The 5am alarm obliterated my peaceful slumber, and the butterflies immediately fluttered in my stomach. Today was the day! My first Korean road trip. And I was somewhat terrified.
One of my best friends from home was visiting me in Korea for two weeks and I’d promised to give her a tour to some of the islands off the southeastern coast of Korea in Betty White, my old clunker I’d purchased only a few weeks ago. Disaster scenarios continued to run through my head; what if we broke down in the middle of nowhere? Or got in an accident? Or got totally and irrevocably lost? I didn’t have a GPS and was relying solely on google maps to direct me, and it could be completely wrong. I consoled myself with the reasoning that Korea is small enough that eventually we’d just go in a big circle, and with North Korea’s guns in the way, we couldn’t go too far off course.
Another concern, though also a blessing, was that we had no reservations or concrete plans. We were free to travel with the wind. Our rough plan was to visit Goeje and Namhae islands, and that’s exactly what we did.
To beat the traffic of the Buddha’s Birthday, the biggest holiday weekend of the year, we booked it down to Goeje first thing in the morning and arrived at the ferry office in hopes of scoring a last minute ticket to a tiny botanical island called Oedo. Under normal circumstances I think getting a ticket on the busiest holiday of the year might have been impossible, but with the ferry tragedy still fresh in the country’s mind, many people seemed to still be a little boat-shy. An hour later we found ourselves crammed in a boat, motoring past striking rock formations jutting out of shimmering turquoise waters.
We had 90 minutes to spend strolling through the surreal gardens of Oedo, a tiny island groomed into Mediterranean style botanical gardens.
The next day we headed to a small bamboo theme park where we had a rather strange experience with being forced to “practice voting” and then demonstrated our poor artistic skills as we made some really awful art projects with a bunch of kids whose parents looked down at as skeptically.
Though we had wanted to visit the beach that day the weather looked ominous so we hopped in ol’ Betty and zoomed toward Namhae Island. We arrived in the tiny beach town of Sangju expecting to find a hotel as easily as we had the night before… but it was not to be so.
After wandering from place to place and being shut down at each turn, a woman told us she had room in a small pension (a place where you sleep on the floor) BUT we would have to share it with two other people. We politely thanked her and moved on, not wanting to bunk with strangers on a floor in a tiny room, but when we realized we might be sleeping in the car, we decided it might just be time to make some new friends after all. Thankfully my poor Korean skills had misunderstood and she was actually only saying we’d have to share the bathroom with other people. Crisis averted!
The following day we hiked up a very steep and sketchy road with buses flying around its sharp turns every few minutes to reach the top of a mountain and visit Boriam Temple. It turned out risking our lives was totally worth it as it is the most beautiful view from a temple I’ve seen to date. The temple was decorated with a gorgeous array of colorful lanterns for Buddha’s birthday and we spent some time sitting on top of rocks and soaking in the 360 degree views of the ocean and surrounding islands. On the way down our lives flashed before our eyes as the bus started smoking and the engine gave out as we careened around a turn. No worries, they sent another bus to pick us up and we lived! Not before we took a selfie though.
To cap off the day we napped on the soft white sand of Sangju beach and I acquired a ridiculous shorts tan that I still have a month later.
We stopped in the German Village along the way north and snapped a photo of the very overrated tourist trap. Then we drove home, marveling at the incredible sunset, and voila, we arrived safe and sound, having survived our first Korean road trip (and realizing we had amassed quite the collection of selfies).