People who've never been to Korea ask me if it is a nice place to visit. I have a hard time answering. Korea is full of history and beauty and charmingly delightful people--all things that should make it an ideal place for the adventure tourist. However, I tend to say that it is an awesome place to live and a good place to visit if you know people there, but that it's probably not the greatest place in the world to just travel around with a backpack for a few weeks. Although lovely and relatively unknown to the backpackers of the world, Korea remains a country that is a touch overcrowded (though not with tourists and lacks the tourist infrastructure of other Asian countries which can be both refreshing and frustrating for the lone traveler). What's more though is that Koreans have limited self-appreciation of the kind of cultural sites that appeal to such foreign tourists. One is more likely to be directed to a plastic reconstructed "historical village theme park" by the locals than to the preserved ruins of the actual former kingdom a few kilometers down the road; to gaudy and badly-run festivals and tourist villages than to local markets and active village communities that show the true daily life of rural Korea. Until the Korean tourist department realizes the general dislike Western travelers have for such falsified experiences (the worst I've personally seen was a museum in Jeju of preserved insects set up in carefully done dioramas that depicted scenes from Hollywood movies with not one bit of English information about the local insects of Korea. I still have nightmares about praying mantis ET), the country will be obscured and overshadowed by its Far East neighbors who have figured out how to get our tourist dollars.
So even as relatively under traveled and undiscovered to the Western travel world as Korea is, it's not often that I feel like I've stumbled upon hidden travel gems here. One such time was our trip last year to the small island near Geoje-do of Somaemul-do. Certainly without the benefit of my own transportation, my travels are often limited to where the bus goes (which in Korea, luckily, is almost everywhere!). However, very far from the beaten path--off a poorly marked "scenic highway" and well outside any real city's limits--lies Daewonsa and the connected Tibet Museum.
Rather understated for something so unequivocally lovely, Daewonsa features natural and cultivated beauty (indeed I saw more wildlife in a temple than I've ever seen before) and temples of extraordinary detail, very well maintained. The atmosphere is unusually mysterious and reflective (although this could be because we arrived at the start of the temple-stay silence period, but I think it's also the design and intention).
It's also notable because one of the leading monks has a fascination with Tibet and the Buddhism of Tibet and has collected so many varied and eclectic artifacts and information from that country that it is now housed in a separate, lovely, three-floor structure devoted to informing Koreans about the country and culture. Especially strange is the basement "death experience" where you learn about Tibetan Buddhists' understanding about death and you can go through a zen-like exercise where you "die" to come to an understanding yourself. Min Gi was too afraid. I was about to do it, when a family with two young children wandered in. Somehow dying in front of children who were shyly saying "hello" and staring at me seemed a bit too awkward, so I ultimately declined.
Overall the temple is well worth the long trip out there. If we'd had the time, I would like to have done the temple stay, but we were unprepared for the meditation and silent reflection and fasting that they had on the schedule. So we continued on to Gwangju for dinner.
See more from our Jeollanam-do trip: