Boryeong Mud Festival: Not all it’s cracked up to be

July was a busy month. It was always going to be. My girlfriend visited me and stayed the duration. Naturally, we wanted to make the most of it. I had spent May and June tossing ideas around, deliberating how to squeeze the absolute best from our weekends. My working schedule (3pm – 10pm) meant we couldn’t do much travelling during the week. That said, we still got plenty done. The life of an ESL teacher (particularly one employed in a hagwon) is a nocturnal existence. I must’ve had twenty suggestions or ideas about things to do on our four weekends together, but throughout that time, there was only one constant: Boryeong Mud Festival.

It’s been called “Asia’s Number One Festival”, and not just by the press releases. Every sinner we spoke to eulogized it. Nobody, it seemed had a bad word to say about it. Until now. July, especially the early part of the month, is monsoon season in Korea. It rains, heavily. It’s clammy and sticky, but not very sunny. We weren’t surprised to arise on the Saturday on which we were making our way north to Daecheon (the city where Boryeong beach is) to overcast skies. We weren’t even disappointed as the heavens opened above our train carriage. We were in excellent spirits, our whistles whetted by a couple of early morning beers en route.

But as soon as we touched down at the festival itself, we felt a tingle of discomfort. The atmosphere was one of anticipation, but not in a good way, more anxiety. As we made our way to the changing areas, people were jostling past, being unfriendly and rude. Skipping ahead in queues (and not just the ajumas – older ladies in Korea that seem to have rite of passage through even the busiest terminals) and generally throwing daggers from one end of the place to another. We got some food. There was a lot of hustle and bustle – nothing new in Korea – but a little more sinister.

This was not what I’ve come to expect from the country. Looking around me, it was pretty clear why: there were no Koreans there. The crowd was comprised of ESL teachers and GIs on vacation from one of the numerous bases scattered around the country. “What the hell…” we thought, tucking into a bottle of soju. “Everything will be alright when we get a roll in the mud.So we finished our food and soju and headed for the entrance. We were greeted by one of the poorest set ups at a festival I’ve ever seen.

What was billed as a Mud Festival was really just a load of people getting drunk on the beach. There was an area of mud-based activities; slides; baths; wrestling areas, but you had to queue for a long time to get near any of them. One person told me she’d been queuing for over an hour to go down ONE mud slide and they closed it when she got to the front of the line. No explanation, no justification, just rudeness and mismanagement. We attached our disgruntled bodies to the back of a seemingly never-ending line of mud-hungry westerners. After about 30 minutes, we had had enough and bailed (luckily, on our way back to the beach, we came across a small mud bath and went for a dip. This was to be our only mud-based experience at Boryeong Mud Festival 2010).

The rest of the day we spent swimming in the sea and drinking on the shore… not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, granted, but it was to a backdrop of GI aggression. Later that evening, we went into town to eat. We found ourselves a Korean tour guide who led us to a shellfish restaurant, ate his share of food and promptly scarpered before picking up his share of the tab. The owner continued to try ripping us off. We refused; one of my friends got his Korean girlfriend on the line, which put the willies up the owner: we were onto him. We watched some fireworks and returned to the beach, where we figured we’d spend the night drinking beer, singing songs and having fun. Predictably, it wasn’t to be.

After a late night skinny-dipping session, we fell asleep on the beach, awaking to find our bags gone. The next morning we found them a few hundred yards away, with the stuff strewn all over the beach. My Sony mp3 player was gone, as was my friend’s mobile phone… a fitting end to a pretty disastrous trip. Since I came to Korea the people have been honest, cordial and hospitable. These three sentiments went out the window at Boryeong Mud Festival. I don’t want to come across as a naysayer, because the internet is full of people blogging negatively about Korea.

I am not.

I love it here, which is why the festival was such a shock. To be robbed in Korea is virtually unheard of. Most people I’ve spoken to seem pretty sure it was a westerner that did it and I have to agree. It’s commonplace at home, but that doesn’t excuse it. The entire atmosphere at Boryeong was wrong. In future, I’ll be careful to avoid gatherings like this. I didn’t come 6,000 miles to experience the shoddier traits of the western world. This weekend was isolated and I hope to keep it that way.

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