While I had visited some pretty spectacular palaces in my traveling career-the Alhambra in Spain, Versailles in France-nothing would prepare me for the sheer spectacle of an Asian palace. For centuries, history has pointed out the differences between East and West. The architecture and look of a palace is no exception. However, there is one universal similarity between Western and Eastern cultures-palaces are always big.
Changdeokgung Palace was one of the first sights I saw in Seoul. I had arrived in the capital city on a Friday evening and was still in a mind-numbing jet lag blur for basically all of Sunday. While classes were held Monday through Friday in my study abroad program, thankfully the very first day of classes was a half day-the afternoon was spent in the city that was my temporary home.
What astounded me the most about Seoul was that you had buildings almost a thousand years old located right next to 20th century skyscrapers. One of my favorite pictures from South Korea is of me looking out onto Seoul from inside the walls of Changdeokgung-directly before you stands a structure where countless historical events have unfolded but then just outside of those walls lies modernity, a modernity that only came about due to a devastating conflict (the Korean War).
Changdeokgung was also where I had my first visual experiences with the Korean culture. Just as there is a Changing of the Guard with European monarchies, the same is done at Changdeokgung. Instead of ridiculously tall black headwear, there was simple attire being worn but equally worthy marching. Oh, and there were beautifully bright colors too. I know that before I traveled to Korea, I never thought it would be a country full of color and yet it was. No, it has nothing to the degree of what I’m sure is found in Southeast Asia, yet shades of reds, greens, and golds existed too. (I’m not sure what happened to it but there was a terrific picture of me alongside a Korean guard (and just like at Buckingham Palace, this guard wasn’t smiling.)
Today there is no monarchy in Korea but for thousands of years there was. (For reference, Korean monarchies were actually known as a Dynasty, as in the Joseon Dynasty.) Changdeokgung is one of the “Five Grand Palaces” built by the kings of the Koseon Dynasty who ruled Korea for five centuries. Historians note that it was also the most favored palace of the numerous Joseon princes and used many elements from the Three Kingdoms of Korea period that were not incorporated into some of the more modern palaces. One example of this is that the buildings of Changdeokgung blend with the natural topography of the site instead of standing out. However, sadly, it and the other “Five Grand Palaces in Seoul” were heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation of Korea, a period that lasted from 1910 to 1945. It’s believed that only 30% of the pre-occupation structures survive.
Although numerous buildings comprise Changdeokgung, the Huwon was my favorite part. Huwon is also referred to as a rear garden and includes a lotus pond, pavilions, and landscapes of lawns, trees and flowers. It was originally constructed for the use of the royal family and palace women. If you’ve ever visited an Asian city you know that tranquil oases are generally nonexistent. However, the Huwon definitely disputes that notion. I visited numerous other sites like this in the rest of the country but they were located in more remote areas. Here was one located right in the heart of a city and to me that was just amazing.
Unlike in Europe where cathedrals and even palaces tend to blur together after you’ve seen a lot, this wasn’t the case for me in Korea. I would go on to visit numerous other palaces, yet they all seemed different. To this Westerner, they were all awe inspiring in their own ways.