The Charms of Changnyeong County: Bugok Hot Springs

This famous town is well worthwhile as the crowning place to go after visiting Changnyeong-gun’s more strenuous sites. However, since it is only an hour by bus from Busan’s Sasang terminal, anyone eager to escape the city can easily devote a day or weekend just to it alone. Bugok’s name makes it a pendant to Busan, since they both share the same first syllable: Busan’s name means kettle mountain, while the resort’s means kettle valley. Unlike its semi-namesake, though, Bugok only became well-known very recently; until the discovery of 48 geothermal wells there in 1973, it was just an ordinary rural township. That all changed very quickly, and in 1977 Bugok was officially designated a national tourist resort. Twenty years later, it was promoted to Special Tourist Complex, and it has been onward and upward ever since. According to an article on South Korean hot springs in 10 Mag, of the over 400 such venues across the country, those in the southeast are the hottest, with Bugok being the hottest of all. Its sulphurous waters are celebrated for a 78-degree Celsius temperature that can boil eggs, and soft-boiled eggs from the springs are in fact sold to tourists. Anyone preferring to be called a traveler instead of a tourist be warned: Bugok is touristy, though not in extremely bad taste or overly expensive.

Once you arrive in Bugok, the first thing to do is find the tourist information booth, which is out of the bus terminal’s main entrance past the taxi rank. On its counter are a couple of English-Korean maps of Changnyeong County, including Bugok. Next is a place to stay, and Oncheonjungang-no is the main strip. To get there, just turn left out of the bus terminal’s main entrance, pass the Lotte Mart, then turn left again at the street.  Walk toward the Bugok Hawaii a couple of blocks away, and you are there. While the Bugok Hawaii is the first hotel you will see and the largest, you probably do not want to sleep there, since rooms are six figures a night; therefore, you should turn left as you face it and head north a couple more blocks to find the Hansung Hotel (055-536-5131) on your right, opposite the Motel Queen. This is the best hotel for the price that I have found in Bugok: it is six stories with a white neo classical facade, and contains a cafe on the ground floor with a noraebang-bar in the basement, as well as its own sauna rooms for men and women.

The best factor of Hansung is the spacious rooms with large, deep tubs and massage tables for just 50,000 won per night; long suites with the same equipment are only 20,000 won more. Another block north is the more modern and nonsmoking Rainbow Hotel, which ordinarily charges 80,000 for a single but has specials for 64,000. Just past the Hansung Hotel and set back behind a small park is the Grand Hotel, which is only 40,000 won a night with sauna access. Across the street is the large and luxurious Spadium, which also offers guests saunas starting at 98,000 per night. These are Bugok’s major hotel options along Oncheonjungang-no; smaller streets to its east abound with options.

To get in some exercise before you soak in a sauna, follow the map to the northeast side of town and find Deungsangijeom, which is the main trail head. It is a little over a kilometer to the trail along the crest between Jongamsan and Deogamsan’s peaks, and the slopes of these mountains are steep. However, a sauna feels better after a little exertion. After hiking and soaking, the final item on your list is eating and drinking.

Oncheonjungang-no is lined with places to eat, but the best place I found is Parasol, a Western-style bar and restaurant on the west side of the street at the northern end; it is easily identifiable by the statue of Elvis Presley strumming a guitar outside it. The main dishes here run from 8 to 20,000 won, with most around 10-12,000, such as the beef and pork cutlets. It offers the usual side dishes for 20,000 won, as well as 16 bottled imported beers for 8,000. Bottles of major liquor brands are about 120,000 won, and typical cocktails are 6-7,000. Beware, however, of the Singapore slings–they do not make them right here! Finally, wine is sold by the bottle for 40 to 130,000. You can drink some of the bottle on the premises with you and take the rest back to your hotel.

In summary, Bugok is a small town with only one major street, but its small size makes it rather quaint and uncomplicated, and it is not prohibitively costly. Its proximity to Busan is also attractive for a perfect weekend getaway that Busan residents should try to fit in. Finally, anyone fearful of being soft-boiled can rest assured that the local water is cooled before piping into the saunas; Bugok’s water is sulphurous, and said to cure many diseases. Whatever the truth of the medicinal claims, it is certainly relaxing.

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Hal Swindall
Hal Swindall
A California native, Hal Swindall received his PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside and has wandered East Asia as a vagabond prof ever since. He teaches English conversation, writing and presentation skills at Woosong University in Daejeon.

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