Where: Suwon, Geyonggi-do, South Korea. About 30 minutes south of Seoul.
When:2011 and 2012
Why: Suwon is the nearest major city to Dongtan, which is where Jeff and I lived in 2012. We popped here for drinking and shopping occasionally, and this was our local major transport hub. We would also bring visitors to Suwon, as the centre of the city has some interesting, historical sights to visit.
Suwon is a city about an hour from Seoul. It is the largest city in the province of Gyeonggi-do. It was our local, major city when we lived in Dongtan.
The first time I visited Suwon, I just thought it was a huge, sprawling city, with an ancient centre. I found it really hard to navigate and I didn’t particularly like it. But each time I went back, I found more and more hidden treasures and individual areas, and I started to appreciate it a lot more. There’s parks, pagodas, mountains, nice toilets, shops and a few funky bars. There are a lot of ubiquitous tower blocks and ubiquitous shops, such as Skin Food and Paris Baguette, but there are delights there too and it’s a nice little city, once you get to know it.
If you are staying in Seoul, but fancy a good day trip out of the city then Suwon is a good place to head to, as it is well connected to Seoul by public transport and it has the UNESCO world heritage listed walls and palace.
Getting there and getting around
Suwon is on line 1 and the new Bundang line of Seoul subway. Suwon is about 20 stops from central Seoul. To find out more about Seoul subway (in English) and to see a route map, visit the SMRT website.
Suwon is also on the KTX line and the main train line which runs from Seoul to Daejeon and Busan. Seoul statiion has loads of shops and restaurants and is connected to a huge department store. To book train tickets and find train times in South Korea (in English), visit the Korail website.
The intercity bus station is to the east of the town centre, behind a large E-Mart. In the same building as the intercity bus station is a wedding hall. I can’t imagine wanting to get married here myself, although it would have great transport links.
Intercity buses are useful for visiting locations around Korea that aren’t on train lines. We used intercity buses to get to Andong for the mask festival and to Buyeo.
There’s lots of shops and cafes at the intercity bus station.
Just a quick note: watch out for the taxi drivers here. I once came in late at night to Suwon bus station. It was -10 degrees and my bus had been really delayed. It took me 30 minutes to get to the front of the taxi queue and when I did, the first three taxis all tried to charge me a flat rate of ₩25,000 to go to Dongtan, when it should have been ₩12,000 max. There was shouting involved – on both sides I’m afraid to say. I’ve spoken to other friends who travelled through here a lot and apparently this is quite a common problem with the taxis here.
If you want to get a local bus to the town, walk up to the main road and there is a bus stop just outside the E-Mart on the slip road.
The major stops for local buses are Suwon Station and Paldalmun Gate, which is a huge gate in the old walls of the city.
What I did on my day trips
Hwaseong Fortress (UNESCO)
Some king in the 18th century (it was King Jeongjo, if you must know) decided to move the capital of Korea from Seoul to Suwon; and so built a huge palace, surrounded by extensive, defensive walls. But when he died, his relatives decided not to move the capital after all – and the remains are here to this day.
Today, you can walk the whole loop of the walls, and it’s a long way: something like 6km. I suspect a lot of the walls and gates have been reconstructed (as many historic things in Korea have been), but they still look really cool and are great to walk around.
I’ve visited the walls a number of times. Usually we would start our tour of the walls by Paldalmun Gate, which is a huge, circular gate, in the middle of a roundabout. Sadly, the gate was wrapped up the whole time we were in Korea as it was being refurbished. I think it has been unwrapped now though.
Walking to the left, we would walk up the steepest part first (doh), where the walls climb up and over Mount Paldal.
Mount Paldal is covered in lovely walks and parks, and there are great views from the top. At the top, the walls split and there is an offshoot to a defensive tower. If you continue to follow the wall around, you come to some cool toilets (see Mr Toilet House below for more information), and also the beautiful Bell of Hyowon. The Bell of Hyowon has a beautiful location, overlooking the old city, and for 1,000 won you can ring it three times. Apparently ringing the bell three times will bring good luck and fortune for my family, friends and yourself .
Each time we have come here with guests, we have stopped for a ding-dong, as it’s such a fun thing to do. The bell has a log as the hammer, and you have to pull this back as far as it will go so it can swing back and ‘dong’ into the bell.
The ringing of the bell was beautiful. It was wonderful to hear the occasional ‘dongs’ ringing out over the hillside, knowing that someone else had just rung for luck and fortune. I loved that after I had rung the bell, it carried on singing, and when I put my hand onto it I could feel it vibrating and humming for long after.
Just past the Bell of Hyowon is the Seojangdae pagoda and Seonodae, the defensive tower. These are at the highest point of the walls.
Seojangdae pagoda is a beautiful two storied pagoda with stupendous views, where you can relax in the cool breeze and admire the view of the ancient and modern city. In summer there were lots of sleepy South Koreans having a relax here. The defensive tower is only little, but there are even better views from here as it really is the highest spot.
Carrying on around the walls, at the bottom of the hill are the huge gates of Hwaeseomun and Janganmun, which also have relaxation areas, and then the water gate of Hwahongmun. The water gate is a really pretty area, where the river flows under the walls and they have fountains. There is also a gorgeous pagoda here, which is a nice spot for a relax in the hot summer months.
The dragon shaped trolley bus departs (roooooaaaaaaar!) from by Dongjungae (which is the old drill ground) and Yeonmundae tourist info center. The trolley bus runs along the walls, in and out of the gates, over to Mount Paldul and the palace of Hwaseong Haenggung. On my first visit, I caught the trolley bus back to my starting point at Hwaseong Haenggung, as I was running out of time to see the palace. It was a lovely way to see the walls quickly and it was nice to tootle past Koreans relaxing in the parks, going about their daily business and playing blackgammon. It was also nice to also have a little bit of a guided tour to give me more info. The trolley bus cost me ₩3,000 (about £2).
You can walk some areas of the walls for free (just beacause you’re inbetween ticket offices), but you do have to pay for other sections. The cost to walk all of the walls was ₩1,000 (about 60p).
(a.k.a. Suwon Palace)
Hwaseong Haenggung is the palace in the centre of Suwon, and to be honest, I found it to be really boring. Sorry Hwaseong Haenggung, but I just found the endless courtyard after courtyard, with nothing particularly in them, really, really dull.
Perhaps if this was the first Korean palace I had visited, I might have found it more interesting; but all of the refurbished Korean palaces look pretty much exactly the same, down to the same art work and the same decorations.
The only parts of the palace tour which I liked were the school kids trying to beat up the cardboard cut outs of the soldiers, and the rice chest experience. (The King who built the palace, his dad was not mentally all there and so his ministers killed him by locking him in a rice chest. You can pay to climb into a rice chest to find out what it was like).
My longest visit was probably half an hour, and even that was too much.
Luckily, it only cost ₩1,500 (£1), so no loss.
I’ve been to the palace a few times when they are doing ninja fighting demonstrations outside. These are really exciting, and they show you how they used to fight with swords and trees etc. I think these events usually happen around major holidays and during the Hwaseong festival.
There’s a huge parade ground in front of the palace, where events are often held (such as ice skating or kite flying). The tourist information centre is on this square. At the far end of the parade ground, on the other side of the road, is another large, sacred bell.
Behind Hwaseong Palace is a temple where you can go say hi to a huge, golden Buddah. It’s free to go into the temple and an interesting place to see.
Mr Toilet House (Haewoojae*)
Mr Toilet House, is a house shaped like a toilet. It was built by Mr Toilet, who was born in a toilet at his grandma’s house, and so was called Mr Toilet. He embraced his name by dedicating his life to good toilets and by founding the World Toilet Association (and luckily, he was also mayor of Suwon).
When he died, Mr Toilet’s family gave the Toilet House to the city of Suwon, and it has been turned into a museum about toilets. The museum is actually not that informative about toilets throughout history, or how they work etc, but it does tell you a lot about Mr Toilet and the great work that he did.
The toilet house has changed a lot since our visit, as it’s now a full-on toilet theme park (it even made the BBC news).
On our visit, we only actually spent about ten minutes in the museum. We were more impressed with the real toilets, which had heated seats, music, and conveyor belts to carry away your poo. These toilets were eco, waterless toilets, that can be used anywhere in the developing world. They were cool and ethical.
The house itself is pretty cool. You can kind of tell it’s a toilet, although you get a better idea of its shape if you look at it from above on google maps.
We caught the bus to Mr Toilet House. We took bus 64 from Dongtan (bus 64 also runs through the centre of Suwon).We actually went one stop too far – which unfortunately was 2km too far and had to come back again. But once we were back at the correct stop, we were able to find the house pretty easily. There was a huge sign which said ‘Imok makes great leaders’, right by the bus stop and the house was five minutes walk from this. I suspect it is much better sign-posted now that it is famous.
I wouldn’t necessarily make a pilgrimage to Mr Toilet House, but it was a fun thing to do on a quiet, rainy, aimless Sunday.
The museum is free to visit.
You can find out mroe about visiting the park (in English) at the Visit Korea website.
*Haewoojae means ‘a place of sanctuary where you can solve ones worries’. What a nice description for a loo.
Incidentally, there are many nice public toilets around Suwon, some of which have special views or features, thanks to Mr Toilet. The one I visited by the walls had one-way glass – so you could sit on the loo and look at the full view (at least, I hope it was one way glass. I think it was).
Even though we lived near to Suwon for nearly two years, we only actually went out in Suwon once or twice. So for advice on where to go drinking in Suwon, I recommend that you contact the BADASS (Byeongjeon and Dongtan Area Social Society) group on Facebook. Below are the two places that I can particularly remember.
The Big Chill was a friendly, fun foreigner bar, with cheap cocktails and good music. They had good drinks special offers and a pool table.
We went to a comedy night at Big Chill, mostly so we could say we’d been to a comedy night in South Korea. It was so bad! The comedians (most of whom were bitter, long-term teachers) were sadly not that funny, one was anti-semetic and another one made some of the audience cry.
Sam Ryan’s sports bar
Sam Ryan’s was a great pub/sports bar, as a pub/sports bar should be. They served good pub grill style food, had huge TVs, magazines and good priced drinks. It was a nice taste of Americana in the far east.
The tourist information centres are located just outside of Suwon Station (it’s signposted) and on the parade ground, outside the palace. I highly recommend that you pop into one of these to collect a free town map as it is really useful, and has loads of useful local information on the back.
Official tourist site for Suwon: http://eng.suwon.ne.kr.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.