Travel is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almost entirely an inner experience. — Fresh Air Fiend, Paul Theroux.
Early autumn seemed a great time to book a discounted ticket to Jeju; it’s neither too hot nor too cold; the skies clear, the waters blue, and the days still long. It wasn’t entirely a spontaneous and unplanned trip, but apart from having booked the first night of accommodation at a discounted price and having decided on checking out a few places based on friends’ recommendations, we had no real plans on what to do in Jeju.
We landed safely in Jeju and took a bus out to the city centre with our backpacks of clothes and essentials for the next couple of days to have barbecued black pork, one of the few things Jeju is famous for. There were a few options along a stretch of road and we decided on the one that seemed to cater to the locals. Perhaps we made a wrong decision, or perhaps it was overrated. Whatever it was, we weren’t sure, but the meal certainly didn’t appeal to our taste buds as much as we thought it would. The sky got dark rather quickly as we chatted over the meal on what to do next. It was decided that we would stock up on snacks and instant food at the nearest convenience store before taking a cab to our accommodation for the night, which was a bit of a distance from the city centre.
The journey to our accommodation in the dark was anything but interesting, which made us wonder if we made the right choice to stay this far away. We’d find out the next morning.
Everything went pretty smoothly as we checked in without any fuss. The room was huge, and the balcony was a great place to chill at. We are either really big eaters, or the meal we had earlier on was simply not filling—we thought a sinful bowl of instant cheese ramyeon each was necessary and definitely just the right thing to do in South Korea. Time flew by quickly and it was time for bed, if we wanted to make full use of our time here.
I woke up to birds chirping by the window and wondered if I shouldn’t get out of bed. The early bird gets the worm, right? Rubbing my tired eyes, I crept out of bed and walked to the balcony, still feeling puffy from last night’s ramyeon. To my surprise, the view from the balcony was incredibly picturesque even without my glasses on. This was a great start to our three days in Jeju. Senses yet awakened, I glided back into the room and reached for the camera to document the scene for my companions who were still in bed. With an hour to spare before my companions woke up for breakfast, I left the room for a walk—one I didn’t mind taking again after we had our Twosome Place breakfast.
On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. — Le Petit Prince
It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. My greatest takeaway from the walks is not that Jeju is beautiful, but that how you see it is what makes all the difference. Walking along the same stretch of road twice, I saw a middle-aged man with a professional camera, who’s not afraid to tread the seaside rocks despite his expensive equipment; a young lady dressed in a red long-sleeved tee (which somehow lent her a poetic charm, in stark contrast to the blue skies and water), enjoying the walk alone and taking photographs with her mobile phone camera; an old lady who is possibly a local and was probably so used to the scenery, her eyes could only see the work she had to do; an old couple helping each other out and braving the dangers of falling off the cliff in order to get a better view; and then I saw my companions and myself enjoying the blue skies and water—something we rarely get to see—while joking and making a fool of ourselves.
Constrained by the check-out time, we headed back to our accommodation, packed our bags and prepared ourselves for a long day ahead. The nearest bus stop was quite a distance away, so the staff showed us a shortcut which she takes daily to work. Suddenly, it became an adventure trip, where we trudged the hill and got scratched by thorns of nearby shrubs as we were ill-dressed in shorts.
Fast-forward an hour or two later, we were in the east of Jeju, hungry and tired. Being the adventurous eaters that we are, we walked around and decided on an restaurant which, according to what was stated on the outside, had appeared on local television quite a number of times. It clearly wasn’t without reason; the noodles didn’t disappoint at all. Despite our plans to take the ferry to Udo Island (우도) after lunch, luck wasn’t on our side. After a long walk to the ferry terminal, we were told that there wasn’t going to be any ferry to the island due to the treacherous waves. We took a bus back out to where we came from and found it was getting late in addition to the fact that we hadn’t found a place to stay for the night. Worried that we wouldn’t be able to find a decent place to stay for the night, we sat at the bus stop eating tangerines while searching on Naver for a place to stay.
A call and 15 minutes later, we were already on the car with the B&B guesthouse owner, K, and her parrot. We didn’t expect to be able to get an attic room with a rooftop window for stargazing to ourselves for 30,000 KRW each. After snapping countless photos at the rooftop, we went down to the common area at the agreed time when K would drive us out to a restaurant famous for its banchan (side dishes) for dinner. The number of banchans was impressive, but the main dishes left something to be desired. Determined to get our feet on any beach in Jeju, we finished our meal and walked out to the nearest beach. It didn’t take us long to find out that we were determined but without sound judgment; in other words, we were reckless. As soon as we found out that there was no meaning in getting ourselves lost in the dark, we turned back and shared a taxi back to the guesthouse, where we would take a good shower, pamper our exhausted bodies and stargaze.
At 8 o’clock the next morning, we had the heartiest homemade breakfast in the whole trip. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a traditional Korean breakfast, and it was perfect because it had my favourite dishes (pumpkin, eggs and tofu).
The weather forecast for the day wasn’t to our favour, and we worried about not being able to get to Udo again. K was busy making calls to check if there were ferries to Udo, while we were enjoying our breakfast and watching a soapy Korean drama with the ajumma who prepared our breakfast. Things weren’t looking good, even as K drove us out to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak (성산일출봉). We left things to fate and being curious cats, we asked K about her life instead: K left for Seoul and was there for almost 20 years, until she decided that she’d had enough of the taxing city-dweller life and started the guesthouse in Jeju early this year. Looking at how casually and comfortably dressed she was over these two days, it was hard to imagine her all dressed up and ready for war in the workplace battlefield.
Time eluded us as we engaged in a simple conversation about ourselves. We were soon at the bottom of Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, where we bade K a farewell and where she wished us a great trip ahead. It didn’t take us long to figure out why there were so many people at Ilchulbong today; there weren’t ferries to Udo yet. Ilchulbong wasn’t all that bad, but the crowd… the crowd.
Lunch was at a restaurant we walked past yesterday while asking for directions to the ferry terminal. Little did I know that after-trip conversations with a friend, Kr, who had also just returned from Jeju would reveal that abalone congee in Jeju is overpriced and nothing worth mentioning (mostly).
On the way to the ferry terminal, we met a young Korean lady heading to Udo alone. Given the Korean collectivist culture, it was a rare encounter. We introduced ourselves to one another while on the ferry—sitting Korean-style, on the ground—and S shared with us her experience of taking a break and doing arbeit (part-time work) in Jeju. S didn’t have enough cash with her to rent a bicycle, so we went separate ways shortly after we arrived at Udo.
Several hours later, we found ourselves racing back to the ferry terminal, just in time to catch the last ferry back to Jeju island. Luck was finally on our side, and we had an exceptionally great time at Udo, though we wished we had headed over earlier, because we ran out of time to explore the whole island. At Udo, we made wishes by stacking rocks, took photographs with the wide blue ocean, reapplied sunscreen numerous times, raced down the road alongside vehicles, sank our feet in the soft sands and cooling waves, let the wind mess up our hair, drank tangerine juice, ate peanut ice cream, lost our only map and thereafter our way; we missed each other, looked out for each other, laughed, jumped, did silly things and most importantly, we created memories.
We were back on Jeju island and we reckoned it was better we find an accommodation in the city centre, since we were heading back to Seoul the following day. It wasn’t easy finding a clean and safe guesthouse for the night, especially when we wanted a room and private bathroom to ourselves, so we eventually settled for one where a solo female traveller from Guangdong had already booked a bed in the 4-persons room. L shared that Chinese could travel visa-free to Jeju, so she was there for a five-day solo backpacking trip. After our short five-minute conversation, she left to do some last minute shopping before her flight at five in the morning, while we left to look for food.
The next day, my travel companions who are cosmetic fanatics and members of Innisfree, brought us to O’sulloc. What the place offered couldn’t justify the amount of time we had spent on the bus, which made me wish I had time for Hallasan or other nature attractions.
The one thing my friend, M, said we had to eat in Jeju was haemultang (seafood soup). One simply does not head to an island with easy access to fresh seafood without trying some. And so, we made a point to search for a haemultang restaurant with great reviews online before we left for the airport. This was the tastiest meal I had in Jeju that was worth its price tag, although it was also the meal that gave me the goosebumps—I wish they had served the dish cooked and spared me the agony of watching the live octopus struggling to get out of the pot.
It was a short and spontaneous trip, and it was bittersweet that it had to end this quickly. Before, I didn’t think Jeju was all that big and thought that we could probably cycle from one attraction to another—how big could an island be, if Singapore’s an island? I was wrong. How very silly and ignorant of me. Taiwan’s an island. Japan’s an island. It turned out Jeju island is approximately twice as big as Singapore. With just three days, and with travel companions who aren’t quite as athletic and keen on cycling, public transport and taxi were our only options. Renting a car would have been the best option but only one of us has an international driving licence.
Sometime in the future, I see myself coming back to Jeju again, armed with a better camera, as well as more time and money to spend here.