Gyeongju, a Look into Korea’s Past

Gyeongju, a Look into Korea’s Past

posted in: Articles, Asia, Korea | 3

Gyeongju PicThe bus from Busan to Gyeongju was pretty short, only a couple of hours. When we were planning our trip to Korea we weren’t sure we were going to go to Gyeongju. We were debating between Jeju Island, Gyeongju and some other spots. While we were in Seoul and visiting the Korea Folk Museum, the tour guide talked about Gyeongju and some of the great artifacts and history there. Gyeongju used to be the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) which ruled about two-thirds of the Korean Peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. A vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from this period remain in the city. Gyeongju is often referred to as "the museum without walls." Among such historical treasures, Seokguram grotto, Bulguksa temple, Gyeongju Historic Areas and Yangdong Folk Village are designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The many major historical sites have helped Gyeongju become one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea.

Our first night in our place was a little weird. We booked our room through Airbnb but it was more of a hotel than someone’s home.  After we got dinner and went to bed, we woke up at 4:30 AM to a lady banging on the door and saying something in Korean. She then opened the door and walked in, still talking loudly in Korean while at the same time we’re trying to tell her to get out of our room. We then told her that we didn’t speak English and she eventually said “money.” We were staying at the room for 5 days and we told her we already paid and showed her the receipt from Airbnb. She eventually said sorry and left but it wasn’t a good first impression.

Our first full day, it was pretty hot out and we didn’t want to spend much time in the heat. We slept in and then got lunch at a small restaurant next to our apartment. We then went to the bus station to make sure we could get a ticket from Gyeongju back to Seoul (Incheon) so we can catch our flight back to Los Angeles. We also wanted to buy a City Tour ticket to see some of the sites around Busan. We wanted an easy night so we watched a movie, grabbed dinner, and then went to bed.

Mmmmm looks good, right?
Mmmmm looks good, right?

Our second full day we took the City Tour of Gyeongju. Course 2: East Sea Course. We chose this tour since the sites were outside the city and required a bus ride to see most of them. Our first stop was Seokguram Grotto which is part of the Bulguksa temple complex. It was just a short walk from our tour bus to the Grotto where I met a little friend. The Grotto houses a large Buddha statue but pictures are not allowed inside. Here is a picture of what is inside the Grotto but after seeing so many Buddhas throughout Asia, this one wasn’t anything special to us. Our second stop was the Gyeongju Traditional Silk Museum. The museum is really small with only a couple of rooms and all the signs were in Korean so we didn’t learn much. Next door there was a demonstration of women spinning silk from silk worms. The silk worms are boiled and placed in a bucket where the silk is extracted. After the workers take all the silk from the worms they eat them. They gave us worms to taste as part of the tour. I didn’t want to try it but Diem shoved it in my mouth and I ate some before I could say no. It was not good, but not the worst thing I’ve eaten.

The third stop was Gameunsaji (The Gameunsa Temple Site). This was the site of an old temple that was burned to the ground except for the two front three story pagodas. King Munmu built this temple to drive away the Japanese pirates from the country with the power of Buddha. Unfortunately, he passed away before the completion of the temple. The site is pretty unimpressive. You can see the outline of some of the stone foundation but really the temple site is just grass on a hill with two small pagodas. The tour guide talked for a little bit at the site but it was in Korean so we just took a couple of pictures around the pagodas and went back to the cliff.

Gameunsa Temple Site
Gameunsa Temple Site

Yangnam Jusangjeoli Cliff and Blueberry Korean Honey Bread
Yangnam Jusangjeoli Cliff and Blueberry Korean Honey Bread

The fourth spot was the Yangnam Jusangjeoli Cliff (The roar of waves road). There was a path along the cliffs that went over a suspension bridge and overlooked some rock formations in the ocean. We walked a little bit along the path but we saw a nice little coffee shop with a nice view that was running a special of coffee and dessert. It was pretty hot out so we jumped at the deal. We got an iced coffee and a dessert of blueberry honey bread.

The next stop was the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu.  The tomb is a group of rocks off the coast. King Munmu gave specific instructions to be buried in the East Sea after his death so that he would become a dragon and protect Silla from Japanese intruders. The rocky island, about 200m in circumference, is divided by a cross-shaped waterway, forming a pool at the center, at the bottom of which is a granite rock. Legend has it that the remains of King Munmu’s cremated body are buried under this rock. We unfortunately didn’t get go up to the rock formation and just viewed it from the beach. It wasn’t much to look at so this wasn’t that cool of a stop and we didn’t stay long.

Golgulsa Temple
Golgulsa Temple

The last stop was Golgulsa Temple Cave located at the foot of Mt. Hamwol. The temple was built out of solid rock during the 6th century by Saint Gwang Yoo and some accompanying monks, and was designed according to the architectural structure of India. While we were walking around the temple grounds, there was a demonstration of different performers. We saw a musician, dancers, and martial artists perform. The demonstrations were pretty interesting and a lot of the spectators were participating in a temple stay. The temple itself was pretty cool with the main cave containing the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and the cave walls are dedicated to the 108 meditations of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The Gwaneum Cave has a wall with tiles in front of it, which makes it look like an ordinary sanctuary. But once inside, the entire interior from ceiling to walls is carved all from stone. We only had about 40 minutes at the temple. It would have been nice to see more of the demonstrations but we were still glad to see what we did.

It was a nice little tour but unfortunately, the tour was all in Korean. We decided to get the lunch buffet that was offered as part of the tour but it wasn’t very good. In the two tours we’ve done we highly recommend either bringing your own food or finding your own food other than the food suggested by the tour company. After the tour we went to place Diem found where you choose and buy your own meat at a butcher shop, then go next door and cook it yourself. We originally tried to buy a package of beef and a package of pork but the cashier told us that we got too much meat and they wouldn’t sell it to us. We were offended! We tried talking them into selling us both but we eventually bought one beef, cooked and ate it, then went back and bought the pork (albeit a smaller one than we originally selected). I think if we wanted to, we could’ve finished both our original selections. As I said the meat was very good, but I was disappointed that they didn’t have free kimchi to go with our meal.

The next day we decided to do a bike ride around Gyeongju. A lot of the notable sites and buildings around Gyeongju are pretty close together and the town is pretty flat so we figured a bike was the easiest way to see everything. We decided to rent a tandem bike for the day. It was my first time riding a tandem bike and it was a little tough controlling the bike when you first start pedaling but once we were moving it wasn’t too bad to steer. On our self-guided bike tour, we saw Daereungwon Tomb Complex (Cheonmachong), the Cheomseongdae Observatory, Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village, the Woljeonggyo Bridge (under construction), The National Museum, and the Gyeongju Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. The National Museum was closed but we walked along the exterior and there were some outdoor exhibitions that we saw that were pretty cool. I would say that best things we saw that day were the flower gardens along the path and the the Gyeongju Donggung Palace / Wolji Pond. This was actually a reconstruction of the old palace and only a couple of the buildings were reconstructed. The pond was pretty nice and the palace grounds were very green and lush. All these attractions are really close to each other so we actually went to all of them within 3 hours. It was still pretty hot though so we were tired after the bike ride and just had dinner and went back to the room.

Top left: Donggung Palace; Top right: Cheomseongdae Observatory; Bottom left: Flower Garden; Bottom right: Daereungwon Tomb Complex
Top left: Donggung Palace; Top right: Cheomseongdae Observatory; Bottom left: Flower Garden; Bottom right: Daereungwon Tomb Complex

Our last full day in Gyeongju, we were still pretty tired and we were also getting pretty sick of Korean food. We went to get brunch at an American restaurant which was a nice change. Afterwards, we went back to the apartment, did laundry, and chilled out for a bit. When we got hungry again, we went to get dinner early at a fried chicken spot nearby. Later, we walked around our apartment and discovered an upscale shopping area right next to our apartment that we had no idea was there. We wish we had known about this area earlier but at least we found it. We grabbed another quick bite to eat, packed and went to bed early.

The next day I went for an early run along the river in Gyeongju. There is a nice bike and run path along the river and there are some old ruins and temples along the way that are pretty scenic. When I got back we packed up and went to the bus station for our bus ride to Incheon which is where the Seoul airport is located.

Gyeongju is a nice little town that gives you a sense of old-time Korea, but also has some upscale and modern hotels and amusement parks nearby. It’s an easy trip from Busan and I recommend it to people visiting Korea and want to get a more historical feel of Korea. It reminds of Cuzco and Chiang Mai in that it celebrates the history of its country and you can really feel like you’re going back in time.

See the full gallery from Gyeongju here: Gyeongju, Korea.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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3 Responses

  1. John Carson

    It makes one appreciative of Anglo law and customary business practices.

  2. John Carson

    Your comments are reminiscent of Twain’s Innocents Abroad. I guess we are talking about a 1.5 century update. Quite remarkable really.

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