Last month I had the rare pleasure of being able to stroll the grounds of a lovely Korean palace by moonlight. Every so often, palaces open their gates to the public for a rare opportunity to view them at night. This particular tour was the 2013 Moonlight Tour at 창덕궁 (Changdeok Palace). Not only does this tour require a ₩30,000 entrance fee, but also an online registration for their 30 limited openings. Three tours are given: one in English, Japanese and Korean with 30 people in each group. I got to go with my boyfriend and his older brother who is currently visiting from Cali.
When we entered, we all received a small headset radio that was connected to our tour guide so we could all hear her clearly. I though that was super cool! In addition, each pair of people was given a lantern to help light the way. By this point I was already incredibly giddy and ready to go picture snapping happy. As we set off into the night, our tour guide began with a little history of the palace. Here is a little bit of it for you.
창덕궁 (Changdeok Palace), which translates to “prospering virtue palace,” is the second of five Joseon Dynasty palaces. It was built in 1405 as a replacement for 경복궁 (Gyeongbok Palace) which had fallen to ruins amidst the political struggle over the throne. 창덕궁 was burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasion but rebuilt in 1609 to be used as the state palace. Since that time it had been destroyed and reconstructed several times, always keeping true to its original architecture. Today 13 of the buildings remain along with 28 of the pavilions in the gardens. It may not sound like much, but spread over 110 acres of land, it is actually quite extensive.
As we trudged along, much of the surrounding environment was shrouded in darkness with only lanterns illuminating the paths. When we came across certain structures like the throne room, however, it’s beauty is beyond words. I suppose there is just something incredibly serene and yet almost dreamlike about seeing these bold rich colors beaming so brightly against the dark backdrop of the night. It is certainly nothing short of what you would expect of royalty.
Continuing on, the guide pointed out various markings and symbols along the walls which essentially all stood for longevity. She informed us that the dirt floors of the palace were used as a kind of alarm system because people could easily be heard walking on it, so it was easy to detect intruders. Eventually we came to the end of our tour which led us to possibly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever beheld, the “Secret Garden.”
I suppose what makes this palace so famous would be this 78 acre garden created exclusively for the private use of the royal family. At that time it was most commonly known as 후원 (Huwon) which translates to “rear garden,” but today it is known as 비원 (Biwon) meaning “secret garden” due to its extreme exclusivity. High officials were not even allowed in without the permission of the king. While “commoners” like you and I have the pleasure of waltzing into the garden now, people are still not permitted to enter without the accompaniment of a tour guide.
I’ve heard of its beauty by day, but even at night it was incredibly astounding, with the waters of the lily pond mirroring its grand surroundings. It was like seeing something out of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away brought to life; enchanting and seemingly unreal. I have to admit there was also something a bit haunting about it as well, especially as a woman sat in one of the pavilions playing the 가야금 (Gayageum), a traditional korean instrument. The music seemed to linger on the summer night’s air. It was lovely.
As a sort of finale, all the tour groups were given a silk pouch of 떡 (rice cakes) and tea (grape or buckwheat) and moved into 연경당 (Yeonkyungdang), which is a stage area that was built for the king to enjoy the performances of the best entertainers of that time. We got to see four different types of traditional performances, including Pansori which is a famous type of traditional Korean opera. My favorite performance, however, was the last which was an orchestra rendition of 아리랑 (Arirang). It’s a very famous song and is somewhat considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea. It was in a word, captivating.
The whole experience was unbelievable! We even got little canvas gift bags on our way out with postcards, a notepad, folder and pencil inside. Needless to say we were all incredibly content by the end of it and will be making plans to see it again, but next time by daylight. If you’d like the chance to experience this first hand, but missed out last month… never fear! There will be more tours coming up this month and in October. You can check out the details HERE. Don’t miss this amazing opportunity. Remember… adventure is out there!