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Stay in a buddhist temple in South Korea

by Will Hide, The Times, July 5, 2008

The pre-dawn ruckus outside the temple door meant only one thing - it was time for Will Hide to pray

Seoul, South Korea -- KOREA may lay claim to the soothing title “Land of Morning Calm”, but clearly nobody had thought to pass that on to the Buddhist monk banging a gong outside my bedroom at 3.30am.

<< Will Hide and Mrs Lee take tea at the temple at Ki Rim Sa

To be fair, it was a gentle tapping rather than a full-on thrash, but still it picked away at my consciousness. I groped for my watch. I thought about dozing off again, but then came a knock at the door from my interpreter, Mrs Lee. “Will, it's time to pray.”

Many Buddhist temples in South Korea offer one or two-night stays to allow visitors to participate in the life of the monks. Ki Rim Sa, where I found myself dressed in brown robes and prostrate before three golden statues of Buddha, is half an hour's drive from the city of Gyeongju, 300km (190 miles) southeast of Seoul, the capital and starting point for my visit.

Seoul is not an easy city to get to grips with for a tourist suffering the double-whammy of culture shock and jet lag. Left in ruins after the Korean War, it has been rebuilt with a sprawling mix of uninspiring modern buildings - although the hangeul (Korean alphabet) neon signs that adorn them are novel - and multi-lane highways.

However, it compensates with a palpable energy and vibrancy from its 12 million people that make it well worth a few days' exploration. Ask for a free local “goodwill guide” through the Korea Tourism Organisation. They will lead you to areas such as Itaewon, with its lanes of cafés and boutiques, or the bars in the student district of Hongdae.

There I stopped at the Fish Dr Café to get a beer and dangle my feet in tanks of warm water while small garrufa fish nibbled my toes - relaxing, ticklish, kinky and odd all at the same time.

Your guide will help to steer you around the substantial metro system. I found it fascinating, especially the businessmen and students watching TV streaming live to their mobile phones despite being far underground.

Best of all, your new local friend can lead you through the intricacies of inexpensive, delicious, but bewildering, local food such as bibimbap (a mix of vegetables, meat and egg with rice), bulgogi (slices of marinated beef cooked on your table) and kimchi, the pungent pickled cabbage that accompanies every meal.

After three days in the capital I caught a train to the south of the country. Korean Railways has imported high-speed train technology from the French, and TGV look-alikes called KTXs connect Seoul with major cities, belting along at 300km/h. Korean ticket inspectors bow repeatedly, unlike their SNCF counterparts.

Three hours later, having passed paddy fields, forested hills and hectares of agriculturally intensive plastic sheeting, I was in Gyeongju, known as “the museum without walls”. Its sobriquet may have a whiff of tourist board sloganeering, but it's a pleasant enough city and certainly a change from Seoul's frenetic pace.

But the main reason I was here was Ki Rim Sa and my overnight temple stay. I was greeted by Mrs Lee, and a temple clerk, Miss Jung, before changing into brown robes and being shown to my room, which was bare, except for strip lighting, a pillow, roll-up mattress and duvet.

After settling in I had an early dinner - rice, vegetables, soup and tea; it's the same for every meal - before one of the monks rang the large bell to call us to the evening ceremonial service (ye-bool), a task he accompanied with one hand, while checking for text messages on his mobile phone with the other.

Not knowing what to do once inside the hall, I just copied Miss Jung, bowing three times, prostrating myself when they did, and rising as they rose. When they chanted, I hummed, my Korean thus far being limited to “hello” and “thank you”.

That evening I took tea with one of the monks in a ceremony that was much more than just preparing a quick brew. He told me, as he let the boiling water cool slightly and gently poured it on the leaves, that he had come to the temple as a 13-year-old with a painful skin condition. One night he dreamt that Buddha was lightly brushing his arms. The next day his affliction was gone and he had stayed ever since.

Early the next morning, after my middle-of-the-night wake-up call and more ye-bool, we meditated. Well, everyone else meditated - I concentrated more on trying to find a way to sit cross-legged without looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame's more posture-challenged cousin.

After five minutes of fidgeting and closed eyes, I was asked what I had thought about while meditating. I said I'd been concentrating on the lovely birdsong that was the only sound around me as the sun rose outside. Mrs Lee looked stern. “That's not the way to enlightenment,” she corrected. “Ah, right,” I replied, which actually meant “give it a rest love, it's only just gone 4.30am”. Does Richard Gere have this trouble?

After a peaceful stroll through the temple's tea gardens, I folded my robes, bowed to Mrs Lee a final time and changed back into my jeans and T-shirt. A quick change from ancient to modern. Rather like Korea itself.


The Korea Tourism Organisation (020-7321 2535, www.visitkorea.or.kr) can arrange a “goodwill guide”. Apply online from 10 to 30 days before arrival.

Further information www.templestay.com

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