Sometimes, moments of mishaps and worry while traveling – the kind that force you to think outside of the box – create a steamer trunk full of memories. This is one of those times.
I’m standing on Jong-ro in Seoul. It’s 10:30 p.m. and I’ve made myself voluntarily homeless. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken exception to the arrogant young man at reception who demanded all four nights in cash paid up front, but here we are. Maybe I should have eaten my pride and taken the room without seeing it, but I didn’t. After a full and frank exchange of views I pick up my backpack and leave reception, saying “I’ll stay somewhere else.” “Fine,” he shouts, and the door slams closed behind me.
That’s why I’m standing here homeless in Seoul. It shouldn’t be difficult to find a room in a city of this size. Ok, so they are really expensive – but it’s 10:30pm, I’m alone in a strange city, it’s dark, I don’t know where I am and I’ve no internet. The hotel looks bright and inviting. I brush myself down, try to look less like a middle-aged backpacker and walk through the revolving doors. No rooms. Never mind, there are plenty of other hotels on this street. But the story is repeated at every hotel. Didn’t I know it was a holiday weekend? Why didn’t I book ahead of time?
It’s 11:30 p.m. when I finally give up. I sit on a low wall and prepare for a night on the streets. A security guard from the last hotel approaches. “Why don’t you try the 24-hour sauna?” he suggests. “They have beds that you can rent.”
Well it’s better than nothing. And nothing is precisely what I currently have. I sigh and heave my bag onto my back again. By the time I arrive at Sparex in the Good Morning Shopping Mall, it’s half past midnight. I go down to the basement not knowing what to expect and I arrive into a busy welcoming reception area filled with a fragrant aroma and rows of lockers.
I pay $10 for a set of orange prison-style pajamas and a towel which I tuck under my arm and walk tentatively into the female bathhouse. A 24-hr spa-like Sparex is quite literally a life-saver to a homeless solo female traveller like me. There are hot baths, a jacuzzi, sauna and dozens of naked women sitting around chatting and laughing like they’re fully dressed. The whole of me wished I was born in a place where public nakedness is normalized, like China, Korea, Japan or Scandinavia. But I’ve never been very comfortable with public nudity, and I don’t think my deeply ingrained British reserve will ever allow me to frolic around in the buff. So I wait until I think nobody’s looking, hide behind a bank of lockers and quickly get into my prison-wear. The dormitory is quiet, dark and smells clean. I lay claim to a top bunk, climb up and settle in for the night.
I don’t get much sleep but I’m safe, and in the morning, I pluck up the courage to strip off and shower and now I’m clean too. I pick up my backpack, sling it onto my back and emerge into the daylight. It’s not quite how I’d planned to spend my first night in Seoul but disasters are what memories are made of.
Would I stay in a sauna again, intentionally? Definitely. It’s cheap and safe and doesn’t require booking. If you’re arriving in a city in the middle of the night, you know it will be open, it will be warm, and it’s an immediate immersion into the culture of the place. If you seek out 24-hour saunas in cities on your planned itinerary, it could be a great way to stay cheaply and meet fellow travellers.
I will never forget the cleanliness and the sense of camaraderie being in a group of women, albeit strangers. From this experience, I would learn that when you think you’ve hit an unmovable obstacle, there is always a way around it. Talk to strangers. They’re the ones with the local knowledge you need and are usually very happy to help visitors to their city.
Sparex 24hr Spa
B3 &4 Good Morning City Shopping Mall
418-21 Euljiro 6-ga,
+82 (0)2 2118 4400
+82 (0)2 763 8888
Located near the Dongdaemon History and Cultural Park subway stop
24-hour spas include:
Siloam Bulgama Sauna Spa
49 Jungnim-ro, Jungnim-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
+82 (0)2 364 3944
Dragon Hill Spa and Resort
+82 (0)2 792 0001
The Spa in Garden 5
+82 (0)2404 2700
Sian Lovegrove is British and has travelled independently throughout the Far East where she lived for 10 years. She has led numerous international mountaineering and fieldwork expeditions and now makes a living travelling and working in East Africa.
Photo credit: seungho lee / Shutterstock.com