South Korea’s Lego Town and Silla’s Ancient Capital

Busan & Gyeongju, South Korea – November 2017

I went on a three week trip through Japan & South Korea with my friend Jeremy a couple of years ago. We spent the first half of the last week in Seoul with an excursion to the DMZ (demilitarised zone), then moved south to the seaside city of Busan for the last stop on our self-planned tour.

Busan is the second largest city in South Korea (after Seoul) and is situated on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Known for its beaches and Buddhist temples, Busan has a more laid-back vibe than Seoul, but is still a modern and bustling metropolis (at least by Aussie standards). It hosts the prestigious Busan International Film Festival and was a featured location in the movie Black Panther (I read somewhere the producers had planned to shoot in Singapore but a typhoon forced them to choose another site).

All we really had time for on the day we arrived was a visit to Haeundae, Busan’s famous beach. We ended the day with Korean fried chicken and beer (a meal which featured repeatedly throughout the Korean leg of the trip, because who doesn’t love fried chicken?).

One of the things all the guidebooks suggested doing in Busan was a visit to the slightly awkwardly named Gamcheon Culture Village. Gamcheon-dong is a neighborhood in Saha-gu, one of the 15 districts that make up Busan. The village sprawls across the sides of two hills and the valley between, facing the sea. It is known for its brightly painted colourful houses and steep winding streets, with narrow staircases stretching up and down the hillsides. Presumably because of this topography, the village has been given several somewhat aspirational labels in various media, including the “Machu Picchu of Busan” and the “Santorini on the South Sea”. (As well as the mildly less grandiose “Lego Village”.)

Originally one of Busan’s poorest shanty towns (slum, ghetto – take your pick), Gamcheon was settled by refugees fleeing the advancing North Korean forces during the Korean War in the 1950s, including many followers of a religion called Taegukdo (Gamcheon is still called Taegukdo Village by some). Most of South Korea fell to the North; the area around Busan was the only part of the peninsula not captured (the Pusan Perimeter – Pusan being the old name for Busan, like Peking is to Beijing). Many refugees moved into the suburbs of Busan, which became the provisional capital of South Korea during the war.

It remained a poor neighbourhood for half a century. Then in 2009, the government funded the “Gamcheon Village Art Project”, aiming to transform the village into an arts district to attract tourism. (Also referred to as “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan”, but I’d like to posit here that there are hillside settlements which would be more appropriately comparable, like say, Cinque Terre.) Artists were permitted to stay rent-free in exchange for their involvement in the beautification. Houses and other buildings were fancifully restored and numerous street murals and sculptures were commissioned. Cafes and boutique stores opened throughout the area. The project was mostly completed by the end of 2010, although locals and artists continue restoring buildings, planting rooftop gardens and creating art.

The revitalisation of the area was hugely successful and Gamcheon Culture Village has become one of the most popular attractions in Busan (and South Korea), attracting nearly two million visitors every year. The project has also improved life for the villagers with a variety of free services like shuttle buses and other facilities.

The visitor centre provides a map which recommends different sightseeing routes (although it may be more fun to carve out your own route and get lost in the maze of twisting alleys). The map also highlights featured artworks, such as the creatively named “Fish Swimming Through The Alley”. Fish are a recurring theme here, which I suppose makes sense since fishing has always been an important industry for Busan, the country’s biggest port. (No visit to Busan would be complete without a visit to Jagalchi Fish Market, South Korea’s biggest. Incidentally, also featured in Black Panther.)

We set off in the direction indicated by the fish, and didn’t stray too much from the main road. A few ladies walked past dressed in hanbok (Korean traditional dress, rentable in many places such as Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul so you can pretend you’re Korean). There were some quirky shops, including one selling love-locks (a seemingly universal phenomenon – people love commemorating their love with their love-locks, evidently).

Suffice to say, this village is an Instagrammer’s dream. It’s not a stretch to say there is something to pose in front of every ten steps. The fact that the terraced hillsides overlook each other also means there are amazing viewpoints of the pastel-coloured Lego-like houses pretty much everywhere. The whole place is like the set of a Crayola commercial.

The next day we went on a day trip to the historic city of Gyeongju, less than an hour’s journey north of Busan by bus. Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla and was at one time the fourth largest city in the world, making it a relatively major player in world history that most people know next to nothing about. (Although we had read about Gyeongju while planning our trip, I had only really learned about Silla a few days prior when we visited the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.) The Silla dynasty ruled for almost a millennium from 57 BC to 935 AD. The Silla court and most of the kingdom’s elite made their home in Gyeongju. It remained the capital until the Joseon dynasty rose to power.

Nowadays many tourists make the trip from Busan to see the former imperial landmarks and some of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the Far East. (Buddhism spread to Korea from China in the 7th century AD and was adopted by the Silla kingdom.) It was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2000 and is often referred to as “the museum without walls”. Even for those who aren’t big on ancient cultures, Gyeongju makes a nice break from the bright neon lights of modern South Korea.

We visited Bulguksa Temple and the nearby Seokguram Grotto, together designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East.” This required us to take yet another bus from central Gyeongju, towards the east and up a nearby mountain.

Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple complex comprised of a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces set into the hillside. It was designed to represent the land of Buddha (Bulguksa means Temple of the Land of Buddha). Photography wasn’t permitted inside any of the buildings but the courtyards and the building exteriors were more than sufficient camera fodder.

The burst of colour in the rows upon rows of hanging lanterns was also seen all over the intricately decorated pagodas and arches and gates. We had a nice time ambling around the grounds. It might have been low season as there really weren’t that many people around.

After checking out the temple complex we decided to head to the Seokguram Grotto, a hermitage built into the hill and located east of Bulguksa Temple. The grotto is an artificial cave containing a large granite statue of Buddha as its centrepiece, and has been designated as a Korean national treasure.

And look, honestly, maybe Bulguksa Temple set the bar a little high, but the Seokguram Grotto was kind of a disappointment. It was a bit of a trek from the main temple complex to get there, although the walk wasn’t unpleasant with some nice views. When we got there though, we found a small alcove with the Buddha statue inside walled off behind glass. Perhaps if I were Buddhist or a historian it might have been more significant or impressive.

In any case, it was getting late in the day by this stage. The sun had disappeared over the other side of the mountain, and everything was dissolving into colourless shades of grey. We retreated back down to Bulguksa Temple which happened to face west, allowing us to catch a last glimpse of the sun as it set over the ancient capital.

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