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Holiday on rails: cruise train Haerang

It is every couch potato's dream come true: You get to travel around the country with a friendly guide at your side, try each region’s delicacies, enjoy a performance once in a while and sleep in a comfy bed -- all while not once having to book for a ride.

The catch? It comes with a rather hefty price tag. But if you are up for it, a trip aboard Korail’s Rail Cruise Haerang could be quite an experience.

On a recent sunny fall day, I boarded the train at Seoul Station for a trip slated to hit cities in the Jeolla provinces – Gunsan and Yeosu -- before heading up north to Janghang in South Chungcheong Province for a good night’s sleep.

There are two types of Haerang cars, and both are remodeled former Mugungwha trains that were retired from service. 

Haerang train (Korail)
Haerang train (Korail)

Type 1, with its deluxe rooms and suites accommodates 54 people in 23 rooms, while Type 2 carries 72 people in 24 rooms and features family rooms for three to four people.

Upon boarding the train, I headed to car No. 4, named “Sunrise,” which is the restaurant and cafe car. Food, drinks and other refreshments are available here along with Wi-Fi.

After picking up a bowl of chips and a beer, I headed to my “deluxe” compartment. It is small -- picture a typical Japanese business hotel room -- but had everything: a comfy bed, small TV, amenities, toilet and running shower. My concerns were put to rest. I felt at home, albeit at a diminutive home.

As I lay on the bed, a public announcement notified me there would be a performance by the crew at the No. 4 “Four Season” car. I could have put on the earplugs they gave me at the restaurant car and ignored it all, but curiosity got the better of me.

The Haerang crew stages a “Nanta” performance in this file photo. (Korail)
The Haerang crew stages a “Nanta” performance in this file photo. (Korail)

Throughout the trip, a team of crew members were slated to perform a capella music, a “Nanta” drumming performance, a solo singing performance, a magic performance and a short quiz. Nothing breathtaking, but surprisingly fun. Korail officials told me they hand been handpicked for their special talents, and I was pretty impressed.

Along the way, the train stopped at the nostalgic village of Gunsan, where we got off the train to visit the history museum, the simple but pretty seaside city of Yeosu, and the forests of Janghang. A staff of six is typically assigned to each car, and four of them accompany travelers when the train stops at a tourism spot. A bus with a tour guide on board and translation services can be provided for group tourists.

But it was how we traveled rather than what we saw that left a bigger impression.

A meal is served aboard the Haerang. (Korail)
A meal is served aboard the Haerang. (Korail)

“Hocance,” a combination of “hotel” and “vacance” (the French word for vacation), has been a trend for quite some time in Korea. The major attraction is to travel somewhere new, then only lounge around within spitting distance from the hotel rather than exhaust yourself exploring. Sounds lazy, but it is a welcome break for those suffering from a hectic life.

With Haerang, I could both lounge about and travel around, and that was quite appealing, despite the tiny room and constant rocking of the bed down the tracks.

The only real catch is the price tag. The three-day course was priced at 2.63 million won ($2,180) for a deluxe room and a two-day course costs around 1.6 million won for the same room.

Having said that, it is a lot cheaper than other cruise trains like Seven Stars in Japan. And cruise trips are inherently pricey, when you think about it.

Cost-saving isn’t necessarily what you look for on a cruise-type trip, and in terms of service, it was outstanding. The crew were kind and helpful and really took care of the travelers, which definitely made me ponder a revisit on Haerang.

The Haerang train was launched in 2008, with the intention to carry a team of South and North Korean supporters to the Beijing Summer Games. Despite the plan floundering due to rocky inter-Korea relations, the train has entertained group tourists from in and out of Korea.

The new fall package includes a three-day course covering Danyang, Daegu, Cheongdo and Suncheon, which sets off on Oct. 22, Nov. 5 and Nov. 12 at 8:40 a.m. from Seoul Station. Another course that sets off only on Nov.29 is offered at the same price, and covers Suncheon, Daegu, Gyeongju, Jeongdongjin and Pyeongchang.