Saturday, June 20, 2015

Gyeongju: Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto

History was the subject I detested most during my school years. The textbooks were boring, the teachers were terrors. It was traveling (and maybe age), not schoolbooks and scary teachers, that piqued my interest.

My non–nerd friends, I am sure, would find my travel itineraries rather boring: there are almost always visits to museums and historical sites included...but that is what they get when they leave all the planning to me.

The five–day South Korea trip was, of course, not without its dose of history. There are twelve Korean cultural heritage sites (and one natural world heritage site) registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Two in Seoul: Jongmyo Shrine and Changdeokgung Palace Complex. Three in Gyeongju: Gyeongju Historic Areas, Gyeongju Yangdong Historic Village, and Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple. The rest are scattered around the country. But we could only make time for Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto.

Bulguksa Temple
7AM to 6PM
Admission fee: KRW 4,000

Bulguksa Temple was built a long long time ago (year 528) in the far far away land of Gyeongju. (That is if you're coming from Brazil or Uruguay or wherever its antipodes is.) But when coming from Seoul, Gyeongju is just a 2–hour high speed train or 5–hour bus ride.

Going to Gyeongju from Seoul
  • High Speed Train (Korea Train eXpress, better known as KTX)
    • From Seoul Station to Singyeongju Station
    • Fare: KRW 44,700 or about Php 2,000
    • Travel duration: 2 hours 10 minutes
  • Bus
    • From Gangnam Express Bus Terminal to Gyeongju Intercity Express Bus Terminal (or Gyeongju Express Terminal in short)
    • Fare: KRW 20,400 to KRW 33,300 or Php 920 to Php 1,500
    • Travel duration: 4 to 5 hours
Korea Train eXpress (KTX)

Going to Bulguksa Temple
  • From Singyeongju Station
    • Take bus 700 to Bulguksa Temple. Fare: KRW 1,500 (Bus 700 also passes by Gyeongju Express Terminal.)
  • From Gyeongju Express Terminal
    • Across Gyeongju Express Terminal, take bus 10 or 11 (every 30 minutes) or 700 (every hour) to Bulguksa Temple. Fare: KRW 1,500
Note: If you want to leave your bags, there are coin operated lockers (KRW 3,000) at the train station (Singyeongju Station) and at the bus station (Gyeongju Express Terminal).

Bus 700 schedule
Singyeongju Station to Gyeongju Express Terminal

Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom, which ruled more than half of Korea for 992 years. More than a thousand years have passed since the fall of the kingdom, but many of its historical treasures have remained. Bulguksa Temple holds six of the country's national treasures:
The 10.3–meter tall Dabotap Pagoda was built in the 8th century

Clockwise from top left:
National Treasure 22: Yeonhwa-gyo and Chilbo-gyo Bridges (stairways really)
National Treasure No. 23: Cheongun-gyo and Baegun-gyo Bridges (stairways really)
Birojeon Hall (houses National Treasure 26: Gilt–Bronze Seated Vairocana Buddha)
Geungnakjeon Hall (houses National Treasure 27: Gilt–Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha)

Left: Daeungjeon enshrines Saykamuni Buddha, Man of Great Enlightenment
Right: Gwaneumjeon enshrines Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassion, who listens to the cries of the world

Seokguram Grotto
7AM to 5PM
Admission fee: KRW 4,000
Request for a tour guide (free) at the ticket booth.

Going to Seokguram Grotto
  • Bus
    1. From Bulguksa Temple, take bus 12 (every hour) to Seokguram Grotto. Fare: KRW 1,500
    2. From the bus stop, walk 15 minutes to the Grotto.
  • Hike
    • Follow the 4–kilometer hiking trail from Bulguksa Temple through the woods and up the mountain to Seokguram Grotto.

Bus 12 schedule (click to enlarge)
Bulguksa Temple – Seokguram Grotto

Walking in the foggy Toham Mountain to Seokguram Grotto

Seokguram Grotto from the outside

The 24–year–long construction of Seokguram Grotto was started in the year 751. The grotto and the Bonjonbul (Buddha) inside it are made of granite. The grotto has three sections: antechamber, corridor, and main rotunda. In the old days, people believed that the land was square and the heaven, round. The antechamber, where the people held Buddhist services, was designed to be square, and the main rotunda, where the Buddha resides, circular.

Carved on the walls of the antechamber are palbusinjung (eight guardian deities). At the entrance of the corridor are carved two geumgangyeoksa (gatekeepers); on the walls of the corridor are four sacheonwang (devas, a level higher than humans). Carved on the dome of the main rotunda are the two highest deities that protect Buddha; a deity that represents wisdom; a deity that represents mercy; ten of Buddha's disciples; and Sipilmyeon Gwaneumbosal, an eleven–faced Bodhisattva (enlightened being) of compassion. Above these are ten niches: seven contain Boddhisattvas; one contains Yumageosa (not a boddhisattva, but a disciple of Buddha), to show that anyone who truly lives Buddha's teachings can enter the land of Buddha; and two are empty.

The Buddha inside Seokguram Grotto

I only saw some of the carvings as the grotto is sealed off by clear glass (it is only during Buddha's birthday, which falls in May, that people are allowed to see the grotto up close). All these was told to me by the guide who patiently explained the story behind the grotto, showed pictures of the carvings, and answered all our stupid questions (we didn't know anything about Buddhism) .

Had I had more time in Gyeongju, I would have wanted to visit the Silla History and Science Museum, which has models of Seokguram Grotto; Gyeongju Historic Areas, five areas in Gyeongju containing many of Silla Kingdom's heritage; and Yangdong Historic Village, a traditional village.

But it was time to go on to the next city: Busan.

Going to Busan from Gyeongju
  • High Speed Train (Korea Train eXpress, better known as KTX)
    • From Singyeongju Station to Busan Station
    • Fare: KRW 11,000
    • Travel duration: 30 minutes
  • Bus
    • From Gyeongju Intercity Express Bus Terminal to Nopo Station
    • Fare: KRW 4,800
    • Travel duration: 1 hour

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

South Korea Quickie 2014
Wisdom from the Road #22
Seoul: Lessons From My Seoul Airbnb Experience
Seoul: Gwangjang Market
Seoul: Namsan: Park, Tower, and Village
Gyeongju: Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto (you're here!)
Wisdom from the Road #29
Busan: Mr Egg Hostel (Nampo)
Busan: Scenic Sites of Busan: Taejongdae and Oryukdo
Busan: Wishes at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
Busan: 40gyedan–gil and Beyond
Busan: Gamcheon Culture Village
Busan: An Ignoramus in Busan
Daily Dose of Kindness in South Korea
Squeezing Three Cities and One Wallet in Five Days
Busan: What's in a (Business) Name? Busan


  1. I can read korean and i think bus 700 goes all the way to bulguksa. is this an old timetable?

    1. You're right, I think it goes all the way to Bulguksa. This timetable was as of November 2014.

  2. the locker information is helpful! thanks!

    1. You're welcome ruffeecola. And thanks for dropping by!

  3. This really helps. Going there next month. Thanks! ^^

    1. Thanks for dropping by. I am glad this blog has been of help. Enjoy your trip! :)

  4. Helpful indeed. Would you remember if the lockers in the bus station can accommodate medium sized luggage?

    1. Hi. Thanks for reading my blog. Yes, in fact, the locker I used at Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal was a medium sized one and was able to hold two full backpacks with room to spare. If you need big ones, I am sure there are large lockers at Singyeongju Station.

  5. Thanks Tom! I visited your blog and enjoyed reading about your 2-week trip to South Korea!