The Seoul of Korea: Day 2 – Gyeongbokgung (Palace of Shining Happiness), Namdaemun Market, Namsan Summit, N Seoul Tower, Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral & Hongik University District

After our rowdy night the day before, what with all the hotel-toilet-crashing and bashing-into-lamp-posts (plural), we were all understandably shagged to the max. Tried to sleep in late, but the workers upstairs turned up for work right on time, and at 8 a.m. sharp the drilling, knocking and smashing began. It was impossible to sleep, hence I roused Shafik and Cheryl so that we can begin our day early.

On the way to Gyeongbokgung

Our first destination of the day was within walking distance from Beewon, right smack in between Jongno-san (3) Ga station and Anguk station. The early morning walk was really refreshing, and soon we found the palace… but first thing first – we need to feed our stomach!

Breakfast @ Lime Tree, near Gyeongbokgung

The Lime Tree Cafe & Deli was a quaint, atmospheric eatery serving your typical Western food fare. The food was nice, but what really attracted us was the internal deco. The owner really put in a lot of thoughts into setting up a place like that. When I have my own book cafe, I would want it to be like that!

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

Right after breakfast, we went over to Gyeongbokgung, the must-see tourist destination in Seoul. And rightly so – we were sharing the entire palace with an unbelievable number of shrieking children, apparently on school trips there. There were also hundreds of men in uniform – the Royal Naval Academy of Thailand was out in full force as well. Understandbly, Gyeongbokgung was packed to the max.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

Why so? The Palace of Shining Happiness was originally built by King Tajeo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, and is the grandest of Seoul palaces served as the principal palace until 1592, when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasions. It lay in ruins for nearly 300 years until Heungseon Daewongun, regent and father of King Gojong, started to rebuild it in 1865. King Gojong moved in during 1868, but the expensive rebuilding project nearly bankrupted the government.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

Two of the grandest architectural sights in Seoul are here. The first is the two-storey, ornate Geunjeongjeon, the main palace buildings where kings were crowned, met foreign envoys and conducted affairs of state. It is best viewed from the imposing second entrance gate, Heungnyemun, which is guarded by soldiers in Joseon uniform With its double-tiered stone platform, flagstone courtyard and surrounding open-sided corridors, Geunjeongjeon is an impressive sight.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

To the left is Gyeonghoeru, a large raised pavilion resting on 48 stone pillars and overlooking an artificial lake with two small islands, which is almost as grand a scene. State banquets were held inside.

The Changing of Guard Ceremony @ Gyeongbokgung

Just as we arrived at the palace, the changing of guard ceremony kicked off! We were lucky to be able to catch the colourful ceremony, complete with traditional Korean music, march past of guards in colourful costumes, flag bearers, ancient weapons… you get the drift. Here’s a video of the event.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

One of the best thing about this palace was that they allow you to don a set of traditional Korean costume and take photos… for free! They even have assistants whom will help you to wear the costume correctly! The only catch was that, you must wear the whole set and not just parts of it. I reckon it was out of respects for the Korean culture.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

The costume was huge and “flowy”, and being the klutz I was, I managed to trip myself at least half a dozen time walking around the palace to take photos. Shafik and Cheryl were game enough to wait for me to try this out, and to take photos for me. Thanks, guys! :)

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

A word about the Cherry Blossom Season in Korea. During the season, sakura flowers across Korea and Japan will bloom in unison. A riot of colour of colours engulf the cities, including Seoul, providing excellent photography opportunities. The whole season lasts a little more than a week every year, usually during early April. When I booked for the trip, I have never heard of this, and it was by pure coincident that the three of us visited Seoul during the peak of the bloom, so to speak. We took plenty of photos of blooming Sakura everywhere we went!

At Namdaemun Market

After an exhausting morning at the palace, we took a cab to the Namdaemun Market, which was located at the Myeung-dong district. This huge night-and-day market dates back to the 15th century and has thousands of shops and stalls selling food, ginseng, dried seaweed, clothes, shoes, hiking gear, watches, handicrafts, spectacles and contact lenses. Food stalls offer cheap meals for the adventurous, including octopus and tteokbokki (pressed rice cakes and veggies in a spicy sauce).

At Namdaemun Market

Despite what the Lonely Planet said about this market, to me, Namdaemun Market was nothing more than a cleaner, more organised version of Chatuchak (the famous market in Bangkok), with only half the fun shopping at the latter. We bought little more than some snack, which wasn’t that great to begin with. We also had our lunch here – mildly satisfactory. It was over lunch that I decided that, yes, I do not and could not like kimchi!

From the market, we navigated our way to the Namsan Summit, where the N Seoul Tower was located at. It was within walking distance, but not exactly very near to walk. As usual, we amused ourselves with silly antics throughout the way.

N Seoul Tower

N Seoul Tower is a communication tower located in Seoul, South Korea. Built in 1969, and opened to the public in 1980, the tower measures 236.7 m (777 ft) in height (from the base) and tops out at 479.7 m (1,574 ft) above sea level. It has also been known as the Namsan Tower or Seoul Tower. After the tower’s original owner merged with the CJ Corporation, it was renamed the N Seoul Tower (official name CJ Seoul Tower).

Namsan Cable Car

Most visitors ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain, and then walk to the tower. I don’t know about you, but I have a phobia of height. So riding on the cable car across valleys (albeit beautiful, with all the blooming flowers) was a terrifying experience. Thank goodness it was a quick ride!

Teddy Bears @ Namsan Summit

The tower features a gift shop and restaurants on the ground floor. Visitors may go up the tower for a fee. There are four observation decks (the 4th observation deck, which is the revolving restaurant, rotates at a rate of one revolution every 48 minutes), as well as gift shops and two restaurants. Most of the city of Seoul can be seen from the top.

At Teddy Bear Museum, Namsan Summit

But did you know the main attraction of this spot was a teddy bear museum? Apparently this is a spin-off from the original one at Jeju Island. But the three of us sure had a whale of time shopping at the museum shop (at which I spent most of my shopping budget) and of course the museum itself. Took a great many photos at the museum, which featured bears in various scenes throughout the history of Korea. I even made a Vlog featuring (Princess) Cheryl telling us how bears were the ones who built her *cough* castle *cough*.

By the end of our little adventure here, I was absolutely beat, and I can tell that Shafik and Cheryl were utterly exhausted too. But I was hell bent on visiting a Seoul cathedral. To me, to visit a place of Jesus-worship in a predominantly Buddhist country was truly a novelty. And there happen to be one nearby where we were.

Myeong-Dong Night Market

On the way to the said cathedral, we passed by the night market of Myeong-dong. Actually, Myeong-dong is a compact, traffic-quiet zone packed with fashion stores that attract mainly young shoppers. From here you can find many shops you could typically see in Singapore, but it was the fashionable crowd which caught my attention. I was not sure if this was the Orchard Road of Seoul, but it sure felt like it.

Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral

And so on to the cathedral. The Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral is an elegant brick Renaissance-style Cathedral was constructed between 1894 and 1898 by Chinese bricklayers. Inside, the traditional vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows contrast with the modern air-conditioning and the TV screens that help worshipers at the back see what is going on. The cathedral provided a sanctuary for student and trade-union protesters during the long period of military rule after the Korean War, and is a national symbol of democracy and human rights.

Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral

During our visit, a mass was in session, presided over by a nun. According to Cheryl, it was amazing that a weekday evening mass like this was so well attended, unlike in Singapore. I felt very disrespectful to take photos while the mass was in progress, so after a few quick snaps, I stopped. Partly because the droning voice of the nun (can a female lead a mass?) was mystical if not a bit eerie, and partly also because I saw some very interesting features in this church.

Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral

If you, like me, are a fan of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, you will know why I find at least three features of this main door interesting. I won’t go into the details out of respect for my Catholic readers, but if you would like to know what I am talking about, drop me a note.

Night @ Hongik District

Our final destination of the day was Hongik, a student-filled district because of the nearby Hongik University. After a relatively long train ride from Myeong-dong to Hongik, we immersed ourselves among hordes of students – both locals and foreigners. It was indeed a very vibrant “university town”, with fashionable students walking up and down the streets, plentiful of shops catering to the young crowd, impromptu student music group performances, youth parks complete with localised graffiti… you get the drift.

Night @ Hongik District

We had our dinner here at Whoppee (the Korean version of Pizza Hut, where I fall asleep waiting for my food – I was that tired!) before trawling the streets looking for nice places to drink. Found a basement jazz bar playing absolutely delicious classic jazz songs, with a Korean waitress who speak close-to-perfect English! After that, we spent almost an hour walking up and down the streets trying to look for another bar playing English songs, and finally settled for a second-floor place called Storm Bar.

By the end of the night, we were so beat (and me, a bit high from the endless rounds of Long Island Tea) that we took a cab back to Beewon and called it a night. I guess we all needed the rest!

Click here for the full set of photos we took for the day. My camera’s memory card somehow maxed out during our time at Gyeongbokgung, so for the rest of the day I was snapping away using Cheryl’s. Thanks, girl :)

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