Posts Tagged ‘jeonju’

Hating Jeonju

The entrance to Seunggwangjae - anyone can walk in any time they choose

The people at the Korean Tourist Offices were really very helpful. I have nothing but good things to say about everyone I dealt with. But, one of their brochures was responsible for my worst experience in Korea. Visit Jeonju, home to a large section of traditional houses, it said. Stay in a hanok (traditional house), it said. Stay in a hanok (Seunggwangjae) owned by the grandson of the last king. Lonely Planet also spoke highly of Seunggwangje: “live like a king at Jeonju’s best hanok”. Sounded good, although I had remarkable difficulty making a reservation – no English on the web site, no email address on the web site, no response to a phone message left by a Korean-speaking friend-of-a-friend. Finally, a man in the Seoul Tourist Office made the reservation for me, and I confirmed it, as requested, the week before I was due to arrive.

Traditional Korean dress available for photos at the festival

My day got off to a bad start. Although the bus station was closer than the train station to the guest house in Gyeongju, it wasn’t close enough I wanted to walk it with my pack. But when I asked for a taxi I was told that I couldn’t get a taxi because a marathon was taking place. So I walked. Then the bus stopped halfway through the trip for a lunch break, but only for 20 minutes, barely time to order, eat, and visit the toilet. Finally, the taxi in Jeonju had a lot of trouble getting me to the right place (possibly because a festival was in progress).

So, I was very ready to be treated like royalty. Instead, the woman apparently in charge kept waving me away as if I were in the wrong place. After I rechecked the name over the gate (in Korean characters) I made it clear I knew I was in the right place. The hanok’s courtyard was full of tourists taking photos and poking into corners (not an encouraging sight for someone who values privacy) and one translated for me: there was a problem with my reservation and I needed to spend the first night somewhere else.

The somewhere else turned out to have a shared shower room as the entry way, with a shared toilet in the courtyard. When I said this was unacceptable, a lot of loud phone calls ensued, and I was eventually told my room at Seunggwangjae would be available at 5:00pm. I should have bailed at this point, instead I spent a couple of hours checking out the festival, drinking coffee and finding an English speaking contact at the local tourist office.

Seunggwangjae on a quiet Monday

At 5:00 I found out that their solution to the problem was to have the man currently occupying “my” room move out, which of course he refused to do. I don’t know whether they double-booked the room, or he asked to stay longer and they didn’t tell him he couldn’t, and I don’t especially care. What really bothered me was the totally unprofessional way they handled the situation. The “assistant” dealing with me (via phone calls with the very helpful woman in the tourist office) finally offered to comp me a room at another hanok for one night, but by that time I wanted nothing more to do with him or his operation, plus I didn’t want to have to move the next day. I wound up instead at the Hotel Hansung, sleeping on the (heated) floor but with actual shelves to put things on.

My bed at the Hansung

The next day I set out to explore the “historic” district. Since I saw at least one new hanok being built, it really wasn’t clear how much of “Hanok Maeul” was actually historic. Then many of the buildings turned out to be shops, along with some cafes and museums. In other words, a big tourist trap. Not my kind of place at all (although I did enjoy the coffee at the No Name Cafe).

Macchiato at the No Name Cafe

Lonely Planet spoke well of the “narrow maze of alleys”, but since the hanoks are courtyard houses, I can’t see what’s to like about blank walls and the occasional electricity meter or trash can. I much preferred the modern Gaeksa shopping and eating district, where the Hansung was located. At least it was full of young locals enjoying themselves. I wasn’t very impressed with the region’s signature dish, bibimbap, either, but perhaps I was just in a bad mood.

Shop in the Gaeksa district

I did contact the man who had made my reservation, who was properly apologetic and who assured me that they will no longer recommend the Seunggwangjae. I still need to send feedback to Lonely Planet.

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