Seoul: a walk through Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok

When in Seoul, an obligatory part of your visit as a first-timer, should be the traditional village of Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok, the old Korean Royal Palace. With the majestic background of the Bukhansan mountain, this palace is in a magnificent position. The Blue House, the presidential palace is also located in the same area, in what is considered as “auspicious” grounds. The position of the palaces is also favorable in Feng Shui terms (back to the mountain). Bukchon Hanok, by contrast is an area of Seoul which retained its traditional architecture houses and hence offers a glimpse into traditional Korea.

Bukchon Hanok, a place for selfies

With its traditional buildings still inhabited by locals and by local businesses, Bukchon Hanok is a perfect location for selfies. Inhabitants are kind, welcoming and gentle and take a great care of their environment.

Bukchon Hanok and flowers
A side street of Bukchon Hanok with lovely flowers

In fact, the area itself is absolutely lovely and can be the object of nice pictures across the board.

Bike in Bukchon Hanok
A bike rests against a wall in Bukchon Hanok

Riding the wave, a number of businesses rent out the Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for tourists.

Obviously, it is only Asian tourists who give into this mania, Westerners would be far less credible… But still, some pretty Japanese girls love to dress up, a bit like foreigners do in Japan with kimonos.

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With its quiet areas and lovely settings, Bukchon Hanok is an ideal place for intemporal pictures. Some details betray the girls trying to play the game, though, like the shoes… Or posing next to a very modern plastic radish!

The Blue House

On one end, Gyeongbok heads towards a gigantic avenue of Seoul, Saejong-daero where is located the US embassy. On the other end, it faces the Korean presidential palace, the famous “Blue House”. With its back to the Bukhasan mountain, the setting is quite majestic and throws back to the former royal palace built on the same area.

Blue House in Seoul
The Korean “Blue House”, the presidential palace of the South Korean president.

Of course, security is tight in that area, as back in 1968, North Korean agents had attempted to kill the Korean President by infiltrating commandos at the Blue House. However, the touristic nature of the area and the sheer beauty of the surroundings is absolutely not comparable to the tension that can be felt in France, for example.

A rebuilt palace

Gyeongbok was built originally in 1395, under the Joseon dynasty. Abandoned a first time in the 1500s, after a fire, it was rebuilt in the XIXth century. On that occasion, it drew its inspiration from the traditional Korean architecture used in the original palace.

In the beginning of the XXth century, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they undertook the destruction of Gyeongbok, as it was a symbol of the independence of Korea.

As a consequence, the current Gyeongbok is a reconstruction of the original palace from its ruins. Despite this sad fact, the reconstruction did a good job of showcasing the traditional Korean architecture that you can already glimpse in the Bukchon Hanok area.

Hyojagak building
A building called “Hyojagak” and its gate, erected to protect a special stone for a son of a Korean King

The gardens are very peaceful, despite the huge number of tourists.

To the right, you can see the main 5-level pagoda before which many tourists have their picture taken.

Main pagoda
The main pagoda of Gyeongbok

A very complex and photogenic palace

As you delve into the various alleys of the palace, you realize that the sprawling complex was almost a small city in its own. A whole area is devoted to the royal harem (and the paradox is that many female tourists love to have their picture taken there).

Picture in the concubine area
A young Asian tourist in Hanbok has her picture taken in the concubine area.

The most interesting was to see the food storage area. Apparently, the builders of the palace used a natural slope to  move food from the jars in the storage area to the palace itself. This complexity and the intricacy of the development give you a small hint of how developed the Koreans were in their golden age.

Central throne hall
The central throne hall of Gyeongbok

A fusion of history and modernity

The view around Gyeongbok is mostly free, especially towards the mountain. When you turn towards Saejong-daero, however, the nature of the view changes. It is a moment where you realize that Korea is also a place where history and modernity are intimately linked. The modern buildings towering above the gates of Gyeongbok announce a return to the bustle of Seoul before you even set your foot outside.

Gyeongbok history and modernity
Gyeongbok gate seen on the side facing Saejong-daero

Another interesting shot on that side are the guards standing watch at the gate. However, the difficult part is managing to snap a shot without tourists standing by their side.

Guard Gyeongbok
The guards of Gyeongbok are a must shoot with their traditional costume, if you manage to catch a moment without tourist by their side.

When returning to modernity, I came across a memorial for the victims of the Saewol disaster, but I will talk about it in another post.

How to get there

When visiting the area Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok are easily combined. Most people start their tour through Gyeongbok as it is on the main Saejong-Daero avenue. My choice was rather to start walking through Bukchon Hanok, then moving to Gyeongbok. It is a lovely transition, especially if you go there in the morning. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to capture girls in Hanbok and relatively empty streets. It is difficult to give instructions on how to get there, but there is no train station or bus stop within Bukchon Hanok, so it will always involve a short walk to get there.

 

Mid-Autumn Festival in Shatin Park

As yesterday was a full moon day, it was also the occasion of heading to the New Territories to see the mid-autumn festival activities.

In this case, I headed to see the mid-autumn festival in Shatin Park.

Shatin being a relatively new development on the outskirts of Hong Kong has a quite young population. At the same time, there are long-standing traditions in the local population which make it an interesting place to visit out of the city.

The moon

Obviously, it would not be a mid-autumn festival without the moon. As the sky was clear I managed to see a full-moon and even to take a picture of it.

Full moon
The full moon as seen from Shatin Park on 5th October

Somehow, we were lucky, as this moon was not visible in some areas of the new territories.

Attractions

The animations at Shatin Park were of two natures for this mid-autumn festival. Firstly, there was a number of stands with traditional activities, ranging from calligraphy on fans to hakka embroidery. For those who don’t know, the Hakka are a major component of Chinese immigration abroad, a population originally from the areas near the Yellow river.

But the most attractive stands were probably those where you could have a calligraphist writing your name in Chinese on a fan.

Calligraphist
A calligraphist writes a name on a fan while a long queue of people awaits for their turn.
Details of calligraphy
Details of the calligraphy

Other similar activities were the art of painting on snuff bottles.

Snuff bottles
Snuff bottles painter

Traditional Chinese Shows

Another component of the mid-autumn festival in Shatin Park was the showcasing of traditional mandarin shows. This brought up some question by hongkongese as the performers were exclusively from mainland… A way by the government probably of fostering an increased cultural integration of Hong Kong with the mainland?

Singer
Traditional mandarin singer

Acrobatics took another part in the show, pretty much typical of mainland China for the degree of mastery which the performers showed.

Acrobatics
An acrobatic performer performs in Shatin

But however, the most appreciated show was probably the umbrella dancers who were extremely graceful and artistically irreproachable.

Umbrella dancers in Shatin Park
Umbrella dancers in Shatin

 

Finally, I also filmed a periscope of the whole show which you can watch here:

 

Where was this?

In the little city of Shatin. You must take the MTR East Line to get there.

Ekkarat drum manufacturing village in Thailand: a unique experience

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In a previous post, I talked about Wat Sanam Chai, in the province of Suphanburi. When you are there or in Ayutthaya, it does not take much time, to go to Ekkarat drum manufacturing village.

This village is unique in that there are a number of traditional drum-making craft shops which still go on making drums while you visit. An excellent visit outside of the beaten tracks.

These drums are mainly used in temples or for religious occasions and the local craftsmen are proud to let you see the whole drum-making process.

A survival of an ancient tradecraft

While not very known, it is rare nowadays to still see a traditional craft being performed at various stages of development. During my visit in Ekkarat, back in 2016, I was able to see all the stages of a drum making (ok, not the finition).

The start: stretching a hide

It all starts with the hide. A large cow hide is stretched on a portico, to let it dry as well as to extend it to its maximum size. If you are lucky, you will see such a hide hung outside to dry.

It all starts with a single leather hide of a cow which is extended and left out to dry like this.

Obviously, the drum membrane is both thin and dry to give the best sound. ISome smaller parts may be further left to dry for the small drums.

Small leather membranes for the smaller drums

The central part of the drum: a tree trunk

While the hide for covering the drum is stretched and extended, the wooden body of the drum is prepared. For the bigger size drums, they use the whole trunk of a tree, which is then hollowed in a single piece on a machine as you can see in this picture.

It all starts with taking a single tree trunk and hollowing it on this machine.

After the trunk takes its final shape, it is further polished by hand.

A lady polishes one of the elongated drums by hand.

Stretching the membrane

The next important stage is stretching the membrane over the drum and leaving it in that position for some time, in order to avoid the hide retracting once the drum is complete. To do that, the drum-makers use metallic contraptions to stretch the hide across and pull it downward.

Another important step is pulling the leather hide across the wood.

Once this is done, the drum is left to rest for a few days to let the materials take their final form.

This drum’s membrane has been stretched and is left to rest.

You can see below a short video filmed in Ekkarat in the same shop where these pictures were taken.

The final product

Obviously, walking you through each step of the process would be meaningless, if you did not have a glimpse to some of the finished products. Once the drum is completed, it is painted and the membrane is sometimes decorated as well. This drum is huge, basically man-size, so you have an idea of the tree trunk that was used to manufacture it.

At the end, once completed and decorated a ceremonial drum looks like this.

In short, if you want to see a glimpse of traditional Thailand, do not miss Ekkarat, it is a worthwhile visit when you are near Ayutthaya or Suphanburi.

How to get there?

Ah, now that is the painful part. Getting to Ekkarat drum manufacturing village is as difficult as getting to Suphanburi, in fact. Given that the village is halfway between Suphanburi and Ayutthaya, it might be worth hitting it as a mid-point visit between the two cities. To the best of my knowledge, there is no public transportation that takes you straight from Bangkok to Ekkarat, so the best choice is still a private car or a tour visiting that place. You will find below the google maps location to help you.

Bonus

Finally before leaving, let me introduce you to a video filmed by students showing the visit of the village. If you understand some Thai, you might understand the exchanges going on.