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'Korea' offers guide to expatriates

2012/04/27 | 245 views | Permalink | Source

"Dak galbi" or pan-fried chicken in tangy sauce from Chuncheon, Gangwon Province

There are a lot of guidebooks on Korea but many of them seem nothing more than quick cut-and-paste jobs from information gleaned from the Internet ― dull and lacking first-hand experience. Robert Koehler's "Korea" is not that type of book.

Koehler, who has been collecting information for this book for some 15 years, has traveled throughout the country and filled the pages with his own personal experiences and observations along with at least a thousand beautiful photographs.

Koehler describes "Korea (as) a study in contrasts ― one foot in the future, the other firmly rooted in one of the world's richest cultural heritages" and makes this one of his themes throughout the book. Modern Korea and its past is interwoven in his descriptions of locations, customs and etiquette making the book that much more reader-friendly.

The hardest thing about writing this review was the amount of material that the book contains. At 750 pages ― including maps ― it literally has information on just about anything a newcomer or, for that matter, a long-term expat could ask for.

There are subway maps of the major cities, top eight lists of things to see, do and eat and road maps for various locations throughout the country including their entrance costs, hours of operation and contact numbers.

The book is divided into sections dealing with each province and the major cities.

Major tourist sites are naturally covered but it is the less-well-known sites and their insightful descriptions that make this book even more valuable.

Beautiful pictures and the histories or behind-the-scene accounts of these various sites make them even more appealing to the reader. Suggestions for places to stay with concise and accurate descriptions of their accommodations and modes of transportation are all provided.

Koehler makes no secret his love for Korean food and sprinkled throughout his book are recommendations for restaurants and dishes.

He also devotes an entire chapter to Korean food ― not just the almost-compulsory explanation of what kimchi is, but in-depth descriptions of the various stews, noodles, seafood, grilled meats and rice dishes that one might encounter in restaurants. He also provides information as to provincial specialties. Did you know that "dak galbi" (pan-fried chicken in tangy sauce) was a specialty of Gangwon Province? What about the old capital of Baekje? Its specialty is "yeonipbab" ― rice wrapped in a lotus leaf.

But what about foods encountered outside of Korean restaurants? No worries. Chinese-Korean and street foods are also included. Even the almost-taboo subject of dog meat is tastefully described.

It is no secret that Korea has a strong drinking culture and descriptions of Korean drinks ― including the alcohol content ― and drinking etiquette are provided. For those teetotalers, there is a section on teas and other non-alcoholic drinks.

The names of all the foods and drinks are given not only in English but Korean as well so those who are Korean-language challenged will have no problem in conveying their order.

When I first read Koehler's history disclaimer in which he states that he "tried to be balanced and, more to the point, non-controversial in the historical accounts given in this book" because the book is, "after all, a tourist guidebook" I was a little disappointed.

But, after reading the book, I found it to be filled with interesting historical facts presented in a more-than-fair manner. To be honest, I learned a great deal from this book that I had not read in other books ― including history books. But history isn't the only thing included. Fables and legends are also sprinkled throughout the book giving it even more depth and charm.

There is little to disparage in regards to this book. Some people might think that 37,000 won is a little steep for a guide book but when one considers the vast amount of information that this tome contains one quickly realizes that the price is more than reasonable.

I highly recommend this book not only for the newcomer to Korea but also for those adventurous old-timers who want to get out and explore the country.

Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.

By Robert Neff

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