Gongju was once the capital of the Baekje dynasty in the 1st century AD. When we visited the fortress and didn’t have time to visit the burial mounds before the site closed for the day, I knew we had to find our way back to Gongju to check them out. When I tried to explain burial mounds to Austin, he thought it was just going to be a cemetery. Needless to say, he was pleasantly surprised. When we arrived at the burial mound site, there was a big parking lot next to an underground visitor’s center. On top of the main visitor’s center was a metal dome and elevator to reach the underground exhibit. This first visitor’s center was really more of a welcome center, and slightly underwhelming. There was a small exhibit about the history of the Baekje dynasty and an explanation of why the capital moved between several different cities in Korea. Gongju was one of three capitals during this time period. It outlined the ruling kings of the dynasty and the legends surrounding them. There was a media room, but we happened to visit in between movie times so we skipped it this time.
From the welcome center, we walked up the hill toward the burial mounds. The mounds just look like rounded hills at this point, but it is incredible to think about how these civilizations created giant tombs for their royalty. On our way to the mounds, a puppet show was just getting started. There were only a few spectators, so Landon sat down and was enthralled with the show. This is what he told me to write about it, “Landon had fun at the puppet show. He watched the whole thing, even though it was in Korean! Landon loved looking at the puppets dressed up as royalty. Landon had fun going to the burial mounds and checking out the tomb of King Muryeong and his queen.”
The puppet show was actually really well done! The puppets had fantastic period costumes, and even though it was in Korean, we still understood the gist of the show. It detailed the legend of King Muryeong. Apparently, King Muryeong’s mother went into labor on a ship between Korea and Japan. He was born on a small island. He grew up and became king!
At the end of the puppet show, there was a battle. The staff members folded a bunch of origami stars and the audience got to be a part of the show and throw stars at the invading army. Once the puppet show was completely over, we pulled Landon away and went to the burial mounds visitor’s center. This visitor’s center was set inside a hill, and had an entrance that looked just like the entrance to the actual mounds. Although the real tombs were open until the 1990’s, they now do not allow the public to tour the actual tombs. Instead, they made replicas of several of the tombs inside of the visitor’s center. Almost all of the tombs were plundered over the centuries, but King Muryeong’s tomb was found in the 1960s, completely untouched, by workers installing a drainage system for a different tomb. They recovered jewelry and other treasures from the king’s tomb, giving historians better insight into the intricate jewelry styles of the Baekje dynasty.
In the 2nd visitor’s center with the replica tombs, there was this sweet, tiny English-speaking volunteer who offered to tell us a little about the tombs. She showed us around some of the exhibits and explained more about the Baekje dynasty and King Muryeong. We really appreciated her care and consideration in giving us a mini tour, but it was hard for us to pay attention and wrangle Landon, who was running through the exhibits quicker than our tour guide. Like all things Korean, there was a great mix of interactive, multimedia exhibits and artifacts from the tombs.
Next up, we headed outside to check out the tombs. In this day and age, they just look like rolling mounds with doorways. We followed the trail up a large hill and then rested and had our picnic lunch at the top. From the top of the hill, we could see the Gongju fortress and hear the re-enactments that were going on over there. It was incredibly green and beautiful! It’s amazing that the people put forth so much effort to dig out the space for the tombs, lay brick all around and in a big dome, and then rebury it. It was much more difficult than the classic American burial.
From the top of the hill, the path continued down the other side of the hill toward a cafe and the Gongju National Museum. We skipped the museum this time, but it includes, among other artifacts, many of treasures removed from King Muryeong’s tomb. There was also a cute garden area to explore.
Gongju is a really neat city to explore and learn more about Korean history. I would recommend visiting the fortress and burial tombs in the same day, since they are fairly close to one another. Visit the fortress first to see how the kings of the Baekje dynasty lived in the fortress, then head over to where they were laid to rest in the burial tombs! The burial mounds were completely stroller friendly with paved paths and elevators where required. It was a fun destination for the whole family! Since we visited the fortress on a separate trip, we took the rest of our time in the area to hike in nearby Gyeryongsan national park. Stay tuned for more from Gyeryongsan National Park!