October 22, 2017 (Morning)
It was quite a brief rest for us. Although we slept at past 1 AM, we had to wake up early due to two reasons. First, we have to pack and move again our things to our new accommodation. Second, we are to meet our friends early at Gyeongbokgung because today is their flight back to the Philippines. Just like a child, I was restless. Never mind that I only had around five hours of sleep. If this was a dream, I wouldn’t want to wake up from it!
And thus begins our first day of exploring Seoul!
The Young Man’s Puerile Dreams
Gyeongbokgung (Hangul: 경복궁) is an historically relevant structure that laid witness to numerous wars and occupations. It is an enduring symbol of Seoul and of South Korea’s resilience and is one of Seoul’s top tourist drawers. It is just right that we begin our Korean Odyssey in this architectural marvel.
To get to the palace, my friends and I took a cab. We were immediately faced with our first tumbling block – the language barrier. We could have taken the subway but it would take numerous transfers. The drivers were hospitable but the first few cabs we hailed rejected us because we cannot properly enunciate our destination in a manner that they would be able to understand. Thankfully, we were able to find one cab driver who was able to understand where we wanted to go.
South Korea travel tip # 1: Most cab drivers are older men who have limited understanding of English. The easiest way to show the driver your destination is to mark and show it on a map.
South Korea travel tip # 2: Google translate is not a hundred percent accurate. You might end up saying the wrong things.
On our way to Gyeongbokgung, my friends and I can’t help but be in awe of the city. Seoul looks like your regular city but it possesses a charm that goes beyond its modern skyscrapers and tree-lined thoroughfares. The wide tree-lined avenues ensure efficient transportation. The buses have a separate lane and unlike in the Philippines, the drivers are discipline enough to stay in their designated lanes. The buses looked neat and are color-coded as well. If there is one thing that is apparent, Seoul is a very systematic city. Gyeongbokgung is near where we were staying and within minutes, we were there.
And there, over there, is that famous gate that I only saw on pictures. The main gate, called the Gwanghwamun (광화문), is more spectacular in person. I am stoked at finally being able to see it in person! I had to pinch myself repeatedly because these all feel so surreal. I have to start processing this reality. I am in Seoul. I am an Igorot traveler walking the streets of Seoul. The feeling is so amazing because never in my younger life have I ever thought of ever flying to a foreign land. Enough of my drivel. It is time to tour the palace grounds.
The facility normally opens at around 9 AM so we had to wait for a while after purchasing our tickets. Ticket When we were able to reunite with our friends, we finally entered the palace grounds upon its opening. Even though it was early, numerous visitors have already lined up at the entrance. As expected, it wasn’t only Koreans who I noted on the crowd. Mixed in the crowd are Vietnamese, Thais and fellow Filipinos. Anticipation is in the air as everyone is excited to enter the realms to a different period, and to a different experience.
A Royal Flair
And Gyeongbokgung didn’t fail to wow us.
Gyeongbokgung travel tip # 1: Gyeongbokgung is a sprawling complex and it is easy to lose your way. Avail yourself a copy of the guide maps located at the ticket booth. These maps are free and are available in English.
Upon our entry to the palace grounds, we were immediately enchanted by its rustic appeal. What greeted us first is a mini-garden, with the Yeongyegjo Bridge as its centerpiece. The stone pathway leads to the Geunjeongmun gate, which leads to the outer court (Oejeon). The centerpiece of the outer court is Geunjeongjeon (근정전), the Main Palace of the complex. It once served as the throne hall of the Joseon kings. It is where they granted audience to their officials, made declarations, and greeted foreign envoys.
Geunjeongjeon is a stunning architectural marvel. Constructed using mostly wood materials and wooden pegs, its details, especially the roof, are intricate. The inner structure was ingenuously designed as well. The designer’s attention to every detail is truly astounding. Unfortunately, visitors are restricted from entering the Throne Hall, probably to preserve the structure considering that it is centuries old. The influx of visitors might too much for the aged-structure to bear. Visitors, however, can take a peek of the hall from the outside.
As a crowd has begun to gather around Geunjeongjeon, my friends and I proceeded to tour the other parts of the palace. From the throne hall, we turned left towards the Sujeongjeon chamber. The area surrounding chamber is like a park, filled pathways lined with trees. But the most eye-catching structure in this portion of the complex is the Gyeonghoeru (경회루) Pavilion.
During the Joseon dynasty, the stately Gyeonghoeru once hosted important royal banquets. What makes the structure more charming is the serene square-shaped pond that surrounded it. The pond, on a good day, gives a wonderful reflection of the pavilion. Even when the pond freezes during the winter, the view is still amazing (at least on pictures). Just like Geunjeongjeon, visitors are barred from entering the pavilion. Nonetheless, it was still satisfying just watching it from a distance. There is a nearby café for those who didn’t have their breakfast.
Gyeongbokgung travel tip # 2: Because of its sheer size, touring Gyeongbokgung can easily zap one’s energy. Have a full breakfast to have a full reserve of energy for the tour.
A Royal Ceremony: The Changing of the Guards
Before we could go any further, my friends and I returned to the main entrance. The clock is about to hit 10AM and something is brewing up – the famed royal guard changing ceremonies. Nearly every visitor headed back to the entrance to witness this rare spectacle. This is a rare pick into a Korean traditional scene so no one wants to waste the opportunity. With the banging of the drums, the ceremony promptly started at 10 AM.
The royal guards, garbed in their traditional uniforms, began marching from the gates to the center of the enclosed open field. Their every action and movement speaks of discipline and, more importantly, tradition. Every movement was accentuated by the careful attention paid on every detail, such as the uniform, the weapons, and the coat of arms. The guards, resolute in their form, carried out the ceremony with subtle aplomb that spectators can’t help but be in awe.
More of Gyeongbokgung
After the 20-minute ceremony, we resumed our tour around the palace grounds . We are already an hour and a half on our tour but we barely made any progress. If only time would stand still. As we’ve already explored the left part of the complex, we explored the right portion of the outer court which locals refer to as the Donggung (동궁) areas. The compound is where the crown prince and his wife lived. Incorporated in the compound is a wide open space planted with different trees.
Gyeongbokgung travel tip # 3: If you missed the morning ceremonies, you can always catch up in the afternoon. The second changing of the guards ceremony takes place at 2PM.
From the princes’ quarters, we moved to the inner court (Naejeon), which is located just behind Geunjeongjeon. Naejeon is a cluster of one story buildings which served as residences to the members of the royal family. The most important of these buildings is Gangnyeongjeon Hall (강녕전). At its prime, it served as the Joseon king’s primary residence. Gyotaejeon Hall (교태전), just behind Gangnyeongjeon, served as the residence of the queen. The current structures, built in 1994, are just restorations as the original structures were dismembered in 1920.
After exploring the residential compound, we moved on to the northern part of the complex. The centerpiece of this section is the Hyangwonjeong pavilion, a two-story hexagonal structure built around 1873. It lies at the center of yet another pond, and is one of the things my friend is looking forward to. Unfortunately, the structure was under renovation. Thankfully, pond and the pavilion can still be viewed through transparent glasses located strategically around the fence covering the area being renovated.
South Korean Observation # 1: Ponds are essential part of Korean architecture. Over the course of our 13-day stay in South Korea, I have noticed how prevalent they are in most historical structures we have visited.
On the far most part of the compound is the Geoncheonggung, the private royal residence of King Gojong. On October 8, 1895, King Gojong’s wife, Empress Myeongseong was brutally assassinated at the residence, causing the king to steer clear of his private residence. In 1909, the original structure was razed to the ground by the Japanese but it was later rebuilt in 2007, making it one of the more recent structures in the compound. Visitors are also allowed to view the place where the Empress was assassinated.
There were still a lot of areas we wanted to explore but after nearly three hours of exploring, we finally decided to cut our visit short. We exited through the north gate, Sinmumun, which led to the Blue House, the official residence of the President of South Korea. Security around the area is tightknit but visitors are allowed to take a picture. However, visitors are not allowed to enter the Blue House compound.
After taking a couple of pictures at the Blue House, my friends and I went to look for a place to eat and recharge. In the meantime, that is it for now. I never thought that I would gush over Gyeongbokgung this much. I guess it deserves it being our first South Korean destination and because of its historical importance.