Korean jjimjilbangs: What are they like?

Korean jjimjilbangs are sauna and spa centers similar to a traditional Russian banya, the main difference being that Koreans often spend the night or entire weekends at jjimjilbangs. They are popular destinations for Korean families and friends, and although they are not built for travelers, they are ideal for travelers on a budget, or those just looking for an authentic and unique Korean experience. Jjimjilbangs are even cheaper than hostels, and for lack of a better comparison, there are some similarities. Jjimjilbangs will always be the cheapest place to sleep in Korea. The jjimjilbangs were I stayed were between 7,000 and 10,000 Korean won ($6.49 to $9.31 USD).

You will probably see only Koreans. In my experience, including four nights at three different jjimjilbangs, out of 500 fellow jjimjilbangers, I was the only non-Korean. Literally the only one.

If you require a soft sleeping surface, privacy, total peace and quiet, or total darkness while you sleep, jjimjilbangs are probably not for you. If you prefer a harder sleeping surface, or want to rest your tired body after a long day of hiking, the Korean jjimjilbang might be perfect.

When you arrive, you'll be given a pair of baggy shorts and a t-shirt. This is what you wear when you are in the co-ed sleeping or common areas (TV, computers, et cetera). You are not allowed to wear your own clothes. At nearly all other times in the sauna or spa area, you will be completely naked. This is normal in Korea and you shouldn't feel awkward about it. If you feel uncomfortable being naked around strangers, jjimjilbangs are probably not for you.

You will have access to a sleeping pad, most likely, or perhaps just blankets. There will also be a traditional Korean sleeping pillow, which is not really a pillow, so to speak. It is more like a somewhat soft, dense brick. They're not uncomfortable, per se, unless you're a whiner. If you're a whiner, jjimjilbangs are probably not for you.

There will be a few different sleeping rooms from which to choose. They are different temperatures, and sometimes have different sleeping surfaces. Last night I stayed at one that allowed to sleep in heated (what appeared to be) salt. Often the temperatures of the various rooms will be listed in Celsius on a digital thermometer. If you are unfamiliar with Celsius and too lazy to figure out the conversion, jjimjilbangs may not be for you. Or just walk into the room and see if it's comfortable (~38 degrees C = 100 degrees F).

Be prepared for some noise and disturbances throughout the night. People may come and go at odd hours, and of course with that many people in one area, somebody will probably snore. Last night I got lucky, no snoring, but on the other hand the lights were kept on all night, and at 6:00 in the morning somebody's cell phone alarm woke everyone up with a Korean pop song. The owner of the cell phone was not to be found. If minor disturbances bother you, and you complain with any noise or light during the night, jjimjilbangs are probably not for you.

Jjimjilbangs will provide soap and toothpaste, sometimes even a toothbrush, though usually not shampoo. All of these items will be available for sale, cheaply, but I'm just mentioning the freebies. There is also free unlimited access to the hot spas, saunas and cold pools.

You can buy beer and food, and sometimes you'll see Koreans drinking a beer or two, but if you go there to get drunk with your friends, you will embarrass yourself and disrespect the culture. Frankly, I'd be surprised if they continued selling you beer after you started to appear even the slightest bit intoxicated. Besides, it's dumb to get drunk and dehydrated and sit in a hot sauna. And even though there are co-ed sleeping areas, the jjimjilbang is not the place to get intimate with your girlfriend or boyfriend. That would almost certainly earn you many stern looks, more likely a quiet scolding, and maybe even a one-way ticket outside if you keep it up.

If you are not Korean, you might get one or two curious looks, but for the most part people at jjimjilbangs keep to themselves. Once in a while somebody may try to strike up a conversation with you, but if you don't speak Korean, it'll most likely be limited to asking your nationality.

If you are uneasy about staying at a jjimjilbang, go check it out. It'll cost less than $10 USD and if you're uncomfortable or don't enjoy it, you can always leave at any time. You won't hurt anyone's feelings. They are open 24/7 and people are always coming and going at strange hours.