Following on from Sunday’s guide to Seoul, here’s a guide to Busan. Now, some would say that the best thing about Busan is the international ferry terminal. Now, I would never as mean-spirited and nasty to say such a thing. Though, Busan is somewhat different – an acquired taste. Rough around the edges, raffish, edgy and raw- much like the wonderful, abundant seafood . It is also in some parts smelly and crowded – due largely to a booming population following North Korea annexing all bar the southeastern corner of South Korea during the Korean War, from which the city’s infrastructure has never completely come to terms. The city’s mish-mash geography of steep hills and valleys, bays and harbours, rivers and plains has made cohesive development challenging yet has led to innovative if not somewhat eclectic solutions, one of which being Gwangan Bridge.
Busan – and its residents – pull no punches. There’s no pretenses and fewer formalities compared with other parts of the country,this is all punctuated with a sharp, piercing brogue which often confounds both foreign visitors and Koreans from other regions. While, Seoulites tend to be vain, pretentious and consumed with money and status, Busanites are blunt, down-to-Earth and true to themselves bugger the consequences.
As mentioned earlier, Busan’s metropolitan area covers a mish-mash of geography which in turns creates a disjointed, crowded yet sprawling urban area. The main regions of interest to the traveller in Busan: are the Old Downtown area and port district in the wards of Jung-gu and Dong-gu, Haeundae – Busan’s beachside resort and answer to Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Seomyeon – Busan’s more central new downtown district and junction of subway lines 1 and 2, and Gwanganlli – Busan’s second most favoured seaside suburb.
First, let’s look at old downtown and the port area. Busan rail station is located right in the heart of this area with the international district to the west and port to the east. The international district is a hodge-podge of ethnic restaurants, bars and saucier venues. It was originally home to Texas Street – the main drinking and nightlife centre for US GIs but with the Americans no longer based in Busan, the district has largely seen Russians (both ethnic Russians and Russians of Korean descent), Chinese and Filipinos take their place. Many Russians escaped the crippling poverty of the Russian Far East to work in the ports of Busan and a significant Russian community exists. There’s also a large presence of Central Asians, notably Kazakhs and Uzbeks, though many again are of Korean descent. The area is a bit of a dive to be honest but is interesting in its own way nevertheless – where else in Korea can you find a decorative Chinese gate a hundred metres away from Filipino restaurants and exclusively Russian cafes with haggard looking Russian mamasans manning the entrance. It is quite dangerous after dusk so is best avoided at night as many of the drunks seem to get punchy as the night wears on. On a side note, Busan is also very popular with tourists from Japan and scattered all around Busan, particularly in Haeundae, are establishments catering to Japanese tourist.
Further south of the international area is the old downtown shopping district. The famous Jagalchi fish markets are worth a look where you can sample or just view the many wonderful and varied seafood delicacies on offer. The shopping district contains a series of malls and pedestrian arcades and is quite good for picking up bargains. Bear in mind, this area also can get a bit edgy and unpleasant at night, it’s the only place in Korea where in the one night – my friend’s first weekend in Korea – we were followed by a disgruntled, seemingly xenophobic group of men who verbally let us know they didn’t particularly care about Americans (he’s American) and we were denied entrance into a restaurant despite being well-mannered, sober, able to speak limited Korean – apparently the food and drink available and being enjoyed by Korean patrons was not on offer for us and our kind and we told to leave. All I could say was ‘Welcome to Korea‘! - On a side note Busan is the only place in Korea I’ve ever been to which had a segregated ‘foreigner’ bar located within a larger Korean bar, my friend and I stayed around for one drink and the amusement of feeling like caged animals – surprisingly we were the only foreign patrons! – but it soon wore off.
Straddling above the old downtown district is Yongdusan park which has an impressive statue of Korean legend Yi Sun-shin along with Busan Tower which is quite nice and worth a visit, especially if you take the escalator up from the shopping district.
Haeundae Beach and its surrounding area has been popular with Koreans for aeons and year after year is gaining further popularity with Westerners and foreign tourists, and it’s easy to see why. The beach itself is a nice, broad expanse of sand – though make sure to avoid going in the peak of summer as you’ll be sharing the sand with 500,000 others. The best time to go is around September/October when the weather’s still warm as for some unknown reason Koreans refuse to swim unless it’s the middle of summer and they can share the experience with half a million compatriots! There’s also plenty to keep you entertained outside the beach with luxury hotels, a casino, an ever-increasing number and variety of foreign restaurants, and a somewhat more laidback, easygoing attitude present than mainstream urban Korea, of Busan at least. Haeundae’s where Koreans go to relax and for the most part it’s a more relaxed, easy feel. It is also home to the popular Busan International Film Festival, or BIFF.
Seomyeon – at the junction of subway line 1 and 2 and geographically central to the metropolitan district – is a mass of department stores, office buildings and shops fanning out over an expanse of roads, alleyways and streets in which daytime shoppers and office workers are replaced at the night by people in need of good food and a good night out. There’s plenty of restaurants and bars about however it’s almost exclusively Korean as for the most part you can’t drag foreigners away from Haeundae or the Kyungsung-Pukyong university district – not far from Haeundae – with its mass of bars, nightclubs and eating venues.
Gwanganlli Beach is a nice expanse of sand surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars along with a plethora of seafood restaurants. Yet, it has one slightly unusual attraction. When you look out to sea, approximately one mile away you find the impressive Gwangan Bridge. Busan has such a problem with traffic and infrastructure due to its crowdedness and topology, it’s recently taken to building over land rather than just on land. It’s an impressive sight particularly at night when the bridge is colourfully lit.
Another place well worth a look is the UN Memorial Cemetery located to the east of the old downtown district and west of Gwanganlli in Nam-gu (district). The grounds are beautifully manicured with monuments, plaques and graves honouring the thousands of young soldiers from over a dozen countries including Canada, Turkey and Ethiopia, who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Korean War. Busan Museum, nearby the cemetery, is also worth a visit.
One last place just to the north of metropolitan Busan that you really should visit is Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist temple, a series of well-maintained, beautifully decorated Buddhist pavilions perched along the rocky coastline.
So, that’s Busan. Yes, it’s a bit rough and ready, and jagged around the edges, but that’s what gives it its appeal. Definitely worth a visit, and a weekend at Haeundae on a warm September-October weekend is a must.