Jeonju – June 2014
I wasn’t sure why I was attracted to Jeonju. It didn’t seem to warrant much attention from tourists given its lack of internationally acclaimed attractions and it took quite a bit of stretch to get there from Seoul (3 hours on the inter-city bus).
However, it took just one picture of a delicious bowl of Jeonju bibimbap and a free ticket from Dongbo travel, and I was on my way. Jae was also quite excited to meet me there since Gongju was just an hour away and her presence was a much-needed added bonus.
The free bus dropped us off at the entrance of the hanok village and it didn’t take me long to reach Jeonju Story Guesthouse, my stay for the next two nights. My single room was comfortable and nicely decorated, and came with its own bathroom and television. Not bad for 35,000 won. The guesthouse also had a cafe at the front and was situated along the town’s wedding street.
I made my way back to the Hanok village and was increasingly perturbed by the increasing human traffic as I got nearer. Why were there so many people in this town? I sent a WhatsApp message to Jae about the said phenomenon and she replied wryly with two words, “National holiday”. Oh. Damn.
Just before crossing the street to Jeondong Cathedral, I saw an ancient fortress gate which was seemingly being ignored by the crowd who detoured like zombies across the street to the church. Pungnammun Gate was built during the Joseon Dynasty with rounded and arch-like features and the lanes around the fortress gate had local restaurants and market stalls which were also equally ignored by the crowd.
Jeondong Catholic Cathedral
At the entrance of the Hanok village stood a stately cathedral, overlooking the milling crowd. Jeondong Cathedral was flooded with local tourists armed with selfie sticks and wide-brimmed hats, both of which should be banned in large crowds. I spent half the time dodging the sticks and hats while trying to appreciate the architecture of the building and the statues around the compound. It was also extremely difficult to take a full shot of the cathedral without having a fellow visitor photo-bombing your shot; unintentionally of course. I was pretty sure I was in many of their selfie shots too.
On that particular day, entry into the cathedral was strictly reserved for members and rightly so. Imagine having to be part of the background of a selfie shot as you kneel and pray for forgiveness. I would have to kneel for almost close to eternity with the various murderous thoughts and blasphemous words forming in my mind as I avoided selfie stick after selfie stick.
According to VisitKorea, Jeondong Cathedral was built in the honor of Roman Catholic martyrs of the Joseon Dynasty on the very spot the martyrs lost their lives. On first look, the red and grey brick building seemed like any other Catholic church but take a slow walk around and you will see the unique architecture of the cathedral which sets it apart from the rest. The rectangular building is topped off with 3 domed bell towers instead of the usual steeples and its arches meet to form many crosses. Pheurontay has a detailed description of the cathedral with many beautiful pictures of the building in autumn (sans the crowd).
Right opposite the cathedral is Gyeonggijeon Shrine.
Jeonju Hanok Village
Jae hopped into town with her friend and we started off by having a huge bowl of patbingsu in a cafe. I loved it and tried very hard not to polish off the shaved ice, red beans and rice cakes all by myself as it was meant to be shared.
Jeonju Hanok Maul consists of 800 traditional houses clustered together along narrow roads and back alleys. It reminded me very much of Bukchon Hanok Maul but with more inclination towards touristic endeavours – souvenir shops hawking T-shirts, keychains and postcards of Jeonju, cafes serving up bowls of patbingsu and cotton candy and stores decked out in the latest fashion of pouches, scarves and accessories.
It was a tad disappointing to see how commercialisation has overtaken much of the village but thankfully there were glimmers of hope when I spotted traditional restaurants, art galleries, calligraphy shops and pottery shops every now and then.
We soon got tired out by the crowd and plonked down on bench in a tavern and ordered the drink of sanity – makgeolli and many pieces of jeon (pancake). It was a lifesaver and we felt ready to conquer the crowd again.
Jae, her friend and I managed to find the start of the trail to the village lookout point and made our way up the slight hill together with the rest of the world. And together with the rest of the world, we started taking many pictures of ourselves with the hanok maul’s curved roofs as the background.
We ended off our reunion with a tteok galbi and cold noodles dinner in the town centre and did some mandatory shopping for make-up.
Gogung – Jeonju Bibimbap
No one leaves Jeonju without having a bowl of bibimbap.
Bibimbap was said to have originated from this town and its popularity spread throughout Korea and as they say, the rest was history.
Jae and I had our fill of bibimbap at Gogung, a two-storey restaurant famed for its golden bowls of fluffy Jeolla rice, topped with raw beef, eggs, acorn jelly and up to 30 different ingredients. Our table was also covered with up to 10 types of side dishes with ingredients I could not identify but was willing to gobble up. I was officially in bibimbap heaven as my golden bowl arrived at our table. Never had such a satisfying meal for a long time.
Read TheYummyYak’s detailed lowdown on what goes into a bowl of Jeonju bibimbap.
Jeonju Arts Street
I woke up the next morning, surprisingly without a hangover (a rarity in my Korean travels), and looked at the map of Jeonju over a breakfast of bagels and iced americano, kindly prepared by the guesthouse owner. Saw a highlighted lane labelled as Jeonju Arts Street and thought why not.
Jeonju Arts Street has interesting street art and murals together with quaint cafes and stores selling handmade trinkets. I almost, almost bought a blue tie-dyed top but decided that 35,000 won was too painful to part with for a t-shirt.
Kongnamul gukbap – Beansprout Soup
Soon, I spotted a long line outside a restaurant and the Singaporean in me kicked in automatically. I joined the queue.
Looking at the cute cartoony beansprouts that covered the entrance, I kind of guessed what I was in for – beansprout soup. You know, that tiny, white-bodied flimsy excuse for a vegetable? I stood firmly in the line, concluding that the locals in the queue should know what they were doing. Then there was a collective gasp from the ahjummas at the front when the wait staff emerged from the shop to announce that the next table would be available only in 30 minutes. Instead of heckling the poor chap together with the ahjummas, I decided to move on.
Spotted more cartoony beansprouts and decided to hop into a joint that had absolutely no queue and no customers. It felt slightly unsettling to be the only customer in the restaurant, especially when you seemed to be interrupting their own meal.
I was grudgingly served a beansprout soup set within ten minutes and the meal didn’t look that appealing. The soup has the said beansprouts floating around with chives and some pieces of other unknown vegetables and it was served with a bowl of purple rice, a packet of dried seaweed, kimchi, radish, dried shrimp paste and a raw egg. I figured that the egg goes into the steaming soup and started to tentatively taste it.
Boy was I blown away by the flavours. It was a deceptively simple looking meal bursting with multiple flavours and I started to slurp with gusto. I want this every day for breakfast.
And all that flavour for 5000 won.
PNB Bakery Choco Pies
Along the way to the hanok village, I kept spotting local tourists carrying huge orange paper bags with the letters ‘PNB’ printly clearly on the front.
It was a clear sign that they knew something that I didn’t know about.
After surveying the crowd, I tapped the shoulder of a friendly Korean mother, pointed at her orange paper bag and asked, “Eodi ya?”. Friendly Korean mother of two gave me a gummy smile and dragged me, along with her pram and 7-year-old kid, to PNB bakery or locally known as Pungnyeon Jegwa (풍년제과) which opened its doors in 1951 and stayed in business ever since.
It was the second time in the town of Jeonju that I joined a queue without knowing what I was in for and I knew it would be good.
Everyone in the store was clamouring for the bakery’s famed choco pies and the staff was furiously trying to pack the boxes into bags in order to move the line.
Wait. Choco pies? You mean that cheap chocolate-covered sponge cake with an even sweeter marshmallow filling sold by Lotte?
It was my turn and I paid for just 3 of the chocopies, each priced at 1,600 won. Unlike the marshmallow filling of the Lotte choco pies, PNB’s ones had white cream and strawberry jam sandwiched between two pieces of flaky chocolate buns covered with a heavenly dark chocolate coating.
I joined the queue again to replace the two I wolfed down outside the store.
The most popular PNB bakery is found in the hanok village but there are others along the streets outside the town centre and arts street. There’s also an outlet at the train station.