Living Cheaply (and Naked) at Seoul’s 24-Hour Spas
The cheapest accommodations in Seoul aren’t in backpacker dorms or rundown flophouses. It’s on the floor of a 24-hour Korean spa. These Korean spas – also known as jjimjilbang – offer up all the amenities you’d expect, with saunas, steam rooms, various hot and cold pools and massages. The difference between this and those Western spas is that it’s common to grab a pillow and sleep in the common area until morning rather than just sticking around for the day. In the morning, patrons refresh with another round of soaking or steaming and then head on their way.
My brother Mark and I went to Sparex in the Good Morning City Shopping Mall near the Dongdaemon History and Cultural Park subway stop just after midnight on the weekend. We paid $10 each and were given orange shorts and shirts to wear. The spa was divided into a men and women’s section, with an enormous common area for watching TV, sleeping, and eating. This particular common area is modeled on a traditional Korean village, so people slept on the porches, inside the homes or underneath the model buildings in small cubby holes.
There must have been at least 200 people, with plenty of room to spare. Near the main entrance is a decent gym, but we didn’t use it because we went to Sparex after a night of drinking not to work, but to relax.
Things to Do
In the male locker room, we stripped down and went into the main spa area. There were four hot pools of varying temperatures and two cold pools. Showers lined one of the walls a steam room and sauna were on the other side. There were some massage tables where male masseuses offer their services for an extra charge (nothing shady or suspect here – which can’t be said about some of the massage places I’ve unwittingly been to).
As an American, walking around in the buff with others around is something of a new experience and was initially a bit unnerving. I adapted and got over it quickly as I settled into the relaxing pools. It was a great setup and the amenities were all in decent shape despite not being as luxuriously decorated as I imagine “Western” spas to be. It was just simple tiles and modest lighting, with no music or anything else playing.
After about an hour, the soju and beer we drank earlier that day began to wear off and we went to bed. Mark opted for some bunk beds in a room off to the guys’ locker room. I was in the main common area sleeping on the hard floor with a couple pillows. It wasn’t the most comfortable, and at 6 a.m. someone decided to turn on the TV with the volume cranked. Still, for $10 I couldn’t complain.
The Korean government published a good guide to spas – including information on where to find them around Seoul.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?