The states have Hawaii, South Korea has Jeju. This island is highly rated amongst both locals and visitors alike as an island paradise. I heard many good things and received several promises. Promises that this was the best place in all of Korea I could hope to visit. My expectations were high, but as history shows, the places I usually look forward to the most turn out to be the biggest disappointments. This was Jeju.
My island paradise experience didn’t start off as so, rather a complete and utter clusterfuck. First of all, Jeju Island is a hell of a lot bigger than you’d anticipate. Being an island, it gives you a false sense that everything is within walking distance from each other, not so. Being that it takes almost 2 hours to get from one side of the island to the other, its fair to say I underestimated its size.
The worst thing of all was the absolute mind-fuck which were the bus routes. There are seemingly hundreds, all of which are impossible to decipher for the inexperienced. Despite having a super high-tech translated touch-screen system with all the information, it wasn’t helpful at all unless you knew the stop you need to go to. Such as trying to find my hostel, I had no clue which route to take. This was much the same story throughout my Jeju experience.
After jumping on a series of buses in every direction apart from the one I wanted, I took one in the somewhat correct direction. Just like a betting accumulator, it was all about waiting for the right time to cash out and hop off. Eventually I gave in and walked the last 30 minutes.
Things didn’t get easier the next morning. I decided getting a hop-on hop-off bus ticket would be a good call. It would take me to the obscure places and spare me having the stress of working out the different bus routes. The only problem, where the fuck do I get the bus?! In my confusion 2 buses drove passed as I stood fuming. I finally caught one that drove for 2 minutes before I got to the first destination…worth every penny.
The first site was Jeju Minsok Natural History Museum, which appeared to be a pleasant mish-mash of displays. The majority of which was focused on the natural history of the island. Naturally being a volcanic island, there were very detailed exhibits on the formation and structure of the island itself. As well as this there were traditional Jeju cultural displays, with exhibits demonstrating the old ways of life.
Hopping back on the bus, I knocked off a few other sites in quick succession. This included the Sarabong Lighthouse which was closed due to construction. The luck of timing.
The next site was a highlight of the island, and a quite substantial one at that. It was the Dongmunjaerae market. An enormous site which sprawlled across the area, offering any and every type of goods imaginable. Its main draw was the extensive amount of produce, particularly of the seafood variety, naturally. It was the perfect place to stop for a while and observe how Jeju functioned.
The final site I’d visit on this day would be one of the most pristine, as it should be being the former headquarters of Jeju government. It was Gwandeokjeong Pavillion, yet another example of extraordinary architectural beauty found throughout the country.
At this point I’d seen everything I’d wanted in the Northern part of the island, therefore it was time to head South. From what I could see, most of the worth-while sites could be found at the Southern end, which is where I intended to stay for the rest of my trip. To get there, strangely I had to head back to the airport. This was the only place I knew for certain I could get a bus to the other side of the island. Almost 2 hours later, I arrived.
This day perfectly illustrated the dislike of my Jeju experience. My main objective of the day was the lava tunnels back towards the North of the island. Luckily enough the super friendly staff at the hostel wrote out detailed instructions for me, telling me which buses and stops I needed to go to.
Despite one major headache being avoided, I got another one with the amount of time it took me to get there. The first bus took 2 hours, consistently stopping all across the coast. It eventually dropped me off in the middle of nowhere. I was told I could take another bus, which never arrived. The result was another 30 minute walk along backroads to the caves.
The lava tunnels themselves were extraordinary and awe-inspiring. Only a mile of the dimly-lit caves led deeper into the island revealing a number rock formations and the extent of the monstrous power which carved the vast tunnel system.
After that awe-inspiring experience, I then had to take the exact same journey back, which took more than 2 hours in total. So to sum up, I saw a single site on my second day in Jeju. I was out of the hostel for a total of 7 hours, only 30 minutes of which were spent at the site. That is yet another mark down for Jeju.
There was one saving grace to my Jeju experience, and it had nothing to do with the island itself. It was the people. Back at the hostel, they were having a Korean BBQ night, an opportunity for the hostel tenants to do some socialising. Strangely for a hostel, it was mainly filled with native Koreans, who they themselves were travelling. The time coincided with many Koreans finishing their studies, and thus heading to the country’s premier holiday destination for some relaxation. The night was spent with self-cooked meat, endless bottles of soju (a new personal favourite) and much adored karaoke.
I began the day on a more positive note, believing that seeing the sites this time would be much easier. However Jeju’s piss-poor tourist infrastructure would bring me back down to Earth quickly. All the remaining sites were tucked up against the coast, so I knew I’d only had to follow one bus route to hit them all. My first target was Cheonjeyeon Waterfall, one of the most scenic sites in all of Jeju. A series of 3 waterfalls carved by historic lava flows towards the ocean through the thick forests of the island.
This is where I also had a quirky little introduction. As I made my way along the walkways that led to each subsequent waterfall, I ran into a group of foreigners who happily introduced themselves. Amongst meeting a pair of Americans that were in Jeju for a couple of months playing music, their friend was the one who grabbed my attention.
An incredibly attractive Russian girl introduced herself. She’d give me the most interesting answer I’ve yet to receive to my default introductory question “so what are you doing here?”
“I am working here”
“Ahh I see, what do you do?”
“Well…I work in clubs. I talk to the Korean men who are there. They come in and I talk to them, be friendly.”
Effectively she was a bar girl, where older Korean men would pay for pleasant conversation with a spectacularly gorgeous girl beyond their expectations. God damn I would have paid for a drink if it meant a 10 minute conversation with her.
Despite another pleasant experience with the people in Jeju, the island itself quickly reminded me why I disliked it so. There was another attraction near-by, Jusangjeolli. These are hexagonal rock formations reaching out from under the waves of the coast. Unsurprisingly these are yet another side-effect of the island’s volcanic past. It was worth a look, but yet again, how to get there?
I arrogantly believed I’d finally got to grasp with the mind-fuck that was public transportation. However Jeju gave me a short sharp “fuck you” as the bus showed up late, and missed several stops (including mine) before dropping me off one fuck of a trek away from where I was supposed to be. A 30 minute inclined walk with all by bags in the roasting heat put me back into frustration, not being able to fully appreciate what I was seeing. Yet another remarkable example of mother nature’s quirky designs.
With a flight to catch later that night, I had to choose what to see last. Time wasted on the FUCKING public transport left me with little time. However the decision was easy, I just had to go and see Seongsan Ilchulbong up close.
This was yet another rock formation from the result of ancient volcanic activity, however this was unlike all the rest. Infact this was unlike any other volcanic formation you’re likely to see anywhere else in the world. A truly mammoth example of nature’s force. It was an entire crater that had risen in a mighty column from beneath the sea. A very brisk 20 minute or so walk led me to the craters edge, where I had a brief opportunity to soak it all in before rushing back down to catch my flight. The end of my Korean adventure.
So why was Jeju so disappointing? It wasn’t the sites as much. Being a volcanic island there were plenty of natural wonders that were truly spectacular to behold. The disappointment came in how the island is terrible for short-term budget backpackers.
First off, the island is enormous, with the sites worth seeing spread vastly apart. So you want to go see a waterfall or perhaps a lava tunnel, great, but how? Which bus do you take? Where do you get it from? Even when you’ve managed to figure out the complete mind-fuck of bus routes, then it takes hours to actually get there. Surprisingly poor infrastructure considering this is essentially an island that prides itself on being a hot-spot for tourists.
Essentially to enjoy this island in a short amount of time, you’d have to rent transport. I would have loved to, if I was the only person in the world that held a fucking international licence. Without one, you’d have to fork out thousands upon thousands of won to hire taxis, for each and every attraction. Even the usually ever-so reliable Korean tourist websites seemed to not give a fuck when it came to Jeju. They simply reference each site as if you were going directly from the airport. The other simple suggestion being “get a taxi”. It’s fucking absurd.
Of course, there’s differences in opinion, however I very much doubt that those who claimed they loved the experienced were truly backpacking. Rather they would be people who happily dish out unnecessary amounts of cash for something that should be as easy as hopping on a bus. I was thoroughly disappointed.