Travel: At home with Mr Kim

Mostly ignored by tourists, South Korea holds its own against better-known neighbours, says Rachelle Thackray

'Welcome to Queen Elizabeth II" reads a bright yellow banner flapping casually at the gateway to the street of Insa-dong, Seoul's answer to London's Portobello Road market. But the Queen found her welcome far from casual in South Korea last week. Tentatively putting a foot back on to the world stage a year after the humiliation of last year's IMF bail-out, this much ignored little country has been rushing to publicise her four-day trip.

Although it made some headway during the 1988 Olympics, South Korea still has a long way to go to persuade the world of its tourism credentials. Nearly half of its annual 4.25 million tourist intake is from Japan, and while Thailand received nearly a million UK visitors last year, South Korea saw a paltry 51,000. Trekking in Vietnam or Tibet may now be de rigueur for the adventurous Brit, but most are markedly unenthusiastic and un- informed about Korea, associating it with cheap electronic goods, absurdly named cars and not much else.

There are few paeans to the riots of colour on the Korean mountains in autumn, the intricate relics and rituals of a 5,000-year-old culture, and a spicy cuisine which is among the most varied in the world.

I was in the country in anticipation of the Queen's visit. I wanted to chat with locals, wander through back alleys and consume its most potent booze. But I soon found myself being chaperoned through temple visits, palace tours and official dinners. South Korea has nothing to hide: it is simply that Koreans have the mentality of obedient children, and expect visitors to follow suit and to do as they are told.

From Seoul, I motored to Kyongju in the south, once the capital of the ancient Shilla province and nowadays a fully fledged tourist resort. Our guide was the first in a long line of Mr Kims - a quarter of the population shares the surname. He was reluctant to let us board a large white swan- shaped boat which took tourists on a stately ride around Kyongju's Lake Pomun: the last journalist to visit had, apparently, ridiculed it. In fact, it was the kind of experience that only Britons could truly appreciate. With the spring drizzle, plastic seats, huddled tourists and hum of the motor, I needed only a stale tomato sandwich to feel entirely at home.

At the town's Pulguksa temple, little old ladies with creaking bones huddled so closely on the prayer mats that heads were muffled by the backsides of the rows in front, amid hushed devotion and the rustle of anoraks. Each performed a careful, swooping ritual of prostration before large golden Buddhas whose thin black moustaches were squiggled in, graffiti- like. Multi-coloured, gorgeously textured lanterns hung from the ceiling to celebrate Buddha's birthday: red, peach, cerise, orange and fluorescent pink. Outside, beneath the temple's boat-shaped roof, a monk who could have been dressed by Rifat Ozbek was waving a microphone as he spoke to the assembled women about the Buddhist faith.

At the nearby 1,300-year-old Sokharam Grotto, platoons of young schoolgirls marched up the pathways and snapped group pictures shyly, identical with their maroon blazers, white ankle socks, chin-length black bobs and serious demeanours. I struck up a conversation in the car park with a group of women who were professionally kitted out in red Burberry shirts, hill- walking footgear and sun visors, and whose club anorak carried the legend "Sanbongwoo-ri" - "Peak of the Mountain". They were dedicated to their hobby, taking a day a month to wander the undulating, forested peaks which cover nearly three-quarters of the country. Koreans, they said, love to do things together.

I saw more evidence in the park down below, under a thick shroud of cherry blossom, where other groups were out in force. One, a Christian gathering of older women, sat cross-legged on blankets, lustily belting out choruses led by a man on a guitar before getting up for a game involving balloons passed under legs, amid shrieks of hilarity. Around them milled legions of teenagers: gawky youths in their black polo necks and light suits, and the girls, vastly more sophisticated in jeans, their childish bobs covered in outrageous streaks. Uphill, a crocodile of toothy five-year- olds, knapsacks on backs, grinned "kimchi" (the Korean national dish of salted, pickled cabbage) for the camera.

After Kyongju I stopped at Andong, a town famous for its Confucian heritage. At Hahoe folk village, descendants of Ryu Song-Ryong -

prime minister during the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea - still live in the thatched houses built centuries ago in mud-riven streets, amid magnolia and peach trees. Up a narrow alley is a 600-year-old beribboned tree, wrinkled like an elephant's trunk, at which women pray for fertility. Bearing a son is a woman's prime goal and purpose: even in modern Korea, men are considered the best.

I had tea at the house of Ryu Sun-Woo and Kim Hae-Young, the Queen's hosts in Andong, and parents to a popular soap-opera star, Ryu Shi-Won, revered by Mr Kim as "the talent". There, I supped on green tea from white china cups, chomped on puffed rice cakes, admired the mulberry- papered walls and had my bottom warmed by the heated floor system. But the Queen would have to make do with a chair.

Nooks and crannies of South Korea are as exotic as the remotest corners of any other Asian country. But in its zeal to promote the place as a Western shopper's paradise, the tourist office has missed the point. Yes, there are bargains galore to be had at Seoul's Namdaemun and Tongdaemun markets. But the keenness to present a sanitised version usurps the value of the culture. The Queen, I suspect, will have missed out on the delights of the Yet Chat Jip tea shop off Insa-Dong, where budgies fly unfettered from the rafters and a peacock sits on the windowsill, where one can choose from an enchantment of exquisitely named concoctions, and where a British health inspector would have a heart attack.

These are the places to which Britons would come running - if only they knew they were there.

SOUTH KOREA

GETTING THERE

Korean Air flies from Heathrow to Seoul every weekday at 10pm; flights last just under 11 hours, and prices start at pounds 399 for an economy return. Book through Freephone (tel: 0800 413000). KLM and Air France also fly there.

GETTING AROUND

Seoul has a subway which outdoes London's for cleanliness and efficiency. Tickets are less than 50p. Buses go from Kangnam and Sanbong terminals to places around the country. A train journey to Pusan, Korea's second largest city, takes five hours and costs less than pounds 20. Korean Air and Asiana fly internally.

FURTHER INFORMATION

British citizens do not require a visa for a visit of under 90 days. Contact Korean Tourist Board (tel: 0171-409 2100) for more details.

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