Some Like It Very Hot: Relaxing in Korean Bathhouses

In South Korea, taking photographs of designated monuments after being ushered on and off tour buses all day could eventually become tedious for tourists. Shopping also might not have much merit when you are in expensive cities like Seoul, where the cost of living is the second highest in the world.

But for the more fearless budget traveler who dares to bathe naked with locals, one can spend a whole day relaxing, entertaining and mingling, for $10, at a "jjim-jil-bang," or Korean bathhouse.

They're not just a sauna and spa. These bathhouses are more like a mega-entertainment complex with fitness centers, swimming pools, barbecue gardens, cinema halls, indoor virtual-golf screens, Internet rooms and karaoke centers -- and that's only the basics.

But the real attraction is the variety of exotic sauna rooms solely designed to make you sweat. Igloo-shaped rooms heated with pine wood or charcoal kilns, pyramid rooms covered with natural jade, hinoki forest meditation rooms and rock-salt rooms offer promises of specific remedies such as improved blood circulation, stronger digestive systems or stronger "inner energy."

One of the biggest spas is the Dragon Hill Spa & Sports Korea Inc. Arriving guests are given uniform T-shirts and shorts upon check-in. The six-story building is often full to its 4,000-customer capacity during the weekends; it's a favorite for both the young and old.

During a recent visit, a group of middle-age women walked into a cavelike structure with a small, low entrance and sat covered with a jute blanket similar to potato sacks. The blanket protected them against the intense heat created by a hardwood charcoal kiln that can reach a mind-boggling 266 degrees.

After an hourlong gossip with sweat dripping down from their faces and bodies, one woman suggested moving to the next room, saying she'd heard it was good for detoxification.

So they headed into the "crystal salt room," where you can lie on your back on a floor covered with almost pebble-size rock salt. The edgy surface may be uncomfortable but the 100 percent pure salt, which is extracted after being subjected to 42 days of intense 1,800-degree heat, is supposed to penetrate your body, eventually purifying troubled skin and even, some say, preventing osteoporosis.

Korean Hot Saunas

Next came the "bijou room," which has a pyramid-shaped exterior and is covered inside with natural jade from the floor to the ceiling.

"It's like you're walking into an oven, but once you sit through it I can feel my muscles loosening," said Anna Dunn, 50, a British expat, who came with her friends on the recommendation of one of her husband's colleagues.

After this, it was on to the "yellow soil fire sweating sauna" complete with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. It certainly lives up to its name; you feel like you're sweating fire -- it is that hot.

To chill out after the intense heat, some lounge in the huge communal hall watching soap operas on the wall-mounted flat-screen TV's here and there.

For others, there is the alternative extreme, with the "stone ice warehouse" offering benches filled with frosted pipes and decorated with fake icicles and an ice-covered snowman.

Napping is another option in various themed rooms like the "lavender aroma sleeping room," where men and women sleep in rows on heated floors as floral scents are squirted every few minutes. Some couples huddle together and some can even be heard snoring.

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