From Busan we rented a car and completed the one hour drive to Gyeongju, one of South Korea’s most significant historical cities.
Gyeongju is sometimes referred to as a “museum without walls”, because it is full of temples, relics, and massive tombs of the ancient Silla dynasty. It used to be one of the largest cities in the ancient world and, given it’s historical significance, the city was South Korea’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.
In total, there are over 122 temples and 64 pagodas around Gyeongju, but we didn’t have time for all of these! We decided to dedicate an entire day to visiting the top temples and historical sites in the area.
A Rough Past
Unfortunately, Korea has had a tumultuous history with the country suffering from many invasions. Perhaps the most notable is the 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula by the Japanese in the early 1900s. During this time, the Japanese assimilated the Korean population by forbidding the use of their language, religion and customs. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names, to worship Shinto religion, and were forbidden to speak in Korean. Many historical documents and monuments were burned down.
Gyeongju was no different. Over the course of 1000 years, much of this ancient city was destroyed. This means that Gyeongju, like many other sites throughout Korea, have been recently reconstructed and rebuilt to simulate what they would have looked like in the past. We found it saddening that most of Korea’s historical monuments remain as replicas.
One of the most striking features of the Gyeongju area is the number of large grassy mounds. At first you might think they are small hills…
But, in fact these well-maintained hills are the tombs of the past kings and queens. In Tumuli park, one of these hills was excavated to allow visitors to walk inside and see the burial chamber deep within. Each chamber is created the same way, with the body buried with gold, jewels and all the person’s worldly possessions, and then covered in rocks, clay and soil.
The Silla dynasty that we mentioned above was responsible for bringing Buddhism to Korea. One of the most famous landmarks of Buddhism in Korea is the Bulguksa Temple located in the mountains just outside Gyeongju. To this day it is still a fully functioning Buddhist monastery.
Apart from appreciating the traditional architecture of this Buddhist temple, the other highlight was walking under a roof of lanterns, each inscribed with a prayer or wish (including one written in English stating, “I wish to win in lottery first prize”).
Small Town Folk Village
A small distance away from Gyeongju in the town of Andong is a well preserved folk village. The Hahoe Folk Village is another World Heritage Site recognized for preservation of traditional architecture, trinkets, and customs.
The town remains inhabited with residents, and we couldn’t imagine how they must feel having tourists wandering through their otherwise quiet streets every day!
Apart from the traditional living style, this town is also known for its ancient architecture including thatched roofing:
In order to preserve the traditional character of Gyeongju, the government has mandated that all buildings in the area retain traditional Korean structure. Since skyscrapers are not allowed, Gyeongju feels like a tranquil escape back in time. The town is quiet, with most places closing by 9 PM. Instead, the highlight of the evening is visiting the temples and bridges at sunset, when they are perfectly lit.
The Donggung Palace was our favourite with its serene Alopji Pond casting a perfect reflection in the water: