Suwon, South Korea, a city with more than a million inhabitants, is a separate city from Seoul, but it’s been swallowed up in the post-Korean War urban sprawl, so that it’s in the same metro system.
Getting to Suwon from the center of Seoul involves a very long metro ride: more than an hour, and that’s still nowhere near the end of the line. That shows how extensive the metro system is, and how big Seoul has become. Getting off at the Suwon station, you still have to get on a bus to get to any of the sights.
I decided to go to Suwon because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the only remaining complete walled city in South Korea, with an impressive palace and fortress walls from the late Josean Dynasty. What I didn’t know was that it’s also home to the Mr. Toilet House Museum, but I’ve already posted about that!
King Jeongjo (1752-1800) was responsible for building both the palace and fortress when he decided to move the capital to Suwon, so these buildings, dating to the late 1700’s, are distinctly younger than any of the palaces in Seoul. Apparently his desire to move there had to do with court politics after his father was killed by royal decree from his grandfather. Not surprisingly, he didn’t trust the court officials who condoned this assassination, and wanted to reform the court. In Suwon he could be near his father’s tomb, where he worshipped, and worked to clear his father’s name. He built the fortress to protect the tomb, but died at a relatively young age under suspicious circumstances.
Hwaseong Haenggung Palace
Hwaseong Haenggung Palace follows the architectural style of the earlier palaces in Seoul, with ceremonial halls; living quarters for royals, concubines, servants and government officials; a shrine; and a garden for quiet contemplation.
It’s distinctly smaller than at its height, when it had almost 600 rooms. The familiar story happened here too: the Japanese occupation that began in 1910 led to the destruction of much of the palace, and it was just rebuilt in the 1990’s.
What makes this palace special, however, is the furnishings inside, and the set scenes that have been created in some of the rooms to allow visitors to see what palace life was like.
For example, one scene recreates the banquet Jeongjo held for his mother, which included 12 appetizers, 70 main dishes, and 42 flower decorations. Some of the smaller offices and residential rooms show servants or officers at work.
Suwon Hwaseong Fortress
The dirt embankment around the city, along with the stone fortress walls and wooden guard towers that top the embankment, have been rebuilt. Of course, today it only encloses a small part of the city, but most of it is walkable.
I did some parts of it, but the heat and humidity got to me, so I gave up on the idea of walking all of it. If you visit in a cooler time of year, I think it would make an enjoyable all-day exploration.
One of the many structures along the fortress walls, Seojangdae Command Post stands very high on a hill behind the palace. Supposedly, the king trained his soldiers here himself. (One wonders how seriously professional soldiers would have taken this. Perhaps out of necessity they humored him into thinking he had anything to teach them.)
Sojangdae Command Post consists of a watchtower which looks a lot like the sorts of pavilions I’d seen in other palaces in Seoul. Just next to it is Seonodae (Western Crossbow Platform), a structure that looks distinctly more military: a simple raised platform made of stone, with stone steps leading up to it, which allows a 360 degree view of the surroundings.
Enjoy the view and catch your breath at the top, and then you can walk around more the fortress wall from there. Or you can take a tourist trolley (with an intense dragon’s head at the front!) from just below the command post to see parts of the walls and some of the fortress gates more easily.
Rather than either of those choices, I walked down the hill to Daeseungwon Temple, which had caught my eye because of the enormous golden Buddha beside it. The entrance gate is ornate and beautiful. Inside the small temple underneath the golden Buddha sits a lovely smaller Buddha statue with an amusing picture behind it.
One of the more impressive structures along the fortress walls is Paldamon. Paldamon looks very impressive, but sits in the middle of a traffic circle. Janganmun Gate, at the other end of the same road, can be visited, along with many more, if you’re up for lots of walking. There are four main gates, and many smaller watchtowers, bastions and platforms of various sorts.
Suwon is certainly worth a visit and could be done in a long day trip on the metro from Seoul. However, it’s a bit of a hassle, with first a long, boring metro ride followed by a bus trip to the palace. I’d suggest staying a night or two in Suwon, as I did, so you don’t feel you need to rush in order to see it all.