Korean Palace Visit – Mixed Reactions
Yes, I know, palaces and temples might not be everyone’s bag, and they aren’t mine, really. This article will basically show you why I don’t like tourist traps one bit. As a person with foreign citizenship, Korean organizations I have been connected with (such as a University I live near) have been quite eager to show me “Korean Culture”. Usually this activity occurs when said organization rounds up a group of foreigners and takes them somewhere to show off “Traditional Korean Culture”. What that really means is that they will show me something that they think is different enough from what they perceive my home country to be, meaning culture from the Joseon Dynasty… which ended about 100 years ago. So they are trying to help non-Koreans to become more familiar with modern Korean Culture by introducing customs and activities from an antiquated period that most Koreans themselves don’t readily identify with.
Usually if possible, I decline to participate in these types of events, because I prefer to interact with people, not things. But I certainly understand the draw for short term tourists to these kinds of places. Someone who is a temporary visitor for a week or so would probably love to visit Gyeongbok Palace for a taste of Joseon Dynasty architecture and a sense that yes, even if we are in a crowded modern society where we can find the usual trappings of globalism in McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner, the city’s (reconstruction of) old buildings give it a certain flavor that makes it unique.
But honestly though, just as most New Yorkers probably have been to see the Empire State Building, it’s not something that is essential to modern New Yorker culture. Meaning, you could remove it, and New York would still be New York. In comparison, removing the New York Yankees would have a HUGE impact on New Yorker culture. (I have to admit this even though I hate the Yankees!)
This is how I feel about a lot of land marks which are basically tourist traps. So, yes, Gyeongbok Palace is quite a sight to behold, but once you’ve seen it, you can basically skip 30 other cultural sites suggested by guidebooks or tourism promotion agencies.
Well, the other day, I had the fortune/misfortune of visiting both Changdeok Palace and Changgyeong Palace. I have to compare and contrast the two experiences.
The day started with a tour of Changdeok Palace. I was surprised that when I bought my ticket, I wasn’t immediately allowed inside. Instead I had to wait until the nearest 15th minute, (which for me was 15 minutes) until they let me in. I was let in with about 50 or 60 other people and there was a tour guide. As I had been here before, I thought I’d skip the tour guide and just go look at the palace by myself. Security promptly stopped my friend and me (it’s not “my friend and I” in this case, go check your grammar if you think it is). We were instructed to go back and join the group. So, we did. And for the next hour we were told what to look at, how long to look at it, when to move on. Don’t get me wrong, the palace itself is a beautiful sight to behold. But you have to behold it with 50 other people and listen to a tour guide spoon feeding you everything instead of discovering things for yourself.
After we were finished there, my friend and I decided to go have a look at Changgyeong Palace, which is actually right next door to Changdeok Palace, despite the fact that their entrances are quite far from each other. Fully expecting more of the same, I was not at all looking forward to seeing this second palace. I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s almost as if the place wasn’t made specifically to attract foreign tourists. (None of the palaces were actually made to attract tourists, but the way that Gyeongbok and Changdeok are run, you’d think that this was their only purpose.)
When you arrive in Changgyeong Palace, you will notice that it is much less crowded. Second, you’ll be amazed at how quiet it is within the palace gate! So as you relax and have a vending machine coffee with your friend, the time goes by at a seemingly slower pace, as the hustle and bustle of Seoul can be forgotten here.
First, I’d like to compare the relative freedom that we get in both palaces. In Changgyeong Palace, we are free to walk and see and touch things at our own pace. In Changdeok palace, we must stay with the group of foreign tourists, and we must listen to the guide tell us about things as if we are babies and don’t know anything about history, Korea, or even Asia in general.
Granted, a lot of the tourists in the group probably don’t know about history, Korea, or Asia in general, but being that I (think) I do, it really takes away from the experience to be ushered around like sheep and being told what we should appreciate. The beauty of an art museum is that some people like to visit it for six hours, and they can be left alone to do so. Others quickly see as much as they can within a time limit, then leave. In a guided tour, you’re on someone else’s schedule, and I really don’t like that very much at all.
Second, I’d like to compare the natural beauty. Sure Changdeok Palace is definitely beautiful. It incorporated nature into its design so much, that much of the guided tour feels like a hike through the forest. However, an important part of natural beauty is peace and quiet. The constant chatter between the tourists about “how long they are staying in Korea” or “Where’s the best place to get a drink?” or “Japan is so much better.” takes away from the inherent natural beauty, as does the constant photography, screaming children, and the tour guide’s amplified voice. Changgyeong Palace, being less popular (and thus, more quiet) than than Changdeok palace, with even more nature (including a large lake and a greenhouse), is by far the better option. I spent about 1 hour in Changdeok Palace following the tour. I spent 3 hours in the smaller Changgyeong palace taking my time and chatting with my friend.
Now, I have to admit, I am perhaps not being fair. I’m not a tourist, so perhaps I can’t understand things from the point of view of a person who is temporarily visiting Seoul. Sure, that’s probably true, but even in places I visit, I don’t like guided tours of anything. I understand that at times these are necessary (such as touring a maze-like, dimly lit cavern). I appreciate suggestions, but I don’t at all enjoy being told what I should look at and why I should appreciate it. I am aware that on Thursdays, Changdeok Palace actually has a self tour day, so perhaps I would have liked it better had I visited it on a Thursday instead.