The museum without walls

25 Mar

The good thing about South Korea, much like Scotland, is that  because it’s such a small country, you can travel to almost anywhere within a couple of hours. So yesterday myself, my friend Carly and her friend Katherine who was visiting from England, went to Gyeongju for that day.

Mopeds for hire in downtown Gyeongju

One of my Korean teachers told me that Gyeongju was the original capital of the ancient kingdom, and Wikipedia can confirm that it was indeed the capital during the Silla dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). The small city is also nicknamed the ‘museum without walls’ because of the huge number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from the same period…. I’ll stop now with the history lesson.

Gyeongju lies on the east coast of Korea about an hour from Daegu by bus. We arrived about 1pm in the afternoon and popped straight into tourist information at the bus station – where a very helpful English speaking Korean told us the best places to visit in the time we had, what buses to get to and from and sent us off with an English map. Efficient sightseeing – just the way I like it!

Outside the front of Bulguksa Temple

A few of the main things to see in Gyeongju are the Bulguksa Temple, the Gyeonju National Museum, the Cheomseongdae observatory (apparently it’s the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in East Asia), the Anapji royal pond garden, the Tumuli park royal tombs, the traditional Korean folk village and the teddy bear museum! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to see them all, but we did see the Bulguksa Temple and the royal tombs. But not before some lunch!

Ssam bap

My Korean teacher also told me that Gyeonju is famous for ssam map – which translates as lettuce wraps. As soon as we got off the bus at the temple we were hustled by an ajumma to come eat at some restaurant, but when I mentioned ssam bap she whisked us off in the other direction into a tiny wee ‘restaurant’ which I’m sure also doubled as the owner’s living room! This often being the case in Korea, we sat on the floor and got stuck in. Ssam bap is basically lettuce leafs used as wraps that hold rice and sauce and whatever else you want to put in it. The meal, as always, was accompanied by loads of side dishes including fish, some spicy tofu soup and pajeon (kimchi pancake) which was delicious! All three of us fed and watered, we headed for the temple.


One of two stone pagodas

The Bulguksa temple is tucked away in the hillside, and out of all of  the two temples I’ve seen so far in Korea, it was the prettiest – although I think the sunshine helped me reach this conclusion! We spent about an hour walking around the various buildings in the temple, and had a peak in some of the prayer rooms and shrines, but the most interesting bit for me was learning about the stone piles that I always see at temples and on top of hills and mountains.

Stone piles

Some of the reasons I’ve heard are that  people build the little piles outside temples to honor their departed ancestors. Another belief is that stones are believed to have special powers (this is my favourite one), and a prayer wish will be fulfilled as the rock is put on the pile. And third, I read that a visitor can add a stone to a pile or tie a piece of colored cloth to a tree branch as an offering to the local spirit – that’s what I did, and I was cheered on by a wee Korean man when I did it.

My contribution - the wee stone at the top

After we finished at the temple we went to see the royal tombs in Tumuli Park – this is where kings and important people from the ancient kingdoms are supposedly buried. There are 20 or so of these grass mound tombs all varying in size and height – up to 23 metres. Kind of like a poor mans pyramid if you like. After a walk round the tombs, we headed back to the bus station and jumped on the bus back to Daegu – overall an interesting, cheap day out – and it’s always nice to get out of the big smoke isn’t it.

My humps - the royal tombs


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