A Palace in South Korea: Stepping Back in Time

Written by Cherie Mitchell
(One of two winning entries in the Heritage Writing Competition.)

South Korea: Hanbok boys by a Palace Gate
Hanbok boys by a Palace Gate

South Korea is perhaps not the first option considered when choosing one’s next travel destination but after visiting this historical and intriguing country, I hope that I can change the mind-set of others.

I travelled alone, as a woman in her mid-fifties, on two long flights from New Zealand in order to reach this little nation that is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. My son has been teaching English in South Korea for the past two years and I wanted a glimpse of the life he was leading. I flew Singapore Airlines and arrived at Incheon Airport, a busy and efficient port, at 9 am on a Monday morning.

Lanterns over the The Cheonggyecheon Stream
Lanterns over the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul

English is not the first spoken language in this country but that does not mean that a non-Korean speaking individual cannot get by. Many Korean signs include the English translations, hand signals are often universal, and there are some English speakers about – especially among the younger generations. I caught a cab to Ilsan-dong, a satellite city approximately 45 minutes from Seoul, and moved into a vine-covered Parisian-influenced AirBnB accommodation in a quiet, narrow street. I never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe anywhere in South Korea even if I was walking through the streets alone in the early hours of the morning. This ancient country would have to be one of the most respectful and polite that I have ever visited.

Luckily enough, my visit coincided with Buddha’s Birthday, a public holiday and carnival day that falls on the eighth day of the fourth month (by the lunar calendar). Colourful lotus lanterns hung overhead as we walked the streets, said to light the path of Buddha and show the way to his temples, and everyone was in a festive, party mood. We chose this day to visit Changdeokgung Palace, one of the country’s five Grand Palaces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace and supporting buildings were constructed in the early 15th century and were carefully built in alignment and harmony with the surrounding landscape. The site is auspicious and lies under the benevolent and protective gaze of the guardian mountain, Mount Baegaksan.

Hanbok girls posing for photos
Hanbok girls posing for photos

Several hanbok rental stores are located in the streets around the palace. The hanbok is the traditional Korean dress and a delicate and beautiful concoction of fabrics and embroidery. Delightfully, visitors wearing traditional dress often receive discounted or free entry to the palace grounds and we saw many groups of young girls, and boys, traipsing through the complex or posing for photographs against the ancient walls of the palace, which gave the impression that we had momentarily stepped back in time.

The palace comprises three gates and three courts, all positioned towards the front of the complex, while Biwon, the Secret Garden, lies at the rear. The garden contains more than 56,000 specimens of trees, shrubs, and plants and it is easy to picture the long ago royal family enjoying its many pleasures. The court buildings themselves are intricate and beautiful and the wooden structures painstakingly decorated with colourful hand painted flowers and geometric designs. The work involved in this task is difficult to comprehend but very much appreciated.

Decorative garden in central Seoul
Decorative garden in central Seoul

Changdeokgung Palace served as a secondary palace to the nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace for 200 years but it became the primary residence for the royal family following devastating fires in the late 16th century. The fire-damaged buildings at Changdeokgung were rapidly repaired and the complex became the dynasty’s premier seat for the next 250 years. Today it stands as an excellent example of palace architecture and design and is an important reminder of eras past.

We completed our day out with a visit to a 16th century alley where we entered a small building and climbed rickety wooden stairs to a mezzanine floor. Here we sat on the ground under low clay ceilings and ate traditional foods and drank rice wine while surrounded by laughing and chattering local patrons, an experience that contributed to the warmth and comradery of the day.

Ancient alleyway in Seoul
Ancient alley in Seoul

Several of the temples (palaces) in South Korea offer temple stays that enable the visitor to immerse himself or herself in the full temple experience, learn about the Buddhist culture, sample teas and traditional foods, and partake in tours and cultural activities. I did not have the time on this visit to South Korea but I will certainly be adding a temple stay to my bucket list for next time around.

POSTED 7th JANUARY 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of CHERIE MITCHELL. Photographs 2 and 4 were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.