Melancholy tales reveal sadness of a lost dynasty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 1993, 12:00am

WHY not escape to somewhere serene and peaceful, such as South Korea's ancient city of Kyongju? Set among gentle hills and pine forests on the south of the peninsula, Kyongju and its environs offer quiet grottos, royal temples and tombs, as well as fine hotels, restaurants and golf courses.

All this makes Kyongju an excellent place for mum and dad to enjoy a romantic break alone.

But if the children prove impossible to shake off, the Pomun Lake boating and windsurfing facilities and the Kyongju World Funfair - one of the biggest amusement parks in South Korea and positioned directly opposite the main hotels on Pomun Lake Resort -should keep them amused.

Once the capital of the highly sophisticated Shilla dynasty, which ruled Korea between 57 BC and 935 AD, Kyongju is deserving of its label, ''South Korea's museum without walls''.

A leisurely walk through the forests of Mount Namsan reveals Buddhist relics and images, stone pagodas and the burial mounds of kings, scattered profusely among the slender trunks of pine trees. Principal places of interest include Sokkuram Grotto, Pulguksa Temple, Tumuli Park and the Kyongju National Museum.

Kyongju's folklore reveals sad stories surrounding many of the relics.

These melancholy tales also reveal Korea's long-standing male bias - such as the legend of the king who precipitated the downfall of his kingdom by insisting the Buddha give him a son instead of a daughter.

Cynics might say that male-dominated South Korea society has changed little since the days when kings discarded childless wives and the bride of the chief stonemason of Pulguksa Temple drowned herself after being refused entry to the temple on the grounds that she was an ''unclean woman''.

An effigy of Buddha, who was so offended by the king's demand for a son, is the central attraction of Sokkuram Grotto. Set high up in the hills and enshrined in a small hall, the white granite-seated figure looms to a height of nearly 3.5 metres.

Work on Pulguksa first began in 528 AD but the years have seen several destructions and reconstructions, most recently after the Japanese invasion of 1593.

Now a haven of peace for a community of monks, Pulguksa is set among beautiful gardens and incorporates several halls characterised by deeply sweeping Korean-style eaves and enshrining gilt bronze Buddhas.

Colour abounds and even the narrow corridors are painted in swathes of red and blue. In Korea, red traditionally represents the sky and blue the earth.

Many of the treasures unearthed in Kyongju are housed at the Kyongju National Museum. The 3,000 Shilla relics collected here include delicate golden crowns of Shilla kings, with distinctive etiolated plumes and decorative jade half-moons, as well as everyday objects such as dragon-shaped pottery and cart-shaped earthenware.

Here, too, is the massive 24-tonne Divine Bell, built by a Shilla king in memory of his father and said to have a mournful peal resembling the plaintive cry of the young girl torn from her mother and thrown into the molten metal to appease the fire spirit of the dragon.

The sights are best seen by hiring a car and exploring them at leisure but the frequent bus tours which leave from the main hotels are good value at about HK$27 per head.

The five-hour tour takes place twice a day during the week and every hour at weekends.

There are many hotels offering excellent accommodation around Kyongju and Lake Pomun.

The Kyongju Hilton, opened two years ago, is one of four luxury hotels located in the Pomun Lake resort, which also includes a condominium, a convention centre, marina and shopping arcades. Two golf courses are just a short distance away and a beach can be reached within about 40 minutes.