A hillside labyrinth filled with vivid colorful houses, Gamcheon is a destination for travelers with an interest in art and history. The village has emerged from the dust of poverty to become one of Busan’s most unique attractions. Here and there, quirky murals and eccentric figures spring up, adding an artistic touch to a lesser-known part of the city.
Settled high on the hills of Saha-gu in central-west Busan, Gamcheon Culture Village (부산 감천문화마을) is probably not on the travel itinerary of many vacationers. This is not a place where you can idle on the beach nor a place where your appetite can be satisfied. Instead, this eerily quiet village has long been home to Busan’s poorest residents.
A Brief History of Gamcheon
Gamcheon began as a slum in the 1950s when the Korean War broke out. During this time, Busan was the only place in the peninsula that remained free from fighting, and thus it became the destination of an exodus.
Within a year, many parts of the city, such as the areas surrounding the Jagalchi Market, were turned into refugee camps. But these shelters were soon overcrowded, forcing many to go to nearby Gamcheon. Some 800 makeshift homes were erected, using scrap iron, wood and rocks.
The houses of Gamcheon only got their today appearance thanks to an obscure religious community called Taeguk-do. As its name implied, members of this religion believe that the true meaning of life and the universe can be found through “great polarity”, or Taeguk (yin and yang symbol). They did not only help to refurbish the shabby houses but their philosophy of “allowing others to prosper” was also integrated into the town’s architectural layout. Following this teaching, the houses are built in staircase fashion so that no house blocks any house behind it, creating an extraordinary urban landscape.
The New Appearance
Although better established by the 1990s, Gamcheon remained poorer than the rest of Busan, which busied itself by erecting skyscrapers and high-rises. Things only started changing in 2009 when the government initiated the project “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan”, bringing an artistic vibe into the village.
The once murky neighborhood was brightened up with joyful colors, quirky murals, and eccentric sculptures. Some of these artworks were even created by Gamcheon residents. From a mountainside slum, Gamcheon has been transformed into an outdoor gallery where any art enthusiast can surely enjoy.
Tips for visiting Gamcheon Cultural Village
- Gamcheon Cultural Village is accessible by subway and bus. From the city centre, take the Metro line 1 to Goejeong Station (Exit 6). Then take the bus Sakha 1 or 1-1 to Gamcheon Elementary School.
- It’s impossible not to get lost in this maze-like village, thus a map (₩ 2000) is highly recommended. Alternatively, you can follow the “fishes” which will lead you through all the village’s main attractions.
- Comfortable shoes are required to explore the steep streets of Gamcheon.
- Similar to Hallstatt or Burano, the locals are still living in Gamcheon and you shouldn’t do anything that might disturb their daily life, for example, making noise or photographing inside their houses.