Suanbo: A Town Made to Please

by Cale Noonan
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

There’s something truly enchanting about Suanbo that is impossible to put into words. It’s more like a feeling you get, or perhaps the aura that the quaint little mountain town gives off, that makes it such a special place. With its relaxing hot springs, delicious food, and friendly inhabitants, Suanbo is sure to charm anyone, one way or another.

Getting off the local bus from Chungju, I could tell that our two nights in Suanbo were going to be great. The crisp mountain air felt refreshing in my weary urban lungs, and the wide, empty sidewalks were a welcome respite from the commotion of Seoul’s walkways. Suanbo is a sleepy little town whose heartbeat never seems to reach more than a murmur. But that’s fine. My fiancée Maja and I had decided that instead of packing our schedule full as we normally do, our visit to Suanbo would be all about rest and relaxation.

After getting settled into our hotel room, we headed out for a stroll to get acquainted with the town we would be calling home for the next two days. In the early afternoon, the town begins to wake up a bit, with spa-goers and those with appetites for pheasant arriving from out of town. On the face of it, the most noticeable thing about Suanbo is the number of pheasant restaurants. They’re everywhere, and they all have their own colorful replica pheasants staring at you imploringly as you walk by. For now, though, our appetites would have to wait.

After walking leisurely walking through the town (which takes up all of fifteen minutes to traverse if you put your mind to it), we made our way up to the Suanbo Park Hotel, which is home to the town’s most famous onsen (hot springs). It’s a bit of a huff to get to the hotel as it is located up a mountain, but it’s definitely worth it. They have separated men’s and women’s facilities which include indoor hot and cold baths, dry saunas, and outdoor hot baths. Unlike your typical jjimjilbang, the water in this onsen is spring fed, is extremely rich in minerals, and has a highly alkaline pH level of 8.3. The bathing experience here is very refreshing and makes your skin feel great. I recommend waiting until nearly sunset to sit around the outdoor pool because then you get a great view of the adjacent mountainside as the sun sets. And once it’s completely dark, you can even see the stars twinkling in the night sky.

Once we were finished at the onsen, we walked down to the bottom of the hill to try pheasant for the first time at a restaurant called Yangjimal Garden. There, a set menu for two people costs KRW 60,000, and includes pheasant bulgogi, pheasant shabushabu, pheasant yukhoe, pheasant mandoo, pheasant tangsuyuk, pheasant ywiggum, and a number of delicious local mountain vegetable side dishes. Pheasant meat tastes like a mix between chicken and duck: it’s more rich and delicious than chicken, but not quite as rich and fatty as duck. And if you’re inclined to imbibe like we are, a bottle or two of the local Sobaeksan makgeolli really makes this regional feast come together perfectly.

As we went out into Suanbo’s starry winter night, completely full and satisfied, we both craved a warm cup of coffee to settle our stomachs. There are a few small coffee shops around, but few stay open very late, so it was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon M Coffee Factory. This café not only serves up your traditional favorites it surprisingly also offers a few delicious single origin coffees. This cozy little café is a great place to relax any time of day, and they also sell an assortment of biking equipment just in case you are in need. Each time we visited M Coffee Factory, the family that owns the café was so kind to us, and really made us feel at ease.

In keeping with our theme for the vacation, the next day was very calm and relaxing. We rambled aimlessly through the streets, simply enjoying the charm of this curious little place. I had some work to complete that day, so we hightailed it back to M Coffee Factory for most of the afternoon until dusk began to set. Having consulted the tourist information attendant earlier in the day for a restaurant serving rabbit, we diligently sought her recommendation for dinner. With an amiable pheasant perched right outside, Janggun Shiktang looked like any other restaurant in Suanbo. Little did we know, this would be the gastronomic experience of a lifetime. However, unwilling to part with KRW 60,000 for just rabbit soup, we opted for another pheasant set for the same price. Again, we were blown away with the amount of food we were served at Janggun with added extras of pheasant yukhoe, pheasant pajeon and pheasant skewers with onion and gingko berries.

To our delight, it was snowing when we stepped out of the restaurant, and a couple of inches already lightly covered the ground. This lovely coincidence only added to the magical feeling that we’d already gotten from Suanbo. As we headed back towards our hotel, we picked up a couple of mart beers and drank them peacefully on the bridge over the small river running through town. As the snow fell, we reflected on our good fortune for having discovered this little gem of a town, unsuspectingly nestled between the mountains of Korea’s Chungcheongbuk Province.

No matter what time of year, Suanbo is a great place to visit if you’re looking to relax and eat until your heart’s content. While you’re there, try to appreciate the simple things. And if you keep the itinerary open, this charming little mountain town will have a surprise waiting for you around every corner.

Getting There: Take a bus directly to Suanbo from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal. If traveling from outside of Seoul, take a bus to Chungju and hop on local buses 240-246, located outside and to the right of Chungju Station.

Suanbo Park Hotel: 838-1 Oncheon-ri (838-1온천리).

Yangjimal Garden Restaurant: Getting off at the bus station, head towards Suanbo Park Hotel and you will see Yangjimal on your left before you head up the hill to the hotel.

Janggun Restaurant: Suanbo Jangteo 3-gil 18-5 (수안보면 장터3길 18-5). If you find where Jangteo 2-gil and Jangteo 3-gil intersect, you’ll find the restaurant on the corner.

groovekorea.com

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