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Korea: Songgwangsa Temple In South Jeolla

Every photo decluttering exercise is an opportunity to reminisce about my trips. This time, I am cleaning up the folders containing photographs of my 5-week trip to Korea in late autumn of 2010.  I dugged out some photos of my favourite places to put up here.  I have no idea why it has taken me several years to do so, but as they always say, better late than never.

I love visiting Korea, and I have gone back every year since 2007.  With the exception of the 5-week trip, the rest of my visits were short trips lasting between 4 days to 10 days.  I have been there in all four seasons and autumn is my favorite time of the year to visit because the fall colours are beautiful.  Despite having been there so many times, there are still so many parts of the country that I have not seen.  I haven’t been to the DMZ, for example; or gone to Andong, or seen the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

I cannot exactly explain what about the country that I am besotted with. I like the scenery.  Both the urban and countryside landscope. I like the culture. I like the food.  I have no problems eating Korean food three times a day, or kimchi everyday.  I suppose it is also largely due the fact that it is a place that I feel comfortable travelling around on my own even though I cannot speak the language.

People have asked how I manage to get around the country, especially in the countryside, when I don’t speak the language.  I bring along Korean versions of maps of the city or town that I am in, circle the places that I want to go to on the maps, so that I can show them to cab-drivers or to anyone whom I may be seeking directions from.  I also copy down names and addresses of the hotels or motels that I would be staying at, in Hangeul, to reduce the difficulty of getting understood (or misunderstood) by the locals.

My preferred mode of traveling between cities or towns is by coach, and by cab within the area.  Getting around Korea by bus is very easy, convenient and affordable even if you don’t speak the language.  All I have to do is to take a cab to the city or town bus terminal, buy a coach ticket, stick my suitcase in the luggage compartment, board the bus, go to sleep and wake up at my destination several hours later.  I have taken the KTX and comparing the train and coach, I find the coach a much easier way to travel between cities or towns because coach travel rarely requires me to change coaches, or lug my luggage up and down platforms.  I never have to worry about missing the connecting train, or getting off at the wrong station.

During the 5 week trip, I started out in Seoul, then travelled to Gangneung, Jeju, Jeonju, Gwangju, Suncheon and Gyeongju.  I liked Suncheon alot, especially Suncheon Bay and the Songgwangsa Temple.
 photo SonggwangsaTemple_zps5ba23cf7.jpgPrior to Suncheon, I was in Gwangju.  I took an early morning coach from Gwangju to Suncheon, arrived just before noon, checked into the motel, dropped my bags and went out to Songgwangsa Temple.

Songgwangsa is about an hour-half away by bus from the city center of Suncheon. I boarded the bus outside the Suncheon Station, and the scenic bus ride took me along the streets of Suncheon, into the outskirts, then the countryside before climbing up winding roads of a mountain to reach its final destination at Songgwangsa Temple.  It is a short walk to the entrance of the temple from the bus stop.  I recall paying a small fee – nothing more than 5,000 Won – to enter the temple.  

 photo DSC_0502-1-101119-v2__zps33040b2b.jpgDotted with tall, beautiful trees, and some of these crowned in fall colors, the grounds of Songgwangsa were beautiful, tranquil and peaceful.  The whole place is as pretty as a picture.  I imagine how green and lush the place will be during spring and summer.

 photo DSC_0535-101119-v2__zps50044cae.jpgThe temple grounds are fairly big, and if I remember correctly, it took me nearly an hour to walk leisurely from the entrance to the temple compound. But that was largely due to the fact that I stopped quite a fair bit along the way to look at the vegetation, admire the beautiful pond and take photographs.

 photo DSC_0557-101119-v2__zps70801e3a.jpgLook at the slanting tree.  Tall, regal and not needing any external support.

 photo DSC_0560-101119-v2__zpsee710f04.jpgI don’t know very much about the history of Songgwangsa, but I read that it is one of Korean Buddhism’s three most important places of worship and is a key training centre for the Korean Zen sect. It was orginally founded some 1,200 years ago during the Silla Dyasty. Judging by the size and height of the trees, one can tell that the temple is very old. 

 photo DSC_0571-101119-v2__zps615e8d3d.jpgMost Korean temples have similar motifs and colours painted on their buildings and structures.  But the contrasts and brilliance in the colors of this temple seem particularly striking to me.  

 photo DSC_0569-101119-v2__zps33f88a30.jpg photo DSC_0576-1-101119-v2__zps48957951.jpgBold royal blue boards with the Hanja characters of the temple painted in gold.

 photo DSC_0608-1-101119-v2__zps71a82f5f.jpgI am always amazed by how intricate the details are in the motifs hand-painted on the temple structures.

 photo DSC_0654-101119-v2__zpsf833a242.jpgThe architecture of the temple complements the tranquil surroundings.  Ornate roof-tops, a pavillion overlooking a small moat, a stone bridge arching over the waters, reflections in the clear pool of water, stark bare trees bending in all directions. This part of the temple compound feels like a Chinese courtyard, where scholars play the flute, pen poems and recite classical poetry.

 photo DSC_0585-101119-v2__zpsff41a33d.jpgI lingered at this beautiful spot, staring at the reflection of the blue sky in the clear waters, for a very long time.  Reminds me of this Zen quote that I read in a book:

We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see.

 photo DSC_0669-1-101119-v2__zps99496c0b.jpgLovely view of the foliage from the wooden platform bridge that connects the front and back of the temple compound.

Korea photo DSC_0598-101119-v2__zps1dc313d1.jpg photo DSC_0394-101129-v2__zpsb9faef85.jpgIt is not easy to photograph birds without a long telephoto lens.  This particular bird – I don’t know the breed – perched on the branch for a long time and I managed to catch a decent shot of it.

Korea photo DSC_0631-101119-v2__zps1bb9d51a.jpg photo DSC_0623-101119-v2__zpsf438b984.jpg photo DSC_0664-1-101119-v2__zps8b3b1366.jpg photo DSC_0694-101119-v2__zps2dc30f94.jpgAre these lavatories? I cannot remember.

 photo DSC_0508-101119-v2__zps6454660e.jpg photo DSC_0727-101119-v2__zps719c2a2f.jpgI left the temple in the late afternoon, just before the sun set.  The grounds looked even more beautiful basking in the golden rays of the setting sun.

 photo DSC_0711-101119-v2__zps7df7cc99.jpg photo DSC_0687-101119-v2__zpscbce2d48.jpg photo DSC_0742-1-101119-v2__zpsb92060c6.jpgI have visited several temples in Korea and the Songgwangsa in its isolated location in the mountains is easily the most beautiful.  I almost lost track of time and very nearly missed the last bus back to Suncheon city.

 photo DSC_0752-1-101119-v2__zpsc5fe6ea7.jpg I was glad I visited the Songgwangsa Temple in the afternoon because on the way down the mountain, one is being able to catch the gorgeous sun setting over the lake. The view is breathtakingly beautiful; if not for the fact that I was in a public bus, I would have asked the driver to stop along the winding roads for me to watch the sun go down.

I liked this place so much that I made another visit to the temple, from Seoul, the following week.  With my friends in tow.  I will definitely make another visit to this temple some day.

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