This was originally from a couple of years ago when not many people came to the site….
Another travel story today. As well as Nepal, I was a year in South Korea.
KUINSA – 구인사
Some really strange things happen to me. Most people go to a Buddhist Monastery hoping to get some peace and quiet. I personally went to this place to soak up the atmosphere, look at the stunning architecture and smell the trees, which are all things there was no reason or opportunity to do in the city in which I was living.
When I went to Kuinsa I ended being pestered by Monks (in a friendly way) so much that I had to leave.
The complex is in Sobaeksan national park. When the bus drops you off you have to walk up a steep hill till you come to a large gate. When you pass through the gate the first buildings in the (I think) fifty building temple complex are on your left.
It is all actually relatively newly built (1945) and is part of the Ch’on’tae sect of Korean Buddhism. Thousands of monks are around, dressed in grey from head to foot.
I strolled up the hill taking photos as I went. This is not an unusual thing in a place of such beauty. The terraced buildings are extraordinary. Nevertheless people started to notice me.
Part of my problem is that I am just over 6′ 3″ (192cm) tall, which is considerably taller than the national average in Korea (or Nepal for that matter). So I tend to stick out a bit.
I carried on up the hill through the stunning temples. I went inside one or two and had a look around. The buildings are wonderfully elaborate outisde but not quite so much inside. In the large halls hundreds of mats are laid out on the dark wooden floors, about two feet apart. The monks sleep here and you are free to join them for the night if you wish.
After a while I found myself walking up to a what looked like a tunnel through the mountain. I wanted to go through this and up to the next level of the complex so I could get to the statue at the top end. Inside the tunnel, the concrete steps had a constantly dripping roof of bare rock overhead and I was hemmed in by hundreds of monks on all sides who seemingly had the idea of going the same way at the same time.
A barrier was put across the top of the steps so we all had to stand there and being a good 20 cm taller than most (if not more) and the only tourist, I was attracting a lot of attention. I couldn’t figure out why we were being stopped. After about 10 minutes the queue moved a little and the barrier went down again. Another 10 minutes, same thing. The third time I got past the barrier and we were herded like cattle into the food hall of the complex, which was something like an army barracks or a school dining hall.
Now, I had eaten a large meal just before I arrived and had also been in Korea for several months before this, so I knew what the food was likely to be – some Korean food is very nice, I just didn’t want to eat at that particular moment, I wasn’t at all hungry.
With a combination of poor Korean and sign language I tried to explain this to the hall monitor or whatever he called himself but he decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
He was trying to be incredibly nice to the tourist and stranger so he marched me to the front of the queue where I was served HUGE amounts of food in one of those grey trays with the indentations for different kinds of food. They gave me so much because they figured if I am much taller I must eat so much more than anyone else.
There then followed a 10 minute session of him sitting me down, then deciding that that seat wasn’t good enough for me and moving me again, then repeating the process. Then he made a huge palaver about getting me a fork even though I am fine with chopsticks.
Eventually I just made my point and sat down.
I began trying to eat everything they had given me (its only polite) but I physically couldn’t. I think I managed to eat about two-thirds of it and at this point could not possibly have eaten any more.
The monk who had taken so much trouble to take me to the front of the queue, sit me down (several times) and give me a mountainous portion of food was clearly gravely offended. Somone else who wasn’t a monk began to reproach me on his behalf.
Remember, I only ended up in there because I wanted to go through to the top of the complex.
So, I had to walk apologetically to the place where the people were cleaning the trays with some food left in mine whereupon I got a few more harsh words from the man doing the cleaning.
So, from being the focus of attention and the golden boy for the hundreds of people in the room I have now become the obviously uncouth, uncultured and downright rude foreigner.
I was a little uncomfortable by now so I tried to make my way out as quickly as possible. Some people outside who hadn’t seen any of this kept trying to push me back in, after all, I am big, I obviously need food right?
I got away and sat down quite near this place, hoping for a bit of respite.
(the pots are for making ‘kimchi’, Korea’s favourite food)
Immediately upon sitting down another monk came up to me (he hadn’t been in the food hall) and asked me in English were I was from, I replied in Korean, as best I could “Scot-u-land-u saram imnida” (I am from Scotland [or, more accurately, ‘I am a scottish person’] – sometimes its best to add a vowel there… scot – U – land -U). He asked me if I spoke Korean, I said no and that I was trying to be polite.
Then we began a conversation I have had many times in the course of travelling.
Him – “Ah, Scotland”
Me – “Yes”
Him – “England”‘
Me – “No”
Him – “Scotland is in England”
Me – “No, it isn’t”
Him – “Yes, it is”
And so on.
When dealing with this before in Korea or Nepal I had a tactic that worked quite well. They would say “ah, England” and I would ask “Where are you from?”. Slightly taken aback (it is, after all, their country) they would say “Korea” at which I would reply “oh, Japan”.
After that they usually got it. However, for some reason I didn’t have the heart to do it to this monk and I was in no mood to argue the point.
I chatted away with him for a while and eventually made my excuses and left, the worst of the overeating having worn off.
It was getting dark at this point and I made my way up to the top where they were constructing another huge building in the same style and sat around for a while, trying to take in the scene.
I had planned to spend the night there but after annoying everyone in the food hall and being the centre of attention all day I decided I would rather just leave. I had seen the complex which wasmy main concern so it wasn’t too bad and I just couldn’t face the scene in the food hall being replayed in the sleeping area and at breakfast the next morning.
Unfortunately it was more or less too dark so I made my way down to the bottom end of the complex where I promptly got on the wrong bus and had to get off and get a very expensive taxi to the place I was supposed to go which was called Danyang and looked like this (photo taken the next day)…
I found a hotel and a decent restaurant, then a seat by the lake, got my book, and finally got a bit of peace.