What is Couchsurfing? It’s a community of people (mostly travelers) who offer to host others for free (i.e. a couch) or else meet up and give them the experience of a local. I first heard about it through friends who had many positive experiences using it to travel through Europe and Southeast Asia. The idea sounded adventurous but also risky so I was hesitant to try it.
But, I’m really glad I did.
Since we worked at different schools, Mike’s and my vacation never really overlapped. For that reason, we didn’t have a lot of time to travel together. So, last summer on my vacation, I made up my mind to travel solo in some areas of Korea that have always interested me. I wanted to explore the southern islands of Korea, Mokpo, the Boseong Tea Fields near Gwangju, and the historically significant city of Gyeongju. My goal was to see the sights like a local and do it on a budget, too! That’s why I looked into Couchsurfing.
Mike was not too keen on the idea but he came around eventually when he saw the website and learned how it worked. Basically, 1) Pick a place you want to explore 2) Find a host 3) Check their references and send a couchsurfing request 4) Confirm and go travel!
Map Source: http://www.loiczeastasia.org/editor/uploadfile/20121031095839861.jpg
My first experience was with Stella and her family in Uido Island. It’s listed #7 on this list of must-see islands in Korea. This was not a typical (free) couchsurfing experience because I was basically going on vacation with them, so I paid a small amount to chip in for food and lodging expenses. The only way to get to the island was by a small ferry. I took an early bus ride from Seoul and 5 hours later I met Stella and her family at the Mokpo ferry terminal.
We got to know each other on the 3 hour ride to the island. The ferry boat was really different from the ferries I’m used to in Seattle. It was small, only held about 10 cars and the passengers sat in a common area on heated floors with little blocks as pillows, similar to what you find at a jjimjilbang. It was really comfortable and cozy.
This was such a memorable experience! I got to stay in a Korean-style guesthouse run by a lady and her son, whom we simply called Halmoni (Grandma) and Samchon (Uncle). It’s a place that you can’t find on the internet; they advertise by word of mouth only. To give an idea of how small the island is, in total, there were only 5 guesthouses on our side of the island, and on the other side, 5 more. It was isolated and incredibly beautiful.
View from the Pension
Grandma/Halmoni in the kitchen deciding on the dinner menu
I ate the freshest seafood (fish and clams we caught in the mornings) and swam in the ocean. The best thing I ate was 회덥밥, raw sliced fish on rice with gochujang and sesame oil. The fish was caught that morning and the rice seasoned with sea urchin. Yum!
Uncle/Samchon slicing up the day’s catch for 회덥밥
THE most delicious mixed rice and sliced raw fish (회덥밥)
I was treated like part of the family and played with Stella’s little nieces, ages 2 and 6 months. It was very peaceful and quiet there, practically idyllic. Well, except for the mosquitoes which were hell on my legs. I’ve joked that Korean mosquitoes are like ninjas because they are quiet and elusive. Well, the island mosquitoes are a level or two above that. I counted 15 bites on one leg! So if you travel there, make sure to bring mosquito repellent. But still, it was a great first couchsurfing experience. Thank you, Stella!
I planned to leave the island a few days earlier than her family to continue my travels. I was there for 3 days and 2 nights. It was a tearful goodbye because by then I had gotten close to Stella’s 2 year old niece, Hejin. When I walked on the ferry and waved goodbye she reached out her little hands and started to cry for me. Wah~~~해진아 보고싶어! Such a cutie!
Hejin playing with Samchon’s puppies
In Mokpo, I made a new friend, Minji. She couldn’t host me for the night, but she set me up in a very nice and clean Korean hostel. After I checked in, we met for dinner and coffee and did a little bit of sightseeing. We ate a famous Mokpo dish which was spicy raw crab over rice, 꽃게살 비빔밥. It was delicious, and more sweet than spicy. Afterwards, we visited Mokpo’s famous Colombang Bakery for a cream cheese baguette and iced americano.
Spicy raw crab bibimbap, egg tart and coffee, Minji and me
Colombang Bakery’s famous cream cheese-filled baguette
Downtown Mokpo was pretty quiet by then. Most stores shut down by 8 pm. The street lights were very festive, though.
Since meeting her on this trip, Minji has moved to Seoul for work and we often meet up for Korean/English language exchange. She’s been a huge help to me while moving out of our place. Her fearless, ‘let’s get it done’ attitude is something I really like about her. She came over, saw our three big boxes that needed to be shipped and before I knew it, she called a taxi, grabbed the three big boxes, and we were at the post office ready to go.
Some commonalities I noticed between Stella and Minji: they were relatively young (early-mid 20s), they used couchsurfing while traveling abroad, and they were the firsts in their family to live and travel outside Korea. Such adventurous brave souls!
Gwangju/Boseong Tea Fields
From Mokpo, I took a bus to Gwangju where I planned to stay at a hostel because I couldn’t find a host on couchsurfing. I stayed at Pedro’s Hostel which was really nice and cozy. Pedro was a very helpful host, and let me use a guidebook and an umbrella because it rained unexpectedly the day I went to the tea fields.
A bit cloudy and it rainy on and off, but still a beautiful place to see (finally!)
On the way, I met a couple who were traveling from Geoje Island headed to the tea fields as well. Since we were the only English speakers on the bus we sort of gravitated towards each other and ended up spending the afternoon exploring the fields, helping each other with photos (this was before the popularity of selfie sticks) and having dinner and a beer together at an Indian restaurant. That’s one of the best things about traveling; you get to meet and spend time with new people.
My final couchsurfing experience was in Gyeongju, a beautiful historical city, and former capital of Korea. This time, my friend Minsu came along. It was her first time couchsurfing so she was nervous but keen to check it out. We stayed with Craig, who had over 200 positive references on couchsurfing! He lived in a traditional hanok-style house, with a wing dedicated to hosting couchsurfers. Craig was a lovely host and gave us the scoop on the best sites and restaurants. He couldn’t join us for a lot of the sightseeing, but we met two other couchsurfers at his place and passed the time with them.
There was Joanne from Singapore, Madeleine from the Netherlands, Minsu and me. Together we went to the Bulguksa Temple, Anapji Pond, Gyeongju National Museum, and ate Gyeongju’s famous gimbap. I’m still friends with the girls and spent a lot of time with Madeleine when she moved to Seoul to study Korean. Also, since Mike and I are going to Singapore as part of our post-Korea trip, we will be meeting up with Joanne, too!
Couchsurfing in Korea, one of the most adventurous experiences I’ve had, turned out to be one of the best experiences as well. I made some new friends, got to travel to the places I’ve wanted to see in Korea (and on a budget), and I made some great memories. If you have a chance to try it, you should!