When fresh, young travelers think about backpacking adventures in Asia over the last 20 or so years, places in the Mekong Delta, like Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia are usually the first that come to mind. Many also fantasize about visiting the Great Wall of China or the hyper-technologized streets of Japan. I’m sure you can all guess where I’m going with this, but let me just say it: Korea is an overwhelmingly fruitful place to travel, backpack, and fulfill your orientalist fantasies. There’s a lot to see…in case you haven’t been basseningyourseatbelt for the last 6 months.
I’m proud to say that in the last 6 months (yes, I’ve actually been here for half a year, time flies when you’re teaching ESL) I’ve been to 4 out of the 9 Korean provinces, and have had great travel experiences in all. I went skiing at the Yong Pyong Ski Resort, hiked Seoraksan at the height of autumnal beauty, hiked beautiful Mt. Gangcheon in Jeollabuk-do and attended a gochujang festival, and I can now say that I’ve visited some of Korea’s oldest, most historic sites in Gyeongju.
This small-to-mid-size city is located in the southwest province of Gyeongsangbuk-do, and is one of the best places to get a taste of ancient Korean history and ssambap, a meal with lettuce, rice, and tons of banchan (side dishes – more on that later). If you tell any Korean you are visiting Gyeongju, a big smile is bound to spread across his or her face, excited that you are eager to learn about their deep-rooted past and will be exposed to some sights that are so uniquely Korean. This peninsula has endured so much hardship over the last few centuries, and its people are proud of the ancient kingdoms that flourished here for hundreds of years.
Gyeongju is the site of one of the old capitals during the Shilla dynasty (57 BC -935 AD) and houses dozens (maybe hundreds? SO MANY!) of massive tombs for dead kings and queens. I visited about 3 different tomb parks, but there are tons scattered throughout the city. These tombs were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Massive, grass-covered mounds protruding from the earth that are situated together in tranquil parks, these tombs are slightly reminiscent of Egyptian pyramids. Although a whole lot smaller, they contained thousands of treasures, like the pyramids, that are now mostly housed in the Gyeongju National Museum, which I also visited. The concept of visiting ancient tombs sounded, to me at least, depressing and uneventful–a walk through a graveyard doesn’t generally rank too highly on my list. But the quiet, label-free, unassuming mounds are actually somewhat inviting and create a feeling of calm. Surrounded by the tombs I felt at ease and thoughtful; walking amongst the tombs in Gyeongju feels more like a walk in the park than tiptoeing around a cemetery.
The highlight of my Gyeongju stint was seeing Anapji Pond at night. A sight where thousands of underwater artifacts and relics from the Silla dynasty have been discovered, the pond sits in the middle of a cute little park and is lined with 3 colorful, Korean-style pavilions. Seeing this place at night was especially beautiful, because the lit-up pavilions are reflected in the pond and make for one of the most aesthetically pleasing sites I’ve ever seen. No joke. I’ve been aesthetically pleased before, and this place was pretty damn pretty.
Gyeongju is home to the largest Buddhist temple in Korea, Bulguksa, a multi-leveled, massive complex of smaller and bigger pavilions, and is still in use today. Each pavilion contained its own statues, art, and prayer space and I watched some tourists pop into the temple rooms to participate in the prayer services. Lots of bowing formulations, while a leader-type monk chanted from a set of prayers. Definitely cool to walk around this temple complex, especially after having seen different types of Buddhist temples in Malaysia and the Philippines.
A little hike up the mountain from Bulguksa led me to Seokguram, another tomb which also has a sacred temple in front of it, and houses a massive, old Buddha statue. So different and strange, I couldn’t stop taking pictures – unlike anything I’ve ever seen! I love the way that religion, history, and nature are so intertwined in Korea.
If you’re going to Gyeongju, lookup Nahbi Guest House – I stayed at this awesome, friendly backpackers hostel and highly recommend it! Even made some friends :)