When I asked my classmates where they would be heading for their graduation trip, the majority said Europe. Paris, Venice, Santorini, England. For me, it was “Jeju Island.” Their eyebrows raised, some followed with a “what?” but mainly, it was “Where the heck is that?”
Most people go to South Korea to visit Seoul. I’ve been to Seoul and loved my time there as I’ve always loved visiting cities, but for my graduation trip, I wanted to go somewhere different. Somewhere that’s less known. I wanted somewhere that’s so different than Hong Kong’s crowd, hustle and fast life.
Enter Jeju Island, a place that has its own visa policy. While I need a visa to enter South Korea’s mainland, I didn’t need one for Jeju-do. I was sold. In the end, my trip to this volcanic island was much more than a graduation trip, it was an escape and a chance for discovery and adventure.
What first hit me about Jeju was how non-touristy it is. I stayed in Seogwipo for the first three days, the second main city of the Island located on the southern side. I was surprised that the restaurants were still closed at 12 pm, and those that were opened, have little or no people. At the main tourist attractions, most of the visitors are Koreans, coming from Seoul or Busan. For these Koreans, the island is a very popular honeymoon spot. I visited very much single, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with the island itself. One of my favourite moments was being at the top of Sunrise Peak, the wind blowing through my face, flipping through my hair. I never felt so in touch with nature and never appreciated it in all its glory.
Despite being a person that hates the sun, I embraced it on Udo Island, one of Jeju-do’s smaller islands. I don’t know how to ride a bicycle, but the two-seater bike that my brother and I pedalled allowed me to explore an entire island on wheels. On this island, I discovered a culture which became one of the highlights of my trip.
The Haenyeo are the islands female divers, or as they are sometimes called real-life mermaids. I was able to see these women en route to work and while they were in the water, unfazed by the cold. The Haenyeo are mainly in their 60s or 70s, and they deep dive for fish without professional equipment. These strong-willed women are known for their independence and iron-will, a testament to the island’s ageing population. The Haenyeo’s legacy is slowly disappearing as their numbers decrease given that the younger generation chooses to pursue work in metropolitan cities in the mainland.
Jeju-do boasts several heritage sites, and other than Sunrise Peak, there is Hallasan Mountain (the island’s highest mountain), Manjanggul, the world’s longest lava tube and Jeongbang Waterfall, the only waterfall that goes straight into the ocean. It is also a culturally distinct place, particularly as it is a matriarchal society and its own language and customs. Locals are very welcoming, and the island is full of delicious food – the fresh, local seafood is particularly good.
Jeju-do might be a lover’s paradise but it is also a place of wonder and one which is still so untouched. I hope more people can go and appreciate it’s beauty, discover its culture and heritage sites, and see Jeju Island as a very unique place to visit.
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Jianne Soriano is a Hong Kong-born-Filipino that aspires to be a photojournalist. She loves to travel and East Asian cinema. Through her camera, she wants to tell stories that are undiscovered and give voices to the unvoiced. Follow her adventures in her Instagram: @jiannemsoriano through the hashtag #jiannetraveldiaries.