Palace adventures in Seoul: Super tiring but totally worth it

The CHANGYEONGGUNG. The East Palace is one of the smaller palaces in Seoul but still holds rich history which dates back to the 1400s.

When I visited Seoul with my family last week, I was completely blown away by the Koreans’ obvious love for their culture and heritage. This could not have been more clearly illustrated than in their preservation of five great palaces that were the sites of a major part of their history.

Of the five palaces, we managed to visit two — the Changyeonggung, which is referred to as the East palace because of its location and Changdeokgung, or the Palace of Prospering Virtue.

A TRIP THROUGH HISTORY. Palaces pepper the compound of the Changgyeonggung which are closed off to the public. (Tyrone Chui)

When visiting palaces, it is advisable to go in the morning to get enough time to appreciate the experience. After all, it is not everyday that one gets to visit the actual area where kings, princes, noblemen and princesses once walked. Our visit to the Changyeonggung was considerably shorter because of the lateness of the hour we arrived (visitors are only allowed entry until 4pm) but it was nevertheless a fascinating trip because we were able to walk along the palace grounds at our own pace guided only by a map with details about the significant locations of the palace — the Honghwamun main gate which was destroyed by the Japanese invasion in 1484 and rebuilt in the 1600s, the symbolic entryway to the Palace called the Okcheongyo Bridge and the Myeongjeongjeon Main Hall, which was basically the only area open for viewing (but not entering). Most of the structures in the palace compound were closed to the public and unfurnished but visitors can take as much pictures of the exterior as much as they want. In itself, the freedom to roam the area where kings and ministers met and made decisions about the then young country was an experience to remember. A modest fee of W1,000  is required for entrance.

The Changdeokgung, on the other hand, although just a few stops away from the first palace, is a much larger compound and boasts of being the most well preserved palace in South Korea, earning the seal as a World Heritage Site from the UNESCO in 1997. Aside from the palace, the compound also houses the Secret Garden or the Rear Garden, where the kings of the Joseon Dynasty spent their leisure hours, for meditating, fishing, boat watching, reading and for entertaining visitors close to the king. Entry to the Palace costs W3,000 while a stroll through the Garden compound will set guests back by W5,000. Guests are not allowed to wander around the compound on their own but are required to  participate in a guided tour, available in different languages at specific hours  (We signed up for the English tour at 2:30 pm). However, during the holidays, visitors are given the liberty to check out area unaided due to the volume of the guests.

THE KING"S LIBRARY. The first stop in the Secret Garden Tour is the King's Library where thousands of books were preserved and stored. Most of its contents have been moved to the national library. (Tyrone Chui)

The tour took us roughly 1 1/2 hour to complete. The tour guide was very informative and gave us a very insightful view of what life was like at the palace during the time of royals. To say that the hike around the garden was a challenge would be considered an understatement especially for unfit people such as myself whose only exercise consist of lifting a plate of rice, or pushing the remote. Not a pretty picture so let’s move on.

Anyways, despite the long trek and the obvious effort it took us to go uphill, downhill, then up again (half the time, we were getting left behind by the group), it was fascinating to learn about how old some of the structures were. In order to preserve them, the original structures were torn down piece by piece, and reassembled using the very same elements that were used to construct the structures in the first place.

According to the guide, the wood used were still very strong because the original builders already treated wood with insect treatment substances but some of the shingles had to be reassembled using a different kind of mucilage. Some touch ups to the original colors were also done to replicate its original glory in the latter part of the 1300s.

Because the royals were considered precious, they were hardly permitted to the exert themselves in any activity, and were limited to stuff that don’t require much effort such as boat watching, fishing, meditating, reading and mostly napping. There was an assortment of resting areas for the king and his family around the Secret garden compound.

YES, BOAT WATCHING. When the king wanted to relax, his subjects ordered people to take their boats along this narrow strip for the king's viewing through this fan shaped and intricately designed structure. (Tyrone Chui)
WORKS OF ART. Traditional Korean artwork are hand painted on the ceilings of the structures. (Tyrone Chui)
THE THRONE ROOM. This is where coronations and major ceremonies were held back in the day. (Tyrone Chui)
750 AND COUNTING. The oldest surviving tree in the entire Palace, this old timer is supported by iron bars to keep upright. He doesn't look like much (reminds me of Megatron somewhat) but one has to give props to the old guy for his resilience and fighting spirit. (Tyrone Chui)
THE MAIN PALACE. This Palace is roughly four times bigger than its Changyeonggung Palace. No wonder they charge three times as much for entrance. It was worth it though. (Tyrone Chui)

One of the things I may have failed to mention at the beginning is that Changdeokgung Palace was also used to shoot some of the scenes for the Korean period drama Dae Jang Geum, about the first female physician in the Palace. There is also some big ceremony scheduled at the palaces normally with guards and actors in costume during the summer and spring but since we came in the winter, it was tough on them to put on a show because of the cold. Visiting the Changdeokgung Palace was one of the most tiring tours I have been on, but the insights I got from the informative tour was very well worth the effort. Now if only we could have caught up with the rest of our group, it would’ve been more awesome.

FALLING BEHIND THE PACK. At the foreground is my brother's girlfriend Aileen, while the two small figures up front are me and my mom. As you can see, the last of the group is way ahead of us. Talk about slow.(Tyrone Chui)