We had done our research the night before and discovered a hotel in Suanbo that was particularly welcoming for cycle tourists. So after procuring our one measly stamp of the day, we rode along Oncheoncheonbyeon-gil until we came across the Suanbo Saipan Hot Spring Hotel.
Taking the extensive bike repair shack outside to be a good sign, we went in and inquired about a room. A double normally sets you back 50,000 won, but a lovely “cyclist discount” meant that we got it for 40,000. For that price, you also get free breakfast, use of the aforementioned bike repair hut, and free parking. The water that flows into the hotel comes directly from the hot springs, so your shower here will be extra rejuvenating. The minute we were unpacked, we got straight on it.
After our short ride, it was only about 1 in the afternoon, so we walked into town in search of some lunch. Suanbo is 1,000 years old and has long been a favourite retreat spot for former Korean emperors and presidents. It must have been something to see back in its heyday, but today, it is a bizarre place that hasn’t seen much upkeep since the 1970s. You feel like you’re in an episode of Doctor Who as you walk past crumbling old storefronts and grotty stone hotels that try to entice you with a string of flashing lights. While still a tourist town of sorts, it looks tired and rundown. Admittedly being there in midweek may have given us a false impression, but it was awfully quiet, and there was a pervasive feeling that the town has seen better days.
There was a quaint, family-run restaurant that looked quiet and was off the main road (read: cheaper prices for the same quality of food). For 19,000 won, we ate rice, doenjang jjigae (a rich tofu stew made from soybean), numerous banchan, and sampled the local fare in the form of pheasant dumplings. There were also two other foreigners in the joint, which startled us as this town is definitely not on the main backpacker trail. In fact, come to think of it, we’ve seen more non-natives in the likes of Burma than in South Korea, which is surprising.
Suanbo is small enough that you can walk around the town centre in 15 minutes. With the rest of the day stretching out in front of us, we went on the hunt for a hot spring in which to park ourselves and rest our sore muscles. There are plenty of jjimjilbangs in and around the town, but it’s worth hiking up to the Hanwha Resort in the hills outside town which boasts the best views and the only outdoor tubs in the area (all others are in the basements of their respective hotels). Be forewarned though, the walk up is quite steep. If, like us, you’re not yet “match fit” for the tour, this mini-hike is probably the last thing you’ll want to do after a morning’s ride in the rolling mountains. But oh boy is it worth it.
Newly relocated to a new building within the same site, it is a very reasonable 12,000 won per person for unlimited use of the sauna, shower facilities, and 4 bubbling ponds - 2 inside (one cold at 27°C, one warmer at 41°C) and 2 outside (both around 42°C or so). For an extra fee, you can pay an old woman (or man, depending on which side you’re on) to vigorously scrub all the dead skin off your body - something that sounds relaxing in theory, but in practice is incredibly painful. Allow Conan O’Brien to demonstrate what you’re in for:
Such activities are separated by gender in Korea, so it was a rare 2-hour meditation period for Jess, who sat outside for most of the afternoon, breathing in the fresh mountain air and letting the hot water soothe all the achy bits without having to listen to her husband banging on about who-knows-what. On Neil’s end, he spent most of his time watching baseball on the TV in the dressing room with his fellow ancient grandfathers.
We went back to the hotel for a wee rest before heading out again for a pre-dinner beer at the cafe right across the street on Jujeongsan-ro, just before the bridge heading into town. It was raining at this point, and the city had turned its lights (both of them!) on for the evening, washing everything outside in a florescent glow.
We noticed that the Korean fried chicken place we were thinking of trying for lunch was finally opened, so we nipped in there for our last meal of the day. 23,000 won got us a veritable feast of fried chicken (20 pieces), rice, and a shared beer. The joint was run by an old couple who remarked several times to themselves how empty it was tonight. And it was true - the town really is desolate. We’re hoping that in high season, it sees more visitors because right now, it would be hard to make a living from anything.
Going to a convenience store to pick up snacks and beers before retiring to our room is fast becoming a nightly ritual now, so we did just that. Guess who’s in the lobby watching TV when we get in - the foreigners from lunch! Birds of a feather flock together and all that.