From her base in Sunchang, a rural town in North Jeolla Province, Lea Moreau makes forays to lesser-known destinations around Korea in hopes of sharing with others her urge to experience the wider world.
Every Wednesday and on weekends, Lea Moreau serves as Sunchang County’s Tour Bus guide, usually wearing a dress inspired by hanbok. The bus stops at major attractions of the Sunchang area, including the traditional Gochujang Village, Mt. Gangcheon County Park and Mt. Chaegye.
Hailing from Yzeron, a village of around 1,000 people near Lyon in France, Lea Moreau describes herself as “not a mainstream girl.” Much as she admires BTS and Blackpink, currently among the top K-pop groups, her favorite Korean artists are the indie rock band Se So Neon. And rather than the attractions of Seoul, she prefers life in a small town.
In Sunchang, a rural town in North Jeolla Province with rich folk culture and customs, Lea promotes tourism as a county civil servant. Naturally, tourists are surprised to have a non-Korean assigned to extoll the county’s tourist hotspots. Her Korean pronunciation isn’t perfect, but Moreau smoothly creates a pleasant vibe as she conveys insights.
While Sunchang is famous for its gochujang (red pepper paste) and has many scenic spots, it is also rather off the beaten track. To attract more visitors and help them move around easily, the county created a bus tour in 2019 and searched for an onboard guide.
A friend of Lea’s who runs a jazz café in town recommended her. “My friend argued that I could help attract both Koreans and foreigners because I speak French, English and Korean,” Lea says. She already had a YouTube travel channel and some experience in the tourism industry.
When the county decided to create the position of tourism promotion officer for her, it had to get the green light from “higher up” authorities to hire a foreigner into the civil service sector. Six months later she was employed. Locals call her the “French gongmuwon,” meaning the “French public servant.”
Lea is a popular figure around the county. She rides about on her scooter, its cubbyhole filled with items such as work gloves, a pair of baggy work pants, a camera and a hanbok. In the course of her job, she never knows when she’ll need to lend a hand to farmers in the fields or be inspired to shoot a video. She also considers TV appearances on shows like KBS’s “My Neighbor, Charles” to be an extension of her duties.
She wants to dispel the idea that there’s little to see in small towns and show there’s much more to Korea than Seoul, K-pop and K-dramas.
It was a love of travel that brought Lea all the way to Sunchang from Yzeron. Growing up in the French countryside, she was always curious about the rest of the world. A family backpacking trip around Bali as a child lit the fuse. “We rode on motorbikes. My parents put my sister and me between their legs. I think that trip really changed my life,” she recalls. “It taught me that there are other people, other cultures and other languages. And I realized that learning another language would open up many more opportunities.”
After graduating from high school, Lea spent 18 months in Australia, working, learning English and occasionally enjoying diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Then she moved to Thailand, from where she traveled across Southeast Asia. Finally committing herself to the travel industry, she completed an online course that earned her a bachelor’s degree in tourism management. One of her course requirements was a six-month internship in any country. A Korean friend recommended Pedro’s House and Voyager’s Café in Gwangju. She arrived in 2016 and ended up working at the guesthouse for almost two years.
“I loved Gwangju,” she says. “I learned about Korean history when I was very young from my grandfather, who loved history. He taught me about South and North Korea. But I didn’t know at all about Gwangju and the democratic uprising there on May 18, 1980. It was a good place to learn about contemporary Korean history and society.”
While living in Gwangju, she traveled extensively in the Jeolla region, especially to remote places, including many nearby islands. However, those trips were taxing for a foreign backpacker due to a lack of tourist information for non-Korean speakers. That prompted her to write a guidebook with Pedro Kim (aka Kim Hyeon-seok), the owner of Pedro’s House. The book was never published, but they went online and created the YouTube channel “Jeolla Go.”
Later, curiosity about the Gyeongsang region led her to a stint at a cultural center on Geoje Island, where the shipbuilding industry accounts for most jobs. When she returned to Gwangju, the opportunity in Sunchang provided an answer for her pursuit of something permanent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted foreign visitors, so trilingual Lea Moreau is speaking Korean almost exclusively these days as only small numbers of domestic tourists visit Sunchang. They will be surprised to find a foreigner is their guide.
© Lea Moreau
A Guide on the Go
As a tourism promotion officer and seasoned backpacker, Lea delights in helping other travelers discover overlooked sites. She wants to dispel the idea that there’s little to see in small towns and show there’s much more to Korea than Seoul, K-pop and K-dramas.
Sunchang, Lea points out, is home to one of the longest chulleong dari, or “wobbly bridges,” in Korea. It is also one of the best places in the country to enjoy the cherry blossoms in spring, being less crowded than Jinhae or Hadong. In autumn, meanwhile, the colorful foliage at Mt. Gangcheon National Park is enticing.
Soon after starting her new job, however, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing tourism to a virtual standstill. The Sunchang tour bus, with its smiley face and roof that opens, specially made by joining two buses together, now only carries about 10 people a day, three days a week. In accordance with pandemic protocol, everyone undergoes a temperature check before boarding. The tours are conducted in Korean, unless foreigners are on board.
At a time when most travel is virtual, Lea’s promotional work continues thanks to social media. Once every week or so, she uploads something new to Jeolla Go, and she also collaborates with Sunchang Tube, the county’s official YouTube channel. This is the work she enjoys the most. “I love filming. When I was in high school, my class traveled to Madagascar and I was in charge of filming our trip. It wasn’t really good quality back then, though,” she says.
Evidently her skills have improved; she won a prize in a tourism video contest last year. With the prize money of 1.5 million won, she bought a drone for her film panoramas.
Around Sunchang , Lea is known as “the French public servant.” She is officially an employee of the Sunchang Microbial Institute for Fermentation Industry and her duties include promoting the gochujang (red pepper paste) and doenjang (soybean paste) for which the county is famous.
© Lea Moreau
Living the Dream
Lea recently renewed her contract with Sunchang County for another three years. “For me, the most important thing is meeting people and sharing part of their daily lives to understand more about Korea,” she explains. “The main reason that I’m staying in one place is the people I meet and friends that I make. Koreans are really welcoming. If they see a foreign face, especially in the countryside, they’ll try to offer help. For me, such an encounter is an adventure in itself.”
Lea appreciates the efforts of her coworkers at the county office to teach her about the government system and work with the fact that her Korean isn’t perfect. “I know they have really invested in me and trust me,” she says. For that she is grateful and spends 10 hours a week taking online Korean lessons.
Lea’s personal motto is, “Don’t dream your life, but live your dream.” She has many goals for the future, such as writing a book about living and traveling in Korea, doing a travel TV show, and contributing to the local community by helping to promote local businesses to provide them with a greater voice and more visibility. More than anything else, Lea says she hopes to continue inspiring people to travel and to share her global journey.
Cho Yoon-jung Freelance Writer and Translator
Heo Dong-wuk Photographer