A bride poses with a "stone grandfather". Picture: John Borthwick

Seoul, South Korea's capital, has some 10 million citizens and at least as many smart phones, tablets and iGizmos. After several days amid its hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity - not to mention palaces, museums and restaurants - you might hanker for a short escape. Consider this trio - semi-tropical Jeju Island, historic Gyeongju and the borderline follies of Panmunjom.

For sunshine and a glimpse of Korea's early shamanic culture take a short flight to green Jeju (formerly Cheju), 100km off the southern tip of the peninsula. Korean honeymooners do, flocking here dressed in matching outfits and posing before every rock and seascape.

Wherever you travel around this lush volcanic island of 500,000 inhabitants, the "person" you most frequently meet is the tol harubang or stone grandfather. These gnomish, bug-eyed statues - some are more than 200 years old - are reminders that Jeju's shamanic culture still beats strongly. The ubiquitous honeymooning brides, dressed in hanbok gowns, provide a brilliant contrast as they pose for good fortune and a selfie beside their lava-grey grandfathers. The most famous women on the island, however, aren't the beautiful brides but haenyo, hardy local dames who dive without scuba gear to depths of 15m and pluck shellfish from the seabed.

Back on shore they then sell their catch - chopped, shelled and still wriggling. I sample a plate of raw, rubbery bits but it takes a few belts of soju whisky to finish the task.

The archaeological treasury of Gyeongju, 270km south-east of Seoul, is so rich that UNESCO designates it one of the 10 major historic sites in the world. For a golden age of almost 1000 years, this was the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57BC-935AD). Its Tumuli Park looks like a peaceful common with green, cupcake hills. They are, in fact, burial mounds sheltering the sleep of ancient kings. I enter one, the "Heavenly Horse Tomb" of King Ch'onmach'ong and find inside the daily life of the dead: the king's giant wooden coffin, golden jewellery, bronze weapons and the elaborate horse saddles that give the tomb its name.

Pulguksa Temple, with its upswept pagoda eaves, is Gyeongju and South Korea's most venerated building. Started in 528AD, it burnt down in 1593 and was then rebuilt. In 1973, Pulguksa was restored to its original form, indicating the importance as a national symbol of this grand maze of temples, bridges and pavilions, all surrounded by lakes and ornamental gardens.

Gyeongju's Ch'omsongdae Tower is a curious structure resembling a large bottle made from curved blocks of granite. The superbly preserved, 9.5m tower sits by itself in a field, and still baffles scholars. The most common theory is that it was an astronomical observatory. If so, it is the oldest in the Orient.

Join a day-trip excursion 100km north of Seoul to Panmunjom, the border of North and South Korea, and you step right into M*A*S*H land.

Watching the South Korean forces eyeball the North Koreans across the thin sullen line that separates the two reminds you that here, the Cold War has never thawed.

The US Army specialist who conducts our group shows us Panmunjom's one-hole golf course - "the shortest and most dangerous course in the world".

But it's the tailoring that tells the style-wars story. The South Korean sentries who squint, with stink-eye and fists balled, at their northern cousins just metres away wear uniforms so sharp you might shave with their creases. By contrast, the tunics of the North Koreans look like they were supplied by Joe Stalin's tailor, and their haircuts by Kim Jong-Il's barber.

The West Australian

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