After spending an afternoon at Bomun Resort recently, I had an epiphany: teddy bear museums are to Korea what wax museums are to the U.S. Both are cheesy as hell, prey on bored tourists and are not places you’d want to accidentally get locked in overnight. Not to mention, both spring up around resorts and tourist traps like mushrooms in a Virginia cow pasture after the rain. From Jeju Island to Mt. Seoraksan, teddy bear museums are currently the rage at all the major tourist destinations in South Korea. Of course Gyeongju’s Bomun Resort, being possibly the biggest tourist trap in the whole country, is blessed with not one, but two teddy bear museums, and they so happen to be just down the block from each other.
Being a parent of a small child will drive you to do strange and desperate things at times, such as spending an otherwise perfect sunny Saturday afternoon touring the Teddy Bear Museum (테디베어박물관) . To be fair though, I had fun in spite of myself and it made for an interesting way to beat the heat. The Teddy Bear Museum is hosted in the cluster of abstract modernist buildings between the Hyundai and Suites Hotels called the Dream Mansion. The entrance fee for the Teddy Bear Museum varies by age and season, but we wound up paying about 24,000 won for a family of three, which is not bad for a few hours entertainment. On the first floor of the museum we were greeted by a large open air room chock full of animatronics teddy bears and bellowing dinosaurs. My Korean’s not so good, but I was able to make out some sort plot to the whole involving what seemed to be a bizarre mash up of “Jurassic Park” with “Back to the Future” (complete with teddy bear versions of Marty Mc Fly and Doc) and some sort of bank heist gone awry for good measure.
The animatronic dioramas continued to the lower floor which started with a teddy bear version of “Under the Sea” complete with Sebastian the Crab directing a choir of dancing teddy bear mermaids (luckily for the museum, S. Korea’s quite lax on enforcing trade mark copyright right laws). The underwater theme continued with the depiction of a famous Korean satirical fable involving the undersea dragon king, which can only can only described a psychedelically post-modern as mutant teddy bear / fish creatures performed traditional Korean pungmul dancing (or the “swirly hat” dance, as I like to call it).
In an effort to introduce a modicum of educational value to this teddy bear riot, the museum continued with more animatronic depictions of famous stories and legends from the history of the Silla Dynasty, like the construction of Seokguram Grotto. But in a random, if cleaver, effort to keep the plot, it seems that a baby dinosaur from the exhibition upstairs got accidentally sucked into a time vortex and spat out in Gyeongju during the Silla Dynasty. This of course mean that Doc and Marty have to chase the poor, lost dino (who makes a cameo in each diorama) through a millennium of the Silla history before finally catching him at Anapji Pond and jumping back through a time vortex at Anapji Pond at the time of the surrender of the Silla to the nascent Goryeo Dynasty.
The Teddy Bear Museum winded down with a long hall of plaster replicas of Greco-Roman marble statues topped with teddy bear torsos before ending with a bang at the small 3D theater. In a final act of randomness, the theater featured a fun little a 15 minute short, not on teddy bears, but of happy animals dancing and playing in various habitats, like the arctic and the jungle, before being destroyed by chainsaws and the like (I guess it was supposed to be environmental or something). This was a slight downer in an otherwise brilliant afternoon of good clean family fun.
The 2nd teddy bear museum, the Teseum (테지움), was so dubbed following the curious and frequently awkward Korean custom of naming something by fusing two English words together in a haphazard fashion. This results in names like “Mauna” (mountain + sauna) and “Historopia” (History + utopia) that sounds absolutely daft to the ears of native speakers. The Teseum’s marriage of “teddy bear” + “museum” fairs equally poorly and sounds more like the name of a rare flesh eating virus or a highly toxic member of the periodic table. With a name like that it’s not surprise that, of the two teddy bear museums at Bomun, the Teseum is the worse of the pair.
Entrance to the Teseum is 9,000 won for adults, 6,000 for kids, which is about the same as the Teddy Bear Museum down the block. Though the Teseum does have more on display, it lacks the creativity and pizzazz of the Teddy Bear Museum, such as animatronics, large dioramas, interactive exhibitions and 3D movies. But the weirdest thing about the Teseum is that it almost tries to pretend it’s a real museum rather than a giant psychedelic pile of tourist schmaltz preying on hapless families and dating college students in couples t-shirts. The majority of the displays in the Teseum are housed in rectangular fish tanks stuck into the walls, which means kids have to be a least 4 feet tall to even see the dang things. Of the few giant teddy bears that were arranged around the museum for photo ops, half were blocked off so you couldn’t actually stand next to them. It was so totally lame that my son had the most fun at the Teseum running up and down the ramps between the floors.
The icing on the cake was that Teseum had the worst kids’ playroom I’d been to in Korea, which is a very tall order. If you’ve never had the pleasure, in Korean kids playrooms you pay for a couple of hours and your kid gets to run amok among jungle gyms, ball pits, trampolines, tricycles and video game consoles. As a parent, it’s a brilliant way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon out with your child. Unfortunately we didn’t realize the utter crappiness of the Teseum’s playroom until we’d already paid the entrance fee. One look around and I was ready to demand a refund. Unfortunately my son was already gleefully climbing his way onto the moon bounce, so we decided to stick it out for an hour. Aside from the moon bounce (which smelled slightly of pee) and humungous teddy bear, there was almost nothing else for kids to do except ride a couple of tricycles. There was however, a ball pit in the middle of the play room, but apparently they couldn’t afford the actual plastic balls and instead just threw in a couple of stuffed fish to cover the floor, which meant that any kid who did actually try to play in the pit was likely going to slip and smack his head on the concrete floor. Thankfully our son escaped largely unscathed, though not for lack of trying.
So what’s the verdict on Bomun’s pair of teddy bear museums? Well, if you’re traveling with kids, have a serious thing for teddy bears, or appreciate cheesy tourist schmaltz (personally, I’m 2 for 3), the Teddy Bear Museum is actually fun way spend an afternoon, particularly if the weather’s crappy. The Teseum not so much, unless you didn’t get a big enough furry fix from the Teddy Bear Museum first. But chances are you’re not visiting Gyeongju for its teddy bear museums, so really your time might be better spent cycling among Silla ruins or hiking Mt. Namsan. Still, if you’re hell bent on tourist trap cheese, there is one schlocky museum that is definitely worth a visit; the notorious Gyeongju Love Castle on the road from Bomun to Bulguksa Temple (but more on that will have to wait for a later post). To get to the Teddy Bear Museum take Bus #10 from the Intercity Bus terminal and get off at the stop for the Hyundai Hotel. The Teseum is just the next bus stop down.
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