We had just arrived in Jeju City the night before by ferry and was about to start our two-week bicycle trip around South Korea’s Jeju Island. Just as we were heading out of town we struck up a conversation with a passerby, who happened to be a local tour guide. We asked if we could quickly interview him for our film, and also get some advice on any must-see places we may have missed on our previous trips. Chankyu turned out to have a fairly unconventional approach to discovering Jeju Island, but one that resonated with us. His advice was to not necessarily follow the usual tourist routes, but check out Jejudo’s unusual rocky forests, the small islands just off the coast of Jeju Island, try the food, meet locals and essentially make your own unique journey. We followed his advice and really had some great adventures!
Jeju Island’s Forests “Gotjawal”
The Korean word gotjawal literally means rock-forest. It describes the unique mix of trees and enormous boulders in the forests on Jeju Island – many of these primeval forests remain untouched.
Chankyu said, “Various animals and plants live there…It can feel like a jungle, it’s very cool. But because of development, these beautiful places of Jeju-do are disappearing…You should visit the gotjawal forests in Jeju Island quickly.”
Despite having visited Jeju several times in the past, we had mainly stuck to the coastal roads, so had never really visited the “gotjawal” forests of Jeju Island. This time we made a big detour inland to camp near the forest near Seogwipo, however we found a small block of land crammed with tents with loudspeakers blasting k-pop music. Dismayed, we rode our bikes to a nearby creek in the hope of finding a forest area to wild camp. We were in luck and found a small road that led to a pristine pocket of gotjawal forest next to a dry river.
The forest was dark and the trees felt ancient and wild, a little like the wild wood in “The Wind in the Willows” and was truly awesome, very unlike any forest I’ve seen on Korea’s mainland, or anywhere else. Ticks and mosquitoes abound in the gotjawal in the summer, so be careful to check tents and clothing after camping.
Visit Jejudo’s Small Islands
Chankyu recommends seeing the small islands surrounding Jeju Island – many of which are accessible by ferry. “[Go to] Udo, Biyangdo and Chaguido. They are very famous islands, so you can go there.”
We decided to explore “Udo” or Cow Island off the coast near Songsanpo. We left our bikes at ourminbak and took a ferry, and explored the island by foot.
The landscape beyond the busy beaches of Udo is rocky and barren but lovely. Traditional stone houses and peanut fields line the quiet roads. In the middle of windswept fields we found a Buddhist temple – the only one on the island. We met a monk, Dukhye, who lives there alone. He introduced us to his friend a haenyo (female diver) and a Japanese butoh dancer who was staying at the temple while performing at a local festival. We felt blessed to meet these lovely people and felt like instant friends.
They took us around the island and showed us where the haenyo usually dive and we were given our own personal performance of a Buto dance in the temple’s garden.
Meet Jeju Island’s Locals
Park Chankyu told us, “You [should] meet the people in Jeju… As well as the popular and big cities you could stay in small villages. Then [your] traveling is full of your own stories,” he said.
I find that truly the best experiences while travelling is meeting new people. Making a short film about Jeju Island provided the perfect opportunity to meet new people, which was so great. We met a lot of travellers and Jeju locals and got to know them and they opened up and shared some of their story. It seems a lot of former Seoul residents have moved to Jeju Island to escape the high-pressure city life: families who wanted a slower pace and better quality education for their kids, couples starting up cafésand galleries and young people searching for a creative and simple existence, like poet Jo Sungwon. We also made friends with locals who had lived in Jeju all their lives and were friendly, relaxed and slightly more rough and ready than many mainland Koreans.
Try the Local Jeju Island Food
In previous trips we had been a little shy about trying new food, and had eaten a lot of convenience store food and the common Korean food we knew like bibimbap, galbi BBQ meat and dwaenjang jiggae. So we tried more of the local food in Jeju-do this time, including delicious black pork BBQ called heukdwaeji (흑돼지). One variation is the heukdwaeji burger at Cafe Param which was really creative and so good! Locally grown citrus called hallabong is tangier than an orange and very tasty – but with a high price tag. So after trying some hallabong citrus initially, we opted for the hallabong citrus icy poles, they’re absolutely amazing. Jeju-do also has their own hallabong flavored chocolate. Other special Jeju Island food includes a variety of seafood such as sea urchin and abalone, of which we didn’t try as we don’t enjoy seafood, although we did try the crab which was beautifully tasty and creamy. Jeju Island’s spring water, bottled by Samdasoo, is famous for its smooth and fresh taste. In fact this is probably the best bottled water you can find in Korea.