South Korea is commonly bracketed with Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore as one of the priciest destinations in eastern Asia.
Hence, as a budget traveller, I was wary of draining my bank account and allocated only 11 days to traverse the country from top to bottom.
But I promptly extended the trip by three days after discovering I could complete my intended route from Seoul to Dajeon to Daegu to Busan for just $27 with the country’s inexpensive Mungunghwa rail system.
Operated by national transport company Korail, Mugunghwa and the more luxurious Saemaeul trains were the predecessors to the KTX high-speed network introduced in 2004.
The KTX trains, which reach speeds up to 300kmh, have ticket prices two to three times higher than the Mugungwha service and cut travelling times in half at a minimum.
However, the compact size of South Korea, which is only about 30 per cent larger than Tasmania, means high-speed rail travel is not a necessity, particularly for tourists keen to admire the passing countryside.
This was my plan as I clutched a $10 ticket and boarded a Mugunghwa train at Seoul’s state-of- the-art central rail station. I was destined for Daejeon, South Korea’s fifth largest city about 145km south of the capital.
Shuffling into my designated carriage, I peered over the shoulders of fellow boarding passengers and spotted a welcome sight – considerable leg room.
As an avid traveller standing 196cm tall, I have become accustomed to wedging my oversized frame into the ill-equipped seats of planes, trains, boats, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks.
The sensation of unfurling my long legs as I eased into the cushioned seats of the Mugunghwa train was as foreign as it was pleasurable. No sooner had I selected an appropriate soundtrack on my iPod, I found the neat suburbs of Seoul slipping by with increasing speed.
The urban sprawl stretched on and on as I peered out the wide windows at the city which had provided so much intrigue and entertainment the previous six days.
A hyper-modern metropolis adorned with enchanting ancient sites, Seoul is a pristine example of the charms of contemporary east Asia.
It may lack the quirkiness of Tokyo, where odd sights and practices are ubiquitous. But it is equally clean, efficient, technologically-advanced, blessed with well-preserved historical structures and welcoming to foreigners.
South Korean people can be so amiable and considerate you need not even ask for help to receive it.
Analysing a map on a street corner somewhere between my hostel and my intended destination, Gyeongbokgung Palace, I was inundated with offers of assistance from passing strangers.
Each time I assured the friendly local I was not lost, merely trying to decide which other sights I should visit en route to the royal palace.
The imposing complex, which was reconstructed in the late 1800s after being destroyed in the 16th century, afforded an insight into the opulence of the country’s royal family.
Flanked by the wilderness of Bukhansan National Park and the gleaming skyscrapers of Seoul’s business district, the traditionally-styled palace owns a location which symbolises the country’s rapid modernisation.
But unlike the fellow mega metropolises of nearby China, Seoul is not a smog-draped monstrosity. Eager to gain a sense of the scale of one of the world’s most populous cities, I climbed the stairs to the crest of Mount Namsan.
Nestled in Seoul’s city centre, midway between the palace and the upmarket district of Gangnam, this forested ridge gifts expansive, relatively unpolluted views of the vast city.
This vista was a vivid memory as the Mugunghwa train accelerated away from Seoul, piercing the verdant landscape of South Korea’s North-West corridor.
After two hours it deposited me at Daejeon, a less crowded city which, like the majority of South Korea’s major centres, has a strong connection to nature.
Hemmed in by mountains and bordered to its west by Gyeryongsan National Park, Daejeon is a pleasant, relaxed city.
Known as a centre for science, Daejeon hosted a high-profile Expo in 1993 and what’s left is the quirky Expo Park.
Isolated from the city’s CBD by the Gapcheon River, it seems to have been all but forgotten by the locals.
Few faces were to be seen at the park as I wandered in solitude, drawing amusement from the Simulation Theatre, the Electric Energy Pavilion and the Tower of Great Light, which was perhaps afforded too grand a name.
I later followed the river back to my guesthouse, absorbing the unanticipated tranquillity of a city of 1.5 million people. The following morning, Daejeon had sprung to life as a taxi shuttled me across town to the city’s main rail station.
The welcoming surrounds of a Mugunghwa train were my companion for the following two hours as the mountains surrounding Daejeon gave way to the lower-lying countryside of central South Korea.
I arrived at Daegu central station to find a livelier city possessed of a vibrant, well-organised entertainment and shopping district.
Similar in size to Brisbane, Daegu has the cosmopolitan appeal of Seoul minus the occasionally tiresome pace of a giant city.
Two days were frittered away so swiftly perusing its eclectic shops and relaxing at chic cafes that I left myself no time to visit the renowned Donghwasa Temple, originally constructed in the fifth century.
My final, 90-minute trip on a Mugunghwa train passed as effortlessly as my previous rail journeys and at a cost of just $7.
The grand central hall of Busan train station was flooded by a mix of commuters, traders and domestic tourists, who doubtlessly were attracted by the city’s famed food, nightlife and beaches.
For me it signalled the end of my South Korean rail experience, one which had been unexpectedly cheap, comfortable and calming.
Published under license from Well Travelled