Exploring South Korea (Part IV)

Firstly, if you haven’t read the preceding travelogues about our journey through China, then please do so first.

Day 15: Seoul, South Korea: From the capital in the north (Beijing) we flew across the yellow sea to the capital of the east (Dongjing), now known as Seoul. Though the flight was barely two hours, little did we know about the contrast between this small island nation and its massive western neighbour (China). We added Korea very late to our travel itinerary, partly because we were not able to secure Japanese visas in time. So in some ways, it was a compromise, but Korea proved us wrong.

Seoul and Korea have a long history of civilization and though it is heavily influenced by the Chinese and the Japanese, they’ve emerged with their own little set of culture. Seoul is one of the world’s economic capitals now and we arrived at the famous Incheon International airport, which is frequently ranked only second to Singapore’s Changi on the list of the best airports in the world. Seoul was expensive even before we got there and we had to book a simple accommodation in a central part of town, which we reached by train.

Seoul’s famed metro lines

With a GDP of nearly $700 bn and a population of around 10 million people, Seoul sits right up there with Beijing and Tokyo as one of the region’s nerve centers when it comes to economic activity. Samsung, Hyundai, and LG are head quartered in Seoul, which explain its unrealistically high GDP numbers.

Earliest records of Seoul date back to 18 BC when it is noted as the capital of the Baekje kingdom. Back then, it was known as Wiryeseong; in fact Seoul has gone through a number of name changes such as Namgyeong, Hanseong, Keijō & Gyeongseong. The people of Korea share their DNA with a number of ethnic groups ranging from the Mongols, Han Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetans. When we were trying to find our hotel (a very small, cramped place as is much of Seoul),the first thing we noticed is that many more people spoke English (in China, barely anyone spoke English) which made it easy to find our hotel. After checking in, we went for a stroll around our hotel, which was in one of Seoul’s degustation districts. Korean food was refreshingly different from Chinese, and though we were relatively conservative in our selection of foods, we had a good meal in the afternoon before heading to lovely promenade (created over an old cesspool/sewage area) that had many monuments about Korean history along its paths.


From there, we headed to the National Museum of Korea, which exhibited artefacts from all aspects of Korea (undivided Korea’s) history. The building and the presentation was again world class, in continuation with the museums we had been to in China. Their collection of historic statues, sculptures and reliefs was simply outstanding (including a large section that was dedicated to India and SE Asia). A lovely statue of the ‘Founders of four great religions’ greeted us on our way (Jesus, Buddha, Confucious, and Mohammad represented by the Quran). From there we headed to Seoul City Hall, which is a beautiful structure representing the best in modern architecture.

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Seoul is home to five stunning palaces. That itself should tell us about how important this city has been over the centuries. We decided to head to one of those five today: Deoksugung Palace.

Located at the corner of Seoul’s busiest downtown intersection, Deoksugung Palace is famous for its elegant stone-wall road. It is also the only palace that sits alongside a series of western style buildings that add to the uniqueness of the surrounding scenery. Deoksugung Palace originally belonged to Wolsandaegun (1454-1488), the older brother of King Seongjong (1469-1494) of the Joseon Dynasty. It became a proper palace when Gwanghaegun (1575-1641) ascended to the throne and gave this royal residence the name Gyeongungung Palace in 1611. Over the following decades, the palace alternated between being an official palace and a temporary residence. The name did not officially change to Deoksugung Palace, meaning the “palace of virtuous longevity,” until 1907. While the palace encompassed a vast area with many buildings, the current palace grounds are just a small shadow of the prior splendor, with very few structures remaining.

The Jeonggwanheon Hall was the first Western-style building built in the palace, completed in 1900.  The back of the building had secret passageways to the Russian Emissary, which still exist today. Seokjojeon Hall is the other Western-style building that still remains in Deoksugung Palace, and it was in the process of being built by a British man for his company, when in 1905 the property rights were transferred to Japan. It was finally completed in 1910. After Gojong’s death, Seokjojeon Hall became a Japanese art gallery open to the public. After the Korean Declaration of Independence, the American-Russian joint commission was held here as well in May 1946. The east wing of Seokjogwan Hall now serves as a palace treasure exhibition, and the west wing is used as part of the National Modern Art Center.

The Junghwajeon Hall was the center of politics during the Korean Empire and served as the backdrop to critical discussions on national affairs among the country’s leaders. The elaborateness of the hall’s interior is said to reflect the confidence of King Gojong in his ability to effectively lead the country into the 20th century. One of the most striking parts of the building is the pair of dragons that decorates the canopy above the throne of the king. These dragons can also be seen on the ceiling of Junghwajeon Hall and were representative designs of Deoksugung Palace, the imperial palace at that time. Though Junghwajeon Hall was originally built in 1902 as a multi-roofed building, it was redesigned as a single-roofed building in 1906 after it caught on fire two years before that.

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We called it a day and after some dinner (incidentally at an Indian restaurant), headed to our hotel and slept.

Day 17, Seoul: After some breakfast at our hotel, we headed to the fabulous Gwanghwamun Square on foot, passing the impressive statue of King Sejong on out way.  The King Sejong Statue was erected at the center of Gwanghawmun Square on Hangeul Day in 2009. Sitting with a gentle smile on his face and a book in his hand, the bronze statue, which is  9.5m high, celebrates the King and his great achievements.

King Sejong is best remembered as the inventor of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. During his reign, he consolidated the basis for ruling the Joseon Dynasty by incorporating Confucian philosophy of politics. Furthermore, he led the Koreans in taking  great strides in agriculture, literature, science and technology.

King Sejong and the Hangeul alphabet

The place continues to the majestic Gwanghwamun Gate. Founded in 1395 by the first king of the Joseon Dynasty, Gwanghwamun (good luck pronouncing his name) is the main gate of Gyeongbukgung Palace. Roughly meaning “may the light of enlightenment blanket the world,” the name symbolizes the resounding dedication that the people of the Joseon Dynasty had in creating a new dynasty. Constructed solely out of granite, its center is an entrance that resembles a rainbow, called Hongyemun Gate. Above that is a gate tower.

Gwanghwamun Gate holds a painful memory in Korean history. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, in order to dampen the spirits of the Korean citizens, the Japanese governing general destroyed the gate and built his own government building. The present appearance of the gate was completed in 1968 when it was rebuilt using concrete, and it’s location is about 10m behind the original spot.

Through the gates, one enters the Gyeongbukgung Palace. Built in 1395, it is also commonly referred to as the Northern Palace because its location is furthest north when compared to the neighboring palaces of Changdeokgung (Eastern Palace) and Gyeonghuigung (Western Palace) Palace. Gyeongbokgung Palace is arguably the most beautiful, and remains the largest of all five palaces.

The premises were once destroyed by fire during the Imjin War (Japanese Invasions, 1592-1598). However, all of the palace buildings were later restored under the leadership of Heungseondaewongun during the reign of King Gojong (1852-1919).

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The palace complex was very large and time flew so we had some lunch at a local restaurant and headed to Changgyeonggung Palace.

Korean lunch with lots of ‘chutneys’ AKA kimchi

Located in the heart of Seoul, Changgyeonggung Palace was first built by the 4th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong (1418-1450), for his retiring father, King Taejong. It often served as residential quarters for queens and concubines. During the reign of King Seongjong (1469-1494), the palace was renovated and renamed to Changgyeonggung Palace. It later became a park with a zoo and a botanical garden during Japanese colonial rule. The palace was then relocated in 1983 and regained its old grace after years of restoration.

Past the entrance of Changgyeonggung Palace, the Honghwa Gate, you will find Okcheongyo Bridge. All palaces of the Joseon Dynasty have ponds with an arch bridge over them, just like Okcheongyo Bridge. Cross Okcheongyo Bridge, pass the Myeongjeongmun Gate, and you will find Myeonjeongjeon. This is the office of the king, and Myeongjeongjeon is the oldest of the Joseon Dynasty palaces. The houses face southwards, but Myeongjeongjeon faces east. Because the ancestral shrine of the royal family is located to the south, the gate couldn’t face the south, as is required by Confucian custom. There are stones with the status of the officials carved on the yard. Behind Myeongjeongjeon on the upper left side is Sungmundang. This building utilizes the slope of the mountain. If you look at Myeongjeongjeon and Munjeongjeon, the combination of the high and low roofs offers a beautiful view.

Tongmyeongjeon was built for the queen. It is the biggest building in Changgyeonggung Palace, and you can recognize the delicate details of its structure in various parts of the building. Walk up the stones past Tongmyeongjeon and there you will find Jagyeongjeon. On the southeast direction of the Jagyeongjeon is the Punggidae. This Punggidae is a measuring instrument. It is a long pole with a cloth hung at the end used to check the speed and direction of the wind. If you head north there is a large pond called Chundangji. Half of the pond was originally a rice field that the king took care of. But during the Japanese occupation, the rice field was changed to a pond with little ships floating on it. And the botanic garden built above the pond still remains today.

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In the evening, we strolled around the Myeongdong area, which is a shopping haven. The most common shops in Korea are those that sell beauty products. Needless to say, my wife was all over the place, while I was busy taking some photos of the hustle-bustle of the shopping district. From there, we headed to one of Seouls best preserved city wall-gates called Sungnyemun Gate. Also known as Namdaemun Gate, it is considered a national treasure. Sungnyemun Gate is a larges castle gate stone structure with an arched entrance in the middle. There’s a column on top of a platform, raising the roof, distinguishing the upper stories and lower stories of the building. Passageways for traffic are located at the east and west ends of the gate. Different from the other gates, Sungnyemun Gate’s tablet has its name written vertically.

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Day 17, Seoul: We had seen so many historical places over the last two weeks or so that we (specifically me) didn’t have the appetite for more palaces, but we decided to visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Changdeokgung Palace and the Joyesa Temple today, so after breakfast, we first headed to the palace.

Changdeokgung Palace was the second royal villa built following the construction of Gyeongbukgung Palace in 1405. It was the principal palace for many kings of the Joseon Dynasty, and is the most well-preserved of the five remaining royal Joseon palaces. The palace grounds are comprised of a public palace area, a royal family residence building, and the rear garden. Known as a place of rest for the kings, the rear garden boasts a gigantic tree that is over 300 years old, a small pond and a pavilion.

The palace gained importance starting from the time of Seongjong, the 9th king of Joseon, when a number of kings began using it as a place of residence. Unfortunately, the palace was burned down by angry citizens in 1592 when the royal family fled their abode during the Japanese invasion of Korea. Thanks to Gwanghaegun, the palace was restored in 1611. Even today, it houses a number of cultural treasures, such as Injeongjeon Hall, Daejojeon Hall, Seonjeongjeon Hall, and Nakseonjae.

Changdeokgung Palace’s rear garden was constructed during the reign of King Taejong and served as a resting place for the royal family members. The garden had formerly been called Bukwon and Geumwon, but was renamed Biwon after King Kojong came into power. The garden was kept as natural as possible and was touched by human hands only when absolutely necessary. Buyongjeong, Buyongji, Juhabru, Eosumun, Yeonghwadang, Bullomun, Aeryeonjeong, and Yeongyeongdang are some of the many pavilions and fountains that occupy the garden. The most beautiful time to see the garden is during the fall when the autumn foliage is at its peak and the leaves have just started to fall.

After spending around 3 hours exploring the palace grounds (it was really palatial and we could easily spend more time there), we headed to Jogyesa temple, one of Seoul’s most famous Buddhist temples. As the main temple as well as the district head temple of Jogye order in Seoul, Jogyesa Temple is the center of Korean Buddhism. The temple was built in the late 14th century during the Goryeo period and was once turned into ashes due to fire and was rebuilt under the name of Gackhwangsa Temple in 1910 with the effort of many monks, such as Han Yong-un and Lee Hee-gwang. The temple was given a role as the head temple of Korean Buddhism and renamed to Tegosa Temple in 1936. In 1954, a purification drive took place to eliminate Japanese influence and revive traditional Buddhism, which established the present day Jogyesa Temple as a result.

Jogyesa Temple plays an important role in Korean Buddhism as the head temple of Jogye order. Jogyesa Temple’s Dharma Hall serves as the main venue for several Buddhist events, holding rituals, lectures, ceremonies, and other events all year long. The annual lantern festival in celebration of Buddhist’s birthday also takes place at this temple.

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This capped our Seoul adventure and later that afternoon, we took a bus to Gyeongju on the south eastern coast of Korea.

Our bus to Gyeongju

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Day 18, Gyeongju: There were a couple of reason we chose to visit Gyeongju; first, because of its historical significance as one of Korea’s ancient capitals and second, to meet Farnaz’s friend from Iran who was an exchange student at a university in Pohnag, close to Gyeongju.

It was the capital of the influential Silla Dynasty from 56 BC to 935 AD, which is almost a millenium! In 940, the founder of Goryeo, King Taejo, changed the city’s name to “Gyeongju”, which literally means “Congratulatory district”. In 987, as Goryeo introduced a system in which three additional capitals were established in politically important provinces outside Gaegyeong (nowadays Kaesong), and Gyeongju was designated as “Donggyeong” (“East Capital”). However, that title was removed in 1012, the third year of King Hyeongjong’s reign, due to political rivalries at that time, though Gyeongju was later made the seat of Yeongnam Province. It had jurisdiction over a wide area, including much of central eastern Yeongnam, although this area was greatly reduced in the 13th century. Under the subsequent Joseon (1392–1910) dynasties, Gyeongju was no longer of national importance, but remained a regional center of influence.

In 1601, the city ceased to be the provincial capital.  Over these centuries, the city suffered numerous assaults. In the 13th century, Mongol forces destroyed a nine-story wooden pagoda at Hwangnyongsa. During the Japanese invasions of Korea, the Gyeongju area became a heated battlefield,[24] and Japanese forces burned the wooden structures at Bulguksa. Not all damage was due to invasions, however. In the early Joseon period, a great deal of damage was done to Buddhist sculptures on Namsan by Neo-Confucian radicals, who hacked arms and heads off statuary. In the 20th century, the city remained relatively small, no longer ranking among the major cities of Korea. During the early 20th century, many archaeological excavations were conducted, particularly inside the tombs which had remained largely intact over the centuries. A museum, the forerunner of the present-day Gyeongju National Museum, was inaugurated in 1915 to exhibit the excavated artifacts.

We started our day precisely there, at the Gyeongju National Museum. It houses numerous historical and cultural artifacts of the Silla Dynasty. The museum recently underwent renovation, and the galleries and the exhibition halls have taken on a new look. As a significant cultural center, Gyeongju National Museum not only strives to preserve, exhibit, and research the rich history and culture of Silla, but it also strives to take a leap forward to become a cultural multi-complex center by promoting international exchange opportunities, social education programs, and a variety of special exhibitions. After spending around three hours there, we caught up from our friend who came down from Pohang to see us.

We had lunch together and then headed to the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond area. Gyeongju Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond were the secondary palace sites which were used for the palace of the Crown Prince along with other subsidiary buildings and it also was the banquet site for important national event and important visitors. After the fall of Silla, the site was abandoned and forgotten. The pond was referred to as “Anapji” instead during the time of Goryeo and Joseon period. In the 1980s, pottery fragment with letters “Wolji” (a pond that reflects the moon) carved onto it was found, revealing the true name of the pond. After the discovery, the site has been renamed to the current Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. The actual palace doesn’t exist any more but some ruins of its foundations give away what it must have been like.

We also visited the nearby Daereungwon Tomb Complex. Within this complex lies the Cheonmachong Tomb , which was excavated in 1973. Cheonmachong Tomb consists of a wooden coffin placed inside an underground chamber mounded with boulders and earth, characterized as a typical upper class tomb of the Silla period.  A total of 11,526 artifacts were discovered within the tomb, including Cheonmado, an artwork considered to be highly valuable as it is Korea’s first artwork to be excavated from an ancient tomb.

That evening, we just lazed around Gyeongju till our friend went back to Pohang. Tomorrow was our last day in Gyeongju and essentially in Korea (and our trip).

Day 19, Gyeongju & Seoul: Since we had only one more important place to visit before heading back to Seoul (and to Australia), we lazed our way our of bed and headed to the famous Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa Temple is the representative relic of Gyeongju and was designated as a World Cultural Asset by UNESCO in 1995. The beauty of the temple itself and the artistic touch of the stone relics are known throughout the world.

Bulguksa Temple was built in 528 during the Silla Kingdom, in the 15th year of King Beop-Heung’s reign (514-540). The temple was originally called ‘Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple’ or ‘Beopryusa Temple’ and was rebuilt by Kim Dae-Seong (700-774), who started rebuilding the temple in 751 during the reign of King Gyeong-Deok (742-765) and completed it in 774 during the reign of King Hye-Gong (765-780). Upon completion, the temple’s name was changed to Bulguksa.

Bulguksa Temple underwent numerous renovations from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), but like many of Korea’s important places, was burned down during the Imjin War by the Japanese.

Reconstruction started again in 1604 during the 37th year of King Seon-jo’s reign (Joseon Dynasty) and was renovated about 40 times until 1805 (during the reign of King Sun-Jo, 1790-1834). After this time, the temple suffered serious damage and was often the target of robbers.

In 1969, the Bulguksa Temple Restoration Committee was formed and in 1973, Mulseoljeon, Gwaneumjeon, Birojeon, Gyeongru, and Hoerang (all of which had previously been demolished) were rebuilt. Other old or broken sites (such as Daeungjeon, Geungnakjeon, Beomyeongnu and Jahamun) were repaired.  It was certainly a special place to visit, one that has been the center of religious activity for 1500 years.

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In the afternoon, we took a bus back to Seoul and then went to Incheon for our long journey back to Australia. China was always on our agenda as a destination we wanted to visit but Korea was the icing on the cake. That leaves Japan, which we will surely visit in the years to come.


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