Stumbling into Wonderland – Haeinsa, Korea

You’d think that after a year of traveling (plus a good number of shorter trips in years past), we’d be pretty good at things like packing and planning and all the other logistics that go into getting from one point to another. Not so, I say. I am a chronic and unapologetic over-packer; every time I feel like I’m getting a handle on my gear, I see that as a sign that I can take on more stuff… say, an adorable sundress or hilarious erotic-themed sake cups. In contrast, R feels like every extra t-shirt is weighing him down, so he’ll chuck out that fourth pair of underwear and just go ahead and rock that same pair of flip-flops that now seem to be entirely composed of duct-tape- not entirely functional. The same kind of thinking goes into our planning. It can be easy when there is a backpacker trail to follow or when we have unlimited time, however, in the case of Korea, we not only had a flight to make, but a budget to keep. This threw us for a loop when we realized that a destination that we had penciled in as a day trip was going to turn into an overnight stay, thanks to long connection times and a delayed bus. It turned out to be the best stop of our trip.

The temple at Haeinsa is a Unesco World Heritage sight and I thought that we’d pop in for an hour or two on our way from the south to the coast. The town had little to offer, according to our guidebook, and I was only interested in seeing the temple. Our plans were thwarted when our bus arrived several hours later than we’d expected- well past the temple’s closing time. We had no choice but to seek out a place to sleep for the night and a bite to eat.

Downtown Haeinsa

A river runs through it

We got into town too late to see the temple, but not actually at a late hour. We had plenty of daylight to kill and absolutely no idea what to do. So we got drunk. We bought some cheap sojuat one of the tiny markets in town then wandered around the 6-block expanse of Haeinsa’s town center. I can see why the town itself is not highlighted in the guidebooks- it is small, though charming, and full of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops, most of which were shuttered (maybe because we visited on a weekday?). But the location was lovely and we had a great little hotel room that was decorated like somebody’s guest room with non-matching linens, a mini-fridge and a hand-me-down TV that got about 8 channels. It was cozy and the hillside view and tons of light was a fantastic change from the cell-block style rooms that are typical of budget lodgings.

Bride to nowhere: a mural inexplicably painted on one of the little side-streets

The best part of the stay, though, was the food. We chose a restaurant completely at random and ordered bulgogi, a typical marinated beef dish. We sat across from each other making semi-erotic noises while our mouths were full of partially chewed meat. We immediately pegged it as one of the best meals on our trip, but figured that we’d have to go back for a second round a little less tipsy this time. The following afternoon, we went back to the same place and the husband-and-wife owners welcomed us with lots of smiles and Korean that we didn’t understand. We pointed to something that appeared to be a set menu and were almost uncomfortable with the amount of food that came out. Unidentifiable (but delicious) vegetables and leaves were set out in individual dishes. The banchan (small dishes like kimchithat are brought out complimentary, much in the way that bread is often served in American restaurants) included an entire fried fish! There was so much food that it was hard to pick out the main dish, not that it mattered. We ate so well that R cornered the wife in the kitchen and asked for recipes and photos- both requests were denied, although we took a couple pictures outside the restaurant. In a country known for it’s culinary heritage, we still agree that our meals at this random restaurant in Haeinsa was possibly the best meal we had in Korea and maybe one of the best meals of the whole trip.

Dongdongju: fermented rice wine and favorite drink of Korean grandmothers

These are just the appetizers!

This is where the magic happens

But I can’t finish this post without mentioning the Haeinsa temple, which brought us to this culinary wonderland in the first place. The temple, built in 802AD, houses the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto over 80,000 wooden tablets, estimated to have been made between 1236-1251AD. Not only is the temple famous for its valuable library and ingenious preservation technique, but it is one of the most beautiful temples in a country full of beautiful temples. After temple overload in Myanmar, we were curious, but not chomping at the bit to see Korea’s version. They are certainly idyllic- calling to mind those cloud-shrouded mountain vistas painted on free-giveaway calendars at Chinese restaurants. The style of the architecture is very different from what we had seen in Myanmar and Malaysia (where there is a population of Chinese Buddhists), but just as serene and exotic looking. We visited a handful of other temples during our stay in Korea, but this one was our favorite, although that could have just been the beef talking.

On the walk to the temple

Unesco World Heritage Sight

Buddha

A very, very old tree (see below)

Withered Elm

Don't worry, this is perfectly normal

Nothing odd about this

Where there be dragons

 

Pretty scenic

Monk crossing

One of the main buildings...sadly, we were not allowed to take photos of the Tripitaka buildings

Little Buddhas

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