Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s haven. Accommodation, among other costs, is relatively low compared with western countries. Travelers can sleep in a private beachside hut on a Thai island for a few bucks or a tidy double room for pocket change in Vietnam. a
In Korea, however, accommodation is more expensive. Dorm rooms cost about $20 and love motels are around $50, give or take. But what if I said you could have a fantastical shower, steam those toxins out, have a place to sleep, all while having a real Korean experience for $7-14 a night? What’s that you say? Okay, I’ll tell you more!
Public saunas. Yes, saunas, the place where you soak in hot baths, detox in steam rooms, and scrub your skin in the shower area. There’s an adjective in there, though. Public.
No, not public in the sense that you’re bathing naked on the busy streets of Gangnam, but you will be in the nude in front of dozens of other people of the same sex.
Sound scary? Well, sure. Most of us never experienced this before. But it is a favorite past time for locals. You’ll see people of all ages from toddlers to grannies getting their scrub on. Nobody’s embarrassed or self-conscious. It’s just another old day. Some common sights include people scrubbing each others backs, people with giant circles on their bodies from cupping, and kids running around naked (even opposite sex) so you have to awkwardly look away so as to not feel like a creep. Don’t be surprised if an older woman gives you a towel and asks you to scrub her back.
I am ethnically Korean, so people don’t stare at me. My western friends, however, may attract some attention, but nothing more than as if they would see you on the bus.
Now, let’s talk about practical advice:
Where are Jjimjilbangs?
Sometimes, there are places that are just saunas with no sleeping area. Make sure that there is a 24/7 찜질방. Asking around and also calling 1330 will help. In the past, I’ve found them by typing in 찝질방 on Naver and hopping in a taxi and asking him to take us to the nearest jjimjilbang. You can also check out this collaborative Google map I created to find jjimjilbangs and reviews. There are jjimjilbangs in almost every city.
How does it work?
- First, go in and pay at the counter. It is cheaper if you just want to soak in the saunas, but a few bucks more if you want to stay overnight in the jjimjilbang. Sometimes, prices are higher past a certain time at night. Prices range from 6,000-13,000 KRW.
- The attendant will give you two small towels and an outfit. The outfit must be worn in the co-ed jjimjilbang area.
- Say goodbye to your sweetheart and separate into the male (남자) or female (여자) locker rooms. Take off your shoes and put them in a small locker. Take the key and keep it around your wrist or ankle.
- The key should have a number on it. Go inside and find a big locker with the same number as your key.
- Strip down and be free!
- Go into the shower area and wash off. Put your hair up or in a towel. It is a no-no for your hair to be in the water. You can even be fancy and do it the sheep style.
- Enjoy the various hot tubs and steam rooms. Every sauna is different, but the bathtubs vary in heat, jets, and the content. Sometimes they have medicinal herbs and minerals. Oh-la-la. After sitting in the steam rooms, rinse off before entering the pools again.
- When you’re all finished, shower, dry off with your itty bitty towel, and put on the provided outfit.
- Head to the co-ed jjimjilbang area. There is usually a snack shop for noodles and ice cream, some massage chairs, a TV, sometimes even a noraebang (karaoke) and computer rooms! You must go in the dry saunas, or fomentation rooms. They vary in heat and what’s inside – sometimes it’s salt, bamboo, charcoal, jade, etc. There’s even an ice room if you want to get your eskimo on.
- Tired? Grab a mat, wooden pillow (if you’re lucky) and a cozy spot to clunk out. It will probably be crowded and full of sleeping people on the floor.
Tips for the sauna.
- Be sure to drink plenty of water because you will be sweating disgustingly. In a good way!
- Grab a snack or drink. At the counter in the locker room, you can purchase iced coffee/tea. The traditional thing to eat at the sauna are roasted eggs that are brown and somewhat chewy. 식혜 (shikhye), a cold sweet rice drink, is very popular to drink while at the sauna.
- Get a scrub by an older Korean woman clad in lacy lingerie (sorry, guys will be scrubbed by a man). For about $20, you can get a 세신 (se-shin). She will get down on your entire body with a Korean “Italy towel” and scrub away clobs of dead skin. You’ll be born again.
Tips for the jjimjilbang
- Bring an eye mask. It never gets completely dark inside.
- Ear plugs. Snoring is almost always guaranteed. I even had the pleasure of hearing a man performing for American Idol in his dreamstate.
- Bring an inflatable pillow and thin blanket. There are usually mats to sleep on and wooden “pillows” to support your neck, but don’t count on it. They’re not that comfortable either.
- Don’t keep your valuables with you. You are sleeping in a crowded room. There are lockers for a reason.
If you don’t want to rough it, don’t solely rely on jjimjilbangs. You can’t leave your luggage there all day, so you must lug it around all day or store it away in a locker (most subway stations and bus terminals have these). I stayed in jjimjilbangs almost every night for two weeks while traveling in Korea post-graduation to save money. I was young and flexible then (well, still am), but now I appreciate a bed.
Sleeping in a jjimjilbang is not for everyone, but I highly recommend you try it at least once because it is a truly unique Korean experience.
And I’ll just leave this here.
EDIT: Eat Your Kimchi made a great video about Korean saunas.