By Jenny Burdin
There were a lot of things I was warned about before I went to Korea. Don’t walk into someone’s house with your shoes on. Don’t tell people you were adopted from Korea. Don’t offer to pay when someone takes you out to eat or for drinks. The Korean people are very polite, and a little repressed, and not very welcoming to American-Koreans even though they love foreigners. Don’t wear sleeveless shirts in public, it’s indecent.
Far from repressed myself, I still couldn’t quite make eye contact when I stammered out a broken Korean request for a ticket to Samcheok, on the coast of South Korea, to the skeptical looking ticket seller at the Express Bus Terminal. “Samcheok kkaji beoseu?” The man behind the plexi-glass pursed his small mouth, eying me up and down. “Haesindang?” He asked. I nodded. His mouth got smaller, and he stamped a ticket with what felt like accusatory force, sliding it across to me with a grunt. I took it meekly, and hurried home. My adventure to the Penis Park of South Korea had finally begun.
Samcheok is a small city in the Gangwon-do province of South Korea. Perched on the east coast, it is best known for its fishing, the mysterious and elegant Hwanseongul Caves, and Haesindang Park: home of the many penises. As soon as I learned of its existence, I knew I had to go. Over three hundred small medium and large sculptures, statues, and carvings of penises? Anthropomorphic, lewd, tasteful, realistic, comedic and bizarre? A tilting water cannon shaped like a giant penis? Twelve man-sized stone zodiac animals housed in giant penis pedestal houses, arranged around a long jutting penis shaped bench overlooking the ocean? Yes please.
For a society so sexually repressed, the existence of a phallic-worshipping park sprawling many acres and encompassing Korea’s largest aquarium theatre, an arboretum, a small red (phallic shaped) lighthouse, a cliff side shrine, and a fishing village folk museum may seem odd. The legend that inspired so many erections is tragic and humorous. Long ago, there lived a young couple madly in love; Haesindang and Auebawi. When disaster struck, and the young virgin maid was swept out to sea, a curse went out over the local fishing village of Sinnam. The fish disappeared. For many hungry months the fishermen hauled up nothing in their nets, until one day a young man exposed himself to the sea to relieve himself off the side of his boat. Pleased with the sight of what she will never have in the afterlife, the ghost of the virgin Auebawi sent the fish flooding back. Catching on quickly, the village set to constructing as many phallic statues as they can, posting them on the edge of the sea to appease the horny ghost. Small and large, realistic and cartoonish, painted faces and ballooning anatomy, waving arms and waving…other… appendages; the penises are made of wood, stone, plastic, ceramic, and metal. There is everything from twenty foot high statues to dozens of small, carved, finger sized penises strung on bracelets hanging from the arches of foot bridges. The park is filled with these phalluses collected over the years, and a small shrine dedicated to the drowned maiden perches on the edge of a cliff looking out to sea. The small village of Sinnam is still dedicated to fishing to this day.
The bus ride from Seoul to Samcheok takes around four and a half hours. The local bus from Samcheok to Haesindang park takes fifty minutes, and only comes around once every hour and a half. I had promised the friend I was staying with that I would meet her back in Seoul in time for the Buddhist lantern festival that evening. If I had left on time, I would have had three hours or so to leisurely stroll through Haesindang. Less if I caught an early bus back and found a nice little place to sample the local seafood in a nice, long lunch, before catching the bus back to Seoul.
Ahhh, the best laid schemes of mice and men. I woke up. Late. I missed my first bus from the apartment to the Express Bus Terminal. I missed the first bus from Seoul to Samcheok. I arrived at Samcheok hungry, since I hadn’t had time to grab breakfast or lunch, and only enough time to gulp down two melon ice cream bars at the bus stop. They were beginning to give me a stomachache. I missed the bus out to Haesindang by just a few minutes. I actually watched it pull out from the bus stop with my face plastered to the window, still trapped inside the bus from Seoul. By the time I actually got to the vaulted Penis Park, I had forty-three minutes before the next bus arrived, and I could safely make it back to Samcheok, and then my bus back to Seoul. Forty-three minutes to toss my crumpled won at the front gate and speed walk my way up and down hills, through gardens and steps and lawns and more steps. Why did they put this park on the side of a hill?? Snapping blurry pictures at breathless speed, precariously balancing my camera on the heads of statues and setting the timer so I could pose opposite them, I crabbily observed the large flocks of aujummas, older ladies in sunglasses and wide brimmed hats and visors. They screeched in amused Korean to each other, posing next to 10 foot tall wooden phalluses with buck teeth and wiggly hips. Or they straddled smooth white stone phallus benches, poking and jabbing at each other and making lewd gestures at the cowed old ajeossi (uncle) with the handheld camcorder who followed them around dutifully. I passed a timid looking younger couple in baseball hats and small backpacks, taking pictures together perched gingerly on the benches, or uncomfortably flashing the universal peace sign next to tall carved wooden statues of saggy-breasted, long-faced figures with erect tools. I suddenly, intensely, felt the absence of anyone by my side. Very alone and a little pathetic, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself. Who goes to a park of the pink oboe, of the pork sword, of the purple headed warrior of love, alone?
I gazed longingly down at the wooden steps that led down to a small beach, the path curving around the side of the cliff and out of sight. I wondered where it led to, what other ding dong delights lay just around the side of the hill, but I didn’t have enough time to climb down there and back. I marched resolutely past the old fishing village folk museum, the straw thatched huts with life sized ceramic glazed figures posed inside in sexual positions, past the jetty with the bright red phallic lighthouse. No time! I felt like crying as I raced for my bus, missing about half of the Park and hauling myself in to watch the waving penile statues standing guard at the gate slip out of sight.
Fields of bright green grain swished past the rattling old bus, and clouds of road dust billowed behind us like faded orange sea froth, chasing us back to Samcheok. It was the off-tourist season, so the only other people on the bus were sour faced older women with wrinkled shopping bags re-used for produce, and a younger man in grey robes holding a red speckled chicken on his lap near the back. He stared straight ahead, disinterested in looking out the windows, or at the other passengers. The older ladies stared at me openly as I repacked my camera. I wondered if they could tell I was a foreigner. I wondered if they judged me for going to a Penis Park alone, without a pack of girlfriends or a boyfriend to make it seem more acceptable. I looked out the window and dreamed of mussels and fresh fish, salty and tender from the ocean. I wouldn’t have enough time for lunch.
I missed the bus back to Seoul. Of course I did. This was turning out to be the worst day of my entire trip to Korea. I calculated and recalculated time constraints, bus fares, and my own cash. The ticket seller in Samcheok insisted (I’m fairly sure – as he spoke about 4 words of English and I spoke about 4 words of Korean) that my round trip ticket only applied to the specific bus stamped on it. I had missed my bus. Therefore I must buy a new ticket. Also I must wait an hour. Or a day. I tried to get him to repeat himself a little slower, frantically shuffling through my Korean phrasebook, but he flapped his hand at me and shuffled back behind his desk and began speaking rapid-fire Korean to the next person in line, who unceremoniously elbowed me to the side. I went outside and looked at the dusty local buses, and tried not to appear like a lost child waiting for their mother to come along and make everything alright. Inquiring around, I managed to find someone at the local info booth who spoke English. She was very kind to me, sympathetic, and brokered a deal with a taxi driver to take me back to the city for only the low, low price of half my soul. I tried again at the bus station, relieved to be told there would be a bus leaving for Seoul in a half an hour. After buying a ticket, I went out to the waiting info booth girl and taxi driver, bowing and apologizing and thanking as best I could. The taxi driver looked relieved not to have to make the four and a half hour drive, and the info booth girl beamed happily, proud to have helped a clueless foreigner out of a pickle.
I was so excited for this excursion out to the Haesindang Park by myself. I planned and counted my money and my time. I held my breath, impatient to boast of my independence, self reliance, and bravery to my friends. Guess what?! I had the opportunity to go to a Penis Park in Korea! That’s right, a Penis Park! Let me tell you all about it. But I had pushed my expectations too high. The experience felt miserable and lonely and cramped for time. I still hadn’t discovered that ‘go with the flow’ mentality I had seen aujummas and aujeossis sitting on shop steps in town exuding, drinking their tea and contemplating rain falling on ivy leaves. I hadn’t found a stillness and joy in any single moment of that day, and I was incredibly disappointed. But the day wasn’t over yet… and I would find a bright burning candle in that dark day before it was done.
Born in Korea but adopted to and raised in America, Jenny hopes someday to find roots in Asia and reconnect with the country she never knew. She also hopes to go out in the sun more, and stop being such a cave dweller. With two college degrees and boundless interest in books, manga, cuisine, dance, photography, theatre, film, and Skyrim, she is currently editing and contributing to Tickets to:.