When I first arrived in Korea, one of the first places my dad took me was to Gyeongbokgung. It was February, it had just snowed and I was freezing cold but seeing the palace surrounded with snow was amazing and I’ll never forget. After that first visit I’ve been hooked by the architecture, history, and sights of the palaces here in Seoul. Eventually I had a goal, to see the palaces at night. After using Google to search and research the palaces I started coming across pictures of the palaces at night. They weren’t widespread but the few I found were amazingly cool. Thanks in no small part to my girlfriend, I finally had the chance to view Gyeongbokgung at night with camera in hand. Last month, I had a chance to return the favor.
Welcome to Changdeokgung.
Changdeokgung is located just a short walk away from Gyeongbokgung. It was one of the many “backup” palaces built in Seoul for the royal family to reside in in case of disaster or invasion. The architecture is familiar to anyone who’s visited any of the other palaces, while the layout is more spread out than that of Gyeongbokgung. But it isn’t the buildings that make this palace special, it is the Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden, or Huwon (후원), was built in an era when ladies of the court (royalty especially) weren’t allowed outside the palace walls. The Garden is huge and it’s easy to imagine getting lost here even during the day. That’s one reason that visitors aren’t allowed in the Garden without a guide. Tours are held daily and organized in accordance to language. Night tours are a different matter altogether.
The Moonlight Tours only occur on set days and have a limited number of seats. There are only four dates available to reserve tickets for on Interpark (direct link). I made my reservations in early August and attended on the 23rd. As far as I could tell, the tickets sold out for each language. There are restrictions, however, the most important being that Korean nationals are not allowed in. Not only that, but they don’t allow tripods. For the life of me I don’t know why but they don’t so you better have a steady hand.
The tour can be separated into three sections: the palace grounds, the Garden, and the performance held in the former living quarters located somewhere deep in the palace grounds. We were treated to brief histories, myths and legends by a tour guide whose English was excellent. The Throne Room is the highlight of the palace grounds. It was reminiscent of the Throne Room of Gyeongbokgung with one jarring difference, there was barely anyone else around. We were the first group in so all I had to do was wait a few minutes for our group to thin and then take a few shots. It was amazingly cool to get a picture of such a large structure with no one in it.
The Garden is the main act of the show. It’s a dark path that snakes up a hill where you’re treated to a thick canopy which barely lets any of the night sky through. The tour guide talks about the expansive size and number of plant species rooted there; but without any light you’re left to use your imagination. When you finally crest the monolithic hill, you’re treated to the sounds of a lone Kayageum (가야금) drifting through the branches. It’s here that you see the lights for the Juhamnu (주함루) sitting over a square lake. This spot dwarfs the rest of the tour and is the real reason that everyone makes the trek and tour. For about ten minutes I walked around snapping photos while other visitors wandered about with lanterns and the musician set the mood for the rest of the night.
The tour finally winds it’s way down to the living quarters. There you’re treated to some traditional tea, rice cakes and a short show. I wasn’t too impressed with the food and drink but the show was amazing. Especially the last performance of ‘Fantasia Arirang’. I’ve grown up hearing ‘Arirang’ but this composition was about as impressive as it gets. Even the tourists quiet down and the number of LCD screens decreases to zero as the song begins the ascent to its crescendo.
The tour ends with another winding hike back to the palace gates through some back paths up a hill and past a wall behind which is the local neighborhood. By the time we found ourselves back at the palace gates, we were exhausted and sore from the day’s walk. But the tour of the palace grounds (as unlit as most of it was) is something I’ll remember for years to come, especially with the help of the photos I took along the way.
- For any future tourists, be vigilant about the wireless receivers that are used to listen to the tour guide. In close proximity there wasn’t an issue, but once you got more than ten feet away you were treated to annoying and random bursts of static. Plus, I would high recommend checking the battery of your receiver before entering the palace grounds. Mine dropped from two bars to one while I was standing around waiting for the gate to be opened. It was easy enough to switch it out but I wasn’t the only one to do so. The anecdotes by the tour guide help make the experience and you don’t want to be wandering around the dark without commentary.
- While the ban on tripods sounds a bit extreme, I can understand their reasoning. The palace is only open for a 2 hour time period and they don’t want stragglers holding them up. I was with the first group to enter and last group to leave (English speakers). Once we were out, the palace gates closed and that was it. Instead, you have to get creative and find spots to prop up against to get the shots. The Throne Room and the Juhamnu are the prize shooting areas here and you get ample time to shoot both. Just get creative and you shouldn’t have much of a problem.