We headed out early to Gyeongju from Busan at 7 am today as we wanted to leave the city before the rush hour kicks in. The drive to Gyeongju usually would take 1 hr via the highway, which is very straight forward, however it took us around 1½ hrs to reach Gyeongju. Around 45 mins into the journey, we spotted Eonyang rest area and stopped for a break. At Eonyang Rest Area, we had our brunch as we were a little hungry. After brunch, we continued the rest of the journey to Gyeongju.
Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village – A Walk back in Time
Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village has very well preserved and restored traditional Korean houses (hanok). The village once lived a wealthy man (Choi) who used his wealth to help the poor in the region. The village was later converted to at the first state-operated academy estate in 682. We chose to visit this village as it is close to other sites in Gyeongju. Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village is not difficult to find, the village is very close to the edge of the city, near the toll gates by the highway when turning Gyeongju exit. There is a car park opposite Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village which was not crowded at the time of our visit as it is was being early at the time of our visit. The parking and entrance to Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village are free. We reached Gyeongju at around 9.50am and the shops are not open until 10am. As we hang around the entrance to Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village while waiting for the shops to open, we spotted a tour group with their guide explaining the village. We inched closer to them hoping to get some insights to the village. The tour guide pointed only three buildings that were worthy to visit namely Choi’s house, The School of Law and the Confucian School. The rest of the buildings are shops. We crossed reference with the map we had in hand and made mental note of where these locations are. One of the things we set out to do before coming to South Korea is to try out wearing the hanbok and walk around in a historic place. Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village is the perfect place to do that. We rented hanboks from the only hanbok rental shop in the village once it opened. After wearing our rental hanboks, we roamed around Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village taking pictures. Initially, we felt a little ridiculous and certainly feel touristy, we got used to wearing hanbok after a while as hanbok is still worn by Koreans from time to time. The whole village gives one a feel of travelling back in time. Every building in Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village is a hanok. However, we were a tad disappointed that these hanoks have been converted to places of business, mainly restaurants and cafes. We would think there would be museums and exhibition halls in these hanoks to introduce to visitors the Korean culture and the livelihood of people in the Silla Dynasty, something similar to Jeju Folk Village we visited a few days ago.
As we were walking, we spotted a building with its door open and also the tour group we met at the entrance earlier on. We followed the group into the building and learnt from the guide that this is one of the three buildings that are worth visiting. This is the house of Choi Family which is donated by his descendants to allow visitors to understand the Korean history. Without the explanation from the tour guide, we would have no idea about the significance of this house. The compound of the house is on the small side, however, it has everything that functions as a home here. There is even an area where urns for fermentation of kimchis are kept. Visiting Choi’s house in hanbok certainly feels we are taking a step back in time.
Woljeonggyo Bridge – The Impressive Bridge
Leaving the Choi Family’s house, we headed towards the river for our next stop – Woljeonggyo Bridge, which is about 5 mins walk from the house. Woljeonggyo Bridge is built in 760, the covered bridge built over Muncheon Stream is believed to be the oldest stone bridge in South Korea. The bridge remained standing for over five centuries and was destroyed subsequently. The bridge was restored based on the stone foundations over a period of 10 years. We were glad that the restoration of Woljeonggyo Bridge was completed and opened for visitors at the time of our visit. Woljeonggyo Bridge is the Donggung Palace is painted in colourful traditional Korean colours that one would find in their palaces. Woljeonggyo Bridge has two two-storey bridge towers on each side of the stream. These towers are decked out in mahogany red topped with bright green roofs. Taking pictures of Woljeonggyo Bridge with our hanboks makes one really feel stepping into the past. We approached the bridge towers and discovered there are two steep staircases on either side of the entrance to the bridge, that seem to lead to the upper level of the tower. We thought we might get a good view of the surroundings on the top of the tower. My friends and I climbed up one of the stairs to reach the top level of the tower to find an empty space less a historic map of Gyeongju. The wooden windows on the top level of the tower are closed making looking out to the surroundings not possible. We headed down the staircase and went to the middle of the bridge to take some pictures. Taking pictures here in our hanboks with the numerous pillars lining across the bridge makes the pictures Instagram worthy. The mid part of the bridge looks out into Muncheon Stream and the mountains surrounding Gyeongju. There is a sense of peace and harmony here.
Gyerim Forest and the Royal Tombs – Peace and Tranquil Stroll
Leaving Woljeonggyo Bridge, we headed back towards Gyeongju Gyochon Village and instead of going inside the village, we skimmed the village and walk towards Gyerim Forest, making our way to Cheomseongdae. The forest is thickly populated with zelkova and willow trees. Gyerim Forest is believed to be the birthplace of the founder of the Gyeongju Kim clan, one of the most important clans in the Silla period in Korean history. The walk through the forest was very peaceful and the trees provided shade for us from the sun. At the end of the forest, we spotted some mounds springing out over the flatland, cordoned off by fences made of rope. These are the tombs of past kings in the Silla period. One of these tombs lies the body of King Naemul, the 17th monarch of the Silla Kingdom (in power from 356 to 402) and became the second king of the Kim family name. As we did not get closed to the tombs, we have no way to differentiate which tomb belongs to which royalty.
After taking some pictures with the royal tombs, we headed over to Cheomseongdae, the astronomy observation tower. This 9m bottle-shaped stone tower built on a square base has a cylindrical shape and topped off with a square opening structure. Cheomseongdae was built between the period of 632 to 647 to observe the movements of the stars and was thought to be the oldest existing astronomical tower in East Asia. As we were not able to climb up the tower, we left after taking some pictures with it.
Donggung and Wolji Pond – The Secondary Palace
From our Naver map app, it seems that our next destination, Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond is very close to Cheomseongdae. The walk between these two sites took us around 10 mins through the vast field. Entrance to Donggung Palace costs KRW3,000 per person, unlike the five big palaces in Seoul, entrance is not free despite wearing hanbok here. Donggung Palace is a secondary palace used by the crown prince back in its heyday during the Silla period. It is also used as a banquet site to host important national events and VIPs back in those days. After the fall of the Silla dynasty, the palace was abandoned and forgotten. Entering the fence that cordons off Donggung Palace, we were faced with an empty plot of land with three standalone pavilions, each standing in one corner of the palace grounds. Our first impression here is a tad disappointing as we were expecting to see some palace buildings and not pavilions. Nonetheless, we headed to the pavilion closest to the entrance and got a glimpse of Wolji Pond, which look like a normal pond with some lotus leaves in it. The first pavilion was empty and we were not impressed by it. We headed to the second pavilion further into the Donggung Palace grounds. Here we learnt more about the original palace building from a model of the palace in its heyday. We started to get impressed by the palace based on the model. We stayed here a bit more to look out into Wolji pond and the third pavilion. We did not bother going to the third pavilion as it looked empty. My friends and I then walked around trying to piece together where the main palace building was based on the model we saw. From the model and walking on the actual palace grounds, we thought the palace is a tad small. I have seen pictures of Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond at night, I thought visiting the palace at night would be the best due to the lighting. We did not spend too much time here at Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond and left for the hanbok shop to return our hanbok.
Bulguksa – The Historic Temple with a Character
After returning our hanbok, my friends and I headed to the city of Gyeongju to have lunch. It is a 20 mins drive to Bulguksa Temple from Gyeongju City. Entrance to Bulguksa Temple, which was built in 751, costs KRW5,000 per person and parking at the temple car park would set one back by KRW1.000 per vehicle. The large temple that seems to be built in the middle of the forest and is designated as a National Monument in South Korea due to the unique technique used to build the stone gateways in the 8th century. Most of the buildings in Bulguksa Temple was destroyed during the Japanese invasion and was reconstructed after years of excavation and research to its original looks. After getting our tickets, we walked up a slope and headed to the trio stoned icons of the temple and Gyeongju. These three stoned structures consist of two stairways, namely Anyangmun on the left and Jahamun on the right, as well as a pavilion – Beomyeongru in the centre. The stone stairways and the pavilion looked ancient and give off a vibe that they have been stood the test of time. If only these structures can talk, they will have so many stories to tell over the centuries they have been standing in Bulguksa Temple. The trio stone structures are especially charming in autumn and make very good Instagram photos. In front of these iconic stone structures lies a large courtyard, where most of the visitors to Bulguksa Temple gathers to take pictures with the iconic stone structures. To preserve the building, these stone structures are out of bounds to visitors.
After taking some pictures, my friends and I went around the building where the entrance is located and headed into the temple grounds. Passing through the side door, we were met with a relatively large courtyard. The first thing that caught our eyes in this courtyard is a stone stupa and a five-tiered pagoda, as though functioning as guards for the building behind it. Sitting at the back of this courtyard with a sense of authority is a wooden building decked in yellow paint. This building is Daeungjeon where a large Buddha is installed. The underside of the roof is decorated with elaborate wooden patterns with murals of Buddhas painted on each panel. We went into Daeungjeon to offer our prayers to the Buddha. Facing Daeungjeon is Jahamun with the stone staircase leading to the bottom part of the temple. The staircase is being cordoned off. Looking out at the temple grounds below facing the courtyard gives one a sense of peacefulness despite it being crowded with visitors. My friends and I find Jahamun to be a very good spot to take pictures of this piece of history.
After some pictures at Jahamun, we proceed back to the courtyard and headed to the left Daeungjeon where another door leads us to yet another courtyard. In the middle of this courtyard sits another wooden building also decked in yellow paint. This building is Geungnakjeon, which houses another statue of Buddha. Geungnakjeon is much smaller than Daeungjeon and the crowd here is thinner. Unlike Daeungjeon, there are no stupas or pagodas in the courtyard of Geungnakjeon. Similar to Jahamun, the stone stairways leading to Anyangmun is cordoned off. However, Anyangmun is another place where visitors can take good pictures. We left Geungnakjeon shortly after offering our prayers to the Buddha installed inside it.
As we were walking out of the side entrance of the Geungnakjeon, we spotted a small building that seems to be tucked in one corner of Bulguksa Temple. What captivated us was the bright red maple leaves on the trees in front of this building. We could not resist taking pictures with the beautiful tree in its autumn attire.
As we were walking around the temple grounds of Bulguksa Temple, we were more captivated by the red autumn leaves on the trees. We spotted a Japanese looking structure. Curious we went up and take a look and to find out why is there a Japanese structure here in South Korea. This structure houses the Bulguksa Temple Museum. We did not enter the museum as it would cost us extra to enter. We decided that we had covered most of Bulguksa Temple and headed straight to the exit to our next destination.
Back to Busan
We originally planned to visit another temple in Gyeongju, we scrapped the idea in view of the time. Instead, we headed back to Busan and drove to Oryukdo Skywalk while we still have the use of the car. Before we set out, we did an online search and came to know that the skywalk closes at 6.30pm. Based on Naver map app, it would take use around 1½ hr to reach Oryukdo Skywalk, which we will still be able to make it before it closes. We reached Oryukdo Skywalk at 5.45pm and it is already dark in Busan. After parking our car, we headed to the skywalk entrance and found it to be closed. There is a sign posted at the entrance that stated the skywalk closes at 5.30pm during autumn. We were a tad disappointed and headed back to Busan Train Station to return the car.
Dinner at Jagalchi Market
After returning the car, we were deciding what to have for dinner (I usually don’t plan for food for my trips). My friend suggested having octopus sashimi for dinner, one of the things that we did not try out the last time we came to South Korea three years back. Since we are already at Busan, where the seafood is cheap and abundant, we headed to Jagalchi Market – the largest seafood market in South Korea. The subway ride from Busan to Jalgachi Market took us 20 mins and from the subway station, it is a mere 5 mins walk to the market. Jagalchi Market is a large building that one cannot miss. The ground floor of the market is filled with stalls selling live seafood, while the second level is where all the restaurants are located. As we were walking up the stairs to the second level, we were approached by the staffs of one of the restaurants. We settled for the restaurant and started to order our food. Our purpose is to try the octopus sashimi which the tentacles are still moving despite being chopped into pieces, and that is one of the things that we ordered. Eating the octopus was not as bad as I thought, the tentacles just went down my throat without much difficulty. It just tasted of sashimi. I thought the food is a little pricey as we spent around SGD180 for the three of us. Thinking that we might we be ripped off, we took a walk around to compare the prices of the other restaurants. We found that the prices in all the restaurants are the same. As we are tired after a full day of walking around in Gyeongju, we headed back to the hotel to rest after dinner.