At the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul, with a twilight parade of 10,000 paper lanterns making its way down the old temple streets, go figure I would randomly run into a guy I rode the bus with in high school. There are only about 10 million people in South Korea’s capital city after all.
He was teaching English too, and was about to head home to Nova Scotia. I asked him what I absolutely needed to do while I was still in the country.
He told me to go to the Mud Festival.
Three hours by train down the coast from Seoul is a town called Boryeong, famous for its mud. The natural mud flats are especially rich in minerals and renowned for their use in cosmetics.
So how do you attract people with mud?
I imagine someone wearing a mudpack on their face felt a refreshing breeze and thought:
“This is nice, but imagine what it would feel like on my whole body… on the beach… with a million other people…”
So the Mud Festival was born at Daecheon beach. At its 10th annual, I stood on the shell-powder sand, painted head-to-toe in cool grey mud, and let the summer breeze off the Yellow sea blow away my every worry.
But I’m getting ahead of the three-hour train ride there.
I met with a friend at Yongsan station in Seoul and got tickets for the 9:30 a.m. train to Daecheon.
I had never even taken a train before back in Canada, so being introduced to train travel on a “standing room only” ticket was a rude awakening. It’s certainly not like the image of a train in India, packed with people on the roof and hanging from the window, but it was tight. We staked out some exit stairs, which at least gave us some room to sit and stretch out our legs. Old farmwomen would climb on at each stop and we’d have to make way for their big orange buckets of bagged kimchi while they complained about us.
The festival is a big draw for foreign tourists and teachers, so the way to the beach was a cheap cab ride from the train station, with lots of maps and pamphlets in English.
Daecheon itself is a little resort town on the beach, which thrives on the nine-day festival. We checked in at the “Motel Drama” (as in, “I don’t want no…”), which was conveniently located at the Fountain Square near the beach. We had a Korean-speaking friend make our reservation in advance, but found the room was a one-bed “love hotel” style. We ended up packing it with six people, slumber party style.
In our tourist pamphlet we checked out the cartoon map of the beach site, complete with “Large Mud Experience Pool”, “Mud Self-Massage” and “Rest area for foreigner” designated by a little character with a mop of orange hair and a push-broom moustache. Daechon is a 2.5 km-long beach and as we walked from the fountain outside the Drama to the “Special Mud Stage” at the other end, we started to notice the sun-baked, greenish-grey bodies passing us. The “self-massage” is a big tented area on the beach where mud is piled up in buckets and big drums like crude oil. The idea is to grab a paintbrush and cover yourself. There’s also mud wrestling and mud pools and hoses for the uninitiated.
Since booze is sold at corner stores in Korea, and drinking in public is largely permitted, the party atmosphere of the Festival is all the more heightened. I remember a guy with a full back tattoo of Dali’s “The Elephants” and tall boys in each hand stacked up as high as the spindly mosquito-legs. The festival is a place of simple summer pleasures: renting an inner tube and floating in the shallows with mud on your face and a beer in your hand.
The town was packed with bodies of all kinds: white and black ESL teachers, local and visiting Koreans, international tourists and a roving band of Jamaican percussionists, all for a brief moment brushed down in the same grey skin tone and celebrating together. To see that kind of shared diversity in a homogenous country like Korea is true testament to the fact that mud is the ultimate equalizer. Foreigner and Korean alike: for nine days everyone’s name was Mud.
Sam Worthington is a freelance writer and one time Korean ESL teacher. The official website (in English) for the Boryeong Mud Festival is mudfestival.or.kr/lang/en/index.jsp. It includes detailed travel information and numbers for accommodation and language interpreters. Trains to Daecheon leave Seoul from Yongsan Station or by bus at Nambu Terminal, and take about 3 hours. The 2008 festival is on July 12-20.