Picture this: You’ve been up since 5am. You’ve just spent the entire day at one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders, peering over into the most isolated nation on the planet. You’ve been briefed by the US military and signed a form acknowledging the possibility of your death that day, and you’ve listened to North Korean propaganda opera blaring out across the DMZ. Then, to top off what has already been a mind-boggling 12 hours, this has all taken place on the very same day that Donald Trump is elected US president.
When you finally arrive in Sokcho after a 3 hour bus ride from Seoul that evening, it’s cold and it’s dark. You’re exhausted, and thanks to the special Korean news broadcast that played on the bus’s TV screen almost the entire way, which repeatedly showed images of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un side by side, you’re feeling more than a little concerned about the fate of the world. But all you can do is grab your stuff and head towards your hotel, which is, in what is probably the only piece of good news that day, only a 1 minute walk away, just around the back of the bus station.
You then find yourself standing in front of a giant pink castle.
Yes, a giant pink castle that looks like something straight out of a cartoon, complete with turrets, Juliet balconies and emerald green battlements.
So began our little jaunt to Sokcho, a town in the vicinity of Seoraksan National Park, which introduced us to South Korea’s quirky side. And with that little introduction, we suddenly felt very far away from what we had experienced that day, and what was going on in the US.
Standing in the doorway, I thought for a moment and vaguely remembered sitting at my computer and clicking ‘Book Now!’ I had laughed to myself and thought ‘Ooh a castle, how fun!’ and then promptly forgotten all about it.
“Zac…” I said slowly, “do you think this is a love hotel?” I had recently come across a few Tripadvisor reviews and blog posts referring to Korea’s ubiquitous ‘love hotels,’ which are basically cheap, kitschy motels with a bit of a reputation for sleaze.
We walked into the dimly lit reception area and approached the front desk, which was enclosed in glass with the shutters pulled down (from my reading, they are designed this way for the benefit of the guest who wants to be discreet about their stay – so yep, definitely a love hotel).
We checked in and headed up to our room, which was covered in dizzying patterned wallpaper. It was furnished with a cream bedhead, nightstand and dressing table, all matching with little floral details – they looked like they came straight out of my great grandmother’s bedroom. There was also a huge basket of toiletry products that included a variety of lotions, hair spray, and a used hairbrush and comb – no need to BYO!
Though I was a little taken aback at first, I have to admit that our accommodation was well-located, clean and cheap, and the manager was very helpful. Apparently, a lot of these types of hotels have tried to revamp and change their reputation in recent years, so many are actually great places to stay for budget travellers. And really, who wouldn’t want to stay in a hotel with a facade fit for a Disney princess?
So, in the end, the laughs we got from the eccentricities of our pink castle were a bonus to what was otherwise a decent place to stay, and served as a ridiculous though much-needed distraction from the world’s current insanity.