Outdoor Travel Trail: Discovering Jeju Island’s Most Popular UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites
Fondly nicknamed as the “Island of the Gods,” Jeju is a popular destination for Koreans, and now with easy access, Malaysians can discover the island’s spectacular UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites.
Crisp clean autumn air, birds chirping at midday and the silvery blond rastafarian heads of pampas grass rising at least seven feet above ground along a hiking trail at Geomun Oreum makes you forget one key thing about the place: Jeju, the largest island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, is still considered a potentially active volcano site.
Fondly nicknamed by locals as the “Island of the Gods,” Jeju is a popular destination for Koreans, in particular, honeymooning newlyweds looking for a romantic getaway in a beautiful setting. The threat of volcanic activity is currently minimal, for although Jeju’s mountains may not be extinct, the most recent dynamic activity according to scientists monitoring Jeju’s volcanic movements, was estimated to be 5,000 years ago at Sangchang-ri.
Jeju’s geological history spans millions of years and make for a fascinating conversation on how it permeates local culture, the landscape and even weather. The island’s combination of volcanic rock, temperate climate and frequent rainfall resembles the island of Hawaii, offering visitors an alluring range of Jeju activities: hiking trails, tangerine picking, including South Korea’s highest peak, the majestic Halla-san, exploring underground lava tubes, and horse riding along sandy beaches. This natural beauty is what earned Jeju island the coveted UNESCO World Natural Heritage designation, where three of Jeju’s most notable natural sites — Hallasan, Seongsan Ilchulbong, and the Geomun Oreum Lava Tube System — were acknowledged for ecological and geological importance ten years ago.
The island’s volcanic terrain and four seasons creates a landscape vastly different from that of Malaysia’s — instead of limestone caves, Jeju has volcanic lava tunnels, and instead of year-long, green tropical jungle, Jeju’s slopes are covered in pine and maple, amongst other species, that change according to seasons.
While Malaysians have typically been drawn to Seoul for its ample shopping choices, as well as cafes and dining experiences, an increasing number of Malaysians are spending more on authentic travel experiences, health and wellness, making Jeju the perfect destination awaiting discovery. Regular direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to the island of Jeju by Korean Air and AirAsiaX make it easily accessible for Malaysians to uncover the island’s UNESCO gems. If there was any good timing to pick up on Jeju’s UNESCO trail, it would be now, with the island’s designation now in its tenth anniversary.
The kingdom of “oreum”: exploring Geomun Oreum, Jeju’s most well-known parasitic cone
The autumn months are the most ideal for exploring Jeju’s “oreum”, when nature puts on its best show of colours: gold-hued grass underfoot, leaves of deciduous trees turning vibrant reds and yellows, and tall, silvery pampas grass nodding in the direction of a comfortable autumn chill. Closer to the middle of the crater, within the dense forest are deep crevices that have sliced through layers of scoria and basalt, creating natural water channels for purified rainwater to reach the ground. Apart from trees and trails, Geomun Oreum is littered with historical remnants of war: 20th century military structures built by Japanese invaders hiding from the Allied forces remain, used again later by the people of Jeju seeking refuge during a transitional period between 1948 and 1949, when heavy-handed, anti-communist measures were carried out to crush rebels.
Oreum — a natural phenomenon called a parasitic cone — is formed from volcanic activity, and is so abundant on the island that there are more than enough to climb one every single day of the year. Amongst the 368 known “oreum”, the most well-known is Geomun Oreum. Each oreum is uniquely shaped by the location and conditions, but Geomun Oreum, which means “black” mountain, stands out due to the density of crater vegetation that creates a darker hue on its overall landscape.
Manjanggul: one of the longest lava tunnels in the world
Only 400 hikers are allowed to ascend Geomun Oreum daily, and they have to register at the Visitor Centre for a guided tour along one of the four trails, which range from 1-4 hours in completion time. Starting the hike early in the day would be advisable, as it then allows time for lunch before moving on the next best site to visit in sequence — Manjanggul, or Manjang Cave, formed when lava flowed from Geomun Oreum 2.5 million years ago, creating astonishing underground structures like lava stalagmites and more impressively, perfectly symmetrical tunnels appear ethereal in the fluorescent lights that illuminate the tunnel chambers.
Only 1 kilometre of the 13 kilometre long Manjanggul is open for public viewing, but within that length, its standout physical traits are apparent. Passageways are well-preserved, allowing visitors a firsthand glimpse at how lava travelled in its molten state. Micro-topographic features are visible along the tunnel walls, perfectly straight, symmetrical lines running parallel with visitors as they walk further into the cave. Walking the entire length of the open section may take up to two hours, as there is only one entrance and exit along a wet and uneven floor, carved and pock marked long ago by flowing lava.
Sun-gazing at Seongsan Ilchulbong
Upon emerging from the depths of the underground lava tunnel, there may be just enough time before sundown to enjoy a spectacular view of the island atop Seongsan Ilchulbong, another one of Jeju’s famous “oreum”. Inversely, it is also known as “sunrise peak”. The climb up the 182-metre high peak is nearly 90 degrees at some parts but made convenient by a man-made staircase. Hence, it is highly popular with crowds of locals and foreigners alike, ascending the peak in all manner of attire, from heeled office shoes to hiking boots.
At sunrise or sunset, one main lookout point before reaching the top of the crater affords hikers a panoramic landscape of Jeju Island showered in golden, twinkling sunlight. When hikers reach the top, there is stadium-style seating to observe the many shapes of natural rocks and the grassy, bowl-shaped basin separating visitors from the edge of the crater. What’s clear at the peak is how the oreum received its name. “Seongsan” describes a mountain resembling a castle, and “Ilchulbong” is a summit from where one can view the sun’s movements, from sunrise to sunset.
Seongsan Ilchulbong is also the same location to see the legendary Haenyeo women of Jeju in action — a group of highly-skilled, elderly women who free dive for catch like abalone, octopus and shellfish to support their families. The divers perform their ritual four times throughout the day, with the last performance at 4PM. From the pre-dive preparations to returning with bounty, the lady divers present an impressive show, braving the currents and low visibility, yet returning with fresh catch and even slicing up some for visitors to sample.
Hallasan: South Korea’s highest peak
The UNESCO trail on Jeju island is only complete when you’ve climbed Hallasan. Standing at 1950 metres, it is the highest summit in South Korea with a diverse and vibrant ecosystem. To date, over 1,800 plant species and 4,000 species of insects and animals have been identified, awaiting exploration and discovery from hikers of all ages and nationalities.
The claim that Hallasan is an easy climb is debatable, partially depending on the route chosen. There are five main trails, all of which are not longer than 10KM and have a combination of wooden stairs and rocky basalt pathways that require good hiking sticks and shoes to navigate. To reach the highest point, hikers can choose between the picturesque but more challenging 8.7KM Gwaneumsa trail, or easier but longer Seongpanak trail which is 9.6KM to the summit. Beginner hikers have the option of taking the shorter trails like Eorimok or Yeongsil that go about 1,200 metres up the mountain, but provide views that are no less spectacular and reasonably challenging. Along these easier routes is where one sees the passion that Koreans and Jeju locals have for hiking. Anyone will feel the intensity of the hike even on these easier trails, but throughout the entire length of the trails, people who go past are from a broad spectrum of ages, from white-haired senior couples to five-year-olds accompanied by their parents.
Amidst the rocks and the Jeju flora and fauna, there is something in the crisp autumn air that energises even those amongst us who seem less able to carry feats of physical strength. During the descent, a disabled lady hiker with one leg was seen ascending the steps in crutches, wearing only basic flat shoes. Before getting duly worried, it is comforting to know that Hallasan has monorail tracks that run parallel to the trails, built for emergencies like transporting injured hikers. While this disabled hiker was not quite at a halfway point and did seem tired, she appeared undaunted and disinterested in slowing down. But on this peak known as the “mountain of the gods”, miracles are bound to happen.
Before you go:
Best time to visit: winter season, between November to February for less rain.
What to pack: Windbreaker, hat, scarf, hiking shoes, hiking stick and clothing suitable for layering.
Getting there: Direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Jeju Island are available via Korean Airlines and AirAsiaX.
Getting around: A public bus system enables visitors to get around easily. Many can also opt to rent a car.
Where to stay: Tucked away from plain view at the edge of the Yere ecological conservation area in Seogwipo, Hidden Cliff Hotel’s limestone and earthy exterior provides a luxurious stay in the middle of serenity. Honeymooning couples in particular will relish a night swim in the infinity pool, whilst weary hikers can unwind at the in-house L’Occitane Spa.
Other places of interest:
Nangpoon Bopsang: Experience traditional Jeju fine dining at Nangpoon Bopsang, featuring 50-year-old recipes carefully safeguarded by lady master chef Kim-jisoon. Enjoy dishes with premium black pork, grilled fish, cold water kimchi and organic buckwheat, completed by soju pairing options.
Osulloc Tea Museum: A passion project of Jangwon Seo Seong-hwan, the late founder of beauty conglomerate Amore Pacific, the Osulloc Tea Museum not only provides a highly insightful perspective into Jeju’s natural terrain and weather that makes it ideal for tea cultivation but also has a cafe serving all manner of tea inspired drinks and delights, as well as take-home tea products.
Travel itinerary arranged and sponsored by Jeju Tourism.