Inside South Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival

A 6-hour bus ride with 40 intoxicated English teachers and a blowup dinosaur named Stanley is not where I wanted to be two days into my trip to South Korea. I was still jetlagged, and sleep was impossible with the back of the bus belting out 90s songs and discussing their favorite sex positions. I imagine no Koreans’ journey to the Boryeong Mud Festival, where I would soon willingly cover myself in mud, included this much morning noise, though, – considering South Korea’s love of all things adorable- perhaps it could have included a blowup dinosaur.

The Boryeong Mud Festival began in 1998 as a 4-day event to – according to the official website – “make the public aware of the superiority of Boryeong Mud” products, and has been held every July ever since. It’s grown larger each year, reaching a peak of more than 2.2 million people in 2011. On its 15th anniversary this year, it extended to eleven days: from July 14 to 24.

Reading articles about the festival or watching this amazing promo video, which informs viewers “parents, children, friends and lovers are having the time of their lives,” one would think this is a giant, muddy playground with supposed health benefits of the mud.

This is how the festival started, and it still seems to be a pretty accurate depiction for the Koreans coming to the festival. But in reality, Boryeong is a tale of two parties.

The festival takes place on Daechoeon beach in the town of Boryeong, about 200 km from Seoul. When I was there last weekend, the great divide, so to speak, between western and Korean parties, was almost literally drawn by a line in the sand. The Koreans were having wholesome family fun at the front of the beach, while the insatiably thirsty foreigners perpetuated the western stereotype in the plaza behind the beach.

At the front of the beach, Koreans buried each other in sand and did group exercises like mud obstacle courses and 3-legged races.

Meanwhile, the foreigners congregated at the plaza behind the beach, where they could rub each other with mud from basins and buy soju – Korea’s version of sake – and 1.5L bottles of beer from the convenient store for a few bucks. As soon as I saw large men sucking down beer bongs – an animal not native to Korea – I felt a bit guilty. I normally pride myself on getting off the beaten path, and this path had definitely been trampled long ago. Still, this wasn’t exactly as excessive as the full moon party in Ko Phangan, at which thousands of backpackers turn a gorgeous Thai beach into a debaucherous (albeit fun) cesspool.

My travels have also taught me to leave expectations at the door and embrace the moment, however, which is how I eventually found myself with a plastic bag of gin and tonic hanging from my neck and chowing down a chunk of soju-soaked watermelon.

Finally, as the day wound down, I convinced a new acquaintance to wrestle with me at the mud playground, a roped in area at the center of the plaza, which contained large inflatable mud slides, mud skiing and pools for mud wrestling, among other attractions. This, along with the music stage at the back of the beach, is where the two parties converged, and where one can really embrace the mud, letting it into every crevice of the body, where parts of it will remain for the next few days. And it is, as the marketing suggests, good clean fun – figuratively speaking.

Afterward, I danced myself clean at the back of the beach, where speakers blared K-pop and electronic dance music, and boys with massive hoses sprayed muddy water into the dancing crowd, often aiming for girls precariously balanced on top of men’s shoulders.

I don’t know if it was splashing around in a pool of mud – it dripping from my hair, my nose, my mouth – or if it was just the K-pop, but suddenly I began appreciating that I was in Korea. This might not have been off the beaten path, but there was still something that felt foreign about it – the U.S. mud festivals I’m aware of include big trucks and bikini contests in lieu of big slides and “mud physical training.” The addition of a few thousand English teachers among tens of thousands of Koreans didn’t make this festival any less Korean.

Leaving the center, a slight sting consumed my mud-covered body. Apparently that was the minerals doing their job. One festivalgoer assured me that “tomorrow your skin will never have felt so soft,” before rubbing more mud through my hair with the same promise.

In reality, the following day, the only difference I felt was the mud still caked in my ears and the soju forcing its way through my digestive system. But at least I managed to sleep off my jetlag the whole bus ride back.

The Boryeong Mud Festival is held every July at Daecheon Beach in Boryeong, South Korea. Buses leave daily from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal and the Dong Seoul Express Bus Terminal (two to three hours). There are also daily buses from Busan (four to five hours) and Daegu (two hours). Alternatively, contact the Korea Tourism Organization for package trips, as hotels can be hard to arrange (but beach camping is free if you have a tent).