Last updated: 02:18 PM ET, Wed October 07 2015

Getting Muddy in Korea

Features & Advice | Josh Lew | September 02, 2015

Getting Muddy in Korea

Photo via Flickr

South Korea’s most popular annual festival has nothing to do with K-pop, soap operas, Samsung, shopping malls or kimchi. Each summer, more than two million people travel about 120 miles outside of Seoul to Daecheon Beach in the coastal town of Boryeong. Why do all these people come to this rather nondescript section of the Korean Peninsula? They are here for one of the world's dirtiest celebrations. 

The Boryeong Mud Festival can’t really be called a Korean cultural institution. It began relatively recently, so it isn't even correct to call it a tradition. The first event, during which a modest number of attendees   frolicked in the local mud, took place in 1998.

By 2007, however, things were very different. By the end of that year's festival, attendance had topped two million. Now held annually in July, Boryeong continues to be South Korea’s most popular event

A Dirty Celebration

What draws all these people to Daecheon? Good dirty fun. The festival lives up to the “mud” in its title. It features mud pools, muddy obstacle courses, mud wrestling and mud fountains. Popular sports have been modified so that they can be played in the mud. Visitors can try their hand at mud golf and mud badminton.

There are also peripheral events, such as a street parade, fireworks displays, concerts from major Korean and international acts, and demonstrations. Colored mud is even created so that it can be used for body painting.  

South Korea's Largest Event

Spending a day at this weeklong festival is relatively cheap. Admission is 10,000 won, which is less than $9. The catch is that hotels in the area are fully booked very early in the year. The festival is held in that later half of July, but people start making reservations in the springtime, or even earlier.

It is possible to stay in Seoul and make the trek down to Daecheon for the day. Buses run from Seoul Central Station daily, and there is a train between Seoul Yongsan Station and Daecheon (train passengers have to take a shuttle bus from the station to the beach). 

Commuting from Seoul can be quite chaotic; there are two million-plus people at the festival, and only a small number of them overnight in Boryeong. Every bus leaving Seoul is more or less filled to capacity. The people who want to be guaranteed a spot have to arrive very early or pre-book their tickets.

Humble Beginnings, Instant Popularity

How did this event become so popular? Playing in the mud is one of those things that people never grow out of. All the Koreans, foreign English teachers and American military personnel who come to Boryeong every year are trying to live out some sort of childhood fantasy by doing things that their parents would never allow them to do when they were little.

The story of the Boryeong Mud Festival's beginning contains a bit of irony. The festival was not created as a gimmick to draw tourists. It was started as a promotional event for a cosmetics company. One of the main ingredients of their patented products was mud from the Boryeong Mud Flats. The mud is naturally rich in minerals, and the  company wanted to make people comfortable with the idea of using mud-based cosmetics. 

Still Room To Grow

The mud used during the festival is indeed from Boryeong, but it is trucked into the beach area. The festival is not held at the mud flats themselves. The flat, expansive Daecheon Beach area can accommodate all the attendees (with room to grow if needed). Future attendance numbers could top three million according to some estimates.

The best thing about the Boryeong Mud Festival from an international tourist's perspective is that it is an ideal chance to mingle with Korean people in a way that is different from the usual tourist-local resident dynamic. At Boryeong, everyone gets muddy, and everyone is tourist. 

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