Korean accommodation can be great; it’s often quirky, unusual, fun and can be insanely good value for money. For the unsuspecting foreign visitor it can also be… interesting. Korean hotels come in many different varieties and prices from a moldy $15 per night shipping container style room with no bed, to a $400+ per night luxury resort with pool and buffet breakfast.
In South Korea you aren’t guaranteed to have a bed in your room (called an ondol room) and if you book in too early you might find yourself with a room only for a few hours – not for the night (in motels).
When we first came to Korea, we used our South Korea Lonely Planet Guide as reference to find hotels. As it turned out we rarely had any good experiences – in fact we invariably had the worst ones! Well, at least they make a good story…
Business Hotel Nightmares
We’ve stayed in “business hotels” twice and will never again.
They were both awful and terrible value for money. In many small cities around South Korea, the “business hotel” is the largest and most expensive hotel in town and you can expect to pay around $80-$120 a night to stay there. Terribly shabby, our rooms all had these charming characteristics of stained carpets; yellowed wallpaper; dirty windows; indifferent staff and the beds hard and uncomfortable.
On an extremely hot and humid summer night in the coastal city of Mokpo, our room was so stuffy that we could hardly breath. The tiny windows didn’t help and the air-conditioner turned itself off every couple of hours during the night so that we awoke covered in sweat and gasping for air…that was only after we managed to get to sleep over the sound of shouting drunks in the hallway.
The Cockroach Fiasco
In a small hotel on Jeju Island, Jarrod and Seb enter the front office. This conversation ensues in Korean.
Jarrod: Hi. Do you have any rooms for tonight?
Jarrod: Could we have a look?
Seb, Jarrod and the owner walk down the darkened hallway. The owner opens the door to one of the rooms. It’s dim and dusty. Seb and Jarrod walk in. Jarrod catches movement out of the corner of his eye and with lightening reflexes, whips off one sandal and squashes a cockroach the size of a bar of soap.
Jarrod: Errr…thanks for your time. I think we’ll have a quick look around town and see what else is on offer.
Owner: F&*ing hell! What the f%* are you looking for? Huh!? What’s your problem? You want the f^%ing Hilton Hotel or something?
Owner continues swearing to himself as Jarrod and Seb walk out, vowing never to return.
The Cheapest & Dirtiest Minbak in Town
The dirtiest and most basic place we’ve stayed in South Korea was a small minbak (guesthouse) in Jeju City, also recommended in the Lonely Planet. It’s a little place near the ferry terminal run by a very friendly old couple. This place has two things going for it – it’s cheap and it’s near the ferry terminal… that’s about it.
The room was barely big enough for the grimy mat (bed) on the floor and the shower was a hose hanging next to the toilet. Cold water only. Mold on the walls, dirt and hair on the floor and bathroom – the works. The busy road outside your window droned for much of the day and night and the hallways were an echo chamber for noise from other guests. And finally, if you stay there in the summer you’ll have to get up well before dawn or you’ll wake in a pool of sweat with the hot sun shining in your eyes.
Waking up in Dampness
There’s a beautiful little town on the South-Eastern corner of Jeju Island called Pyoseon with a laid back feel and a large sandy beach. On one of their bike trips around the island, Seb and Jarrod stayed at a minbak that was in the basement of a house on the edge of town. The room was dimly lit by one small window up near the ceiling but all other ways it seemed pleasant and comfortable. In fact, they found the dimness quite a relief as they’d been riding all morning in the scorching sun. They did notice a slight moldy smell but dismissed it as it’s not unusual in older houses in Korea.
Upon waking up in the morning, damp had risen through the floor. They were wet. Drenched. Their bedding was wet; everything they’d put on the floor was wet; their bags, their clothes, everything. Needless to say, they didn’t feel like hanging around and rode on pretty early.
Of course the room has A/C!
This is a common trick we’ve come across in hotels and guesthouses in tourist areas. Our usual question when looking for a room in summer is “Does it have an air conditioner?” They happily show us to our room and we see a brand spanking new air con. “Excellent!” you think to yourself, “I’m going to enjoy a nice sleep tonight in a cool room tonight!”
You check in, unpack your bags, mess up the bed, take a shower, get some dinner at a local restaurant, put on your jammies and go to turn on the air-con you realize…. the air conditioner’s power cord doesn’t reach the plug!
One way to beat this would be to bring your own extension cord! But probably the best idea is to just keep it mind when you look at the room and ask for an extension cord before you check in and lay down the money.
At another expensive and dingy “tourist hotel” in Daegu, management had programmed the air-conditioning to turn itself off every 20 minutes. We went to sleep slightly chilled and then woke up in a hot stupor thirty minutes later to fumble around for the controller and turn it on again. And repeat – all through the night.
That wraps up our worse hotel experiences in South Korea-not too bad if you think about it, especially seeing they are MUCH cheaper than hotels in Australia and many other countries. Even though in our opinion the South Korea Lonely Planet Guide is pretty terrible for hotel recommendations, it’s certainly a great reference guide for travel in Korea. However, if you’re only going to buy one guidebook, we recommend the Moon South Korea (Moon Handbooks) for more interesting information and in depth descriptions.
South Korea also has some of the best accommodation we’ve ever come across. Tell us about your good, bad or funny experiences with hotels you’ve had in South Korea in the comments below. :)