Happy Birthday, Buddha

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Seoul,
Saturday, May 19, 2012

Okay, so today wasn't actually Buddha's birthday, that's next week, but it was the start of the biggest birthday celebration in Seoul, if not all of Korea and possibly many parts of Asia. Tonight was the night of the Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival (연등회) Parade. Buddhists came from all over Asia to watch and/or take part in a huge parade of paper lanterns celebrating the birthday of their religion's founder.

My friends and I arrived in the Dongdaemun/Insadong area about an hour and a half before the parade started. Our first task was to find a hotel. My preference is always to book in advance so I can check internet reviews, but I was willing to go with the flow. We ended up staying in the unfortunately, yet accurately, named BM Motel, off a side street near Dongdaemun Station (동대문역).

The motel was only 35000 won a night, which included used toothpaste, used soap, used tooth brushes, used razors, and I strongly suspect used bed sheets in every room. It was definitely the ickiest hotel I've ever stayed at, and I was not the only one of our group who slept in their clothes. It was also definitely a love hotel, but that wasn't completely apparent until the manager closed the door of the room we had just booked to reveal a picture of a naked woman. So not my favorite place, but it was cheap and right at the start of the parade route, and I definitely wasn't in favor of spending an hour looking for somewhere better. As an added treat the manager knocked on my door at 3am offering me coffee or beer.

But, the locks on the doors worked, it had a roof, and we weren't going to be in our rooms for more than seven or eight hours anyway. After leaving our bags, we hurried over to the parade route with about an hour left before it started to grab some seats. I assumed we'd have to stand or sit on the curb, but there were many chairs set-up lining the parade route. There were markings on the seats that I think were temple names, but there were numerous unused seats and we took a few. I don't know if that was completely kosher, but there were many Koreans who were obviously tourists doing the same thing. (Although that still means very little since Koreans aren't always the best at following the rules to the letter. When in Korea...)

We were near the beginning of the parade and the first lanterns appeared just as dusk was arriving. In keeping with the precedent set by the Yi Sun Shin parade, the group of taxis leading the parade started rolling around 15-20 minutes before the scheduled start time. The parade was awesome with lots of cool traditional Korean music and brightly colored lanterns. It was a mix of large lantern floats and smaller lamps hand-carried by groups of temple members or other Buddhist-associated institutions.

Although one of my friends who'd been to the parade before told us newbies before it started that she wanted to sit in the first row to get a lantern, I didn't understand what that meant until after the parade started. Occasionally, people carrying lanterns would for whatever reason give them to people watching the parade. The goal may have been to give your lantern away before the end of the parade, but we were at the beginning of the route, so I'm not sure how many marchers ended the parade with the lanterns they started with.

When the parade was about three-quarters finished, two of my four friends had been given lanterns. I was with two couples so that meant effectively everyone had a lantern but me, and I was starting to feel a bit left out, although a woman had given me a paper flower. One of my friends encouraged me to try and get a lantern. Apparently, one of the ways to do that was to shout "hi" (in English) and wave at people with lanterns. It was definitely more modest than Mardi Gras, but still a little too forward for me, so I gave it a good try for only about five minutes then stopped. It didn't help that two very enthusiastic young Korean women sat down next to me right as I began to try. I had no hope of either out shouting or out waving them.

I did, however, continue to quietly smile and wave at people, with a hello thrown in if they made eye-contact. At this point it was just to be polite and get in the spirit of the festivities. I was even waving at people without lanterns. Shocking.

In the final group of lantern carriers in the entire parade, I happened to wave and say hello to a little boy. He didn't have any lanterns, but he grabbed his father by the pants leg and dragged him over to me. His father gave me two lanterns and the pole used to carry them. So now I had two lanterns. And, once the boy had spotted us, some of his little friends brought over lanterns for my friends so now everyone had a lantern, which will be useful in case either of the couples splits up. Thanks little boy!

My proud ownership of two lanterns and a pole didn't last for long, though. With the parade over, I propped my lanterns up against my chair to take a picture. As I was finishing, a father came over with his young daughter and pointed at one of my lanterns. I gave one to his daughter because it was more about getting the lanterns than having them. As he was thanking me, I spotted a second daughter and briefly thought I'd be lantern-less, but then I noticed she already had a lantern. So I guess he just wanted to make sure each daughter had one. I would have been happy to give her my final lantern, but honestly I was just as happy to keep it. I did give them my lantern pole, as it was meant for carrying two lanterns, which they now had while I now had just one.

We dumped our parade booty back at the hotel and caught the subway down to Jonggak Station (종각역) for the party taking place at the end of the parade route. Many of the floats from the parade were resting beside the road so you could get a close look and take pictures. Plenty of restaurants were still open so it was a good place to grab a snack and enjoy the evening.

There was also a large stage setup with spotlights, confetti cannons, and musical groups. Many people, including quite a few monks in their robes, were dancing to the music. One monk in white was just randomly spinning like a Whirling Dervish while a group of Koreans were doing some sort of (I assume) traditional circle dance around him. Two of my friends got caught in a Buddhist conga line, and I was temporarily trapped between two, while we were trying to cross the plaza. It was a great atmosphere. Those Buddhists really know how to party.

So the parade was amazing, definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far along with last weekends visit to Seonggok-sa, and the party at the end was great, but now we've got to try to get just a bit of sleep before tomorrow's events.

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