It’s not often that I sit naked in hot baths speaking to other equally naked men, but it does happen. The last time it happened was when I spent the night in a jimjilbang (Korean bath house) to recover, immediately after Ansan Rock Festival. I met an American on the way in and when we found ourselves in the same pool we ended up talking about festivals. This was the first time I heard about Korea Burn.
Korea Burn is Korea’s version of Burning Man, a festival of involvement and free expression that takes place every year in the Nevada desert in the USA. The festival requires ‘burners’ to follow ten principles (Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, Immediacy). Korea Burn follows the same principles, something I decided not to tell my housemate Josh before I booked he tickets, and didn’t tell him until after a few beers a week before the event. He wasn’t overly enthusiastic about voluntary work and not being to be able to buy anything, but he was willing to try.
Unfortunately, we finished work too late on Friday to get a normal bus or a train, but we didn’t want to miss a whole night of the festival so we decided to get a taxi for the whole two hour journey to the festival. The taxi arrived Friday night, we loaded up, cracked open a bottle of soju and headed to the Burn. Susie passed out pretty quickly, she hadn’t slept in 24 hours as she had stayed up all night making her costume and gifts. My gifts were handmade clay figures that I had been putting together for the last three days.
We arrived and we walked along a deserted beach. Where was everyone? We eventually heard music and saw lights in the distance. I was relieved, I had been a tad concerned that the event wouldn’t be popular and that it would just be a couple of westerners in a big tent. I needn’t have worried. But before we could join the party we had to get wristbands which involved a long backtrack to a cabin we had passed as we were on the wrong road. Inside the cabin were two people and we sat down for a chat. Soon after a coach full of people arrived and I offered my (and Josh’s and Susie’s) help. We spent a while handing out tickets and checking names before heading to the entrance ourselves.
The burn was beginning.
We found a place to pitch he tent between some trees so we could stretch the tarp over it from the rain. And there was so much rain. For hours and hours and hours the rain fell in sheets. We made ourselves at home under a gazebo, grabbed more beers and Josh’s speakers and had ourselves a party that first grew, peaking around 4 or 5 am, and then shrunk again as people headed to bed. I went to bed at about 7.30 as the sun was coming up. It was still raining.
The next day I woke to find josh, squatting outside the tent with glitter hearts stuck to his face, telling me and Susie to get up. The rain had finally stopped and the sun was shining, it was a beautiful day. Out of the tent I looked to my right and saw the burning man standing high before a glistening ocean. I looked to my left and saw a swampy lake where there had previously been about 50 tents. Standing beside it was a Korean man with a fishing rod, casting into the middle of it. We were safe on higher ground but many people had woken in puddles and many had left the festival as a result. The fisherman wasn’t having much luck either.
We stocked up on beer and soju and headed out to get involved and find some breakfast. The weather was nice enough to go topless (sorry Korea) and soon I was also in my Mud Festival hot pants (really sorry Korea). Others were dressed weirdly, wonderfully and as spacemen with colanders on their heads. Susie put on her homemade ladybird costume, we all painted each other’s faces and soon I was orange from head to toe.
No money is exchanged at Burning Man and the only thing on sale is ice. Korea Burn is the same. Everything is a gift, and giving of a gift does not mean that you will receive one in return. We were treated to a burlesque performance, played an appalling game of badminton, took part in a massage circle and I hugged a ginger, bearded and dreadlocked Scotsman for five minutes straight, after which he gave me a card saying that I am officially a pope.
I was sitting in a jellyfish tent with about fifteen others, including Susie (Josh had disappeared and hadn’t been seen for hours) when a cry went up from outside. It was time, it was time to burn the man!
Fire dancers, fire hula-girls, fire throwers, and all kinds of fire related performers filled the space in front of the man and spun, danced and weaved around each other to hypnotic beat of drums. Finally there was a blast of flame and the man was ablaze. A cheer went up from the crowd.
Susie and I decided to check back at the tent to see if we could find Josh, sitting down was a mistake and we were soon both fast asleep. A day of activity, sun and more than a little Somaek (soju mixed with beer (maekju)) had exhausted us. We were woken a couple of hours later by Josh, who came to say hello before heading off again with a friend.
I got up soon after and left Susie sleeping to do some exploring on my own, one of my favourite things to do at any festival.
I first followed the music to the dance tent, where a large group were dancing happily and energetically in the thick mud under the gazebo. I had a little boogie before heading down to the beach. One man was reading a poem that looked to be about four pages long and behind that there was a group of musicians with guitars and a box drum. In the distance, further down the beach, two fire poi performers could be seen.
Around 5.30am the last of the musicians went to bed and one of the girls in our small group said she had wanted to try fire poi all night. I dragged her over and the Korean guys with the poi were happy to let us have a go. ‘It’s not dangerous though is it,” she asked after. “Of course, it’s fire,” he replied.
Sunday started with lots of food, including a boiled egg that had somehow made its way into the box of fresh ones that a lovely lady had brought to make a mountain of French toast (thanks Amy). Josh, Susie and I had a dip in the sea and I managed to have a go with a flamethrower. We were about to pack the tent when I found a bag with someone’s phone and camera against it. I spent the next hour trying to track down the owner, who had left, her friends, who had left and some friends of friends, who had also left. I ended up taking the bag home and returning it the next weekend.
We got a taxi and a train home and managed some food before we all passed out. Korea burn was a great experience and it taught me a few important lessons. Give gifts, because it’s fun, a fishing rod is never a waste of space, if you see people running you should run too and finally that you should always make eye contact with naked men in the bath.
James Vs World