As you may know, I lived in Korea (for the purposes of this blog, I refer to South Korea as Korea, and North Korea as the DPRK) from 2006-2007, and have since made several trips back – often times making use of lax layover rules by Korea’s national carriers (Korean Air and Asiana Airlines) on my way to and from Southeast Asia. I absolutely love Korea. With extensive public transportation options, it’s easy to get from place to place via either bus or train, and thanks to recent efforts to commoditize Korean tradition for domestic and foreign tourists, there are attractions in every town.
In the summer, Korea is sweltering – in from May to June is the rainy season, with high heat and high humidity, and after that is the hot, dry summer. When I lived there, my friends and I would flock from our apartments to various beaches around the country, eager to find a beach. This is when I fell in love with the Korean coastline. Long, and full of islands with independent personalities, we would island hop, eager to learn what each had to offer the itinerant traveler. I especially liked those in the Southwest of the country, in Jeolla-nam province, where the coastline resembled that of Washington State around the San Juan Islands. Well, like the San Juan Islands with more smokers, soju, and fragrant fermented foods.
On one such sweltering weekend, my cohort of teachers and I traveled from Daejeon (our home base) via bus to Gwangju, then from Gwangju to Mokpo, and finally from Mokpo to Wan-do. Each leg of our bus route was no longer than about 1.5 hours long, and we made it to the sleepy town of Wan-do by about 3pm, after which we found an enchanting love hotel on the town’s main promenade. Note to readers, when I use words like “enchanting” to describe accommodation, it usually means…well, grotty. Not that I don’t find mildly pornographic wallpaper charming…
A solidly third tier town in size, Wan-do sits on its own island (the suffix –do means “island” in Korean), Wan-do’s main stretch catered to local tourists from other parts of the province, and locals were most definitely not used to seeing foreigners. This meant several things:
- Almost no English spoken by anyone
- Local specialties were on the menu – in this case, Wando’s local specialty…Sea Penis!
With few options to choose from to suit our snooty Western palates, we feasted on dried cuttlefish roasted over portable stove and Cass beer from the corner store. Being right by the sea meant a reprieve from the mosquitos that haunted us in the city, and once we’d had a few beers we struck up conversation (charades, really – my Korean at the time, especially Southern dialect, was not up to par) with some locals and lit roman candles over the town’s bay. Wando, as it turned out, had a lot of charm to offer.
The next day we headed on a small passenger ferry to explore the islands further afield that weren’t connected to the peninsula by bridge. Ferries leapfrogged from island to island, and we happily shared soju and more cuttlefish snacks with the middle aged Korean merrymakers on the boat. We decided to disembark rather arbitrarily at Bogil-do – and it immediately won my heart. From the meddling ajumma (middle-aged woman) who prepared our Korean-style sashimi on rice, to the almost completely abandoned beach, to the cheap cheap abalone, everything about it was perfect. My friends and I lounged on the beach with crappy English language novels, got sunburn, and swam to nearby rocky islets, and loved every minute of it.
At the time (June 2006) there was only one minbak (kind of a combination of a B&B and a hostel) on the island’s main beach. We stayed there one night before heading back to the city to work, but traveled back the year after to camp on the beach. Even then, it seemed like the secret was out – scores more folks were there than in the previous year, including some other foreigners. I’m sure the island is barely recognizable today, almost ten years later. But until I go back there, the image of it in 2006 will remain burned into my memory of my first summer in Korea.
Despite my hemming and hawing about lack of English speakers in this part of the country, Wan-do and Bogil-do are both quite easy to reach. From Seoul, you take the KTX (the high speed train) departing from Yongsan station toward Mokpo – take it all the way there, in fact. Don’t take the KTX from Seoul Station – trains there travel to the Southeast (toward Daegu and Busan rather than toward Gwangju and Mokpo). Once in Mokpo, take a cab to the bus station, and get on a bus traveling to Wan-do – they leave fairly frequently (until about 5pm). The bus station in Wan-do is rather far from the main seaside part of town, but it’s a nice stroll through the city to get there (you can go through the main market). There are several seafood restaurants in the downtown promenade, as well as motels of questionable cleanliness. Ferries depart for the islands in the morning through the early afternoon – from two different terminals: the ferry terminal in town is for boats heading to Jeju-do, while the other ferry terminal, a bit out of town, has the boats to Bogil-do. My 10 year old intel is that the only main bus line running through the seaside promenade takes riders to the latter terminal – but don’t quote me on that in 2015. It’s easy enough to make a day trip to Bogil-do, but I’d recommend staying the night for the full experience.