Of all the slightly bonkers things I did in South Korea, Boryeong Mud Festival has to be the most surreal. What is a mud festival? It’s exactly what it sounds like. Think Glastonbury but warmer and without the music. The aim is to get as covered in mud as physically possible. I was an outdoorsy kid – growing up on army bases means you always have amazing woods to get lost in. But I was never allowed to wear white. I was a pretty clumsy tree climber and mud and blood make for a lot of laundry. Naturally when I found out we were heading to Mudfest I picked out my whitest, cleanest outfit. I’m a responsible adult now and I’m going to use that power to get as dirty as physically possible.
I expected Mudfest to have some ancient and spiritual history stretching back to before records began. Boryeong Mud Festival has actually, however, only been going since the late 90s. As you’d expect for a country famed for its make-up and cosmetics industry, the festival started out as a marketing vehicle for Boryeong mud cosmetics. Apparently the mud itself has been famous for years for being good for your skin (mine did feel lovely and soft after a day being covered in it!) and for Mudfest they collect huge vats of it from nearby mud flats. These are then transported to the beach where the festival itself takes place.
Our day started out super early in Seoul. Turns out Boryeong is pretty much halfway between Seoul and Mokpo so I was retracing my steps from the week before (check out my adventures in the south of the Korean Peninsula here). On the way we drove over the Seohae Bridge which is over 7000m long. I’m slightly obsessed with bridges and tunnels, I think it comes from being an engineer’s daughter. We also tried these snacks called walnut balls that were walnut shaped cakes filled with red bean paste. I have a love hate relationship with red bean paste. If you’re expecting red bean paste, it’s a quite tasty addition to sweet dishes. If you’re a tired, blurry-eyed European who thinks what they’re eating is Nutella – not so nice. I made this mistake a surprising number of times during my trip.
We arrived in Boryeong at lunch time. The Mud Festival has two breaks a day where they close for people to eat. We took the time to grab some drinks because another grand and venerable tradition of Mudfest is maintaining a steady level of drunkenness. Luckily the weather was kind of perfect – warm but overcast without ever raining. I’d have got supremely sunburn if it’d been better weather as mud isn’t the best sunscreen. We spent the lunch break sat on the beach with a few beers. Soon as Mudfest reopened, we headed in, ready to get mucky.
The first place we found was a big pool where you could go and splash mud at each other but it was disappointingly watery. It only stained rather than destroyed our clothes. Not good enough. After a bit of hunting I found a trough full of good, thick mud. And started a mud fight by throwing a load right in my friend’s face. Pro tip guys – if you wear contacts, come prepared with swim goggles so they don’t get messed up when you inevitably get a face full. Pretty quickly we were all filthy and my childhood dream of ruining a white shirt had been fulfilled. My mother would have been so proud.
There were various stalls around the edge of the mud zone (personal favourite was the Foreign Interpretation Assistance Unit – like SWAT for lost, drunk waegukin) and one was doing face painting with coloured mud. After queueing for about 45 minutes we realised we need numbers in order to actually get painted when we reached the front so one of our group dived into another queue while we waited in line. Then when we eventually made it to the front, my friend and I (the guy from the zorbing incident in New Zealand) were told we were too dirty to have mud painted on our faces. Another good idea that I should share here – have someone in your group that actually speaks Korean. Then when you’re frustrated and have no idea why someone won’t paint your face, you don’t have to just rely on increasingly abstract hand signals. Having to clean up meant another queue to wash the mud off our faces. This proved a bit much even for my British love of queueing but eventually we made it to the face painting station. Between the 3 of us there was a cat, an advert for Korea and a superhero. Being a comic book nerd, I was more than happy with this.
After some ramen and a few more beers we wandered a bit further along the beach and heard some chanting. When we checked it out there was a man climbing a ladder of knives. Yep. You read that right. There was an old man climbing a ladder (more of a staircase really) of knives in time to chanting and drum beats. Then some women dressed all in white carried white globes down to the sea where they floated them away. We couldn’t work out what was going on beyond it being some form of ancestor worship and I still haven’t really got any idea. Any suggestions would be welcomed!
The weather was starting to turn at this point so we headed for showers before we got rained on. In England, unlike the rest of Europe, we’re not really big on communal, public nudity. If you go to a swimming pool in the UK, chances are everyone will keep their swimsuits on to shower afterwards. Go figure, we’re a famously repressed nation. Not in Korea. There was no swimsuits in the showers at Boryeong. Luckily the water was so freezing that it distracted me from my innate British awkwardness.
There was still a while to wait before the main event in the evening so we camped out in a coffee shop. In there with us were some girls who were taking selfies, showing them to their friends and then touching up their make-up to take more selfies. Apparently this is a popular past time in Korea. It was something that struck me while in Korea, and I’m definitely not the first to say it, how image conscious the whole country is. Even at Mudfest there were a lot of girls with full faces of make-up trying to not get dirty.
K-Pop in Korea
Finally it was time for the evening’s entertainment to kick off. What could possibly be better than spending a day throwing mud at your friends? PSY. That’s right, the K-pop star that smashed YouTube records with Gangnam Style back in 2012 and then seemingly disappeared in the UK music scene. He’s still massive in Korea and I had an awesome time listening to some of his big hits. It was one of those moments in life where you just look around you and think “Is this really happening right now?”. Dancing on a South Korean beach to Gangnam Style live just about topped listening to it with Mokpo’s dancing fountain (it’s a close run thing let me tell you).
Boryeong Mud Festival was utterly bonkers. I have told everyone who’s asked me about Korea about it. It seems such a uniquely Korean event, even down to its creation coming from the cosmetics industry. If you’re in the Peninsula at the beginning of July, or even anywhere near Korea, definitely check it out. It’s an experience that will stick with you. Even if you have to throw out the clothes you wore.