Location: Kongju, Buyeo and Iksan, South Korea
Visited: 2013, 2014, 2017
Site Type: Cultural
Background and Opinion:
Around 660 CE, the Korean peninsula was
contested by three kingdoms: Shilla (sometimes spelled “Silla”), Baekje, and Goguryeo. This era from around the beginning of the 1st millennium CE to Shilla Unification (660-668 CE) is known as the “Three Kingdom Period of Korea.” The Baekje Kingdom is largely unknown to anyone outside of Korean nationals, so it is likely you never heard of it. It is thought to possibly have been the most technologically advanced in Korea at the time and is responsible for spreading Buddhism to the peninsula and Japan.
Unfortunately, Baekje made some very powerful enemies along the way. In the early 660s, it fell to a combined force of Shilla and Tang China. Shilla’s later conquest of Guguryeo in 668 dawned a new era known as Unified Shilla and nearly erased Baekje from the history books. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is largely all that is left of this once thriving kingdom. This WHS nod includes 8 different places scattered between the three cities of Kongju, Buyeo, and Iksan.
Kongju (or Gongju) – (visited 2013):
The largest of the three cities is also the most interesting and easiest to reach from Seoul. There are two highlights here, including the fortress wall of Kongju (Gongsanseong Fortress) and the Royal Tombs of Songsan-ri.
The wall is really cool as it sits at the foot of a river and lights up at night. You could walk on it in the day time and just have a picnic on the park next to the river as the sunsets for a spectacular view of the wall reflecting on the water. When I visited in 2013, the restoration was still undergoing, but I also passed by last month (May, 2017) and it seemed complete. The tombs of Songsan-ri were mildly interesting until the most important modern archaeological discovery pertaining to Baekje put it on the map. This was none other than the excavation of King Muyeong’s tomb, which you may have seen featured in my list of things to do in Korea outside of Seoul.
It was uncovered in 1971 and is the only known untouched royal tomb of the Baekje era, giving archaeologists an insight into the culture
Buyeo / Sabi – (visited 2014 and 2017):
The second Baekje capital known in modern times as Buyeo was also called Sabi. There are four specific places linked to the UNESCO nod, found here. The most important one is Jongnimsa Temple which has one of only two Baekje-era stone pagodas of this style (the other being in Iksan).
This temple was important during the later Baekje era for some reason that is incredibly vague in the description and blah blah, but it has a pretty nice, albeit small museum next to it which shows the spread of Buddhism across India, China and from Baekje to Japan. Here, I learned a very interesting story about the “Sword’of Baekje,” a 7 branch sword which was given to the Japanese as a sign of friendship. The replica displayed sent me on a wild goose chase looking for the original sword all over Korea until a simple Google search revealed that is was in the Isonokami Shine in Nara, Japan. Another part of the World Heritage Site is a hill on the north side of the city which was a fortress that takes advantage of the sharp cliffs in the area.
The highlight of Buyeo is technically not part of the UNESCO Site, but really puts the whole Baekje thing into perspective. It is the Baekje Cultural Land Complex on the north west of the city where Sabi Palace, Neungsa Temple, and King Onjo’s Palace have been rebuilt for all to see. To attract more interest, Lotte built a large shopping complex next to it but sadly, most people just go shopping and skip this wonderful complex altogether.
Iksan (visited 2017):
I visited the third and final Baekje city for my birthday this year (I know, what a nerd) but I absolutely loved it. The archaeological site of Wanggung-ri contains the second stone pagoda ever found of its kind along with tombs and other relics still being excavated today. Only about 30% of the area is open to the public as most of it is being restored and developed. The area also has a museum holding some of the relics and explaining Baekje history. Mireuksa is a temple which is part of the UNESCO designation. Most interesting within the temple grounds is the ongoing restoration of one of the pagodas which is open for the public.
1) Completeness and Originality (6.5 out of 15):
While all the Baekje stuff is very fascinating, unfortunately constant war and time has taken its toll. Very little remains and it is quite a shame really, but all we can do is hope the restorations are done well and with an emphasis on keeping it as original as possible.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (8 out of 15):
You could spend days exploring all of the Baekje sites, but a couple of hours in Kongju or Buyeo gives you a good feel of the whole thing.
3) Cultural Significance (12.5 out of 25):
There is no doubt that Baekje shaped the Korean peninsula politically and Japan religiously for a very long time.
4) Personal Impact (7 out of 15):
I’m kind of a sucker for these “lost civilization” type of places. I would say it is comparable to the Ryukyu Kingdom of what is now Okinawa, Japan.
5) Logistics (3.5 out of 10):
Getting to any of the three cities is not as straight forward as it should be, but getting a bus or train ticket from Seoul is easy enough these days. The problem lies in getting around. Iksan in particular is very spread apart and the buses are infrequent. I rented a car for my last two trips to the area and resorted to quite a few cabs the first two times simply because how out of the way everything was. Visiting Magoksa temple in Kongju for example is no more than a 20 minute drive away, but took the whole day waiting for buses.
6) Uniqueness (5 out of 20):
In all honesty, unless you have knowledge of the places beforehand, they look very similar to any Silla or even Joseon sites of Korea. Still a nice place to visit though.
Combined Score: 42.5/100
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Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.