A few weeks ago, when we were visiting South Korea, I escaped the hustle and bustle of Seoul and spent a couple of nights at a temple with my wife. We joined a 2-night stay at Jeondeungsa Temple. This temple is nestled in a wooded valley on an island close to the North Korean border, about 2 hours by bus from Seoul. We were both a little anxious giving this experience a try but it turned out to be the highlight of our week in Korea. Here’s how it works.
We signed up prior to coming to Korea at the Templestay website. This site is essentially a booking engine for temples in Korea and once you’ve made a booking someone will contact you via email with information about how to get to the Temple and answer any questions you might have. Our temple cost around US$50/person per night and this included all meals and accommodation.
We took a public bus to the temple and upon arrival were shown around and given some temple clothes that we wore during the stay. Our rooms were super authentic with sliding wooden doors, tatami mats and futons to sleep on. Some of the rooms had an en-suite, but we went for the cheaper option and used a very plush shared bathroom & shower. Once settled, we were shown the schedule for the two days and told a few rules, like entering the temples through side doors, when to take off shoes, eating etiquette, how to address the monks etc.
The stay includes activities that allow you to participate in Temple life. Most of these are optional and I’d encourage joining in as it’s a rare chance to actually experience how the monks live, rather then just watching from the sidelines.
At 4am a monk paces around the Temple ringing a bell, gathering everyone to come to the main temple and attend a chanting session. There’s an early breakfast and the opportunity to join a monk in a tea ceremony and ask questions, although in our case the monk was the one asking all the questions. In the evenings there’s a drumming ceremony that visitors are also encourage to participate in.
Meals are served 3 times a day in the Temple kitchen and naturally are very tasty vegetarian meals. Lots of kimchi and rice means that we never went hungry.
As well as the formal activities there’s also time to explore or just chill out. Jeondeungsa Temple had a 3km wall in the forest surrounding it that made for a great walk. Summer in Korea can get stupidly hot and humid, but being in the forest and a little elevated meant that temperatures during our stay were pretty mild.
Was it worth it?
The more I’ve travelled the more that I’ve found the big cities of the world to be the same. We flew to Seoul from Hong Kong and after Korea went to Shanghai. It was hard to tell the difference between the three of them. Doing something unique like joining a Templestay offered us the chance to experience Korean historic culture in a way that can’t be found in the shopping malls of Seoul. It was also a great chance chill out, get away from the crowds and actually meet some locals. You don’t even have to be into Buddhism to do this, just have an open mind and a willingness to try something new.
Yes, it was worth it.