Mihwangsa~The start of my journey

The first few months of my stay in Korea were an exciting time full of things to do and things to figure out.  I knew nothing and had really no comfort zone other than home and work…where English was spoken.  This sounds silly but I was not quite use to not knowing how everything worked.  Not knowing much about Korea or any simple phrases makes it difficult to interact with the culture you are living in. 

Therefore the first solution to this problem was talk to other foreigners, as many foreigners as I could to get tips, the scoop, the downlow, the what’s what, you know…This led me to a wonderful organization in Gwangju great for newbies, The Gwangju International Centre (or the GIC).  In this place I learned how to say hi, order food and read hangeul with the year round Korean language classes.  Perhaps this does not sound like a lot to you, but trust me it’s huge.  The first thing I did with my new skills was read any and every sign because I COULD.  Also ordering food at the Kimbap Chonggu (korean version of fast food…fabulously cheap and delicious…sometimes 24hrs) was something to be proud of.  After 7 weeks of practicing hi, here please and 1 kimbap thank you I felt a new sense of confidence.  All of us did in that fair sized class and were feeling like we could tackle even larger challenges here.

At this time we had the Korean Thanksgiving Chuseok coming up and every foreigner was making plans for the brief vackay we had.  Lots wanted to go to Seoul to see the BIG city, other wanted a more cultural experience and some just wanted to chill out/get absolutely smammered downtown like every weekend except with more days added to it. 

—->I was the type that wanted to do the cultural stuff.  I had many plans even with my limited resources.  I emailed a temple stay program close to the town of Haenam called Mihwangsa and planned to stay one night.  At approx. $50 a night I couldn’t afford much more at that time, plus my desire to be at peace with nature and in mind just doesn’t work for that long.  All I thought of was how cool it’s going to be to be meditating with the monks, gettin cool with Buddha and maybe find something even in that miniscule amount of time.  What I didn’t think about was how am I going to get there and what will I do if I get lost.  No cellphone, minimal (really like non-existent) language skills and only an English guidebook.  Well I didn’t think about this until my friend at the time became really surprised about my plans and insisted on writing his number on my book in case of an emergency…this is when I finally realized I hadn’t really planned well.

Nonetheless I hopped on a bus out of Gwangju and got to Haenam alright.  One great thing about Korea is that mostly all places are accessible by bus.  The trick once I got to Haenam was that I had to catch a local bus that only ran up to the temple 5 times during the day.  I sat on what I thought was the right bus, the man standing at the door even showed me to it (white girl alone in a very small bus depot will get help), apparently the bus driver disagreed with what my ticket said and took me to the bus beside that one. 

Nervously I sat in the front hoping to see something that would tell me I was at my destination.  Unfortunately I didn’t see my destination because I was on the bloody wrong bus even after having two people help me.  The bus driver kicked me off the bus in an even smaller town and tried to tell me how to get help…didn’t understand at all.  Thankfully the great Korean taxi driver came by and was able to finally get me there.  Taxi’s are super cheap here and there are so many…they provide an awesome service in this country.


After a stressful trip I was ready to throw my bags down and get settled.  Apparently the monks were perplexed as to why I was there though…I was a day late according to what they thought.  Miscommunication, misunderstandings are obvioulsy a common occurence between foreigners and Koreans.  Thankfully they weren’t very busy because of the holidays and still allowed me to stay.  I was shown to a single room, equipped with tea making utensils, a schedule, traditional temple clothes and a mat for my bed (sleeping on the floor sucks btw).  I changed into my temple clothes that were not made for Western hips and set up my bed.  I wanted to sleep so bad at that point because I had been up until 2-3am the night before, but no such luck.  The monk who was able to speak the most English took me to the temple and instructed me how to bow the buddhist way, sit during service etc.  I don’t know what it is but I’m guessing it’s the clean living in the mountains that makes these monks look decades younger than they are….this monk was incredibly attractive…and I felt all sorts of wrong when thinking that at the temple…but seriously damn! 

Ding Ding Ding! Dinner time!  I had already read up about what to expect and thought things would be super strict, but I was happy to find things were quite relaxed.  If anyone thinks this takes away from my experience they can just stuff it. So what I didn’t clean my 4 bowls or even eat from 4 bowls, stay completely silent etc etc. At dinner (purely vegetarian) I met the other guests which included 2 women and an entire family, grandparents and all.  Perhaps the relaxed atmosphere was due to the small children.  The food was delicious and right from their own garden.  I was a little worried because I wasn’t qutie accustom to eating Korean style for every meal yet, but no complaints at all.  I was making a bit of a scene though with my inability to use chopsticks, so one of the daughters came over to me and said in perfect English to my surprise “You can just stab it…”  Defnitely felt a little embarrassed after that, but that weekend I was grateful that someone could help me if in dire need and everyone else was happy to have someone to translate questions to me.

  Dinner was followed by a nice stroll outside under a full moon.  Nothing could have been more beautiful at that moment after living in the city for 2 months.  I definitely felt like moon bathing and sighed with relief.  A big moon, a good meal, mid-way up an asian mountain…who can complain with that?  Because it was Chuseok the monks had a special activity for us to do.  We all sat around and made Songpyeon, a traditional dessert that consists of rice cake with redbean paste or seasame seeds inside.  I am not a big fan of them but it was pretty cool to make them.  When I was making them the young girl who acted as translator (most of her family spoke English though) told me that if you are good at making them you will have a beautiful daughter.  To a single gal that’s pretty hilarious.  After making a ginormous amount of this stuff it was time for an evening snack and of course green tea!

This was a great way to learn a little bit about etiquette.  Always respect your elders, allow them to eat and drink first.  Make sure you serve them before yourself.  The monk sat at the front making the tea in what I’m sure was a very specific way and then we passed it around with fresh fruit.  God Korea has awesome fruit.  The evening snack and tea quickly became a time to ask the odd white girl a gajillion questions to satisfy curiousity.  I of course obliged and got to satisfy my own curiousity about how they knew English.  They had lived in Vancouver (of course) for 3yrs and out of sheer coicidence were living in the same neighbourhood as me.  Even ran into the girl near work.  Now it was time to hit the hay though…because if you didn’t know Temple Stays involve waking up at the ungodly hour of 4:30/5am for temple service.

With half closed eyes I followed the clook clook sound of the wooden instrument and went for temple service.  Even though the chanting is remarkably soothing the constant getting up and down keeps you awake thankfully.  Once it was done I totally snuck off for a nice hour nap before breakfast.  Eating spicy food and rice in the morning definitely was hard.  That morning we were taken to the meditation chamber where I realized I could not meditate for the life of me.  I am a restless person inside and it just doesn’t happen…especially when you have big big decisions on your mind.  What helped me relax the most and figure out my big decisions was actually the mountain climbing we did.  The monk took us on a long hike to the top where you could look off into the sea and almost see the famous Jeju Island. 

I don’t know if what I’ve told you so far gives you the impression I intend, but this is a great thing to do and I always dream of going back there, especially when I’m feeling down.  The Temple Stay was an adventure for me but I had also planned on trying to making decisions about my life with nothing but calm nature around me.  I did make those decisions and I found a bit of peace in the extremely short time.  Everyone should do this. 

As I packed up I was thrilled to have settled my inner arguments and headed for the bus stop.  One final goodbye and thank you to the cute monk and I was on my way…on my way to make another a big leap.

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