Of Traipsing Korean Palaces
[28 Oct 2016]
Years ago, we went to South Korea for our mini honeymoon, during which we must have visited many of the palaces. But I don’t remember much, with it being more than a decade ago. This trip, we decided to revisit some of the palaces to admire the autumn foliage. In particular, we chose to visit both Changdeokgung Palace 창덕궁 (and its beautiful Secret Garden 후원, also known as Huwon) and Gyeongbokgung Palace 경복궁. And in order to ensure that we will get to see Huwon as planned, I had to reserve tickets online a week before. You see, one cannot enter Huwon without signing up for one of the several guided tours they have in day, conducted in different languages. Only 50 tickets were available for reservation online (per guided tour), and another 50 available for sale at the ticketing booth on the actual day. It was a tough fight – I couldn’t secure tickets for our preferred slot and had to settle for a later time slot. Well, better than nothing. We just had to work around the new timing.
Yay! Tickets for Huwon tour in our hands! We also bought the Palace Integrated Tickets at ₩10,000 for 5 royal sites in Seoul, just in case we have time to visit the rest of them. In any case, paying for entry to 2 of the palaces + Huwon already cost more than the Integrated Tickets, at ₩10,400 so why not? Of course, one gets to enter for free if you wear hanbok. I’m not too sure about free entry to Huwon though.
This much space! I’m truly so envious that South Korea has so much land to spare, that they can preserve all their untouched cultural heritage. In comparison, Singapore is so small we just seem to be tearing down everything old so that we can build taller buildings to accommodate more. I wished we have more open spaces like this in Singapore. Sigh. During the Joseon dynasty, the officials would line up beside the rank stones depicting their ranks. It starts from the 9th rank, up to the 1st… a total of 18 levels since every rank has a senior and junior level. When we visited, a group of Taiwanese tourists started kneeling and bowing beside the rank stones to pose for pictures. While we couldn’t understand why they found it fun to do so, some foreign (read: Caucasian) tourists found it interesting and even requested to take pictures of them kneeling and bowing. I hope their pictures turned out nice.
This was where we waited for entry to Huwon. It’s rather confusing because the gate on the left leads to Huwon while the gate on the right leads to Changgyeonggung Palace 창경궁. We waited till it was 1330hours for our English Tour to commence, expecting a huge group (since it could theoretically sell 100 tickets in all). When it was almost time, our tour guide addressed the waiting group in English, that we could proceed and explore Huwon on our own if we wished to instead of waiting to move as a group. He needn’t prod twice; we decided almost instantly that we preferred to explore the garden alone. Better than moving in a group that could potentially be as large as 100.
The signature feature of Huwon that no one misses must be the square pond and a nearby elevated gate and pavilion that are out of bounds to visitors. The gate is named Eosumun Gate 어수문 and the pavilion Juhamnu Pavilion 주함루. Literally translated, Eosumun Gate meant ‘Fish, Water, Gate’. It served as a reminder to the king that like fishes that cannot live out of water, the King must always think of the subjects he ruled over in every decision he made. Juhamnu Pavilion, the most photographed feature of Huwon was the royal library (first level) and reading room (second level) used by the King.
We managed to get in and out of the area before the group following an English tour guide came along. If you have read up about Huwon before, then exploring the garden alone is definitely the better option (provided permission is granted by your tour guide – I’m really not certain how this works).
It might be misleading to call Huwon a garden because it is not small like a cute, manicured garden at all! Considering it occupies 2/3 of the whole Changedeokgung Palace and the pathways are not always flat, I’d say to wear sensible shoes and expect some slopes. It’s worth the trouble; Huwon is really very picturesque and I believe will be even more so in a week or so in early November. We might have visited a little too early, many of the trees were still green.
We walked a loop and got right back to Juhamnu Pavilion just about the time when a new group came along with their tour guide. Another English group, I believe. It took us slightly over an hour to leisurely traipse around the garden, and we found it fairly sufficient. Touring with the guide would take about 1.5hrs.
We left Huwon, walked past the part of Changdeokgung Palace available to the public on a general ticket. It got quieter since most of the tour buses have since left. Alas, we couldn’t linger because we had a schedule to adhere to.
And that was to see Gyeongbokgung Palace 경복궁 in the day, before they closed at 1700hrs (and open again at 1900hrs for the last day of the night event). In fact, I was on a mission to get to Hyangwonjeong Pavilion 향원정, a 2-storey hexagonal pavilion sitting atop a small island in the middle of the lake almost right to the northern end of the palace grounds. That is to say, if you enter via Gwanghwamun Gate 광화문, this Hyangwonjeong Pavilion is a long walk, all the way in.
The autumn foliage at Gyeongbokgung was a little more pronounced than at Huwon. I took several pictures of Hyangwonjeong Pavilion and the little bridge named Chwihyanggyo Bridge 취향교, and had a hard time shortlisting the best pictures for this post. The first of the three pictures is my personal favourite.
The mister was rather tired from holding the selfie stick the whole day, hence could no longer hold his hand steady when he pressed the button to activate the shutter. We ended up with a nice, but slightly blurred wefie of us in front of Hyangwonjeong Pavilion and Chwihyanggyo Bridge. 😆
We chose not to visit the Folk Museum, and hence could only admire the pagoda from afar. We were contented with that. Rather tired after much walking heh.
Similarly, those dressed in hanbok got to enter Gyeongbokgung Palace for free. It looked rather fun playing dress-up for the foreigners, but I have to say that no everyone looked good in the hanbok. And it was clear some of them didn’t want to splurge on nicer-looking (therefore more expensive for rental, I reckon) hanbok. Hmmm… I’m two-minded about this, but the next time we find ourselves in Seoul in Spring or Autumn, I might just persuade the mister to play dress-up with me.
With one last look, we bid Gyeongbokgung Palace farewell at dusk while the administrative personnel starting preparing for the last night event of the year.