Back in April I spent a few days in the small southern city of Suncheon. Part of the work I did in my internship involved the Suncheon Asia Pacific Scout Center, and as I needed to head down there to meet the volunteer staff working there that season, I left a few days early to have a good look around.
In early April, before the cherry blossom had come into flower in Seoul, the trees in Suncheon were already blooming thanks to the slightly warmer southern climate. It was a real treat to see the blossom early and it made even the most ordinary Suncheon side streets look beautiful.
This massive tree was near where I was staying at a friends house. Located next to what I seem to remember was an old confucian style school, it must be hundreds of years old. Traditionally every village had a huge old tree like this, they would become meeting points and also the focal point of certain shamanic beliefs and practices. Many were destroyed during the Korean war, but this one stands, broad and tall.
With blue sky and cherry blossom the unselfconscious streets of the outskirts of Suncheon felt like something from a theme park. This kind of comfortable, scruffy at atmosphere is hard to come by in Seoul where, because of population density I suppose, low rise neighbourhoods like this are choc a block with houses, and areas that have a scruffy feel can usually also be described as somewhat unclean.
Looking out over the city from the outskirts of town you can see that the city has quite an organic construction. Unlike Korea’s new towns and cities Suncheon has developed somewhat gradually, and while not particularly grand, many vestiges of the past remain around the city.
The main place to visit on a trip to Suncheon is Suncheon Bay. This coastal wetland is a real wonder of nature and is home to many curious forms of wildlife like mudskippers and crabs that live among the reeds that grow in the muddy land and is a resting place for many migratory birds. Next year Suncheon Bay will be the host site of a world ECO GEO expo and a wonderful location, matched by a creative and innovative team mean that it should be a great attraction.
We were really lucky with the weather. My trusty tour guide suggested taking a hike up the mountain beside the bay, which is part of the park, and on such a lovely day I could hardly refuse!
The view from the path up the mountain was wonderful, from above you can see the beautiful formations of the reeds as they grow in circles in the bay.
I had visited Suncheon Bay once some years ago. On that occasion we were taken on a boat ride though the shallow waters at the edge of the bay. While it was a nice ride, it wasn’t really a good way to appreciate the scenery. There are boardwalks on which you can walk across the bay between the reeds, but the best view of the bay comes from standing completely still and looking down into the mud. The longer you look the more you see, and soon you are spotting crabs and mudskippers and all sorts! The second best way to appreciate the bay definitley has to be from the top of the small mountain that we climbed up.
The colours of the reeds from afar along with the contrast between the bay and the surrounding mountains is really beautiful, almost other-worldly.
After coming down from the mountain and having a little look in the museum near the entrance to the bay we popped into the gift shop. After looking around at some nicely designed gifts and postcards we found out way into a shop of local produce that is connected to the shop full of souvenirs. There was a really good range of teas and Korean ingredients, many organic or environmentally friendly in some way. The prices for some items seemed a bit steep but most of the goods were sensibly priced and clearly good quality. We picked up some cookies made in Suncheon and headed off to the bus stop to get back to the city.
On my second day in Suncehon I met up with a friend who was teaching in an academy there are headed off to one of the two big temples in the area. Songgwangsa, or ‘spreading pine temple’, is one of the most beautiful temples in the whole of Korea. A bumpy hour-or-so bus ride from Suncheon city centre it sits nestled among low mountains and bamboo forests.
The lanterns strung above the stream that runs beside the temple are beautiful reflected in the water. I really love their colours and seem to take a photograph every time I come across lanterns like this.
Being one of the oldest temples in the country many of it’s buildings really show their age, they re not shabby at all, but they have a kind of humble, refined feeling, the sort of enduring quiet that comes from an inanimate object that has stood for a long time.
The main hall of the temple is relatively large and spacious inside. The roof of this hall in particular is a really beautiful example of the curved slope design of old Korean roofs, which make them subtly distinct from both Chinese and Japanese examples.
My favourite thing about the temple was the toilet, and if you get the chance to visit the temple, you mustn’t leave without visiting the loo. The building looks almost like all the other temple structures, but inside in the faint light coming through small windows near the roof, you can have a very quiet and thoughtful moment of calm and relief ^^.
Up the hill from the temple is a beautiful bamboo forest. The deep green of the trunks and the leaves, the way that the sunlight filters through them and the sound of the coarse leaves rustling in the breeze make it a really magical place. At once peaceful but also incredibly alive to the senses.
After two wonderful day trips around the Suncheon area it was time for me to get to get down to business. As I was working with the Suncheon Asia Pacific Scout Center and their World Culture Village in English program as part of my internship in Seoul, it was really helpful to me to visit and have a look around and see how the program there is run.
When I visited around 120 local school children arrived for an overnight educational trip. The first thing they did was pile into the main hall and have a kind of welcoming and orientation, and then prepared to meet the international volunteers who they would be getting to know over the next two days.
Then they went to find where they would be staying in the accommodation at the center. The surroundings and the center itself are really quite beautiful with trees, flowers and open spaces among the mountains.
The center is being run by the Korea Scout Association and the local Scout council, in partnership with the Suncheon education office and Scouting at the Asia Pacific regional level. It was also the location for the Asia Pacific Jamboree in 2010!
When I visited spring was just beginning to bring it’s colours to the grounds. Unlike the centre of the city, the Suncheon Scout Center is located up among some mountains, so is a little colder, and sees spring a little later.
The World Cultural Village in English is run and put together by international Scout volunteers, young people between the ages of 18 and 30 who come to Korea for three months to work at the center. In partnership with the Korean staff they design and deliver a program of activities which range from classroom sessions of teaching simple facts about their countries to games, dances and mini-olympic style competitions.
Part of my task on visiting the center was to catch up with the volunteers and find out how they were finding their stay, what they were making of their experiences and what we might be able to do to make things better for them.
Observing the classes the school children seemed to be making a lot of the experience even if they struggled to understand English. For many of them it was their first meaningful interaction with someone from Africa or South Asia.
Through simple fun activities like learning the names of the ‘big five’ wild animals that people try to spot when on safari in East Africa the pupils and the volunteers both had a laugh while learning about each other. One of the volunteers loved to explain how when she showed the students a picture of a rhinocerous and asked them what it was, one of them put up their hand eagerly and shouted out “FIRE NOSE COW!!!” The student had made an attempt at literal translation from the Korean word.
One great thing about the Suncheon Scout Center is that the volunteers can use the outdoor space to run games and ‘Scouty’ activities that get the students out of their seats and also help to break down any embarrassment they have about using the English they have learned.
For many of the students also a trip to the center is great just as a chance to play and enjoy being outside of their school with their friends. With education in Korea becoming ever more pressurised from an earlier age, these kinds of opportunities are crucial to the emotional and physical well being of young people.
After finishing their culture classes the students gathered for the always necessary group photograph. Watching the scene from a distance I found myself really hoping that as many young people as possible get a chance to take part in programs like this. More than learning some English vocabulary, their visit to the center gave them an opportunity to meet people from countries they can’t point out on a map, and find that they are intelligent and fun to be around. These kinds of encounters can be the starting point for a genuine passion for language learning and exploring, making them something real and tangible far beyond text books and university entrance requirements.
I didn’t want to leave Suncheon at the end of my stay and I am looking forward to having the chance to go back ^^