If you are travelling in rural South Korea, you will probably at least pass through a major metropolis and smaller city as well, so you should read Part 1: Major Metropolises and Part 2: Smaller Cities first.
Is *all* of the food served at Buddhist temples vegan?
The answer is NO.
Most of the food served at Guinsa is vegan, but not all. I told the staff that I do not eat dairy or eggs, and the staff told me which foods to avoid. The food in the main dining hall is, as far as I know, vegan (it was some of the food served at the tea session which contained dairy and eggs).
I also did a Templestay in Golgulsa. I didn’t write about it because it was a bad experience. One (though not the only) reason it was a bad experience was this: I sent an email in advance saying that I do not eat meat, dairy, eggs, seafood, or animals in general, and I got an email in reply saying that the food at Golgulsa *never* has meat, dairy, eggs, or seafood.
So what’s for dinner? LOTS OF MEAT. Not pseudo-meat, it was the kind of meat you have to kill animals to get. I was not the only vegetarian there, and I was not the only one shocked (especially since, you know, WE ASKED IN ADVANCE!) I then went to the staff, and asked ‘okay, so which of these foods are vegan’ and she said ‘oh, this is vegan’. That ‘vegan’ food was squid. See, even though a high percentage of people who visit this temple are vegetarian, it didn’t occur to anybody to even *label* which foods were vegetarian. And let me tell you, the vegetarian options were extremely few.
When I told the owner of Kong Story (the vegetarian falafel place in downtown Gyeongju) about this, she was shocked, and was especially shocked that the monks at Golgulsa were eating meat, saying that the Jogye Order was very strict about this kind of thing, and that indeed a high percentage of the people who do templestays there are vegetarian (she knows because they often stop at her place on the way to/from Golgulsa). Of course, given that the people at Golgulsa seem to be bad at communicating with their guests, they might not be aware that so many are vegetarian, or thought they were vegetarian but would like a ‘treat’ by eating the flesh of animals which had been tortured and killed once in a while.
I cannot imagine the same thing happening at Guinsa, even if Guinsa sometimes does offer meat (I don’t know whether they ever do or not) because the staff at Guinsa are generally much better at communication, at least in my experience.
Then again, the fact that the owner of Kong Story was shocked demonstrates that this is a rare occurrence, even at Golgulsa. Chances are, if you do a Templestay, you’ll be fine. Even so, I recommend checking what other people have to say about a particular Templestay before choosing it, and in particular check if the people at the Temple are good at communicating with guests.
There is almost certainly going to be no vegetarian/vegan eatery in town. What you almost certainly will have (at least in spring/summer/autumn, I’m not sure about winter) is:
-tofu (most tofu in South Korea is vegan)
It’s not my favorite kind of cuisine, but I think it’s okay, especially if it’s just for a few days.
If you are in a small village, it might not be easy to get all of the above (at least not quickly – I’m sure the people who live in the village have a way).
I was in a couple villages where my options looked like this:
– really bad junk food (as in, junk food which tastes bad)
– ordering sanchae (mountain vegetable) bibimpap in a restaurant (since these were villages near tourist attractions, they had restaurants)
Sanchae bibimpap is a dish which is usually served without meat. It is sometimes served with egg, but it’s also sometimes served without egg, and if you explain that you don’t want egg with a few appropriate Korean phrases, you probably will get it without egg since it’s not unusual for this dish to be without egg.
The catch? Sanchae bibimpap always comes with kimchi – and the kimchi probably contains fish and/or shrimp.
Of course, you can avoid this dilemma by bringing your own food.
Pretty much the only vegan food available at mountain shelters is plain rice. Bringing your own food is an excellent idea (especially since mountain shelters charge a premium).
People complain a lot about how ‘hard’ it is to be vegan/vegetarian in South Korea. In a way, they’re correct. South Korea ain’t Taiwan.
However, if I had come to South Korea before I reached the conclusion that killing off ocean ecosystems by ripping up coral reefs with fishing trawls or throwing 95% of the fish caught overboard as bycatch, that forcing cows into a constant cycle of pregnancy only to separate them from their children at birth (psychologically torturing both mother and calf), making them get painful infections because they are producing too much milk, and exhausting them so much in milk production that they spontaneously collapse, that grinding up male chicks alive, and cutting of hens’ beaks so they experience chronic pain their whole lives, that all of these practices are wrong, I don’t think I would have been happier.
Yes, travelling in South Korea as a vegan is inconvenient. But many of the vegan restaurants which are in South Korea are delicious. And some of the most memorable conversations I had in South Korea were with other vegetarians/vegans. So no, I don’t think I got less out of my trip just because I travelled as a vegan.