Friday, September 4, 2015

Suwon Hwaseong Fortress: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

It was a Sunday and after a whole week of traveling, I really wanted to sleep in that day. However, despite being tired, I still managed to wake up at 6am and couldn't get back to sleep. At 7am, I gave up, rolled off my bed, made breakfast, and got ready for a day trip to Suwon, a city located south of Seoul.

The reason I wanted to go to Suwon is the Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I do not know anyone in particular who has visited the fortress before. I have a lot of Facebook friends who share photos of their travels to South Korea but I have never heard of anyone who went there, which makes me even more intrigued.

It only took around an hour by subway. I got to Suwon station around lunch time and I found a food court there so I decided to eat first.

The food court was crowded as it was a Sunday. It was really fun looking around and I couldn't decide what to get! Also, the desserts are a treat, not just for the tummy but for the eyes as well.

Sadly, I couldn't find any seats elsewhere so I ended up in a conveyor belt sushi bar. Japanese food in Korea, I know, I know. It was very good, nonetheless.

From the station, I went to the bus stop and took the bus to the Paldalmun Gate. There are a number of buses that you can take: 2, 7, 7-2, 8, and 13.

When I got off the bus, I got quite lost because it seemed that the Paldalmun Gate is right in the middle of a roundabout and there seemed to be no access and no people there! 

After asking for directions, I ended up walking to the Hwaseong Haengung (a palace inside the fortress). There were sooooo many people as, apparently, there's a festival that day.

Despite being intrigued by the festival, I didn't want to join the crowd in that heat. I found a tourist information center and asked where the Paldalmun Gate was. Apparently, it was on the opposite side of the roundabout where I got off the bus. I walked there and found this:

I was like, "Seriously??" (You can't even see the top of the fortress in the picture but it goes all the way up to the edge of the trees.) It was already a week of going up a mountain in Gyeongju and walking around the steep slopes of Busan and Seoul... I guess I could handle it. Besides, there were people doing it so why not me.

It. Was. So. High. I don't even know how high I ascended. The steps were very steep too! I was proud of myself when I reached the top hehe.

Thankfully, there's not much people at the walls of the fortress. There's also supposedly an admission fee but it was free that day because of the festival.

The views from the walls were fantastic. There are also buildings where people can rest.

The walk along the walls was a little more convenient because it's no longer very hot and the path gently slopes down. Eventually, I arrived at the next gate, Hwaseomun. From there, I was wondering whether to continue walking the walls or to go down and go back to Seoul. I figured, everything would be pretty much the same from there and I was quite tired already. I went down the gate, walked towards the bus stop and then went back to Seoul.

At the Hwaseomun Gare

If you ever travel to Seoul, I suggest going to Suwon as well since it's just an hour's subway ride away. Instead of going up at Paldalmun (where the ascent is very steep and then you slowly descend as you walk along the path), I think you can choose another gate like Hwaseomun where you ascend along the path gently and then get down at Paldalmun. Either way, make sure you're physically fit and you've got strong legs!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Gyeongbokgung in Seoul, South Korea

Ah Gyeongbokgung. It's the largest and, I think, the most famous palace in Seoul.

I was lucky to be in Seoul in October, when they held the Cheobjong or the Palace Guard Inspection Ceremony in place of the usual Royal Guard Changing Ceremony. Palace Guard Inspection by the king meant that the guards would have to show their fighting skills in order to prove to the king that they can defend him and his palace.

I think it started at 1pm but I was a little late. I arrived at 1:15pm. It was very interesting to watch! There's an English voice-over so people are not clueless as to what's happening.

At 1:30pm, the ceremony ended and the whole company lined up and went inside the palace. People can walk alongside the king's palanquin (which I did)!

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy my time in Gyeongbukgung very much for the following reasons:
  1. It was really hot and sunny that afternoon.
  2. There were soooooo many people. At that time, I had developed an aversion towards crowds due to the nature of my work. Big crowds stress me out (yes, even until now, lol). A middle-aged female tourist particularly stood out as she was endlessly taking selfies with her selfie stick with the volume of her phone at the highest setting! I could hear the shutter sounds even from 20 meters away and despite the noisy crowd, I swear!
  3. I lost my Ray-Ban aviators. It's not the first too! It was really stressful trying to retrace my steps to find it. In the end, I didn't find it. It wanted to stay in South Korea, apparently. Aside from the fact that it's expensive, it was difficult not having my sunglasses in that afternoon heat.

I tried to take a photo of the interiors of the main throne hall but failed miserably because people kept pushing me. There were so many rude tourists there, seriously. That's why instead of exploring the huge palace grounds, I just took a few photos and then went back to Anguk Station to visit Bukchon Hanok Village.

To be honest, Gyeongbukgung is very beautiful. I especially love the mountainous backdrop of the palace. However, I recommend going there early in order to avoid the crowds which may spoil the experience. Try not to miss the ceremonies, though!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Changdeokgung in Seoul, South Korea

From Changgyeonggung, I walked to the adjacent palace, Changdeokgung. After paying the KRW2,000 admission fee, I inquired about the Huwon (Secret Garden) tour. Before coming to South Korea, I had read about Huwon inside Changdeokgung, which can only be entered through the palace's organized tour. I was curious about it and since it's only KRW5,000, I went for it.

I was in Changdeokgung at 10am and the Huwon tour wasn't starting until 10:30am so I went around the palace grounds first.

Well... actually, I bought postcards at the souvenir shops first before going around, lol.

I found that Changdeokgung didn't gather my interest very much because I had been to Changgyeonggung already. In the end, all palaces would look the same to me since I do not know much about them. At 10:30am, I proceeded to the Huwon entrance, which is located near the gate adjoining Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung (also the gate from where I entered).

As the tour guide introduced himself and gave a briefing, I overheard a lady telling her friend, "I can't remember the last time I went on an organized tour". What she said got me thinking about when was the last time I went on an organized tour too haha. It's probably in 2009, when my family went to Macau for a day trip from Hong Kong.

I did enjoy this organized tour. It was informative although it would seem a bit rushed (as all organized tours are) if you want to take a lot of photos. 

Some people, however, preferred to be left behind to take photos. That's quite alright except I wanted to listen to the tour guide. Also, I didn't want to get lost haha. It's a really big place and the only people inside are the ones doing the tour!

It was also tiring because Huwon is very big and there are a lot of slopes (typical Seoul)! The tour guide even said that he has lost a lot of weight after he took the job lol.

The tour lasted 1.5 hours and while I could have explored Changdeokgung more, I was really hungry and besides, I have had my fill of palaces already. I took the other exit (Donhwamun), turned right and walked straight until I reached Anguk Station. Outside the station, I found a small restaurant where I had a bibimbap for KRW5,000. Great way to finish a tiring morning!

Seriously, I cannot emphasize how much I love Korean food. I love balanced meals (one with meat, vegetables, and starch) and Korean food is exactly that. I love kimchi. I love spicy food. Darn it, now I'm hungry.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Changgyeonggung in Seoul, South Korea

On my second day in Seoul, I woke up early and took the subway to Hyehwa Station.

With the help of the station map, I walked from the subway station towards Changgyeonggung (Palace). It was quite a long walk but it was manageable. 

I paid the KRW1,000 admission fee and then just immersed myself in the palace environment.

I really enjoyed my time in Changgyeonggung because there are many buildings to explore and there are very few people around. (I dunno if it was because it's still pretty early or because Changgyeonggung is not as famous as the other palaces like Gyeongbukgung.) To be honest, it was my favorite palace among the three I visited. (The other two were Changdeokgung and Gyeongbukgung.)

My favorite spot in the palace is this building shown below. It would have been a really great spot to read and chill because it's quiet. Plus, I love wooden floors! Also, no shoes allowed inside so it's alright to sit or even roll around lol.

After a couple hours of walking and taking photos with the tripod, I went to the back of the palace where I discovered that there's an entrance gate for Changdeokgung (another palace which happened to be my next destination). Pretty convenient, no? I will write about Changdeokgung next!