Of Moses, Mud and Fireflies
I must be pretty special! KNTO prints up brochures about many different festivals in Korea -- in English -- just for ME. That's certainly how I feel sometimes when I get off the bus (train, whatever) in some provincial town and find myself the only (or one of 2, 5, 8) foreigner. Rarely do I see a dozen foreigners at these events, yet they present cultural, historical or just downright fun sides of the country that have greatly added to my positive experiences in the two+ years I've called Korea "home." With the excellent transportation network in Korea, and relatively inexpensive accommodations, I have to ask myself why people are not taking advantage of these venues to take a break from the daily grind (and pollution!) of the city, learn more about our host country, and just unwind!
Almost every week, in almost every corner of the country, some sort of festival is happening! Besides the "main event" all of them offer various local cuisine, lots of shopping, and musical/performance events. The best way to find out when and where to find a festival to suit your individual taste is to head down to the KNTO office by Chonggak Station in Seoul. Not in Seoul? Call them? What, you're like me and don't have a cell phone? Check out their web-page. No excuses!
To start you on your way, I've detailed three of my favorite Spring/Summer festivals below. I had no particular interest in Moses, Mud or Fireflies, but these three "topics" piqued my interest enough to venture forth . . .
May: Every year along the coastline of Chindo (off the southwestern corner of the peninsula near Mokpo, connected to the mainline by a bridge), there is a phenomena known as the "Moses Miracle." Like the famous Red Sea parting of Biblical renown, a land bridge forms during the waning tides, though for just an hour or so.
You'll know when by the hordes of people who don bright yellow thigh boots (W4,000-5,000 a pair; great souvenir and practical potential) and form a line by the sea. As the tide recedes, the line presses forwards -- quite a sight from a distance.
Bring adjustable sports sandals to wear over the boots, as the rocky "bridge" could be uncomfortable. Before and after the main event you can sample the live octopus (I have to say I passed on this one), watch traditional performances (or join the ajumas in bouncy dancing when the stage opens up), or join the locals in a glass (or 2 or 10) of soju. Skip the circus. It takes forever and is amateurish, to be kind.
June: Fireflies can only live in clean, unpolluted environments, the brochures claim (OK, that's the translated version (from the original Konglish). Having experienced the joy and wonder of these creatures as a child in my native New Orleans (known for it's cleanliness??!!), I headed for the heart of Korea last year for the Muju Firefly Festival. Compared to Seoul, it did indeed seem clean, and the fireflies enclosed in the mesh cage of the official exhibit (sadly, the only ones I saw), did indeed live.
But all was not lost. The bridge across the river was turned at the festival site was brilliantly lit into a tunnel, where one could walk and look at pictures of the insects! The performances, in particular a fan-dance group from Nowon, were excellent and the locals fun. (Actually, the only foreigner I met was a local teacher. He was accompanied by an English speaking friend and we were joined by a guide sent from Seoul who's duty it was to, well, "guide" us. He didn't know a lot about the area, but after the 3rd bottle of makkolli who cares anyway.
The best part was people watching. Lots of old couples (all looking happier than the pretty couples of Seoul) sharing a stroll and a smoke, kids playing on the Korean swing (give it a try) . . . the people don't speak a lot of English, but they're extremely friendly. One of my favorite places was the museum just across the bridge, where rustic handmade tools and toys from years gone by were displayed. It was kind of fun to guess what they were! If you have a tent, you can pitch it by the river. It's a little rocky, so bring some padding.
July: The all time best fest (in my humble opinion) is the Mud Festival at Taechon Beach (though it's named for nearby Poryong, where the mud hails from). I've gone for both years now and I assume it will only get bigger for this year's 3rd installment.
While I can't say all of the changes were improvements, I can certainly recommend it to anyone who needs a break from reality. Year one, few westerners showed up, and most came for the weekend. Word of mouth must have gotten out, as I was quite impressed with the turn out last year! Still, many folks on the staff remembered me, which I found impressive! Get there Thursday to avoid the crowds, but if you can only make it on the weekend, don't fret; last year min-bak cities (tiny prefab style) sprung up everywhere, as did several overflow campgrounds. God only knows what they'll have this year. Plywood high-rises?
Part of the fun seems to be the unpredictability, the kitsch, and the surreal feeling of a town gathering to play in MUD. The staples seem to be a mud pit and slide, where frequent contests are held, and an ever growing stage for traditional and contemporary performances and contests, and the mud-man, who on whim, can really cut a rug! For a small fee, you can have mud brushed on at the mud massage tent (though the name is a misnomer, and you're better off sliding into the pit for the full treatment; the beach is right there when you've had enough).
Most contests are open to foreigners, but you can't be shy about it. Last year I walked away with tons of mud-product prizes. I think I got the disco award (audience votes) just for being foreign (no fear, lots of alternative music a la Radiohead outnumbers the Korean Pop), and the Mud Rodeo award from being a transplanted Coloradoan (though I swear I never rode a mechanical, or live for that matter, bull before).
Unless you just want to be a spectator, however, this festival is not for the shy. Photography clubs turn out in droves and mud-covered foreigners are favorite subjects! They will literally stalk you around the fair grounds, and I found it preferable to do a few posed sessions than to have people sneaking around photographing my rear in a bathing suit. I also ended up receiving a few snapshots in the mail, particularly welcome after the first year when my camera was stolen (yes, this is Korea, but watch your stuff carefully or live and learn). Last year I found myself (barely recognizable through the mud) gracing several panels on the photography exhibit.
One thing I missed last year was the Shaman's performance, and I hope she's back this year, as it was impressive! And while I skipped the 2nd annual beauty pageant -- not exactly my brand of entertainment -- the 1st one was a riot. The contestants, troopers all, paraded in hanbok and evening wear, full make-up and hair, despite a raging thunderstorm! Their escorts carried umbrellas, which were about as affective as traffic cops in Seoul. One caveat, the audience had umbrellas too, making it a little difficult to see at times. The chaos that accompanies this festival is part of it's charm. If you're in Korea mid-July, you should be at the mud-fest! Tell 'em Sonia sent you!
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