Where: Namhae Island and Jirisan National Park, Keungsangnam-do, South Korea.
When: September 2013
Why: Jeff, two friends and I took a road trip to Namhae and Jirisan NP for our Chuseok holiday. We spent two days driving around Keungsangnam-do, which is the province we lived in. We should have had a three day trip, but because of a cock-up with our car hire we had to shorten the trip.
Chuseok is the Korean equivalent of Christmas. This harvest festival is the time that all Koreans travel to see their families – so it is a very busy time for travel in South Korea.
In 2012, we visited Gyeongju for the Chuseok vacation, as my parents were visiting us in South Korea and we wanted to show them a little bit more of the country.
In 2013, we decided to go abroad for Chuseok, but we procrastinated until all of the places we wanted to visit were either sold out or stupidly expensive. So we decided to do a road trip instead. To share costs (and because we love their company), we roped in two of our friends (Alex and Adam) to join us.
Korea is brilliant for public transport: there are trains, express buses and good local buses – but getting to places off the main transport corridors can still be quite difficult, so we decided to use the car to visit places we wouldn’t be able to get to by bus. We decided on a route which took us around the coast from Geoje (our island) to the neighbouring island of Namhae; then we would visit the tea plantations at Hadong, we would drive up, over and through Jirisan NP; then we would hit the highway and zoom back to Geoje. We also decided to camp to keep costs low. On our three day trip we would have one night camping by a beach and one night camping in the mountains of the national park.
Sadly for us, we didn’t have three days. Due to a cock-up at the car hire company (the office being closed on Chuseok) we only had two days and so we did the same trip, just much faster. As I was the only driver and I hadn’t driven in two years, by the end of the trip I was exhausted. However, it was well worth it and I’m really glad we got to see this part of Korea.
Namhae Island is very much like Geoje, but quieter: there are mountains, bendy roads, golden beaches in bays, mountain top temples, rice paddies and silver sparkly seas.
The area around Hadong and Jirisan was much more dramatic. Here the scenery was stunning. We drove through wide river valleys, past steep mountains, past white water rivers. We took one road through the park which I think must be the most dramatic, highest road in South Korea. It was scary and thrilling to drive, and the views were stupendous.
This area of Korea (the area we live in) is so beautiful: it is the counter-point to the conurbation of Seoul. This is old Korea, with less tower blocks and more rice paddies. In the rural south, life is slower and less-stressed.
Perhaps one of the reasons that I liked Namhae and Jirisan so much is that we visited at the end of September when the weather was just perfect. It was the end of a very hot summer, and the days and nights were just starting to cool a little: so it was hot enough to swim in the sea and camp, but not so hot that we didn’t want to do anything. The rice paddies were golden green, bursting with life, just before the harvest – but there was also a hint of autumn in the air. It was all just yum.
If you come to Korea and you have time, I highly recommend that you come to the south islands to see the other side to this fast-developing, dynamic nation. These places are off the beaten track, but well worth a visit.
Getting there and getting around
We hired a car through AVIS, as they had an office in Okpo and we could book online. I think that perhaps our booking went through an American system though, as it let us book a car to be collected on Chuseok day – but the office was closed on Chuseok day – which I discovered after trekking down there and sitting outside for an hour.
Luckily for us, AVIS were great the next day and were very apologetic. They upgraded our car and gave us a discount as an apology. The car hire for three days should have cost us W198,000 (about £120).
I hadn’t driven in Korea before (in fact I hadn’t driven in two years prior to this). I was a little nervous about understanding the traffic rules and about the notoriously bad drivers. However, I found driving in Korea to be absolutely fine and really easy – even on the highways. Speed limits are quite low in Korea, which helped me. Also, the roads are in a really good condition and the roads were well signposted, in English and in Korean. It also helped that we had a couple of good maps which I had bought at Home Plus.
Before I drove, I did a little bit of research into Korean road laws. I found this American Army Guide to driving in South Korea pdf. really useful. It contains information about road laws, speed limits and useful phrases in case you have problems.
Getting there by public transport
There is an inter-city bus station in Namhae town. There are bus connections to Busan, Seoul Nampo bus station, Masan and Hadong. Once on the island, you can get local buses and taxis. There is a bus from Namhae Bus Terminal to Sangju, which is where we camped.
The Namhae Island website has the intercity bus times and information on the local bus routes, in English.
Jirisan National Park
The easiest way to get to Jirisan National Park is to drive. We had to pay about ₩1,500 each to drive through the park.
However, there are lots of public transport options too.
There are seven park entrances in the east of the park: Daewonsa Temple, Jungsan-ni Village, Georim Village, Cheonghakdong Village, Ssanggyesa Temple, Daeseong-ni and Baengmudong Village. Jungsan-ri Tourist Village is at the base of Cheonwanbong Peak (the highest peak on mainland Korea).
There are five park entrances in the west of the park: Hwa-eomsa Temple, Seongsamjae Village, Jikjeon/Yeongoksa Temple, Moktong/Chilbuam and Banseon Village.
I haven’t found one website which details all of the transport options, though it looks like there are many ways to get to the park and around the park. The best thing to do is to make your way to the bus terminal in Jinju, Hadong, Gurye, Namwon, Ilwol, Hamyang or Sancheong, and to then take local transport from there. Most bus stations have an information office and are pretty helpful when it comes to navigating the buses.
- You can get direct buses from Busan Sasang Bus Station and Jinju, to Jungsan-ri Tourist Village and Daewonsa Bus Stop. The local bus from Jinju Intercity Bus Terminal to Jungsan-Ri goes sixteen times a day.
- A local bus runs from Jinju to Georim. There are four buses a day.
- A local bus runs approximately every hour from Hadong to Ssyanggyesa Temple. You can also get intercity buses from Busan and Jinju.
- You can get a direct buses from Hadong and Jinju to Cheonghakdong Village.
- I did see something that said there are direct buses from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to Beumgungan Valley. I’m not sure how true this is, but if you are in the vicinity it might be worth checking if it’s true (and email me if you find the answer).
- Nine buses a day run from Busan Sasang Bus Station to Gurye via the Hwaeomsa Temple entrance.They run approximately every half an hour.
- You can get a local bus from Gurye to Seongsamjae Village and Nogodon Peak.
- You can get a local bus from Gurya to Piagol. Buses run approximately once an hour.
- You can get a local bus from Namwon to Baemsagol Valley – these run about every two hours.
The above is not a definitive list of services, just the services that I have been able to find information about. I have seen information about services from Iwol and Hamyang, to places within the park too.
I will keep searching and if I find a definitive guide to the local services within the park, I will let you know.
What we did on our road trip
This Chuseok trip was primarily a road trip so that we could go and see some of the more isolated parts of South Korea. So most of the trip we spent driving and admiring the lovely scenery, listening to cool music and having a blast together.
Jeff was navigating and he did a great job. We did get a little lost once or twice, but these were more of ‘let’s go see what’s up this valley’ kind of diversions.
We drove through some cool places. The south central area of South Korea is absolutely gorgeous. There were golden valleys, rice paddies, tea-terraces, funky bridges, silver seas, dramatic cliffs, cliff-top temples, mountains, wide river valleys, marshes, white water rivers, small villages and large towns. We drove through some fantastic places.
We lived (in 2013/14) on Geoje Island. Namhae is the next big island to Geoje, and as we had heard great things about it from our colleagues, we decided to drive around the coast to go and have a look at it. Namhae is really pretty. It is an island of mountains, bays and beaches (like Geoje). However, as it is smaller than Geoje and doesn’t have any large industries, it is much quieter and more rural than our island.
To get to Namhae we drove via the city of Tongyong and the coastal road, and then we drove over the cool red, snazzily titled Changseon-Samcheonpo Daegyo Bridge to get to the island. (Sorry, no photos as I was driving).
Namhae has one main road: Road 77, the Coastal Tourism Road, which runs around the outside of the island and which goes past all of the places we wanted to visit, so we followed this.
German Village… in South Korea
The German Village is a fake German village on Namhae island, off the south coast of South Korea. I think what happened is that back in the 60s some Korean workers went to live and work in Germany, and then when they came back they built houses like the ones they had lived in in Germany.
The village looks like a modern-German village. It is spread out over a hillside, down one main street. There are a couple of cafes that serve German sausages and German beer – and that’s it. It was kind of cool to pretend we were back in Europe, though to us it was more Korean than German. We had some beer and sausages, a little wander about and then we got back in the car to move on.
There is a garden village at the top of the hill, but we didn’t go to see this.
There were a couple of car parks at the top of the hill, but they were chaotic and I got rather stressed trying to navigate with all of the other Korean drivers.
The village has an October Fest in October. Apparently it gets very, very, very busy – and the parking is even more nuts than normal. However, they do sell thousands of sausages and proper German beer, so it could still be worth a visit.
www.germanvillage.co.kr (in Korean)
(Apparently there is an American Village about 10 minutes from the German village).
After we left the German Village, we continued along Namhae Coastal Road to Sangju, a small town with a gorgeous beach which is on the south coast of Namhae Island.
Sangju was our destination for the day, as this is where we planned to camp and have a BBQ party.
The beach at Sangju is gorgeous. It is sat in a natural cove bay, with an island in the middle of the bay. The beach has lots of golden sand and it shelves quite gently. When we were there in late September the sea was really calm and as warm as bath water. It was also wonderfully quiet, with only a few foreigners and families on the beach.
At the back of the beach there was a promenade, which had funky lights running along it; then there was an area of pine-tree woods, which is where we camped.
On the other side of the woods there was a tidal river, which only filled in when the tide came in. Then there was the road and parking and a small town with one or two coffee shops, some local random stuff stores and a fish restaurant or two. Sangju in September was a sleepy little holiday town, and a lovely place to be.
We all went for a swim in the sea, then dried off on the sand. When the day began to cool we set up the tents and had us some meat. We watched the sunset with some beers in our hands – before having a cool night of great food and great company.
The next morning, I woke up at six so I could go photograph the beautiful sunrise. There were a few people up with me, even though it was early. I sat on the sand for ages, drinking in the sparkly new day. It was lovely.
You can find out more about Sangju beach at the Visit Korea website.
Cliff-top temple (Boriam Hermitage)
When I went to get something from the car in the night, I thought that I could see some lights on top of the mountain behind Sangju. I wondered what was up there though, as I had only noticed cliffs at the top of the mountain.
The next morning, I went to have a look see through my camera zoom, and I saw that there was an amazing temple, clinging to the cliff face. This is Boriam Hermitage. It sits at the top of Geumsan (Gold Mountain), the highest mountain on Namhae. Apparently, the view from the 10,000 Buddhas Hall is spectacular.
Boriam seems to be one of the most stunningly located temples I think I have seen in Korea, and yet I had never heard of it. There are so many of these hidden gems in Korea, off the tourist trail, and you wonder why they aren’t famous. Every time I think I know Korea, I find something like this; a hidden delight that throws me off balance. I find it really strange that you will over-hear about certain fake tourist attractions, such as Expos, and yet you never hear about these stunning places that could be world renowned and which certainly should be celebrated.
Sadly, because we didn’t have time and because I was a little nervous about damaging the hire car – we didn’t have a chance to visit the temple; but this temple is the main reason I want to return to Namhae. It looks amazing! (Check out the Seoul State of Mind photo blog for some amazing photographs taken at the temple).
I had planned for us to visit Daraengi Villager too after seeing some photos of the dramatic scenery of rice terraces running down sheer cliffs to the sea; but sadly, again, we didn’t have time. Another reason to go back.
Go Go Go Go Golden Gate, Golden Gate (Namhae Bridge)
To the north of the island, on the way to Hadong, the coastal road goes over a miniature replica of the Golden Gate bridge. It’s a cool, single track bridge that takes you off the island. There is a a place you can pull in for photos and toilets just before the bridge, on the Namhae side.
Hadong and the tea plantations
Back on the mainland, our next stop was Hadong, where we hoped to find lunch and tea plantations. Sadly, the only thing open that day was a chicken burger shop and I had a rather embarrassing incident in there when I tried to tell a lady that she had a huge cricket stuck to her back (seriously, this thing was like 20 cms long), but it flew away when she turned to look and then I looked like a right numpty, poking this random Korean woman.
Anyway, Hadong seemed to be a nice sleepy town, next to a large wide river. They have a tea festival every May.
The tea plantations didn’t seem to be in town but rather they were to be found up some valleys, so after lunch we got mildly lost looking for tea plantations, driving through small Korean villages, just pootling about really. We didn’t find any tea plantations at this point.
Later on, we drove up the valley by Hwagae Myeon as we thought there might be a short cut through Jirisan National Park. Up this beautiful valley, we passed many tea plantations, a few temples (including Ssanggyesa Temple, which is famous for its cherry blossom), and a great white-water rafting river. The sun was sparkling and it was all very wild and pretty. Unfortunately, the white road on our map turned out to just be a footpath so we had to backtrack and find another way through.
Hwagae Myeon seemed to be a nice touristy place. It was on the river and it had car parks and tea houses. I think it also has a famous market and is featured in a famous Korean book. Apparently, this is a great place to see cherry blossom and is on a famous cherry blossom route. In fact, Hwagae means ‘place where the flowers bloom’.
Next to a cool bridge over the river was the Hadong Tea Cultural Centre: a cultural center where you can learn all about the cultivation of tea. We just used their car park to turn around when we got lost (thanks guys).
You can get a bus to here from Hadong.
Jirisan National Park
Jirisan National Park is a mountainous national park, based around Jirisan mountain (san is mountain in Korean, so that is actually Jiri mountain mountain). Jirisan actually means the mountain of the odd and wise people, so we fitted right in.
Jirisan national park is the oldest national park in Korea and probably also the most famous. The National Park sits between the cities of Gurye, Sancheon and Hadong. Jirisan is a stunning area of dramatic mountain peaks, gorgeous views and stunning nature. I personally think that Jirisan is one of the most gorgeous places in Korea and well worth a visit.
Inside the park there are some big mountains to climb, waterfalls, hot springs, hiking, biking and some temples. Cheonwangbong Peak is the second highest mountain in Korea (second only by 35 meters), and is the highest peak on mainland Korea. This is a very popular mountain for hiking and there are a number of temples on this mountain.
We drove into the park at Gurye. There was a toll booth as we drove into the park and we had to pay a fee of ₩1,500 each. We took National Road 861 up and over Siamjaie Pass. The 861 was a dramatic road of hairpin bends and stunning views. Driving that road was like being in a car advert. It was exciting driving.
It was all worth it as the view from the summit was gorgeous. We had gained a lot of height very quickly, and it was great to look back at the wide river valley of Gurye below us and to see the sun setting over the mountains to the west. We saw misty mountains after misty mountains. Luckily for us, we hit the pass over the mountain around sunset so we had views in gorgeous golden light and long shadows.
There were two viewing points at the pass (one had a paid car park and one was free) and there were restaurants and toilets at the top etc.
After the pass, we drove through the valleys of the national park, in the dark. We passed through some cute, isolated communities, down in the valleys, next to the rivers. We had initially planned to camp in one of these villages, one with some hot springs, but due to the car hire cock up, we had to get back to Geoje that night.
And so the trip ended with a loooooooooong drive back to the highway and back to Geoje. It was a tiring two days but I’m glad we got to see these great places and I’m looking forward to going back some day.
To find out more about visiting Jirisan National Park, visit the Korean National Park website. Some of the best hiking in Korea can be found in the park and there are lots of facilities for hikers. There are trails which take a few hours or trails which take days, and the national park runs mountain shelters and campsites for hikers. You can book a place in a shelter on their website.
Korea Climbs is a great website about hiking in Korea. They have loads of useful information about hiking in Korea and Jirisan, including maps, guides to the trails and information on how to get to the mountains.
Where we stayed
One of the great things about camping in Korea, is that you can often camp on the beaches for free. At the back of Sangju beach, there was a pine-tree clad strip of land and we camped here.
It was so lovely to be on the beach in the evening. We watched the sun set with a beer in our hands and then we had a big bbq in the wood. At night people set off fireworks over the sea. It was just yum.
There was an official campsite by the beach, which is where most of the Koreans camped. This had pitches marked out and toilets, which we were able to use. However, most of the foreigners preferred to be off in their own groups and so stayed away from the ‘official campsite’. This didn’t seem to be a problem though and other Korean families were doing the same.
If you are looking to buy a tent in Korea, then the best place to find one is at one of the big supermarkets, such as E-Mart or Home Plus, or at an online shop like G-Mart. Tent sales in the shops are seasonal. You can usually buy them from late-spring. Most of the Korean tents we found were pretty poor quality, though OK for beach camping in settled weather. Our 4-man tent cost us ₩60,000 from E-Mart and it served us well.
Most of the National Parks have official campsites which you can stay at. Some will even hire out tents too. You can find out more about the National Parks and their facilities at the Korean National Parks website and there’s a list of Jirisan campsites on the Jirisan Page.
There were small tourist offices at the bus stations in Hadong and Gurye which provided useful maps and guides to the area. Also my fantastic Korean co-teacher contacted the Gyeongsangnam-do tourist office, and they sent lots of useful maps too. Their excellent website (in English) is at www.english.gntour.com.
You can find out more about visiting Jirisan National Park at the official Korea National Park website. Here you can get details about camping, shelters and access etc.
Other useful links include:
The official government website for Namhae Tourism is at eng.namhae.go.kr.
The most informative website I have found about Namhae is this one: www.namhaeisland.wordpress.com. This website contains all the information you will need about the island, including what to visit and how to get there. It also includes information on the local bus services.
Some guy went to Namhae for the Visit Korea website, and wrote about all of the tourist attractions he went to (who would do a thing like that).
Finally, wikitravel has a basic Namhae page.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.