How to travel in Korea: Love motels and inter-city buses
Korea may be the easiest country in the world for travelling, for two reasons: love motels and inter-city buses. With these, you can go anywhere in the country cheaply, easily, and without the need to book or plan ahead.
One of the sure signs of a newcomer to Korea is the question, “Does anybody know of a good hostel/hotel in City X?” There are some hostels in Korea, although not many, and they’re only for suckers – travellers who don’t know what else is available, and are thus willing to pay to sleep in a 16 person dormitory. For not much more, you can get a clean room to yourself, with cable television, an en-suite bathroom, and a bewildering variety of complimentary products*.
Such is the ease of travelling in Korea that I never book ahead, and outside of Seoul or Busan I never pay more than 30,000₩ for a room.*Some things you might receive at love motels: toothbrushes, toothpaste, condoms, water, canned coffees, traditional Korean drinks, matches and lighters. “Special features” of the room may include hot tubs, water coolers (always), computers with internet, heated or vibrating beds, exotic shower fixtures and lighting schemes, personal grooming products (always), as well as themed rooms that could contain anything at all. (In Busan, a decent love motel will probably cost at least 40,000₩, although I once stayed in a horrible place in Haeundae for 25,000₩; in the busier parts of Seoul you might have to go to 50,000₩ for a comfortable place.)
This information is good for anyone who is travelling in Korea, but to illustrate my point I’m going to use the example of an English teacher here who wakes up one Saturday morning, finds he has nothing to do, and decides on a whim to explore Korea without any plan. This is something I’ve done many times, and I strongly recommend that every foreigner in Korea gives it a try sometime; it’s fun, and easy, and you will have adventures and see parts of the country you might never have otherwise visited.
Intercity and express buses
Our hypothetical English teacher wakes up one Saturday morning and realises he has nothing to do. He calls a few friends, but they only want to go to the local foreigner bar and drink, which has become really boring, for him. He feels the need to do something, and so decides to go explore Korea by himself for the weekend.
He goes to the bus terminal in his city. There is a local bus that goes straight to the terminal, but he can’t remember what bus it is, so he catches a taxi. Fortunately, taxis are everywhere in Korea, and cheap, too. Language is not a problem because “bus terminal” is the same in Korean as it English.
Now, in some big cities there may be multiple bus terminals. In Daegu, for instance, there are Dongbu, Nambu, and Seobu bus terminals, as well as the express bus terminal. If you’re going to a specific place, you will want to know which bus terminal to go to. A travel guide or a web search should give you that information. There is also a distinction between express and intercity buses, although it’s not very important for our purposes – enough to say that the express buses go directly to their destination, whereas the intercity buses may have stops; the express bus timetables can be easily checked online, whereas the intercity ones involve doing google image searches in Korean†; †pro tip: to find these timetables online do a google image search in Korean for [your city name]+버스터미널 시간표 (bus terminal timetable). You will get a bunch of naver and daum blogs with photos of the terminal timetable. and the express buses are slightly more comfortable, although both are more like limousines than the sort of city buses you are probably used to in your own country.
Let’s assume that our traveller lives in a city with only one bus terminal. It’s not important, anyway, as our traveller has no particular destination in mind, and is happy to see whatever Korea has to offer him this weekend.
He gets to the terminal. The bus terminal is an interesting place; very Old Korea. There are small outlets selling food, a television and waiting area where children with their parents sit with harmonis and harabeojis and watch Korean television while snacking on dried squid. There is a row of ticket booths, and a large, intimidating board that looks like this:
I’ve chosen a closeup view, but the board will probably be much larger. A seperate, smaller board will probably list the prices for different cities.
Yes, it is in Korean – hopefully, you’ve taken the time to learn at least the Korean alphabet, which is really easy to do. But as far as reading Korean goes, this is as easy as it gets. Korean cities invariably have two syllable names, and those two Korean characters you see along the top are the names of cities. So even with only a cheat sheet, you can work it out pretty easily. The first word in that picture above is Daegu (대=Dae, 구=Gu). My city! Next you will see two cities listed together – this bus stops at Gyeongju (경=Gyeong, 주=ju) and Pohang (포=Po, 항=hang). Say! Those sound like some pretty great places for an impromptu weekend away! Gyeongju has all that history, and Pohang has beaches. When does the next bus leave?
And that is what our hero does – he finds a city that looks interesting with a bus that is leaving soon. He steps up to the counter and says the name of the city. The cashier doesn’t expect him to speak Korean, so she holds up 8 fingers – he gives her 8,000₩, she gives him a ticket and points through a door. He goes out to where the buses are waiting. There are signs, in Korean, saying where the buses for each city depart, but he can always show his ticket to somebody, who will point him in the right direction.
The bus arrives ten minutes before the departure time. The doors open, he gets on with a bunch of Koreans. The bus driver takes his ticket (which may or may not have an assigned seat) and he sits down. The bus is only half-full. He reclines his chair, stretches out, and moments later he is travelling across Korea, looking out the window at cities, mountains, and rice fields.
There is, of course, also Korea’s very fast and clean train system. If there is a station where you are coming from and where you are going to, then by all means take a train. It’s just that the train system is so self-explanatory – and everything is in English – that I’m not very interested in writing about it. The Korail website should give you all the information you could possibly need.
Our traveller gets to his destination, and gets off the bus. Being experienced in the ways of Korea, before he leaves the terminal, he takes a photo of the bus timetable, so he will know when buses go back to his home city.
Now it is time for him to find a place to stay for the night. Love motels deserve their own article, which I’ll get to one day. I’m crazy about love motels. Briefly, love motels are ubiquitous motels that have their sociological origins, like Korea’s bang culture, in the fact that Koreans tend to live at home until they are married. In a developed country, where people may not get married until their late twenties or thirties, this results in lots of people who need to get away from their parents for a while.
The phrase “love motel” conjures up an image of something seedy and dangerous. The truth is nothing like that. Yes, they are used by young, unmarried couples, and people carrying on affairs; yes, some of them rent rooms for two hour stays. But they are also used by business travellers and families on holiday. Koreans may snicker about them, or be embarrassed by them, but I have never stayed in one that felt dangerous. I have stayed in maybe forty altogether, and only stayed in two that I thought were gross: one was the previously mentioned bargain motel in Haeundae, another was a place in Gangnam. Otherwise, my experiences of love motels have always been positive.
There is what I call the lurve scale for love motels: at one extreme are complimentary condoms, porn channels on the television and porn videos in the hallways, vibrating beds, bizarre lighting schemes, sybaratic baths. At the other end are clean, functional motel rooms with ensuite bathrooms. How they look on the outside is usually a good indication of what you will find inside. A love motel named Go Go Motel with neon lights and a hidden car park is going to be one sort of place; whether you’re interested in exploring it is up to you.
But what of our traveller, who has ventured off to a strange city, without having booked a place to stay, or any idea where he will find such somewhere for the night? Here is the thing:
There are many, many love motels around every bus terminal in Korea.
How many is many? A lot. As in you will step outside of the terminal, and in one direction you will see a small city of love motels.
But what of the need to book ahead?
You never need to book ahead. There are always too many love motels, with too many rooms available.
The sociological reasons for this can be gleaned in this article from Reuters on retirement in Korea. But you really don’t need to know the reasons, just accept the fact. There are always rooms available.
There are only two exceptions to this that I have found: one is a big festival in a small city. Don’t try to find a love motel at the last minute in Jinhae during cherry blossom season. The other exception is the weekend of Buddha’s birthday. Most Koreans aren’t Buddhists, so for many people this is a free long weekend to travel about and do something. For other major holidays, most Koreans go back to their hometowns to stay with their families. So motels are not a problem at this time, but public transport can be difficult during Chuseok and the Chinese New Year. The best tip at these times is to head to the cities – Seoul or Busan. You will be going against the flow of traffic.
Our traveller emerges from the terminal and spies the direction that looks love motelly. It is around 2:30pm, which is a good time to get a room. Earlier than this, and they may still be cleaning, and you may annoy them. Late at night, they may be full. He heads down the nearest street, going past the first couple of love motels. One has a sign that says “Motel” in English, which in his experience often means a more expensive place. Motel in Korean is pronounced the same, but spelled 모텔 – this is the sign he is looking for. The next has pictures of the rooms out the front – it is decked out in full love motel style, and the newness, dark glass doors and curtained car park let him know that this is a place for businessmen’s hideaways. It is probably expensive. The third motel looks right: it is older, and not particularly dressed-up, but looks simple and clean.
He goes inside. Behind the counter is an elderly couple, dozing on a matress in front of the television. But they rouse themselves when they see him.
He asks them in Korean if they have a room available, and how much, but he doesn’t need to. It’s obvious why he is there. They smile at him and hold up three fingers, meaning 30,000₩. This is his budget, so he happily pays. The elderly proprietor pantomimes brushing his teeth, and he nods; they give him a free toothbrush.
They give him a key and gesture up the stairs. He goes up to his room, unlocks it, takes off his shoes, and looks around. It is a standard love motel: a small room with a double bed, a television, a water-cooler, a small bar-fridge with two free cans of iced tea in it. There is an ensuite bathroom, of course, with shampoo, soap and toothpaste. It is neither the best nor the worst motel he has stayed at, but it’s fine. He puts his bag down, flicks through the TV channels for a moment, then decides to go explore the town. He leaves his bag behind. Nobody in Korea ever steals anything. Before he goes out again, he drops off his key with the owners of the motel, who have gone back to watching their TV program. Tomorrow, he will catch the bus back to his home city, but for now he is ready to enjoy his unplanned weekend away, making use of Korea’s inter-city buses and love motels.
Yeogwan are like motels; in fact, there is no real distinction between the two, except yeogwan tend to be more downmarket and don’t come with the interesting oddities that make staying at a love motel such a random delight. You may also come across minbaks in rural areas, which are like bed-and-breakfasts. Hostels are for suckers.
There is also the option of jjimjilbang, which is completely different, and which deserves its own article. Briefly, I’d recommend any visitor to Korea try a jjimjilbang. However I find them better as a cultural experience than as a place to spend a night, unless you enjoy sleeping on the floor with two hundred other people snoring and moving around you.