Watching Korean period dramas let you peek into the old Korea. For your next trip to the “Land of the Morning Calm”, care to step into its storied past?
Gyeongju City, in Gyeongsanbuk-do province, sits in the southeastern area of the Korean Peninsula. With natural landscapes and coastline, Gyeongju is abundant in cultural assets, traditional and modern, that locals visit in numbers while foreigner visitors slowly taking notice.
Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Dynasty for 992 years (57 to 935 BC), the longest surviving kingdom in Korean history. When the Silla Dynasty was overthrown, the new Koryo Dynasty was established.
Known for its brilliant history, culture and arts, Gyeongju has numerous historic sites, considered the hallmarks of the Silla Dynasty, in its “open air museum”.
As a “World Cultural Heritage City”, Gyeongju is also home to remarkable Buddhist art treasures in Korea. In the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced in the Silla Dynasty that unified the nation and strengthened the royal authority, and its significant influence can easily be traced in the traditional customs, arts and culture of Gyeongju.
Entering the Silla Kingdom
To witness the cultural essence of the Silla Dynasty and the Korean Buddhist culture, do what the locals do and visit the Bulguksa Temple (774 BC) and the Seokguram Grotto, both registered as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Cultural Heritage sites in 1995.
As a glorious symbol of the Buddhist culture of Korea, the Bulguksa Temple grounds are laden with national treasures, such as Daeungjeon Hall, Paradise Hall and the Dabotap and Seokgatap Pagodas. In particular, the temple is a fine example of the exquisite artistry of the Silla people.
The Seokguram Grotto, constructed in the Tohamsan Mountain of Gyeongju, is the only artificial grotto temple in the world and is also considered a masterpiece, showcasing the scientific and artistic excellence of the Korean Buddhism.
Koreans regularly visit temples seeking reprieve from the daily hassles of modern living and blessing from the heavens. In a pilgrim like fashion, you are encouraged to walk, donate, and say your prayers when visiting these sites. For a more meaningful spiritual journey, you can even include in your itinerary a temple stay and live like a monk for a day, week, or month depending on your personal quest for balance and harmony.
Touring in a ‘hanbok’
You may have already tried on the traditional Korean costume, playfully fantasizing you’re someone from the old Korea. Next time, try walking around the historical sites in a hanbok and get a new sense of belonging to Korea’s glorious history.
Wearing a hanbok, your entrance to the Donggung (Palace of the Crown Prince) palace grounds can introduce you to the ancient kingdom of Silla. Established in the 19th year of the reign of King Munmu (679 BC), Donggung palace has many buildings, including the Imhaejon Hall. As a secondary palace site, history tells us that a Silla Dynasty prince used to welcome honored guests and hold banquets in the wooden palace.
Carefully constructed in the nearby artificial pond called Wolji, the structure is flanked by three small islands in glossy waters that produce an almost seamless reflection, making it a most-favored spot for strolling with a romantic partner in tow, especially during nighttime. The Wolji pond was excavated on in 674 BC, according to the Samguksagi (History of the Three Kingdoms).
There is also a hanbok-rental shop in the Gyochon village, the former palace site of the Princess Yoseok, where her love story with the monk Wonhyo took place during the Silla period.
In the early 17th to mid-20th century, the rich Choe family resided in Gyochon while building their fortune that spanned over 300 years. The Choe family was greatly admired for their generosity and fulfillment of noblesse oblige, earning them gratitude from the people. Today, you can visit their old homes in Gyochon village.
Another famous historical landmark that goes well with the hanbok-wearing is the Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory, the oldest of its kind in East Asia, constructed during the reign of Queen Seon-deok (632-647 BC). With its remarkable shape and construction values, the landmark provides an interesting backdrop for your Instagram shots. While walking around the area, be sure to acknowledge the locals that cheer you as you pass by.
Enchanting sights and sounds
The Shilla Millennium Park is a theme park that can give you historic experiences with five main attractions, performances and handcraft-making sessions that capture the traditional life of the Silla period.
One of the attractions is the Emile Polis, a replica of a village where you can find clues on how the people of Silla Dynasty lived. In History Fantasia, the towering replica of the Emile Bell (a.k.a. the Bell of King Seongdeok) stands at 17 meters, 4-and-a half meters bigger than the original piece that is designated as a national treasure.
At the Hwarang Spirit arena, there’s a daily performance of the mounted martial-arts and horse-riding training called the “Hwarang’s way”. In little huts in Craftia, you can try your hand at making traditional earthenware, painting, cloth dyeing or wood art.
Near the entrance, the face of Cheoyong, a man who exorcised demons and loved generosity and peace, greets you, while the Dammogwon area features 80 different-looking gangseung, the ancient village protectors. You can also drop by the outdoor set of the famous Korean drama Queen Seon-deok released in 2009.
If you are looking for a romantic Silla tale, head over to the Performance Hall in Gyeongju World Culture Expo and watch Silla, a nonverbal performance by Jeongdong Theater. Marked by colorful costumes, dynamic choreography and amazing sets and lighting production, you’ll be glued to lay witness to the love affair between Silla princess Frarang and Persian prince Abtin that was based on an ancient epic poem “Kush-nama”. In 1995 Jeongdong Theater was established to restore Wongaksa, the Korea’s first modern theater.
Side trip to Pohang City
To learn about the early ironware culture of Korea, go to Pohang City and visit the Pohang Iron and Steel Co. Ltd. (Posco) Museum. It has nine exhibition rooms, showcasing the company’s history, culture, vision and spirit. As the first and oldest steel company in Korea, Posco remains the biggest with 18,000 employees globally.
For a different New Year celebration, Pohang’s Homigot Cape is the place to go. A revered tradition, Koreans bask under the first rays of the sun on New Year’s Day. During the Homigot Sunrise Festival, you can join the locals while sampling the holiday treats picnic-style. At the Homigot Sunrise Plaza, you can find modern art installations such as the Hands of Harmony, a pair of bronze hand sculptures that was built in December 1999. For a more rigorous activity, trek along the Homigot Coastal Walking Trail while admiring the seacoast in the easternmost end of the Korean Peninsula.
Other scenic attractions in Pohang are the 12 Falls on Naeyeonsan Mountain, Unjesan Mountain Oeosan Temple, Deokdong Culture Village, Jukjang Haok Valley, Gyeongsanbuk-do Arboretum, Janggi-eup Fortress, Hwanho Park, Posco Night View, Erosion Control Memorial Park and the Artificial Stream at Central Shopping Center.
Korean tour guide Jake An observed that Filipino tourists could not care less about historical tours. While that may be true, Filipinos are also fond of watching Korean-period dramas for its wonderful story plots set in interesting locations and charming actors dressed in colorful costumes. In the years to come, that special interest will hopefully find its way for more Filipinos to appreciate Korea’s ancient history. This is one adventure waiting to be discovered.
The Gyeongju and Pohang City tours were sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization, Gyeongsangbuk-do Tourism Corp. and Philippine Airlines (PAL). Gyeongju is an hour away by express bus from the Gimhae International airport, located in Busan. Effective on July 20, PAL upgrades its aircraft to Airbus A332 en route to Manila-Busan, with flights on Wednesdays and Sundays. Effective on June 22, PAL will start to operate the Tagbilaran-Icheon route with flights on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
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