Korea’s most famous beach, Haeundae has been noted for its impressive beauty for more than a thousand years. It is easy to understand why when you see that great curve of land meeting the ocean. And it is also easy to understand why this natural setting draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to its sea and sand.
As the beach is only walking distance from the bus, train and subway stations, getting to it is not a problem. Once there, Korean vendors flock around you in an attempt to extract your money in exchange for a beach parasol. In a way this is your ticket to public acceptance, as it is generally frowned upon if people do not rent a parasol when all they simply want to do is lie on a public beach. To avoid a constant barrage of hassling it’s best to pay the 5000w (£3) for a day’s rent. Once money has changed hands, you are led to an open plotted parasol area and given a beach mat as proof of payment. You are now part of the elite parasol club, stretching across the length and breadth of Haeundae Beach. It is most unlikely that during the summer months you will find a large unshaded space to call your own. In fact, the patch of land you rent is usually 2m² (6ft²).
Like most Asian countries, Korea is party to the manner in which personal boundaries and spatial awareness are severely reduced. Expect to share your space with several mats in a circle around your mat. With each one of these mats more than likely to be occupied by a family of five. A short walk to the sea’s edge leads to another dense gathering of people in the water. This is further heightened by lifeguard restrictions which limit bathers to swimming no more than 15metres away from the beach edge. The heat coupled with several thousand visitors results in a claustrophobic place to swim. Straying beyond the boundary of 15 metres has people shouting excitedly and the blowing of an official whistle. Almost immediately, a lifeguard on a jet-ski appears, nearly mangling you as you’re ushered back into the ‘safety zone’. In Korea there does not seem to be a market for swimwear, as people young and old brave the warm waters fully clothed. I’ve seen women leave their high heels sticking in the sand as they run in their casual clothes to immerse themselves in the water. It reminds me of those pictures of Victorian England where what was considered proper to be worn in the water could almost pass for everyday wear. But the jeans and top and tops worn by today’s Haeundae bathers don’t quite come up to the standards of the stylish bathing garments worn by the Victorian female bathers.
Retiring back to your parasol to dry off in the sun is more difficult than you might think. The retraction of your beach umbrella is usually not enough – unless the sun is directly overhead – as the surrounding brollies will be casting their shadows upon you. Luckily the all-pervasive heat quickly dries you.
I mentioned before in Death by fan that Koreans like to stay covered, this attitude continues on the beach even when the temperature is high.
Glancing around at your Korean neighbours you notice a devoted community that is not such a familiar sight in western culture. You’ll see families huddled closely together over a gas stove cooking ramen (noodles). A mother feeding her young with rice and paper-thin strips of processed seaweed. A young couple enjoying time alone from the grind of the day. A group of men having a shot of soju, a milder, sweeter version of vodka. People, fully clothed and drenched, returning from the sea to their unattended belongings. This settling picture is interrupted by a vendor selling beer and chicken with cries of ‘mekju, dak’ ‘mekju, dak’. Stopping by westerners and ensuring that they understand what tasty delights are on offer the cry is revised to ‘CHICK-EN, MEK-JU’. The seller with emphasis, speaking slowly and clearly as one does when speaking to foreigners. I find it hard to comprehend why someone would buy chicken from an unknown vendor who has been walking possibly for an infinite amount of time with chicken that is slowly cultivating salmonella in a 30C (90F) heat.
As the sun begins to dip over the horizon, a loudspeaker announces that the beach is now closed and people must refrain from swimming in the ocean. Failure to do so results in someone blowing a whistle and a jet-ski zooming threateningly close to your head, reminding you of your proper place. It is 6:30pm.
© John Brownlie 2010