PEEKING out of the window of the aircraft, I catch sight of cloudy grey skies.

It isn’t a surprise as I am already expecting rain, during the change of season. Despite the foreseen weather, I am still raring to explore South Korea’s largest island.

After a pleasant 6½ hours’ journey, our flight, which departed at 6.50am from Kuala Lumpur, arrives safely at Jeju International Airport.

Energised after a long nap on board, I am ready to kick off my five-day, four-night Media Familiarisation Trip organised by AirAsia X and Jeju Tourism Organisation.

Lying in the Korea Strait, below the Korean peninsula in the southern part, Jeju is a popular holiday destination with Malaysians due to its amazing geographic landscapes and cultural uniqueness.

Jeju-do is quite remote — it takes more than a three-hour ferry ride from the southern part of the main island of Haenam to get here.

Due to this, the people of Jeju have developed a culture and language different from those of mainland Korea.

One of Jeju’s unique cultural significance that fascinates me is the Haenyo who brave the sea for daily catch.

Our tour guide Jin, from Jeju Core Travel (www.corejeju.com), takes us to the coastal road of Yongdam-Iho to know more about this tradition.

MERMAIDS

Located in the north part of the island, less than 20 minutes’ drive from the airport, Yongdam Coastal Road is a popular seaside destination where sea and sky stretch out seemingly forever.

Aside from the breathtaking view of the coastline, the place is famous for its rainbow-coloured barrier walls along the road.

It takes at least a 20-minute walk to cover the length of the vibrant colourful walls. If you’re into photography, this place will make you trigger-happy, especially with the blue sky as a backdrop!

We get off the bus and enjoy a short walk by the sidewalk. Jin takes us to see one of the many gold Haenyo sculptures to explain more about the women divers in Jeju.

Haenyo or Sea Women dive deep into the sea to catch seafood for a living with only a knife! They just hold their breaths as they do not use oxygen tanks.

These amazing women divers can free-dive down to 9m for at least three minutes. Their harvests consist of abalone, octopus, sea urchins, sea squirt, oyster and more.

In Jeju, the women are the breadwinner in the family. In the past, the men usually went to sea by boat to fish but the weather was unpredictable and the work precarious and dangerous.

As a result, the womenfolk had to resort to diving into the sea to put food on the table.

Traditionally, girls start to train to become Haenyeo when they are 11. They begin their training in shallow water before venturing deeper. They are considered as full-fledged only after seven years of training.

Some 98 per cent of Haenyo today are over of 50, and the oldest are in their 80s. Some have been diving for more than 66 years. Can you imagine that?

These day, the Korean government shows its appreciation for the unique contributions of the Haenyeo to Jeju’s culture by subsidising their gear and granting them exclusive rights to sell fresh seafood.

They are also on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

ISLANDS OF GODS

If you want to watch Haenyo in action, visit Seongsan Ilchulbong in Seongsan-ri, where there is the Women Diver Show daily at 1.30pm and 3pm, depending on the weather.

We head there the next day but it starts to drizzle when we arrive. Due to the bad weather, there isn’t any Haenya show. Instead, we are taken to see the other Unesco heritage site located here called Sunrise Peak.

The hill is located on the eastern part of the island and is said to have the best view of the sunrise, thus the name.

It takes a 20-minute mild hike up the trail. Don’t worry, there are many rest stops and benches if you need to take a breather. Along the way, you get different stunning views.

The peak, which is 182m above sea level, boasts another breathtaking view — a volcanic cone crater, formed 5,000 years ago by hydrovolcanic eruptions.

It is 600m wide and 90m tall, rising steeply up to the crater’s edge, lined with jagged rocks resemblinga crown.

Jeju island was created by volcanic eruptions. Legend has it that demi-gods once inhabited these lands, which is why the locals call it Island of the Gods.

GRAVITY RACE

Day Three. The weather looks favourable for some adventurous outdoor activity so we head to 9.81 Park in Aewol, a racing theme park for thrill-seekers.

This is not the typical go-kart racing. As the name suggests — 9.81 refers to the acceleration of gravity, or 9.81 m/s2 — so this awesome ride is a downhill ride using gravity to accelerate, with only brakes and steering wheels to control your ride.

The 140,000 sq meter racing park offers three gravity races and four courses. You can either opt for the GR-E which is a one-seater with a maximum speed of 40 km/h, the GR-D which is a two-seater (for couples or a parent and a child), and the GR-X which is only for drivers with a special licence.

The last option has a booster which increases speed instantaneously for up to five seconds and reaches up to 60 km/h.

I opt for the GR-E and it’s an exhilarating ride! In fact, I do not even press the brake just to let it glide faster! You get a cool view of the sea and Hallasan mountain.

At the finish line, I take my hands off the steering wheel and let the autonomous vehicle take me back to the starting line by itself. Along the way, I admire more scenic view and take selfies.

I check the app on my phone which I have downloaded earlier and see that my lap time is one minute and 29 seconds. I also achieved 23.03km/h at the fastest stretch.

CRYSTAL-CLEAR BEACH

After the cool racing experience, we head to the Handam Coastal Trail, a walkway along the shoreline in Aewol. It is considered one of the 31 hidden gems of Jeju.

The area has niche cafes which include the famous Cafe Monsant de Aewol, a new cafe run by the manager of K-Pop singer G-Dragon of Big Bang.

The modern cafe with huge glass wall is stunningly located on one edge of the shoreline with an mpressive view of the ocean.

We order drinks and snacks, and then seat ourselves by the glass window to enjoy the picturesque view of the coast. It’s so serene!

Then, we continue to Hyeopjae Beach, a crowded white sandy beach on the west side of Hanrim-eup. It’s a favourite spot for locals and tourists to take a dip in the clear cobalt-coloured seawater and enjoy the sun.

There are parasols available for rent, changing rooms and public toilets.

Another must-go spot to see breathtaking view of the shoreline is Gujwa-eup, the eastern part of the island.

A famous cafe called Gongbech is located there, is owned by Min Geum Jae, the brother of Suga from BTS, one of the most well-known K-pop artistes.

The location is stunning and the bakery cafe boasts a modern refined design with glass walls facing the sea. While enjoying your drinks, you can walk around and view a contemporary art exhibition there.

HOW TO GET THERE

AIRASIA X flies direct to Jeju, South Korea from Kuala Lumpur four times a week. As at today, it is still an exclusive route operated by AirAsia X, and it is the airline’s third direct route connecting Kuala Lumpur to South Korea after Seoul and Busan.

Fly in comfort with the Premium Flatbed, the spacious seat that reclines to become a full flat bed when desired. It also features a privacy screen, adjustable head and foot rest, as well as pillow and duvet for maximum comfort.

Those travelling on a Premium Flatbed enjoy 40kg baggage allowance, in-flight meal and entertainment, dedicated check in counter, priority boarding as well as AirAsia Premium Red Lounge access in KLIA2.

AirAsia X is the first low cost carrier in the world to introduce flatbed seats, and at reasonable prices too!

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