here's the naked truth: you can't really say you've done korea unless you've been to a public bath. what may sound seedy back in montreal is very traditional in korea.... and not seedy at all. public bath houses are found all over korea, and they resemble spas. for the low cost of 8$, you have access to all the rooms (hot and cold, saunas, baths...) on top of the "jjimjilbang" part: spacious heated rooms where you can watch television, read, sleep, or just lie on the floor on cushions. you can also get massages and scrubs. it is a common thing to have random koreans scrub your body while you're in the bath house, and it looks a bit painful in my opinion.
moi and my fellow canadian friend decided to brave the bath houses last week. being girls, we love spas and saunas and whatnot, so we thought it would be a fun (and cheap!!) activity. we were a bit nervous as we did not know what to expect, and many people scared us by saying koreans tend to stare at foreigners.
when you first get in, you pay the fee and they give you a "uniform": orange t-shirt and shorts (white t-shirts for guys). you go to the locker room, and get changed into you ugly uniform (at that point we wished we had brought our cameras, the fits were awful). at that point we also wished we had some soju in tow, as we were getting a bit nervous. the part where you wear your uniform is the jjimjilbang, aka the television and reading rooms, and various other rooms you can chill out in. one room was like an oven, you had to enter through this little door and sit on the floor while sweating profusely for as long as you could stand it (i stayed less than a minute, i started panicking). another room was a huge fridge, with a temperature of minus 11 degrees celcius. my favourite room was the salt room , where you sit in heaps of sea salt and rub it on your skin, while the ajummas (older ladies) smile and (probably) talk about you. each room has some kind of "benefit", such as clearing out your skin or curing 'diseases'.... of all kinds.
the next part was the baths, and that's when we started getting really nervous. i started thinking, wow, the spa experience is not relaxing at all, just more stressful than anything. obviously the rooms are different for men and women, but still. basically it's a huge room full of showers and different baths and saunas. there is salt available to scrub your body and most people bring their toileteries and toothbrushes. it is a lot of fun once you get past the initial weirdness, and some ajummas were showing us where to go: warm bath, then cold bath, then sauna. they also told us to shut our mouths while in the sauna, i guess were were a bit chatty!
the funniest part was the towel incident. they gave us only two tiny towels (no kidding, just a small square), so when we saw a big pile of huge towels in the locker room we just grabbed those and wrapped them around. however, when one of the employees saw us she started telling us to take them off, that we were not allowed to use them. turns out those 'towels' were in fact... carpets. they all had a laugh, definitely making fun of the foreign girls, but in a nice way. i also got yelled at when i absentmindedly put my boots on the locker room floor (koreans are very strict about the 'no shoes inside' rule, which is nice in fact).
all in all it was a fun experience, i'm looking forward to go back. it will definitely be more relaxing next time since i know how it works. i'll also try to take a picture of the uniforms, they're hilarious.