Jungmun Daepo Coast

If you have had the chance to visit Jeju, you will most likely admit that the South Korean island wholly deserves its position as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, a title bestowed upon it in 2011.

The columnar joints at Jungmun Daepo Coast is just one of the many natural attractions – Jeju is after all a volcanic island and was born out of volcanic eruptions – and it is most majestic.

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I realised that this view of the columnar joints must be one of the most photographed locations in Jeju! :)

It costs 2,000 won to cast one’s eye upon this natural land formation – I thought it strange for the authorities to charge visitors a fee to see something created by Mother Nature – but that is hardly a deterrent to most tourists. The park was packed with visitors, most of them from China, and it takes a bit of patience to snag a perfect spot for that memorable photograph of the columnar joints.

I hung around for 30 minutes, mesmerised by the view and the roar of the ocean’s waves crashing onto shore. Although it was a summer morning, the air was cooler than I had expected, and the wind was strong, which altogether made the visit to Jungmun Daepo Coast quite pleasant.

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The home of the last mermaids

Two years ago when I visited Jeju in South Korea for the first time, I heard of the island’s notorious feisty grandmothers. These are tiny women with big voices and a hardy character, unafraid to reprimand you should you be in their way.

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As the story goes, the people of Jeju lead a tough life as the only abundant natural resource lies in the ocean. Husbands must go out to fish, leaving wives to stay home and tend to the children. Rough oceans took many men away, so wives must also be hardy enough to make a living. And so, a number of older generation women also sought out the ocean for harvests they could sell for daily necessities.

These women became haenyeo – women of the sea. They dive without oxygen tanks to as deep as 15m in search of shellfish, sea cucumbers and fish. Most can hold their breath for up to two minutes, and would dive four to five hours each time.

The job is a tough one, and even more so for the early haenyeo who had to dive without protective rubber diving suits. They wore only cotton outfits that did not keep out the cold and protect their tender skins from rocks and other sharp shells as they searched for shellfish on the ocean floor. And when they suffered cuts, the salty ocean water stung their wounds.

It was only in the last 40 years or so that rubber diving suits came into their hands.

When I was in Jeju last week, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with two haenyo who are already in their 60s. Kim Sun-Ok (left) has been diving for a living for the past 40 years, while Moon Sun-Ja has ploughed the ocean floor for 45 years.

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They told me that only experienced haenyeo can reach depths of 10-15m. Mid-level haenyeo can only dive up to five to 10m, while beginners only start with five metres. Many haenyeo have been diving for decades, taking their first lessons on gathering seaweed when they are 10 years old, and retiring around 83-85 years old when their bodies could no longer work.

Diving is only possible when the ocean conditions are right, such as when the tide is low or the ocean is not too choppy and cold. But when the need for money is dire, haenyeo will throw caution to the wind and dive anyway.

“We had elderly haenyeo who suffered fatal heart attacks while on the job in winter, ” Kim said softly, unlike the visions of feisty grandmothers I have always had in my mind.

Her interpreter added that it was also common for haenyeo to drown when trapped in nets cast by fishermen in motor boats above them or to be hit by passing fishing boats. Emerging from the waters too close to motor boats is dangerous too, as the engines churn the surrounding waters, making it too choppy for haenyeo to stabilise and catch their breath.

The fiery tempers of these mermaid grandmothers would flare when they come in contact with fishermen.

While it was common for generations of women under one roof to dive for a living,  Kim and Moon do not wish for the same lives for their own daughters.

Kim crossed her stout arms to form a large X when she was asked if her daughter would become a haenyeo too.

“She’s a librarian now. This is a tough and dangerous job that no young woman will want,” she chuckled.

The story is always the same, isn’t it? Forefathers are willing to work hard in difficult, dirty jobs in order to create a better life for their offspring. With education, the latter no longer need to take up physical labour.

And so, haenyeo is becoming a dying trade.

Today, according to the interpreter, there are 4,800 haenyeo in Jeju. In the southern village of Beophwan in Seogwipo, Jeju, there are only 100 left – 60 are active divers and the rest have retired due to old age and health.

And the oldest active haenyeo is 85 years old.

The scale of hardship is not proportionate to their earnings. Haenyo make only US$20 or so a day, depending on the weight of the day’s harvest. In Beophwan there is a Jeju Haenyeo Experience Centre (Tel: 064 739 1232) where visitors can learn about the history of this unique job, see the old mermaids at work, try on the early cotton diving suits and take a dip in the shallow waters of the ocean, and later feast on seafood caught fresh by haenyo. Through this initiative, a good portion of the money made from visitors are used to fund the welfare of surviving haenyeo.

So if you are heading to Jeju soon, do make a trip there to meet these iron ladies of the ocean and support them in any way you can.

The sexiest park on Earth

I arrived in Jeju yesterday afternoon and caught a quick nap to make up for a lack of sleep throughout the overnight flight. When I woke up, it was already past 4pm and I decided to visit a nearby attraction before the sky darkens.

A quick look at the map and I found my destination – Jeju Loveland.

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Opened in 2004, Jeju Loveland is a park with 140 sex-inspired sculptures. And I do not mean sculptures that are vaguely shaped like sex-related products or actions and which require much pondering to understand what the sculpture is trying to say.

At Jeju Loveland, the sculptures whip their messages right in your face.

I was greeted before the entrance by a marble replica of my best friend:

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I was so tempted to strike a more vulgar pose, say, one that involves me sticking out my tongue at a specific part of this marble sculpture, but I was afraid I’d give the man who was wielding my camera a premature ejeculation. Already, he was grinning from ear to ear when I approached him for help with a photo.

After snapping this shot, the man urged me to go to the washroom. Whatever for, I asked. He grinned on and pushed me in the direction of the washroom. “Look!” he said excitedly.

And I saw what he was so eager to show me:

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Right. Any woman who needs a pee must first perform a hand-job.

The man grinned on and nudged me to go into the washroom. In halting English, he told me to look through a door inside. For a moment, I thought some woman would perform peeing in one of the cubicles and decided against looking into any cubicles – I’ve had enough of chancing upon women who pee without shutting their doors in Kunming. But the enthusiastic man refused to let me exit the washroom and insisted I look through a door.

I finally realised there was a peephole on one door and looked through. It was a cartoon depicting a blowjob.

The man laughed heartily when I emerged from the washroom and then left me alone. Very interesting chap.

Stepping through the gates of Jeju Loveland, I saw this beautiful piece:

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More sculptures of women in sultry poses followed, and most of them were of women yielding to men.

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I was starting to think that the perception of women as sex objects sounded too strongly at Jeju Loveland, until I saw a few sculptures that depicted terrified males with heavy women. Good to know that the park did not just portray the female species as subjects to be dominated during sex. :)

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There were some hilarious displays in the park too, like this one showing a couple making out in a car, which rattled along to a woman’s erotic moans and screams. Just then, a great photo opportunity presented itself when a group of men came by and peered inquisitively through the windows. Peeping toms! :)

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There was also this piece that made me pause in my tracks and wonder, “Wow. Really?”

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Putting Jeju Loveland’s lusty art pieces aside, I found the park quite nice for strolls. I guess the cool weather helped. The park has a large pond in the middle of the park and loads of trees and flowery shrubs around. Most of the visitors today were elderly women who giggled among themselves, and couples of all ages. I saw also groups of people in suits, no doubt conference attendees who had a bit of time for some fun.

Admission costs 9,000 won (S$10) per person, and you must be above 18 years old to be admitted.