A feast of flowers at Muan county’s white lotus fete

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A feast of flowers at Muan county’s white lotus fete

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MUAN, South Jeolla ― A battle was underway on a wooden bridge across a natural reservoir covered with gigantic green lotus leaves. It wasn’t a duel or a competition of any sort, but the atmosphere was just as fierce as a group of photographers pushed each other to move closer to the edge of the bridge with their hands tightly clasped around their cameras.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” a woman exclaimed, pointing at a single white lotus flower that was half-blooming over the leaves on the shallow waters.
There followed the sound of cameras’ shutters clicking fast and people were quiet again as they concentrated on capturing the best pictures of the blooms.
The scene, at the site of the White Lotus Festival in Muan, is part of the annual spectacles the small southern county provides at this time of the year. An 82-acre field of mud and water is entirely covered with white lotus flowers and their green leaves every year, luring throngs of photographers, both amateur and professional, to the town.
Not all the flowers were in bloom last weekend as the festival is expected to reach its climax this coming weekend. But the park still had many active vacationers a week early to try to avoid the crowds.
“It’s a pity that not all of the flowers are in bloom yet,” said Kim Jeong-u, a tourist from Gwangju, who brought his family to view the lotuses. “But it is fascinating to see that these flowers will probably fill up the horizon soon.”
One of the photographers was not satisfied with the flowers he could see before him. Glancing around the bridge first, he then climbed the fence built around the bridge and set both feet in the muddy water covered with leaves and green moss.
“Ooh. It’s warm,” he said, unpleasantly surprised. The day was especially hot and steamy after the monsoon period ― a perfect day for lotuses to bloom, but a terrible day for photographers to kneel sweating next to each other while holding their heavy cameras.
The man raised both arms to protect his camera from getting wet and slowly waded toward a lotus flower that stood alone. As other photographers gazed at him dumbfounded, he got the best shot ― until a park security guard ran over and told him to get out of the pond. The guard was not stern nor did he try to embarrass the photographer, seeming to understand the fascination the blooms hold for some people.
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“White lotus plants are revered and stand as mystical symbols as they give birth to snowy white petals from muddy water,” said Kim Ok, director of tourism and culture division at Muan county government. “People are easily mesmerized by the sight.”
Originally from ancient Egypt and India, the white lotus is a rare flower on the Korean Peninsula and in other parts of the world. Muan county boasts one of the largest lotus fields in Asia.
The lotus field was created through local residents’ efforts to plant and grow them last century. There was a good reason for that.
The county history relates that the site was formerly a reservoir dug by the town residents during the Japanese colonial period to store water for farm irrigation. Feeling the artificial reservoir was too barren, however, a resident planted 12 white lotus plants on one bank.
The man had a dream that night that 12 cranes had landed on the reservoir. Cranes are mystical and symbolize good luck in Asian culture, as does the white lotus flower. When the resident woke the next day, he encouraged the townspeople to plant more white lotuses. Sixty years later, the entire 62-acre area was filled with the flowers.
Wooden staircases and plywood bridges spread like a maze across the lotus field. After walking that route for about 20 minutes, heated air seemed to rise from the surface with a shimmering effect. Despite the scenic beauty, it was difficult to endure the humidity from the mud below and the heat from the sizzling August sun burning overhead.
“Walk a little more. We have an oasis coming up,” yelled Gwak Geun-sang, another tourism and culture division staffer, who was following my group.
Not knowing what he was talking about, we continued to trudge along. That was when a giant oval-shaped glass building came into sight. It was a conservatory, with a tea house at one end of the building.
Kim Jeong-uk, 9, ran toward the building. He was dripping with sweat but looked happy with the frozen slurpee he had bought from the tea house. Adults drank iced lotus tea.
“We only use the freshest petals we pick every dawn,” said Jung Cheol-su, the owner of the tea house. The petals are dried, then ground. The tea can be made entirely of lotus petals or with only enough petals added to green tea to impart a lotus scent.
“First-timers are more comfortable with the scented teas, because they are not used to the unique smell of lotus,” Mr. Jung said.
Sipping the cold drink, people started to look much more relaxed and smiled as they chatted with other visitors. “I told you this place was like an oasis in the desert,” said Mr. Kwak who encouraged us to finish our big clay bowls of tea before we continued our journey into the lotus field.
At the end of the wooden pathway is a small dock with lines of paddle boats, large enough to carry four people. Boarding the paddle boats, you can tour the waterways that open naturally between the lotuses and other tall water plants. A family of four was enjoying their ride as the boat swayed side to side and creaked slowly forward. But seeing the family having a difficult time turning back (one of the oars was stuck between rocks under the water), however, those standing in line hesitated to board the next boat. “It’s all part of the natural experience you can get here,” Mr. Kwak said.


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Information

What to expect other than white lotus flowers at the festival
- An exhibition of ice art including igloos, ice carved polar bears and penguins.
- Performance of meditation songs from Indian group “Shanti.”
- Mime performances.
- Vision Chamber Orchestra concert.
- Belly dance performances.
These will be performed on a stage set up between the wooden paths.

Cost
During the season of white lotus flowers, from July to September, admission to the park is 3,000 won ($3) for adults and 2,000 won for children under 12.
The lotus tea served at the tea house costs 20,000 won for a bowl large enough to serve four.
The boat rides are 10,000 won for a round trip around the reservoir.

Traffic information
By car, take Highway 15 (Seohaean highway) until you reach the exit for Muan. There is a direct train available from Seoul to Muan, but the KTX bullet train does not stop at Muan station. Instead, get off at Mokpo and transfer to Muan. Express buses are also available from the Express Bus Terminal to Muan’s bus station.

The White Lotus Festival in Muan will run until next Tuesday. For more information, visit: tour.muan.go.kr.


by Lee Min-a
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