu), the site of his most famous victory.

Yi Sun-shin was both a beneficiary and a victim of circumstance. A year after his first major posting as Naval Commander of Jeolla in 1591, there began a six-year wave of Japanese invasions. Although the Nipponese were setting their sights on an eventual assault on China, Korea had the misfortune to be in the way and loyal to the Chinese emperor, and 150,000 troops laid siege to the country. Admiral Yi achieved a string of well-orchestrated victories, spearheaded by his famed turtle ships, vessels topped with iron spikes that were adept at navigating the island-dotted waters with ease.

Despite his triumphs, the admiral fell victim to a Japanese spy and the workings of the Korean political system. A double agent persuaded a high-ranking Korean General that the Japanese would attack in a suspiciously treacherous area; seeing through the plan, Admiral Yi refused the General’s orders, and as a result was stripped of his duties and sent to Seoul for torture. His successor, Won Gyeun, was far less successful, and within months had been killed by the Japanese after managing to lose the whole Korean fleet, bar twelve warships. Yi was hastily reinstated, and after hunting down the remaining ships managed to repel a Japanese armada ten times more numerous. Peppering the enemy’s vessels with cannonballs and flaming arrows, Yi waited for the tide to change and rammed the tightly packed enemy ships into one another. Heroic to the last, Yi was killed by a stray bullet as the Japanese retreated from what was to be the final battle of the war, apparently using his final gasps to insist that his death be kept secret until victory had been assured.

Dadohae Haesang National Park

South of the city centre, the mainland soon melts into a host of islands, many of which lie under the protective umbrella of Dadohae Haesang National Park (다도해 해상 국립 공원). Many can be accessed from Yeosu’s ferry terminal, and as with Jeolla’s other island archipelagos, these are best explored with no set plan. Dolsando (돌산도), connected to the mainland by road, is the most visited and most famed for Hyangiram, a hermitage dangling over the crashing seas. Further south are Geumodo (금오도), a rural island fringed by rugged cliffs and rock faces, and Geomundo (거문도), far from Yeosu – and briefly occupied by Britain during the 1880s, during an ill-planned stab at colonizing Korea’s southern coast – but now an increasingly popular holiday destination. From Geomundo you can take a tour boat around the assorted spires of rock that make up Baekdo (백도), a protected archipelago containing a number of impressive formations.

Hyangiram

Clinging to the cliffs at the southeastern end of Dolsando is the magical hermitage of Hyangiram (향일암), an eastward-facing favourite of sunrise seekers and a popular place to ring in the New Year. Behind Hyangiram is a collection of angular boulders which – according to local monks – resembles an oriental folding screen, and is soaked with camellia blossom in the spring.

Jogyesan Provincial Park

The small but pretty JOGYESAN PROVINCIAL PARK is flanked by two splendid temples, Seonamsa and Songgwangsa. If you get up early enough, it’s possible to see both temples in a single day, taking either the hiking trail that runs between them or one of the buses that heads the long way around the park. The park and its temples are accessible by bus from SUNCHEON (순천), an otherwise uninteresting city that’s easy to get to by bus, and occasionally train, from Yeosu.

Seonamsa

Seonamsa (서남사), on the park’s eastern side, is the closer temple of the two to Suncheon. On the way in from the ticket booth you’ll pass Seungsongyo, an old rock bridge; its semicircular lower arch makes a full disc when reflected in the river below: slide down to the water to get the best view. There has been a temple here since 861 – the dawn of the Unified Silla period – but having fallen victim to fire several times, the present buildings are considerably more modern. Its entrance gate is ageing gracefully, though the dragon heads are a more recent addition – the original smaller, stealthier-looking ones can be found in the small museum inside. Notably, the temple eschews the usual four heavenly guardians at the entrance, relying instead on the surrounding mountains for protection, which look especially imposing on a rainy day. Around the complex are a number of small paths, one leading to a pair of majestic stone turtles; the one on the right-hand side is crowned by an almost Moorish clutch of twisting dragons. Another path fires west across the park to Songgwangsa, a four-hour walk, more if you scale Janggunbong (885m), the main peak, on the way.

Songgwangsa

To the west of the park is Songgwangsa (송광사), viewed by Koreans as one of the most important temples in the country, and is one of the “Three Jewels” of Korean Buddhism – the others are Tongdosa and Haeinsa. Large, well maintained and often full of devotees, it may disappoint those who’ve already appreciated the earthier delights of Seonamsa. The temple is accessed on a peculiar bridge-cum-pavilion, beyond which can be found the four guardians that were conspicuously absent at Seonamsa. Within the complex is Seungbojeon, a hall filled with 1250 individually sculpted figurines, the painstaking attention to detail echoed in the paintwork of the main hall; colourful and highly intricate patterns spread like a rash down the pillars, surrounding a trio of Buddha statues representing the past, present and future. Unfortunately, the Hall of National Teachers is closed to the public – perhaps to protect its gold-fringed ceiling.

The Rough Guide to South Korea and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for South Korea here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover South Korea?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels