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Learning History at the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta

After getting off the bus at the wrong stop, switching buses and getting some help with directions from the bus stop attendant, I made my way to the first destination–the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta. It was my last full day in the city, I had planned on seeing some of the cultural sites within the city proper.

Yogyakarta road

View from the bus after getting a little lost

I hadn’t researched much about things to see within the city–my main purpose of the trip was to see Borobudur and Prambanan, the two major tourist attractions an hour outside Yogyakarta. I marked a few things down on my map as I walked through the city after my sunrise journey through those magnificent temples and asked hotel staff about where to go and what to see. The Sultan’s Palace was the only thing that was recommended.

Yogyakarta bus stop

My bus stop in Yogyakarta

Officially known as Kraton of Yogyakarta, the palace is a relatively small complex that is home to the sultan and his family. I was fortunate enough to run into a man, Imam Syafi’i, who works for a music school attached to the palace who offered to take me on a tour. He said he normally gives tours a couple days a week and I was just lucky that he was there that day because it wasn’t one of his normal days.Yogyakarta sultan's palace

The palace was first built in 1775. Then on June 20, 1812, Stamford Raffles (the same man who is revered in Singapore) led an invasion of Yogyakarta, which ended with the looting and burning of the palace. Today’s palace was mostly built during the reign of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII from 1921 to 1939.

Sultan's ceremonial space in Yogyakarta

This area was used for ceremonies for the royal family

Obviously because the palace is still used by the sultan and his family, I was only allowed to see the parts that are open to the public, including some exhibits that showcase traditional attire for various occasions.

The most interesting part of my tour wasn’t seeing the palace itself, but the stories my guide told. I was first informed that the sultan of Yogyakarta is not just a figurehead ruler–unlike in most former monarchies, the sultan here is the official governor of the region (Yogyakarta is considered a special administrative region of Indonesia). I was also told that the current sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, is the first to eliminate the practice of polygamy–my guide said that he is also the first generation of his family to have only one wife, which he said was more than enough. sultan's palace pillar

One of the more interesting aspects of the architecture of the Sultan’s Palace is design of the pillars that embrace the history of the region. At the bottom is the elephant’s foot, representing Hinduism. Above that is a lotus flower, representing Buddhism, which came to Yogyakarta after Hinduism. Finally, the pillar is painted green to represent Islam, the dominant religion of today.

Yogyakarta palace

Ceremonial platform

Of course, the funniest comment about culture that day was my guide’s story about the most recent royal wedding, which is likely the last one for quite some time. Tradition holds that the groom and a member of the royal family carry the bride on their shoulders. As my guide said, “The wedding broke tradition [pause] because the bride was too fat.” Apparently, the bride was almost twice the groom’s weight. There were no pictures of the wedding on display to verify this anecdote.

Royal Mosque of Yogyakarta

Royal Mosque of Yogyakarta

After finishing my tour of the Sultan’s Palace, I walked by Masjid Gedhe Kauman (Grand Mosque), which is open to the public. This is the royal mosque that was built in the 18th century. It was full of people milling about and sitting around in the shade to avoid the midday heat.

Royal Splendor in Phnom Penh

“In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.”
Arthur Rimbaud, Royalty

I chose my cheap hotel based on its proximity to what I perceived as a desirable location in Phnom Penh. The night market, royal palace, central market, and riverside were all a short walk. When I arrived, I realized it was a rundown backpacker neighborhood with overpriced (by Cambodian standards) restaurants and an abundance of girl bars for the sex tourists. There were signs of development with higher-end restaurants and bars along the main road next to the riverside, but it would still take time to change the side streets.monks-street

A few blocks south of my hotel is the home of the King of Cambodia. The walk to the Royal Palace felt longer in the heat–there was little shade along the way to shield me from the sun. I also didn’t realize the entrance to the palace was at the far end from my hotel–the wide empty street in front of me was beautiful as I watch monks walking along, paying little attention to the opulence just nearby. The streets in the area were devoid of traffic as ongoing workers protests in the capital had forced some closures.

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

The Cambodian King is an elected figurehead, chosen from among members of the royal family over the age of 30. The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2012 after the death of Norodom Sihanouk, who was turned into a puppet figurehead by the Khmer Rouge and later went into exile during the years of Vietnamese-supported government; he was also the leader of the opposition government beginning in 1978 when Vietnam defeated Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, two years after returning from 13 years of exile. In 2004, he went into self-exile in Pyongyang and Beijing and abdicated the throne.phnom-penh-royal-palace

The Royal Palace was built in 1866, when the king moved the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong; it was designed by architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and constructed by the French Protectorate of Cambodia. 32 years before the palace was constructed, the Thai military razed Phnom Penh during its retreat. The Royal Palace was built on a citadel that was destroyed.phnom-penh-royal-palace1

The palace incorporates a mixture of architectural designs, including traditional Khmer, Thai, and European. The French gave the royal court a gift in 1876 known as the Napoleon iron pavilion, which supposedly stands out among the rest of the palace but I somehow missed seeing it (there are portions of the palace that are off limits to visitors). Over the years the palace was expanded and some buildings were even replaced.

Royal stupas and memorials

Royal stupas and memorials

There are portions of the Royal Palace I’m sure I missed. There isn’t much in the way of guide information as you wander through the grounds, unless you count the “Do Not Enter” signs. There are some identifying markers to tell visitors what each building is, however. Sometimes in the heat, you don’t notice the names or the meanings behind the buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda, that make you wonder why the names were chosen.

Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda

The buildings, stupas, and gardens all lend vibrant colors to the palace as tourists wander through the grounds; the colors can be almost blinding with the intense sun, which led me to hide in the shade for most of my time. There are even murals in need of restoration–there was some restoration of buildings, but I didn’t notice any work being done to protect the paintings. phnom-penh-royal-palace-mur

While not as impressive as the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Cambodian King’s residence has its own charm and beauty. It’s a respite from the noise of the city, but a reminder of how detached life can be from reality–a short walk to the park will provide a glimpse of the slums just across the river.

The Throne Hall

The Throne Hall

As it was the last full day of tour through Cambodia, I relaxed the rest of the day and into evening–I wandered into better neighborhoods to witness the progress of development in the capital. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s brutal history lesson at S-21 and the Killing Fields and I wasn’t departing until late the next day. I attempted to enjoy the nightlife in my area and wound up with an insightful, yet depressing, conversation. The entire trip was my initiation into a world I knew little about–a juxtaposition of beauty, horror, wealth, and poverty.

Feeling Underwhelmed at Thang Long, a UNESCO Site in Vietnam

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site within Hanoi; the only other nearby UNESCO site is Halong Bay, which I visited my first weekend in Vietnam. I wandered upon it late in my stay in the northern Vietnamese city–long after I was already exhausted from life in the Old Quarter. The highlight of this historic site at the time was that it wasn’t crowded and there was no one inside trying to sell me things I didn’t want.thang-long-gate1

I wasn’t specifically searching for the Imperial Citadel, but I had seen it mentioned when I browsed UNESCO sites, so I was subconsciously keeping an eye out for it as I attempted to escape the crowds in Hanoi. I came across this piece of Vietnamese history after a morning of wandering around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and presidential palace.lenin-hanoi

The citadel is next to the military history museum, but I didn’t bother visiting that one–I was tired and wasn’t really interested. It’s also just across from a park with a statue of Vladimir Lenin–I’m sure he’d appreciate the teenager lounging at his feet and the couple dancing nearby.thang long

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long was first built as a palace and other structures by the Lý Dynasty in 1010 and expanded by the Trần, Lê and Nguyễn dynasties. A more modern citadel still remains at the site, including the flag tower that was built in 1812 under King Gia Long, but most of the original structures were destroyed over the centuries. thang long

The remains of the original imperial city were discovered in 2008 when Ba Đình Hall, the old parliament building, was torn down to make way for a new one.

Today, there isn’t much to see around the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. There are active archaeological dig sites and some protected ruins, but not much to actually see–these are not like the ruins of Rome. While I was there, I saw a group of students who appeared to be taking graduation photos (I guess they were taking the photos a semester early as this was early January).thang long

As I didn’t know much of the history of Thang Long at the time, I didn’t find the citadel as awe inspiring as other palaces I’ve visited–it certainly isn’t as interesting as the palaces in Bangkok or Phnom Penh, or even the Forbidden City when it isn’t shrouded in scaffolding. Unfortunately, historic sites in Vietnam haven’t yet developed educational self-guided tours (aside from the propaganda at the war museums), but I hope more of this will be developed for Thang Long as more of the palace is unearthed.

Have you ever visited an historic site only to be disappointed until much later when you learn more about it?

Walking Through Seoul’s Secret Garden

I had purchased a combo ticket when I visited Gyeongbokgung and I had the month to visit the palaces included on that ticket–I took my time. I could’ve visited the palaces in a weekend had I checked the map and realized just how close some were–combining two in one day would’ve been easy, but I wandered without much of a plan.

The entrance to Changdeokgung

The entrance to Changdeokgung

That lack of a plan almost backfired as I headed to Changdeokgung, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I checked the times for the free tour of the Secret Garden at the palace, but did not make a reservation, which is encouraged as space is limited. I was told to wait and see if there was enough space on the English tour for me (fortunately, there was).changdeokgung

Changdeokgung, which means Prospering Virtue Palace, is not as impressive a palace as Gyeongbokgung, but it is one of the more impressive places to visit in Seoul and well worth visiting. I think it’s a bit more colorful than Gyeongbokgung, mostly because of the natural surroundings. It does, however, have the amazing garden that is only accessible on a tour. It’s an adventure through a quiet forest in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.

The small pavilion in the secret garden. Also my first successful tilt shift photo

The small pavilion in the secret garden. Also my first successful tilt shift photo

Construction of Changdeokgung began in 1405 during the Joseon Dynasty and was completed in 1412, but it was mostly destroyed during Japanese occupation as were most other historic imperial structures in Korea. It was first burned by the Japanese in 1592, but reconstructed in 1609. It was destroyed again in 1623 by a political revolt. It was a the second palace constructed in Seoul and incorporated the natural surroundings, which culminated in the Huwon, or rear garden, that was used as a retreat within the palace grounds.changdeokgung-seoul

The garden, which for tourist reasons is known as the secret garden in English, is a wooded area covering 78 acres. Part of Huwon includes the Forbidden Garden, which was only to be used by the king and his invited guests. There are a lotus pond, pavilions, and even a small rice patch for the royal family to maintain a connection to the farmers of Korea.

The royal rice field

The royal rice field

On a tour with 20 or so people is never my idea of fun, but it is the only way to wander through the garden at Changdeokgung. With all the people and a guide who didn’t speak loud enough, it was easier to ignore most of the stories told and walk to the fringe of the crowd to take photos of the pavilions and ponds without the other people in the way. I made a point of walking ahead of the crowd to get the first pictures and then waiting around for more.changdeokgung-doorway

I managed to find some angles I liked for the photos that avoided the other people on the tour. It would’ve been easier with fewer people wandering about, but nothing I could do about that. At the end of the tour there was a 750-year-old tree, but I couldn’t get a decent photo between the crowd around me and the tour guide rushing us to the exit.

Walking Hwaseong Fortress, Korea

After a few weekends of sightseeing around Seoul, I began to run out of important historic sites to visit. I had already visited the palaces and royal shrines and even a few interesting museums. As Seoul stretches out into the distance, engulfing towns that were once not part of the metropolis, there are other destinations of interest.hwaseong fortress

That’s when I found Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Suwon, which is almost an hour outside central Seoul. Construction of the fortress began in 1794 under the Joseon Dynasty by King Jeongjo to honor his father, Prince Sado, who was murdered by his own father, King Yeongjo. It was supposedly constructed in two years, which is impressive considering its size. Parts of the fortress have been restored as they suffered significant damage during the Korean War.hwaseong fortress

The walls of Hwaseong stretch about six kilometers and can take about two or more hours to walk around, depending on how often one stops for photos.

Paldalmun Gate

Paldalmun Gate

The bus from Suwon station dropped me off in front of Paldamun Gate in the center of a busy roundabout. From there I walked in the wrong direction through the town and found a market that offered some food to tide me over until after my adventure around the fortress. hwaseong1

I had a beautiful clear day for walking around in late June. I did not, of course, arrive in Suwon early in the morning as I should have to avoid the summer heat. The heat wasn’t as oppressive as it can be in other parts of the world in the summer, but the lack of shade made the walk around the fortress a little more difficult. There were, however, some wooded areas to hide from the sun, but those were mostly at the start of my walk.hwaseong fortress

I stopped at the Suwon Hwaseong Museum for a respite from the heat–air conditioning is worth the price of admission in some cases. The museum wasn’t impressive and only took twenty minutes or so to walk through, but I took my time and enjoyed the cool air. Sometimes you need a break from all that walking and sightseeing.

Hwaseong Haenggung

Overlooking Haenggung

I wanted to stay longer in the air conditioning, but I had one more stop before catching a bus back to the subway station. Within the walls of Hwaseong Fortress is Hwaseong Haenggung, the palace built by King Jeongjo when he supposedly planned to move the capital from Seoul. It’s a small palace and not nearly as impressive as the ones in Seoul, like Gyeongbokgung.Hwaseong Haenggung

There was a corner of the palace that allowed visitors to dress up in traditional costumes, imitation weapons included for those who want to dress as warriors instead of royalty. I arrived too late to have my turn as they were closing up shop for the day. Sorry folks, no embarrassing photos of this traveler today.

Gyeongbokgung: First Palace Visit in Seoul

On the second weekend in Seoul (the day before I hiked Yongmasan and Achasan), I headed to Gyeongbokgung and the The National Palace Museum of Korea. I figured I needed a bit of history and culture to get better acquainted with this city–I was feeling a bit overwhelmed after all. This day out, along with the hike the following day, helped make me feel a bit more comfortable in my new surroundings.Gyeongbokgung

I had already seen the main gate of the palace on my first day in Seoul. Gwanghwamun is easily recognizable among the crowds on a main thoroughfare through the city. It also looks more impressive at night.


Gwanghwamun, the main gate to Gyeongbokgung

Gyeongbokgung, which means greatly blessed by heaven palace, is the largest and most centrally located palace in Seoul. Just down the road from the main gate to the palace is Chonggyecheon Stream, which makes for a pleasant walk when there aren’t too many flies about. Gyeongbokgung was first built in 1395, but was destroyed in a fire during the Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century. It was rebuilt during the Joseon Dynasty in 1867. Empress Myeongseong was assissinated here by the Japanese in 1895. It was again mostly destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century when it “annexed” the Korean peninsula. (If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of brutal history involving the Japanese in Korea.)


Quite a crowd visiting Geunjeongjeon, the throne hall, before the rain

Korea is still reconstructing the palace.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Gyeongbokgung is surrounded by more than just the mountains around Seoul

I arrived at the ticket booth just in time–a free English tour of the palace started less than 10 minutes after I bought my ticket. I also found that I could buy a combination ticket to the other palaces and Jongmyo Shrine for only about $10, which ended up saving me about $2 overall. More importantly, having those tickets that were valid for 30 days was a constant reminder that I had to do more sightseeing in Seoul.


Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, used for banquets

Walking in a large group can make getting decent photos a little difficult at times. I had to disengage from the group a few times to get the pictures I wanted, which meant that I missed some of the explanations being given by the guide.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Inside the throne hall, Geunjeongjeon

Having shared culture and Confucian philosophy with China, the design of Gyeongbokgung is similar to quite a few historic structures in China. The palace certainly isn’t as colorful or impressive as China’s Forbidden City, but that may be because of all the reconstruction. As mentioned in the tour, the Joseon emperors practiced Confucianism  and believed that they shouldn’t live in luxury–there was more of a compromise in that their luxury wasn’t that far above the people of the city (or so the history books claim). Assuming the reconstruction of the palace (and other palaces in Seoul) is accurate, then the Joseon emperors were far more modest than their counterparts around Asia.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Mountains surrounding Gyeongbokgung with people flowing into the palace in the rain

The National Palace Museum wasn’t as interesting at Gyeongbokgung, but it was free and it was raining, so walking around inside for an hour or so was worthwhile. The museum houses numerous artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty, most of which were once part of the palace. Having spent so much time in China, a lot of the artifacts weren’t all that interesting to me–I’ve seen plenty of similar items museums around China. There were, however, a few that stood out to attract interest.

The Chinese character for water written with characters for dragon. The water dragon was supposed to ward off fires

The Chinese character for water written with characters for dragon. The water dragon was supposed to ward off fires

I also arrived in Korea at the right time. It seems that the US held a few artifacts (supposedly for protection during the Korean War) and recently returned them to Korea–they were returned home on April 25, 2014.

This statue was in the subway station at the palace

This statue was in the subway station at the palace

Also nearby is the (again, free admission) National Folk Museum of Korea, most of which is geared toward children–and there were a lot of them visiting while I was there. There is quite a bit of cultural history in the museum that doesn’t feature the Joseon Dynasty.