The Big Man’s Birthday in Gongju and Buyeo

It was the Big fellah’s birthday this weekend which meant an added days Korea consumption to my expanding portfolio of destinations visited. I met FOBY in Cheonan after  taking some snaps of the Shinsegae Plaza near the bus station. The girls had targeted the coastal areas but we were heading for Gongju and Buyeo, the former capitals during the Baekje Dynasty.

The birthday of the historical Buddha is celebrated on different dates by various schools of Buddhism. In most of Asia it is observed on the first full moon date of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar (typically May). But in other parts of Asia the day falls a month or more either earlier or later. Buddha’s Birthday is a time for hanging lanterns and enjoying communal meals.

Exuberant pageants of musicians, dancers, floats, and dragons are common throughout Asia but in Korea it is celebrated more subtly; though in temples like Guinsa the lanterns are grandiose and spectacular.

In the temple yards and parks, traditional games like Jaegi-chagi (kicking a kind of shuttlecock), Nol-ttuigi (standing see-saw) and rope jumping are organised. There are Yangyu Byoelsandae (mask dances) and acrobatic shows with tightrope walkers. Buddha’s Birthday is known as the Festival of the Lanterns. Coloured paper lanterns with candles inside them are made by hand, usually around wire frames. They are mostly red, blue, pink and gold. White lanterns are made for people who have died. A small paper tag is hung from the bottom of each lantern.  On that tag, you write your name and a wish or a hope that you carry in your heart.

There is a special ceremony known in Korea as T’apdori (Circling the Pagoda). Music is played and the lanterns are paraded around the temple yard. Sometimes the ceremony ends with everyone joining hands to dance around in big circles. This is to show their wish for oneness, peace and unity around the world.  As the sun sets, the candles in them are lit. Then, between midnight and sunrise, the monks gather up the lanterns and burn all the wish cards.

The link below shows a video of these lanterns being made.

Before heading to Gongju we had a Shabu lunch in Cheonan and then trying to avoid the holiday traffic we took a cross-country route that would mean we passed Gwangdeoksa and Magoksa temples. FOBY was consumed with apathy when I requested we visit Gwangdeoksa to witness the early afternoon celebrations.


The area was buzzing with roast chestnut and flower sellers, there was the usual overdose of Ninja’s and among the celebrations other market forces were fully operational. Buddhist paraphernalia, trinkets and tiles could be purchased to support our journey to Nirvana and enlightenment! The dichotomy here is the fine display of free food and lotus tea on offer to lubricate our wallets. On a previous visit the temple had been conspicuously empty but today it was awash with humanity. Away from the commercial aspects there was a reverent celebratory aspect to the proceedings.


Arriving in Gongju late afternoon we parked up at the Baekje Fortress named Gongsanseong for “a historical adventure that would dring peace and solitude into our lives”. My oh my, oh ya ya!  During Baekje times the fortress was known as Ungjinseong, it sits 110 metres above the Geumgang River on a circular ridge, maybe a very ancient extinct volcano.

The fortress was built from mud, only to be reconstructed out of stone when Gongju became the capital of the Baekje dynasty  (AD 475 – AD 538) later the capital was transferred to Buyeo. Not only was the fortress built to defend the capital, it was the centre of regional administration from the Baekje to the Joseon dynasties, as well as the temporary home of King Uija, even after the fall of Baekje.

The fortress houses the Gongbukru pavillion, Yeonji (lotus lake) and Manharu pavilion, Ssangsujeong, Geumseoru pavilion (the presumed site of the royal palace), Gwangbokru pavillion, Imryugak pavillion, Dongmunri pavillion, Myeongguksamjangbi tombstone and the Yougeunsa Temple.

We entered through the Geumseoru or West Gate Pavilion knowing that the total length of the walls is around 2.6km but the undulating rise and fall along with 45 degree climbs would make it feel somewhat longer. Within the fortress there is an opportunity to practice archery and at the halfway point in the circumnavigation, a Buddhist Temple, Yeonggeunsa.


Opposite the temple is the “Lake” Yeonji and Manharu Pavilion. I love the Koreans! “Lake” Yeonji is a man-made pond but some 9 metres deep, Yeonji means “Lotus Lake“. This is the most beautiful location in the fortress and its easy to imagine the Baekje comings and goings in this riverside setting.

We bounded up the 45 degree climb before resting to take in views of the surrounding countryside along the Geumgang River. We tried unsuccessfully to shake off some juvenile stalkers whose sole aim in life was to destroy the peace. continuing along the fortress walls we passed the Gwangbongnu Pavilion and the East and South Gates before the walls rose steeply again overlooking the Ssangsujeong Pavilion and an area laid out like a park. From here we descended steeply to the West Gate before taking on some rejuvenating water next to the archery centre.

We then had to find some dig for the night and an extremely helpful woman in the tourist office directed us back across the river to the Kum Kang Hotel. It was located in yet another Sin City but was clean and tourist class! After a kip and refreshing shower we hit the unspectacular Gongju nightlife.  The town has two universities and the “entertainment” area had many of the usual coffee shops, barbecues and fast food outlets.  We had grilled beef rib and then settled in a bar that had a terrace to survey the comings and goings. The bar had a good spattering of English teachers and the beer was cold, bizzarely it was a “lock up yer daughters” type of night with young Korean men competing to make the most noise and fill the biggest spittoon. Not a young woman in sight, weird for a university area. Maybe us middle-aged folk were out too early?

Rising early for the Korean breakfast we were met by an overcrowded canteen with a screaming mass of humanity scrambling for seats in a very unsophisticated way. FOBY and I turned on our heels to search for the nearest Paris Baquette. After coffee and the delicious cream cheese and almond bread we set out east on the highway towards Donghaksa Temple, FOBY returning after 25 years!

The walk from the extensively martialed car park takes around 20 mins. The walk was forested and lush with new and damp foliage, the stream was surprisingly limply populated  with national parks water. Also, I know it was the day after the big mans birthday but a major de-flowering was taking place. I’m not sure of the health and safety implications but in the temple complex courtyards, lanterns had been removed and stripped leaving wire skeletons in their place. The hugely ugly scaffolding was all that remained of the celebratory event and once again I wondered why they don’t use bamboo. I’d once been in Hong Kong (1989) and witnessed this at Man Mo Temple. It’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing and generates a warmer atmosphere though I’m not sure if they also may have succumbed to progress! We pottered around, me beavering for photographs; FOBY in a state of semi-despair suffering from Templeitis.  He just offered me an occasional stare which meant “what do you see in this”. I must admit I am rather templed out and will now take a break. Walking back downhill; I imagined at one stage I’d been transported to the Ngorongoro Crater and a date with it’s famous Flamingos.

DSC_0234Mrs Sat Nav then sent us back to Gongju before re-directing us to Buyeo, another former seat of the Baekje. After a minor trauma and me having a mini-meltdown we discovered a restaurant serving lotus rice. After an ameanable meal we crossed the road to the busy but under construction Soodong Park. The earlier link shows the park in its pomp and glory later in the year, our visit was less illustrious and only a view lotus flowers graced the horizon. We escaped the inconceivable decibels of noise created by the watermelon vendor and followed a path through the “developing” ponds. It takes around 45 minutes to wander through and circumnavigate the park after which we headed for Busosanseong Fortress.

It’s a 30 minute hike to reach Nakhwaam Rock scene of a past momentous display of feminine loyalty and devotion. Legend has it that it is from this rock that the Baekje Dynasty women flung themselves into the Baekma River! Why you may ask? Because they wanted to keep their chastity intact and show their loyalty towards the Kingdom when it fell in 660 AD. Apparently this carries “a historic lesson that can move the world”. I wasn’t moved by the memory just the screaming hobgoblins that sledgehammered their way around this dignified rock. It is said the rock is stained red with the blood of the women  but its more likely the iron content in the rock provided by the greatest lady Mother Nature.

Returning to Gongju and after enjoying a further nap we trundled downtown, tonight was ladies night in stark contrast to yesterdays boys night. After pizza and tomato pasta it wa s time to bring to an end another long day.

Sunday AM it was piddling down as we headed for the Tomb of King Muryeong at Songsal-li. The tomb itself is closed but after some spicy noodles (for breakfast!) we entered the fake tomb or visitor centre as its construed. Once again a dark and uninspiring visitor attraction lets down the memory of an important landmark in Korean history.  We skipped quickly past the feral kids and back out into the rain before passing the “real” sealed tomb and climbing the hill through a pine forest. The drizzle was bearable as we topped the hill and descended after the signs to the Baekje museum.

The oversized museum is home to some real and imitation Baekje treasures, the most beautifully crafted are gold headsets and jewellery. Its also laden with a multitude of unimpressive, mostly dull, Baekje Pottery, exhibits.  we stopped to posed with a beheaded Buddha then wandered back through the newly constructed Hanok Village, no history but a nice place to stay.

Returning to Cheonan we had a Japanese Pork Cutlet lunch before I took my bus back to Chungers where I proceeded to lose my wallet…..again!

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