If you were to ask somebody about places to go in Korea, they would probably bring up the sprawling, concrete metropolises of Seoul or Busan. If they were better versed in geography and the happenings of the country, they might talk about some provincial capitals like Jeonju – the birthplace of bibimbap – or Pyeong Chang, the location of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Very few would bring up the tiny yet breathtaking county of Gurye (구례), nor especially the quaint farming town of Sandongmyeon (산동면) located there.
It’s no wonder Sandongmyeon is so overlooked. A tiny blip on the map – not even marked on some – it’s nearly a two hour drive from the nearest large city, Gwangju, and thus neatly hidden from the prodding eyes of most non-native tourists. It’s nestled in the rolling, bucolic mountains of Korea’s Jeollanam Province, in the southeastern part of the country. Sandongmyeon borders the vast Jirisan National Park — the oldest and one of the largest parks in South Korea — which means its landscape is both boldly wild and beautiful.
During the springtime, Gurye is checkered with a multitude of flowering honey yellow Sansuyu trees, which give name to Sandongmyeon’s most famous tourist location: Sansuyu Village. The blossoms aren’t that notable by themselves: they’re tiny, smaller than a fingernail. It’s the sheer numbers that make this location so stunning. The entire valley the town is nested in is blanketed with thousands of trees. The deep yellows blurring together combined with the yet winter-bare trees create an autumnal feel when viewed from afar, only to be shattered upon closer inspection of the miniscule blossoms.
The Sansuyu flowers are so celebrated in Sandongmyeon that they are honored with their own festival each spring (typically in late March, at the cusp of spring), and commemorated with a large sculpture perched on a hill on the outskirts of this charming provincial town. During the fall, the tree gives way to small red fruits (which immortalized on the streetlamps).
Although the Sansuyu tree is hailed as the zenith of springtime in Sandongmyeon, they aren’t responsible for all of Gurye County’s pastoral allure. Cherry blossoms, magnolias, and roses are also dispersed through the city, starting their bloom in late March. These ephemeral flowers don’t last very long, so make sure to check the cherry blossom forecast for a peak experience.
If you ever find yourself in Korea in the springtime, do yourself a favor, pack a picnic, and leave the city behind to visit this scenic country town.
If you have more than a day to spare, there are plenty of things to do in Gurye besides ogle all of the pretty flora. As mentioned earlier, the county was designated as a special tourist zone by the government. There are temples, plenty of great hiking, and some natural hot springs definitely worth checking out.
Sandongmyeon is located a convenient twenty minute drive from the town I’ve called home for the past two years – Namwon (which is worth a visit in its own right.) However, for those of you not fortunate to live as close as I do, click here for information about how to arrive at Gurye.