I’m sure most of you will be somewhat familiar with Gyeongju. It gets listed in the itineraries as a place to visit after Seoul and Busan. If you are wondering what Korea was like in the past it’s worth going to Gyeongju to see some beautiful temples and monuments.
Gyeoungju is 80 kms from Busan in the southwest of the country. You can take the KTX from Seoul or bus from most big cities. We drove from Busan in less than two hours, which included a stop off at a rest station near Yangsan. I find these places the highlight of a road journey and they seem to be something that tourists find fascinating about Korea. Maybe it’s memories of trips with families but there is something very comforting about these places.
The major venue is Bulguk temple, site of the oldest stone pagoda in South Korea. It’s called Tabo Tab, and is seen on the back of the 10 Won coin. Without knowing what it’s significance is, I can appreciate what a stunning monument the stone pagoda is. It stands out amongst the more brightly-coloured wooden temple buildings which are all to a large degree constructed according to the same basic architectural design.
Bulguk temple – as pretty as a flower
We admired the beautiful tiles of the temple roofs and drank water from the stone basin. There was a gift shop where we could see many souvenirs including model owls and bookmarks. If I don’t have much information about the history of the temple, it’s because there wasn’t much information available. On arrival, we were given a ticket (price, 5000 won). On the back it told us: Erected in the 15th year of King BeopHeung Sinra some 15 centuries ago and later rebuilt by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong on a much larger scale.’
Near the temple there is an information booth containing maps of Gyeongju in English. I wish they had given us some more information about the temple at the start. It would have been good to have been able to study its history more thoroughly.
There aren’t any restaurants near the temple, only a few stalls by the car park selling overpriced Sikhye. It was better to take a drive into Gyeongju city where there are several traditional Korean restaurants, all with off-road parking. Tobakmi Sikdang is a restaurant serving soondubu, pajeon and deok galbi. Portion sizes were good and the banchan was varied, The soondubu contained abalone which made it more than worth the 10,000 won cost.
One of the most fascinating parts of Gyeongju are the dome-shaped green hills where the Silla kings were buried in the fifth century. There are at least twenty of these grassy mounds, leading me to wonder just how many kings there were during this period.Answer, I don’t know. Obviously, information is scarce because little was written down at this time in history. I can’t name a single king from this time and there isn’t as much interest in them, as the Choson Dynasty. But at least there is a small museum where we can see inside one of the tombs, which was excavated in 1972. It shows us how their shields were made and one of the coffins itself is displayed, giving us a better understanding of how the kings were buried and what their tombs contained.
What do you do after wondering through temples and tombs all day? Probably what any South Korean would do which is to drink coffee from Starbucks. The cafe, which has a traditional tile roof were packed – and I do mean packed – with families enjoying the Chuseok holiday. It was there that we found several bakeries selling Hwangnam-Ppang, the local speciality. Now, I’m a bread lover, and I was expecting something amazing from these. If you’re going to name bread after your town it had better be super amazing. These weren’t. The pastry is light, and the filling, which is sweet bean paste, takes up over seventy-percent of the bread, making them extremely sweet. Even more aggravating was having to buy them in units of twenty, forcing us to buy 19 more than we actually wanted.
The presentation of the pastries was also disappointing. For the price they could have been individually wrapped in traditional paper but were only cellophane wrapped, making them seem very ordinary and generic.
There were children flying dragon-fly shaped kites and some souvenir shops. Another reason to visit Gyeongju is the theme park Gyeongju World which is near the Hilton Hotel. There is a trendy cafe street as well, which has nothing to do with historical Gyeongju but was very busy anyway.
Gyeongju is a fun destination with some unique sites. The locations were spaced-out but accessible. Doing some reading would help prepare you for the historical background of the city and it would be most convenient to have a Korean speaker with you. Of course there will be tourists here, but not as many as the palaces in Seoul. If you are interested in Korean history, try to find out as much information as possible before you go.