Arguably, among the most prominent locations of the South Korean capital, is Gyeonbokgung (경복궁) – a palatial complex of elaborate buildings surrounded by tall walls and set against a backdrop of majestic mountains (3,000 Won to enter, closed on Tuesdays). The tongue twisting name, which took me a while to remember, translates as “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”.
‘Blessed by Heaven’ it wasn’t, for during its life (circa 14th century) it saw many damaging fires and hostile demolitions, followed by long periods of existence in the form of ruins. Now that South Korea is no longer having ‘a beef’ with Japan (who were the primary vagabonds responsible for the mishaps), they have taken on a 40 year project to rebuild and restore Gyeonbokgung to its former glory.
Gyeonbokgung is located at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, in the vicinity of other, equally challenging to name palaces – Changdeokgung, Deoksugung and Kyonghuigung.
The broad, multi-lane avenue leading to the Palace carries the name of King Sejong, whose statue is prominently erected in the pedestrian zone before the main gate (Gwanghwamun).
King Sejong is famous for gracing the front of the 10,000 Won bill, as well as laying the foundation for Hangul – the Korean writing system. Hangul replaced the overly complex Hanja (Chinese writing system), which took years to study and was not accessible to the average citizens.
Until this trip, I ignorantly thought that the Korean alphabet, similar to the Chinese, is made up of countless characters. It turns out, Hangul is a true alphabet, consisting of only 24 letters, which are not written sequentially, but in blocks of ‘characters’, each of which can be made up of 2 to 5 letters. My friend D. showed us how to text-message in Korean – the phone would automatically guess the configuration of the ‘block’ being typed up and would group the letters accordingly.King Sejong’s statue shares the spotlight with the statue of Admiral Yu Sun-Shin (a notable Korean naval commander) erected in the middle of an open fountain area. I have heard that in warmer weather the fountain becomes a favorite pastime for the kids of Seoul, but at the time of our visit, there wasn’t much action going on there. The fountain is beautifully lit up at night.
Gyeonbokgung is #1 on TIME Magazine’s list of Seoul’s top 10 things to do in Seoul. Naturally, after we passed through the main gate (Gwanghwamun… I am giving a dollar to everyone who can pronounce the name right on a first try ) we were hit with a hive of activity; the area is vast but there were a lot of people strolling around looking to explore every nook and cranny.A series of inner-palace gates (Heungnyemun and Geungjeongmun) lead to one of the key buildings inside the palace – the Throne Hall (Geungjeongjeon, 근정전). Perched atop a stone stairway, it added a level of difficulty to visitors such as ourselves, who had a stroller and a baby in tow.
Starting from the next courtyard the palace grounds appeared to be much less densely populated. The picturesque Hwangwonjeong (meaning ‘Pavilion of far reaching fragrance’) provided a fantastic background for the few family portraits we ended up taking. The park-like area was beautiful and surprisingly tranquil, considering its location within Seoul’s most visited attraction.Similar to what you may witness on a summer day in New York’s Central Park, one of the larger lawns were studded with people sitting/laying/playing and relaxing on the grass.Astronomical summer wasn’t officially over, but fall colors were already finding their way in the tree leaves palette.
On several occurrences, we were coming across girls dressed in hanbok and I, later, found out that there was a corner in front of the Gyeonghoeru pavillion where one can try on the vibrant (but quite unflattering) Korean national costume for free. There is a wait time of an hour or so, depending on how many fashionisto/as are looking for entertainment on that day.The ‘Changing of the Royal Guards’ ceremony is another catchy attraction geared specifically at the tourists. As implied by the frequency (daily, from 10am to 3pm, on the hour), it’s only a re-enactment of the original ritual that used to be performed by the royal guards of the Joseon Dynasty (1392~1910). They were divided into day and night shifts, and this ceremony was taking place whenever the shifts changed over.The guards were wearing elaborate uniforms and carrying traditional weapons and playing different kinds of instruments. Some were also wearing fake mustaches and beards for more imposing looks.The ceremony lasts about 15 minutes and is very entertaining to watch.