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A look into Korea’s “bang” (room) culture and the wide variety of entertainment that it offers

Words by Stephen Revere, shots by Dylan Goldby and Scott Hemsey

You may have noticed already, but Koreans aren’t big on talking to people they don’t know. Elevator interaction is rarely smiles and friendly “Hi!”s, but typically a solemn averting of one’s gaze to avoid eye contact. Bars and restaurants arrange seating for pairs or small groups to enjoy each other and seldom if ever does mingling come into play. Western influence only recently has brought in the concept of mixers, as signified by the new phrase which has worked it’s way into the language: 스탠딩 파티 – “standing party” – as in a party where people don’t just sit in small groups of friends, but stand, walk around and mingle. Nice restaurants always offer small, private dining rooms and there can be a 1-hour wait at the local Outback while the bar is full of empty seats. Go figure.

This may seem unfriendly to those who are not well-versed in Korean ways, but alternatively there is an automatic camaraderie that comes with a shared experience with another person. Upon two Koreans meeting for the first time they will search out that commonality like they’re looking for the Shin Raymeon in a an American grocery store.

“Where are you from?” Same home town? “Buddies!”
“How old are you?” Same age? “Friends!”
“What school did you go to” Same Alma mater? “Let’s do some business together.”

There are no fraternities or sororities here because the classmates in your major are the equivalent of your brothers and sisters – right down to calling each other brothers and sisters! The point is that small rooms, or “bang” (방, with the ‘a’ pronounced like the doctor tells you to say “Ahh”), are another way in which small groups of Korean like to get together and have fun. While some of these “bangs,” such as the PC-bang or the Jjimjil-bang, may be communal areas rather than actual separate rooms, you will find that the interaction is still limited to small groups of friends and family. Nonetheless, it’s hard to find a better way to solidify friendships with Koreans (or Westerns for that matter) than a good few hours spent in any one of the following “bang”. It’s another way to get that “shared experience” but in this case, it’s one that you actually get to share.

Norae-bang by Scott Hemsey

Norae-bang (노래방) First appearance: circa 1991, Cost: W9,000 – W17,000 per hour

The original “bang,” the Norae-bang takes full advantage of the Koreans’ great tradition of peer pressuring people into singing front of each other. From an expat’s point of view Koreans may seem to have have astoundingly melodic voices, which probably stems from the fact that they are given great positive encouragement to start singing at a young age – kind of like dancing babies in Brazil (Youtube that one if you haven’t seen it already.) Fear not, as willingness to get involved is prized over skill, and liberal doses of alcohol and reverb are sure to help you carry it off. Nowadays there are the super, upscale Norae-bangs for you to enjoy, the most famous of which is Su Norae-bang. Originally they started out in Hongdae (see our Reader’s 10 on page 7) but now they’re a chain with nationwide locations, which you can find at skysu.com – if you can speak Korean.

“A Noraebang is always a good end to the night, or let’s say the beginning! You start off agreeing to stay for just one hour no more, no less – then 3 hours later and your mates sneak back into the room giggling, “Oops I went and got another hour!” And so it begins.”

Daniela De Tena, 28, Uijeongbu

DVD-bang (디비디방)
First apperance: circa 1995 (in the form of  “Video-bang” of course)
Cost: W10,000 – W15,000 per movie

You can’t go wrong with dinner and a movie. But what if that movie you wanted to see isn’t in theaters anymore, or you haven’t got tickets and the theater’s sold out? For less than the cost of tickets for two to the theater, you can get your own little room with a nice big screen so you can enjoy the movie without any of the disadvantages of the theater. And they also provide a little privacy so you and your date can snuggle a little if you’d like – but don’t get too close. Regulations require that there be windows on the doors that allow people to see into the room, and you wouldn’t want to put on a show for the staff.

DVD-bang can vary greatly in quality, so it may be a good idea to ask to see the room you’re going to be getting before you make your final decision. They also usually sell snacks and drinks to enjoy with your movie, although no Rasinets or Jordan Almonds.

PC-bang by Dylan Goldby

PC-bang (피시방) First appearance: circa 2000, Cost: W1,000 – W1,500 per hour

There was a time pre-2000 when, like the rest of the world, these places were called “Internet Cafes.” Their connections were slow and their locations were few and far between. The main people who frequented them were expats seeking to exchange emails with friends and family back home. Then came Starcraft. The borderline insanity for this game that followed was a boon to these “Internet Cafes” and left foreigners dumbfounded at 2-hour waits for a computer (yes, myself included). But that didn’t last long. Soon “PC Bang” were on every corner charging a piddly W1,000 an hour and both expats and Koreans rejoiced at both the ubiquity of locations and high-speed Internet which seemingly appeared overnight. It’s no exaggeration to say that Starcraft and PC-bang played a key role in Korea’s meteoric rise to the fastest Internet speeds in the world, a title which it still holds today.

“Ah, the PC-bang, the traditional retreat of the harried husband and game-playing child. Relax in the cool dark, drink little cups of super-sweet coffee, and smoke ’em if you got ’em! At first the PC-bang might seem to break the general rule that Koreans like to do things in groups of friends, but look more closely and you’ll see that most Koreans are either playing Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) or on social media sites like Cyworld.”

Charles Montgomery, 50, Seoul

Hwangto-bang in Jjimjil-bang

Jjimjil-bang (찜질방)
First appearance: circa 2000 (via Wikipedia, so take that for what it’s worth), Cost: W6,000 – W10,000 per person

First you enter the bath area, and there will be plenty of them. Varying temperatures and herbal concoctions give you a plethora of choices, but be careful – the brutal temperatures Koreans endure could singe some of that body hair that Koreans may lack. Steam rooms, saunas and cold pools add to the options. Then you dry off, put on your pre-supplied shorts and T-shirt and head to the communal area where you can experience dry saunas at varying degrees of heat, a salt room, an oxygen room, a charcoal room, a hwangto (yellow earth) room, and just about whatever other clever room they could think up. Larger jjimjilbang will also have restaurants, often serving alcohol. Budget travelers should also be aware that the entrance fee is usually for up to a 24-hour period, making jjimjil-bang perhaps the cheapest accommodation option available – and a lot more fun than a cot at a youth hostel!

“My first experience at a jjimjil-bang was at Hur Shim Chung in Busan, supposedly the largest of its kind in Asia. I guess I thought if I was going to get naked with Koreans, I might as well start with as many as possible. Walking in, I was a little shy, but there was so much going on my modesty was forgotten in an instant. With so many pools to explore, of multiple temperatures and infusions, I had plenty to be getting on with. I’m now totally hooked on Korea’s jjimjil-bangs – from the hot soaks in outdoor, rose-tinted pools, to the vigorous scrubs by ajummas in lacy knickers. I never knew skin could be so smooth!”

Hannah Stuart-Leach27, Seoul

Multi-bang (멀티방) First appearance: circa 2009, Cost per hour: W8,000 – W17,000

The original concept is that here you can do whatever electronic wizardry allows – play Nintendo Wii or PlayStation, use the PC to check your email or play Starcraft, watch a vast selection of movies – kind of the “killer app” of bangs. There’s a comprehensive system that allows easy switching amongst the many entertainment options, easily allowing you to choose from a huge selection of games, songs and movies.

Recently, however, the press on Multi-bang has been that they’ve gotten a little too comfortable, giving young adolescents a little too much privacy. But then again this is nothing new, as DVD-bang and Norae-bang have been accused of this for years. Some owners of “multi-bang” are obviously trying to avoid this reputation by banning liquor, not allowing obviously drunk people to enter, and not allowing minors during evening hours. Others are targeting it, with locks on the door and renting rooms overnight – perhaps a nice option of you’re a traveler looking for some inexpensive lodging. As a rule, if you walk in the entrance and it’s brightly lit with a friendly, attentive staff, you can be confident that you’ve found the first category.

Charles Montgomery contributed to this article.

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