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.
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.
Ancient meets modern in brilliant far east - and then they get
drunk together and eat worms
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
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
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
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.