On the road, going nowhereAfter Nho Gyeong-su saw the American movie “About Schmidt” ― starring Jack Nicholson as a retiree who drives a huge motor home across the United States, staying in RV (recreational vehicle) parks along the way ― he decided to try the RV experience for himself.
Before long, he was packing insect repellent, charcoal sticks and other camping necessities for a short vacation at Mangsang Auto Camping Resort. But he drove his Samsung SM3 to get there. The trailer was waiting for him when he arrived, and during his three-day stay, it didn’t move an inch.
“It would have been nicer if I could have traveled around with it,” says Mr. Nho, 30, an operations manager for a Seoul discount store. “But honestly, I wouldn’t know where to go, even I had the chance.”
Parks like Mangsang offer campers all the pleasures of a motor home, except one: motoring.
At Dunnae Camping Resort, for instance, which opened last week in the skiing village of Huengseong, visitors can cook, watch TV, have food delivered, use a Playstation, have their beds made daily by a maid and even soak their feet in a spacious outdoor spa, modeled on a Finnish sauna bath. The place has as many features as a luxury resort. But to actually travel in one of its trailers, you’d have to arrange for an industrial crane to lift it off the hill where it is perched and set it down on a main road.
Most of the trailers at Dunnae are permanently stationed there. Many don’t even have license plates, having been imported from Germany solely to serve as lodging. It’s meant to attract visitors from Seoul, who drive out in their cars and spend a weekend in one of the trailers, just as they might check into a hotel or a cabin.
It’s a Korean version of a RV park ― a relatively new phenomenon that’s increasingly seen as an exotic vacation alternative for families with children, and young adults who like to think of themselves as urban bohemians.
“I don’t think Korea is the best place to travel around with your trailer, with all the terrible traffic jams,” Mr. Nho noted.
Dunnae is the first trailer park in Korea that exclusively admits caravans and trailers. There are roughly 20 campgrounds in Korea that call themselves “auto parks;” they were built within the last five years to cater to people who drive across the country for fishing and golfing. But they function more as campgrounds, and part of their space is used by campers who sleep in tents or nearby hyuyangrim, or log cabins. At Mangsang Auto Camping Resort, run by the city of Donghae, up to half of its lots are rented out to tenting campers for 30,000 won ($25) a night during its busy season.
From June to September, most trailers at Mangsang get filled very easily. Most of those visitors bring their own vehicles and rent a trailer for the weekend. During the day, they can go to the beach, which is reserved for campers, or make the 15-minute drive to downtown Sokcho, and come back to the trailer in the evening, maybe to have a few beers.
Staying at Dunnae is even less of a back-to-nature experience. Its design is reminiscent of a growing number of upscale pension resorts in Korea. The park’s conspicuous facilities ― including an outdoor concert hall and an artificial waterfall linked to a children’s swimming pool ― suggest that Dunnae wants its campground to be something of a theme park.
The RV park experience may not have enough outdoor adventuring for serious campers, but it’s enough to please Koreans who are always looking for something new and eccentric.
“I explained to my kids that this is the place where gypsies in America dwell,” said Hong Seon-woo, an assistant engineer at Korean Railroad Research Institute, who was staying at Mangsang.
Perhaps staying in a camper ― even one that doesn’t move ― satisfies the desire for a taste of an outdoor experience, while still offering a comfortable atmosphere. “It’s a different experience,” said Lee Seon-hee, a stay-at-home mother from Seoul visting Mangsang with her husband and two children. “It looks like a house, but it’s not. And I think that is what fascinates our kids.”
Chang Wook-jin, an administrator at Good Weekend, a trailer rental service that runs Dunnae and several other RV parks in Korea, noted that the caravaning culture is a new concept in this country.
“Many Koreans with children still think of it as a burden to travel around in campers,” Mr. Chang said. “Their idea of vacation is to rest in condos where they could send their children out to swimming pools while adults drink beer at a lounge. So even when they look for RV parks in search of an outdoor experience, they put more emphasis on convenient facilities and sanitary concerns than on the park’’ natural surrounding and camping facilities.”
In response to the caravan fad, a few leisure service agents in Korea have introduced a tour package of European RV parks. This month, they’ll take 150 travelers in 50 trailers on a tour of popular campsites in Spain, France and Germany.
The tour, which includes return flights, park admissions and 10 nights of barbecues, sold for 2.4 million won. The trip will be the first Korean-organized caravan group tour in Europe.
“Koreans who have lived abroad have certainly contributed to the camping fad,” Mr. Chang said. “Three years ago, we could run caravans on truck lanes in the middle of main highways without being caught, because many people thought that we were ambulances or freight trucks.”
Campers ―whether actually driving one or just staying in one for a weekend ―would be considered a luxury by most Koreans. Lee Sang-cheol, who runs an online club for campers at a local portal site, says fewer than 100 people in Korea own campers, and that number includes people who’ve installed bunk beds and basic camping facilities in their vans or trucks.
Currently, no Korean manufacturers make campers. Most trailers available locally are imports from Mercedes-Benz and Burstener. A Mercedes-Benz sports caravan costs a little over 100 million won. Renting a trailer for four people costs somewhere from 150,000 to 250,000 won a night during the busy season, or 100,000 won for members who have signed up through a rental service agent.
That’s not an unreasonable price, considering that Korean trailer rental companies pay up to 10 million won a month for insurance, plus an overseas tax paid on imported vehicles. But for an average citizen, it’s a high price to pay for a semi-adventurous experience.
“Truly, for that money I would sleep at somewhere else, a hotel or condo,” said Chung Hye-jin, a 28-year-old graduate student who stayed at a camper as the guest of a friend.
Lee Tae-hoon, a camper at Mangsang staying in a tent, shared a similar sentiment. “I would love to try it if I get a free coupon,” Mr. Lee said. “Why would you pay that much money to sleep in a trailer when you can play volleyball, breathe fresh air and barbecue out on the beach, and do all that so cheaply if you stay in a tent?”
Mr. Chang of Good Weekend hopes that visitors to Hyundai Sungwoo, a ski resort about 20 minutes’ walk away from Dunnae, will stay at the park during the winter.
But within the ski resort, there is already a condominium development that has up to 767 suites, plus a posh restaurant, a video arcade and a karaoke bar.
“Honestly, we know that we can’t compete with condos,” Mr. Chang said. “We try to make it a luxurious spot, but visitors shouldn’t expect the same service they get in hotels. This is a campsite, after all.”
Where to find some wheels
At Mangsang Auto Camping Resort (033-534-3110), part of the beach is available exclusively for park visitors. The water is clean, and visitors can dig for clams a few minutes’ walk from the park. Security is generally good, with an army base nearby and patrol cars frequently coming in and out of the area. There is also a separate log cabin and an “American-style cottage house” offering suites that include a kitchen and bathroom. Water and gas are provided in the trailers.
To visit Dunnae Camping Resort, book ahead at 02-2105-1900. If you want to rent a caravan to actually drive, contact Good Weekend (02-2105-1900) or Vacatio (02-419-1771). Rental cost varies depending on the season and the size of the trailer. Normally, it’s cheaper to sign up through these trailer rental services, but first you have to pay a membership fee. Generally speaking, it’s not cheap to rent a caravan in Korea; it’s still viewed as an activity of the more privileged classes, imported from overseas.
Yeonpo Auto Camping Ground (041-674-0909), near Taean, is also an alternative, with Yeonpo beach nearby. They don’t rent trailers, but you can bring yours if you have one. A tent for four people rents for 10,000 won. Banana boats and watersports are available.
Most auto parks in Korea have space for tenting campers as well as trailers.
by Park Soo-mee