I woke up nice and early ready for my bus ride to my temple stay in the eastern mountains of Korea. The journey began pretty smoothly but whilst I had unsurprisingly factored in an extra hour to spare, I hadn’t considered that today was Buddhas birthday and therefore a holiday in Korea… This meant my journey of 2 hours became one of 5 hours…. I had no choice but to wait on the bus and continue at the slowest pace and hope I wouldn’t be too late for the 2pm start to the temple stay program as with no trains reaching this part of the region I was pretty much stuck! I eventually found the stop to make my transfer to a tiny local bus and seeing my struggle to buy my bus ticket, a Korean couple adopted me and helped me out. Lee, the architect and his adorable wife told me all about their very handsome 25year old son as we trundled off on a tiny empty bus all to ourselves. They insisted on paying for my ticket and walked me all the way through the temple complex to the office there in exchange for an email address and a few selfies! By now I was knackered and very ready for a meditative evening but was greeted with a look of horror when I showed my reservation print out to the templestay organiser. She explained she had tried to email me to tell me they couldn’t have me as they were fully booked! Now, after 6 hours on a bus I wasn’t exactly going to do it all over again so did my best negotiating skills and stood my ground and eventually persuaded her to find space for me! It eventually transpired that there was room for me to sleep I would simply have to join a tour group of 27 elderly Israeli people and that any translations made available would be from Korean to Hebrew! I agreed to make it work and finally found my room that I would share with 8 of the tour party members when they arrived.
Facing similar delays, the group didn’t arrive until the evening which gave me plenty of time to pop on my stylish waistcoat and baggy trouser uniform and to read in the sun. So they finally made it and it was hurriedly explained to me by the organiser that they were not happy with me sharing their room which obviously made it pretty awkward as I was shuffled out to a tiny box room instead. The Israeli tour organiser explained that I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with a group of strangers speaking different languages so I bit my tongue to avoid telling him how extraordinary it was that he could speak for me having never met me and regardless of me having slept in exactly that way in international dorm rooms for the last 3 months… Anyway… I was then taken down to dinner where the temple stay lady Cheung and I bonded over the rudeness of the tour group. We formed part of the dinner line where we grabbed big metal bowls and served ourselves bibimbap style meals of rice and five or six lovely vegan side dishes to be mixed with a spicy paste and wolfed down.
As it was Buddhas birthday the temple complex was filled with people and we all sat down to watch a special performance to mark the event. Nestled into my plastic chair as camera crews bustled about setting up I decided to have a go at making friends with this group as I was going to be with them for the next 24 hours after all. Eventually I somehow broke through their frosty exteriors and milked my solo traveller identity for all it was worth. I soon found myself adopted by them all as a strange English granddaughter and we exchanged stories of our time so far in Asia. The show soon began with some underwhelming drumming from a monk followed by some slightly more impressive but bizarre dancers with tall white hoods. The whole performance was wonderfully disorganised; several dancers were noticeably messing up, camera men kept getting in the way and a drone filming overhead whirred loudly and persistently. Eventually as the evening drew to a close we were given LED illuminated paper lanterns and formed a procession with the monks, their trainees and the other day visitors which was absolutely beautiful.
We headed back to the temple stay area of the complex and were greeted by Do oem who was a resident monk at the temple. He showed us the three basic bows or prostrations so we knew how to behave in the temple. We were then presented with bowls of date wood beads and brown cords and it was explained that we were t create our own prayer beads with 108 wooden bead to represent the 36 human sense base delusions in past, present and future. Do oem explained that traditionally monks would do full bows in between each one from standing to a kneeling foetal position but that as many of the tour party were struggling to even sit down to begin with that this wasn’t required. I decided to give it a go however as I figured I wouldn’t be likely ever to get to try this again. It was definitely hard work but I managed it and was feeling very ready for bed at this point! I headed back to my room and snuggled up on my floor mat with a snoring Korean lady next to me.
I was woken the next day by the sound of her vigorous moisturising (an absolutely repulsive sound) at 3am and managed to fit in a little more sleep before heading to the main temple at 4.20am for our morning chanting. The main temple was beautiful and decorated wall to wall in intricate painted patterns so even though I have no clue what was going on I had plenty to admire. After the ceremony we had an hour and a half before breakfast so I chose to have a much needed nap before heading down to another delicious rice and veg breakfast. After washing up we met Do oem again for a tea and chatting session where he explained about life as a monk and how he came to work at Woljeongsa. Then as our final activity we took a chilled morning stroll through the fir tree forest around the temple before I headed back to Seoul for my last night out with everyone there.