A Different Take on Korea’s Mud Festival

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Good times with good friends at the 2009 Mud Festival

My second year at the Boryeong Mud Festival couldn’t have been much different to my first experience. Where 2008 had turned out blistering heat and typhoon spawned surf, the 2009 edition of the popular Korean festival instead turned out grey skies and torrential rain. The water, so popular in 2008 when the sun was beating down, was an unappealing grey pond in which only the bravest or drunkest souls could be seen floundering about.

It wasn’t just the weather that had changed either. A year earlier I’d been fresh off a break-up and at the height of my drunken partying. I’d traveled to the festival with a posse of my closest drinking companions and spent the entire time in a drunken stupor.

2009 found me several months into my relationship with Fallon and feeling just a little more mature. While we took the same bus as all of the party seekers, we tucked ourselves into a quiet corner and tried to ignore the loud innuendo and general behavior of our still drunk from the night before travel companions.

As we rode I think I realized how much I’d changed, but also how much I missed fitting into that clique. I was used to be the obnoxiously loud drunkard at the centre of everybody’s attention, not the one scowling at them because they threw a piece of soggy Lotteria lettuce at them.

The festival got off to an inauspicious start. We stepped gingerly from the bus and out into the gloomy but still humid summer air. We’d parked by a muddy field, although not the kind of mud we’d gladly be smearing all over ourselves just a few hours later.

A friend of ours had booked a hotel through a Korean woman who made an annual job of booking up dozens of rooms in the sleepy seaside town and then renting them out to foreigners too lazy to arrange their own accommodation. We arrived to find a crowd gathered both inside and outside of the hotel, where a bewildered owner seemed to be at his wit’s end as to who to deal with his influx of clientele.

After a few minutes of waiting and asking around it became clear that there was a problem. None of us had reservations.

They did, however, have several dozen reservations in the name of the aforementioned Korean lady who was nowhere to be found. We wouldn’t be able to check in without her, and we wouldn’t be able to hit the beach while hauling our sleeping gear around on our backs. Unless, of course, we fancied sleeping in sandy, mud coated blankets.

A few revelers back from the mud

 

The displaced foreigners soon spilled out into the street, much to the chagrin of local drivers and guests who had reservations in their own names. Some of us got involved in an impromptu game of street football; others wandered off to corner stores and brought back beer rations; and a large group of us stood slack jawed as a small horde of Korean girls in string bikinis rinsed off underneath a hose on the opposite side of the road. The string bikini is a rare sight indeed in modest South Korea.

At around 1pm, three hours after we’d arrived at the festival, a teary eyed Korean woman showed up and made a harried entrance into the hotel. It turns out her credit card had been rejected to add further drama, but we were eventually able to get it resolved and get into our rooms.

With our belongings safely ensconced in our rooms, we finally made our way down to the beach. The streets were slick with mud and crowded with drunken foreigners, and we felt immediately out of place. We’d thus far managed a single beer each, and were well off the pace set by the revellers who had been drinking since the morning.

A hurried lunch at Lotteria boosted our energy levels and then it was down to the beach. We pushed through the hordes of mud covered partiers bumping and grinding to K-Pop on the steps and emerged on the wind swept and wet beach. The carnival atmosphere that had made my first Mud Festival experience so much fun had been greatly diminished by the oppressive grey of the day. The grey skies overhead seemed to sap the color from the sand and the sea.

Waiting patiently to be let into our rooms
Korean girls in bikinis? Unheard of!
A mattress in our hotel. I'm glad we didn't sleep on it.

It threatened to put us in bad spirits, but soon we met up with our friends and made our way down to the far end of the beach to see what could be found there. It seems like every year the majority of people congregate around the performance stage and the various mud wrestling pits that surround it. It’s also where the actual town centre is, so I guess it’s convenient.

The far end of the beach wasn’t without entertainment. A muddy water filled ring with a large inflatable centre acted as a weird game of capture the flag. A pretty Korean girl acted as a commentator as two groups of random people fought for a rubber key and then tried to climb the slick dome in the middle to insert it.

We attempt to climb the slick, muddy dome
Hugh shows uncharacteristic agility for an Englishman

The girls, Desiree and Fallon, seemed completely unable to maintain their footing and instead bounced around the ring giggling hysterically. Hugh and I, ever the competitors, actually tried to win the game. Slick as things were, the central dome proved impossible for me to climb – but Hugh had more success jumping at it and then having me heft him up. Hugh’s wife Kathryn snapped some choice pictures of us in this act that border on the homoerotic.

After the fun of some competitive wrestling, we lined up for the massive mud slide that terminated in a pool of muddy water. It was so much fun that we did it several times and again Kathryn was on hold to capture us emerging sodden and bedraggled from the muddy mess.

Taking the plunge down the mudslide
I wipe out on the mudslide

With all but one of us covered in mud, we decided a quick rinse in the ocean was the way to go and this, of course, devolved into various tomfoolery such as throwing seaweed about and having shoulder boxing matches.

Fallon is clearly excited to be in the Yellow Sea
I am all that is man!
Hugh terrifies the life guards by daring to go out into the deep water
While the men prepare for shoulder boxing, the girls gossip
FIGHT!
Fallon and I triumph over Dez and Hugh!
VICTORY!
I team up with Hugh against the girls
The men are bested!

The girls won. No more will be said on this.

I claim a prize anyway

Soaked and tired, we all headed back to the mimbak Hugh and Kathryn had rented with some of their friends. It was a veritable palace compared to the dimly lit hotel room that Fallon and I would be sharing with three complete strangers. A kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, and even a balcony on which we could hang our clothes to dry.

A few games of Phase 10 and Go Stop (a fantastic fast paced Korean gambling game that I’ll write about in detail sometime) and a few pitchers of Hite from the nearby Ministop had us in high spirits, and our moods only improved when Kathryn and Hugh offered to let us crash with them instead of returning to our crowded room.

Eating delicious galbi. Byron of Byron's Blog is on the right.

Buoyed by the news, we hurriedly trekked across town to collect our belongings and were soon huddled by the warmth of a galbi grill in one of the many Korean restaurants who must do ridiculously brisk business one week every year.

If you’ve not had galbi, it’s thin strips of meat which you BBQ at the table and then eat folded inside a lettuce leaf with various side dishes. My personal favourite method of delivery is with some vegetables, a slice of garlic, a healthy dollop of samchung (a bean paste), and some kimchi that has been lightly BBQed with the meat. Delicious!

We soaked up the warmth and the company of good people as we drank plenty of beer and did a few shots of soju, and even had a visit from Byron (from Byron’s Blog).

A fun fact about Korean life is the extreme availability of corner stores. Mini Stops, 7-11’s, and a thousand other variants can be found on virtually every corner of over block in a South Korean city. They stock everything a drunk traveler needs to get by – booze in 1.5 litre bottles, criminally cheap cigarettes, snack food, candy, microwaveable rice, and various other essentials.

In this case, Mini Stop provided us with a dessert. Fallon and I each eagerly grabbed up a mind blowingly good Cookies & Cream milkshake in a bag. Still one of my favourite things about Korea.

The rain was really coming down at this point, but the fireworks had begun and as we all know – you can’t not stop and look at fireworks.

Fireworks over the Yellow Sea

Holding Fallon’s hand and gazing out at the fireworks as they lit up the oppressive sky, I was reminded of how a slightly younger but much more naive Chris had gazed up at that same sky a year earlier and wondered if he would ever recover from the loss of a certain South African girl. It’s funny how a year can work such drastic changes.

 

As if it knew that most of us had emerged from the shelter of shop fronts and slick floored convenience stores, the rain bucketed down like it hadn’t all day – and by the time we retreated to the minbak we were all completely drenched.

The next day dawned just as miserable and overcast as the one before, and none of us had any great desire to revisit the muddy antics of the day before. It made me feel a little old to not be one of the drunk ones down on the beach, but I soon forgot all about that as we wolfed down delicious food at the aptly named ‘foreigner buffet’ at a hotel by the bus. Full of delicious food and still not completely clean from the previous day’s festivities, we returned to Gwangju late in the afternoon for a much needed shower and some sorely needed sleep.

My second Mud Festival experience wasn’t quite as life changing and drunken as my first, but it acted as pretty apt representation for my second year in Korea. I wasn’t the party animal that I had once been, but I was experiencing the country through entirely different eyes as a result. I’d traded in hangovers and the pursuit of pretty girls for good friends and the company of one very special girl, and that seems like a more than fair trade for me.

I’ve obviously missed the 2010 edition of the Mud Festival, but I’ll be back in Korea next year for the 2011 edition. With my friend Mark already having booked his flight to Korea for the early weeks of July, I’m obliged to take him along and show him a good time. And who knows? Maybe I can find a balance between the liquor fueled debauchery of 2008 and the low key adventures of 2009?

Looking stylish as we head out to brave the elements
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