Day Trips: Spending 18 Hours in Dynamic Busan
Halfway through 2017, I made my long-awaited return to South Korea (with this short day trip to see Busan's attractions), and boy have things changed. Back then (10 years ago), K-pop wasn't an international hit, Jewel in the Palace just finished airing and Samsung was still making really shitty phones. At the time, no one really heard much about Busan's attractions.
As I was already in Seoul, the thought dawned upon me to just make a quick 1 day trip to Busan (or Pusan). Why did I? Well, anyone who has read about the much-lauded fresh seafood and cliff-side views of the city would deem Busan to be too tempting to pass up.
The country’s second most populous city hosts the country's largest port and is situated on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. This ‘summer capital’ is very popular with holidaymakers, often seeing its population balloon during the summer months. The city also hosts regular international festivals and summits.
However, you will probably be disappointed if you were expecting a carbon copy of Seoul. Busan is just simply not as dense or commercial as its sister to the north. The dense malls that populate Seoul’s districts would find itself disassembled and spread out along the streets if they were to be located in Busan. Similarly, Seoul’s pace of living isn't quite replicated to the same degree in Busan.
Busan instead offers a more quaint and relaxed atmosphere, striking a middle ground between Seoul’s bustling boulevards and Jeju’s sprawling fields.
The most efficient and preferred way (comfort-wise) to travel to Busan is on the country’s ever reliant KTX - the short Seoul to Busan jaunt across the peninsula took just over 2.5 hours, with onboard Wi-Fi and USB charging ports available. The KTX also operates a convenient direct service between Incheon Airport and Busan.
The journey was uneventful - the mark of a good and reliable train service, and luckily, we didn’t get hijacked by any errant undead stowaways on this trip. A one-way ticket from Seoul to Busan, or vice versa costs 59,800 KRW. Do make sure to purchase these beforehand and then reserve your seats to avoid having to purchase standing room tickets.
If you plan to get in and out of the city within the day (like I did), I'd suggest that you purchase a 1-day unlimited KORAIL travel pass, which shaves off about 38,600 KRW from your return trip ticket. Not only does this option help you save money, but it also allows you to rebook tickets on an earlier or later train in case you need to adjust your itinerary/the zombie apocalypse starts from the South instead.
There are also other cheaper trains that offer less ‘glam’ onboard amenities. These are the ITX-Saemaul and Mugungwha service, which travel at a slower speed and call at more stations along the journey. Expect to save about 17,200 KRW (ITX-Samaeul) and 31,200 KRW (Mugungwha) per one-way journey by taking these alternatives.
Busan (PUS) is served by Gimhae International Airport which is situated 37 minutes from the city via light-rail. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Singapore. However, one-stop options are plentiful via Seoul either on Singapore Airlines (plus another airline) or through Korean Air/Asiana Airlines.
If you're arriving by KTX, the train will drop you off at the main Busan train station in the heart of the city. From there, you could either take a cab or utilise Busan's subway system. Though the Busan Metro has its own Hanaro card for payment, your T Money card (from Seoul) should work fine as well.
Uber does not operate in Busan, and so, make sure you download the local ridesharing app, Kakao Taxi if you require rides across the city. Similarly, Google Maps is hard to use in some instances, especially if your points of interest are off the beaten track. If you are able to read Korean, NAVER is a good alternative. Either way, you're better off utilising either the city’s metro system (for downtown Busan) or by flagging down a cab (for locations farther out). For those doing trip research, what I did in the city could very well fit into a full Busan day tour.
It usually helps to have pictures of where you want to go and a mental note of how to pronounce the names of these places if you're taking a taxi. Fares in Busan are generally on par or slightly cheaper than the fares you’ll pay in Seoul, both for the Metro and for cabs.
Places of Interest
Judging by its wares, it is apparent that the market doesn’t exist to serve foreign tourists. For instance, the first few shops we saw were hawking lighting equipment and kitchen tools. Expect an elaborate version of the shophouses that populate the many heartlands of Singapore.
For those interested in international brands, head over to Nampo-dong and you’ll find familiar brands, including the forward-thinking Gentle Monster concept store. The spread of goods on sale at Gukje was nevertheless quite impressive.
Gamcheon Cultural Village
Don’t bother thinking about walking up (or scaling rather) the steep roads that lead up to Gamcheon from sea-level, unless you want to feel like you’ve just finished a vertical marathon.
The grounds of Gamcheon village will likely be smaller than expected, with most of the murals and attractions situated along a singular path. It is quite easy to complete the route in less than 15 mins if one doesn’t stop for every available selfie opportunity (which does seems to be the main point of the place).
Deviate from the path and you’ll either find a) some sort of overgrown field that resembles a dump site or b) signs that will sternly warn you to rejoin the tourist horde.
Gamcheon, despite being a popular tourist site, is also a residential area - which means that one should observe decorum and respect for the residents while visiting. Nevertheless, while these nook and crannies do offer some fantastic photo opportunities and unique angles of the village, just be mindful of what you’re doing.
The colours of Gamcheon is a nice and refreshing change from the streets of Busan-proper, with its imaginatively vibrant colour palette being its main selling point. I wouldn't be surprised if Wes Anderson eventually decides to set a movie here, perhaps a motion picture with his interpretation of what the Little Prince would be like if he was Korean.
Despite the heat during summer, Gamcheon is a pleasant site to visit in Busan, even scenic enough to redeem that very mediocre set of pollack and chips I had when I was there.
The market is split into two sections - the ‘upmarket’ (literally) multistorey indoor offering, and the grimier but more photogenic and authentic outdoor affair. This is the largest seafood market in South Korea - an upgraded version of Seoul’s Noryanjin, with a complimentary ocean view.
Tourists won’t find much use out of most of the stalls at the market as they are catered to locals and chefs, but there are some stalls that also operate restaurants where you can choose which fish you'd like and have them cook your selections.
It would be helpful if you did speak either English or Mandarin if you'd wanna have lunch here as some stall owners will attempt to profile you and coax you into their restaurants using whatever tongue they think you’d speak. This whole business of racial targeting kind of rubbed me the wrong way, but I guess that’s just inherent in customer profiling.
For lunch, we ordered a spread of eel and was told that it would be grilled. You won’t find sweet-sauce Unagi in Korea - our eel came pre-marinated in a spicy sauce and was grilled to a greater crisp than what you'd expect to be served in Japanese restaurants.
Taejongdae is billed as the city's 'recreation area' which is to say, its a nice place to hang out at. Its main draw lies with the picturesque coastal view it offers to visitors, along with the cool seaside breeze that greets hikers. In all, it's a nice escape from the city.
There wasn’t a crowd thronging the coastal walk as I was led to believe (they were all taking the Danubi monorail) and so, a relaxing and scenic stroll along the coast is recommended for those inclined to do so.
To serve as a contrast to the constantly grey-ed out sky (was I visiting in summer or winter?), the colour of the cliffs and the sea were absolutely stunning. For photographers, this is an excellent place for a shoot because of the contrast created between the browns of the cliffs and the blues of the ocean. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
For the more adventurous of the lot, you’ll be delighted to find out that you’re actually able to trek down to the rocks as pictured above. There is a long and winding path that originates from the Yeongdo Lighthouse and continues down from the makeshift (but practical) ajumma tent eateries. From the tents, you can either turn left to reach a part rock-beach/rock-plateau or turn right to reach a clifftop platform which stands 200m above sea level. Or do both if you want, you daredevil.
However, don’t try to run back up the cliffs towards the lighthouse like I did - this isn’t the best way to qualify for elite status with Swissotel.
What I missed
The sights covered in this article are just some of the things I did in Busan and is by no means an exhaustive list of the city's attractions. There are definitely other things to visit like the world's largest department store - Shinsegae Busan.
I believe that the Oryukudo Skywalk, which is another coastal walk similar to Taejongdae might be worth checking out, but I wasn’t able to visit due to the limited amount of time I had in Busan. Similarly, I was told that the Haeundae/Gwangalli beaches, were a must visit in Summer but they were just too far from everything else. The UN Memorial Cemetery is also another iconic landmark in Busan, especially for politics and history buffs.
On hindsight, I feel like I should've spent two days in Busan because the city does have things to see/do that warrants a longer stay. However, a two-day stay would require me to lug my luggage down to the city (and back), cause me to forgo the discounts of the 1-day KORAIL pass and probably induce a host of other inconveniences. In any case, plan your itineraries accordingly as a one day tour of Busan would be insufficient for more laidback travellers especially if you wish to see things beyond Busan's main attractions.
Till next time
While Seoul has its beautiful city parks, Busan’s unique geographic is refreshing and pulls in visitors with its stunning view of the coast and the sea. ‘Dynamic Busan’ seemed to also offer a different perspective of what modern Korean culture and living are to them - an escape from the metropole (and general homogeneity) that Seoul has come to represent.
While I wished I could've stayed longer (at least 2 days in Busan is ideal), at least the KTX journey back from Busan to Seoul was peaceful.
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