Getting There (Jeonju – Gwangju)
If you’re not travelling during the peak holiday season or on public/national holidays, it shouldn’t be difficult to book a ticket on the spot. There’s a ticket counter for those who don’t mind waiting in a line. Alternatively, the ticket vending kiosk is pretty simple to use and you can book the grade of bus, seats, and time of departure.
There aren’t many gates at this terminal, but it’s always wiser to check your ticket and wait at the correct gate. The driver scans each ticket before boarding or will manually take your ticket if your entered without scanning it. Buses leave on the dot and it’s best to be seated at least 10 minutes before departure time.
Korean bus trips are smooth and always on time — if you avoid rush hour. We left Jeonju in the evening before traffic built up. Basil tried to get some sleep, but I couldn’t get over the sights outside the window. We passed mountains, a famous national park, and lush green fields. Naver Map App (available in English on Google Play) is a great tool to find your exact location — anywhere in Korea.
Why Gwangju (광주시)?
That’s the question most of our Korean friends asked us. Honestly, I wanted to break our journey and explore as many places — before we hit the southern coast. Besides, we had to go via Gwangju to reach Damyang Bamboo Forest (from Jeonju) and it made sense to spend a night in the city.
Gwangju is the six largest city in Korea and can easily be accessed by bus, flight, and also KTX. Moreover, if you have more days to spare, Gwangju makes a good base for many other tourist sights. Mudeungsan Mountain National Park is worth a visit for its stunning Jusangjeolli Cliff. Hwasun Dolmen Site, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, can be reached from Gwangju. In autumn, Najaengsan National Park pops with colour and is just a bus ride away from the city.
But there was another, more compelling reason to explore Gwangju. In 2017, the Korean movie: A Taxi Driver (택시운전사), became a massive hit in Korea. The movie was based on a true story — set in the 1980 Gwangju Student Uprising. I knew we had to visit the city where it happened and the memorial — that’s now an emblem for South Korean democracy.
U Square is the main transportation hub in Gwangju City. There’s a tourism department booth next to the taxi stand. The staff are really helpful here and it’s always better to get information from a local tourism officer. She helped with bus numbers, cancelling our tickets, and also urged us to use the cheaper option. There are many eateries and shopping outlets inside U Square.
We came across some interesting sculptures on the sidewalks next to U Square.
There’s a city tour bus stop outside U Square. T-Money Travel Cards are accepted on all local buses. Local buses have instructions in English and are cheaper/easier to travel around the city. Gwangju also has a metro that might go through some of the main tourist destinations. Taxis also accept T-Money and aren’t expensive for short distances.
Background of May 18 Democratic Uprising in Gwangju (5.18)
President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1979 putting an end to his 18-year long totalitarian rule. Military general, Chun Doo-Hwan, quickly seized power by December 12, 1979 and imposed martial law on May 17, 1980 — in a bid to curb sparks of pro-democracy protests across the country. The students of Gwangju defied military diktat and assembled at the Chonnam National University on May 18. What followed was a brutal skirmish between the armed forces and unarmed students. The parents and citizens joined the uprising to support their wounded/slain children. The citizen’s movement got a partial victory by May 24, but was eventually crushed when the military took over by May 27. This incident would be credited as the movement that sparked democracy in South Korea.
Read more here.
We should have booked a hotel near U Square. Our hotel was deeper in the city and we had to take a taxi to get there. The staff at the front desk spoke limited English and were confused about the exact location of 5.18 Memorial Park. The Asia Culture Centre and May 18th National Cemetery are more frequently listed on tourist sites. After a rather long and confusing walk, we found a road with this board and figured we’re on the right route.
5.18 Archives Building
The archives (videos, photos, documents) of the May 18th uprising have been listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2011. Sadly, the 5.18 Archives Building was closed by the time we reached there and we continued walking ahead.
Chungjung-ro is a popular shopping street in Gwangju. We found a quiet alley that connected the main road to Chungjang-ro. There were quite a few eateries here and we had our dinner before proceeding further.
Democratization Bell Pavilion
After dinner, we walked back to the main road (5.18 ro) that eventually opened into the Asia Culture Centre. We blindly followed the crowd of locals and few foreign tourists. En route, we spotted the Democratization Bell — tucked in a quiet corner — hidden by trees.
Democracy Plaza & Asia Culture Centre
The Asia Culture Center was inaugurated in 2015 and was designed to be a global cultural centre that fosters cultural exchanges as well as free thinking in the Asian Continent. It was built at the site of the former building of the Jeollanam-do Provincial Office — which is a testament to the May 18 Democratic Movement.
The Asia Culture Center was lit up with colourful lights at night. Visuals promoting the 18th FINA World Aquatics Championships were projected on one of its gigantic walls. This center was also closed.
Former Conference Hall of Jeollonam-do Office
Former Jeollanam-do Provincial Police Agency
A quiet opening lead to the former buildings of the Jeollanam-do administration. At night, the narrow, tiled paths were eerily silent and were somehow isolated from all the festivities on the street outside. Few teenagers had found a quite spot and were oblivious to our presence. It had been a while since I’d seen the movie, but it didn’t take much to remember those horrifying visuals of brutality, as we waked around the spartan buildings. A security guard stared at us curiously and walked away. It had been a long day and I was too tired to process or contemplate on what we saw.
Grim Reminders of the Past
Boards, supported by visuals of the movement, explained the sequence of events.
We finally saw a memorial statue, but it wasn’t the one that we had thought we were going to see. I was a little disappointed, because I didn’t know if we’d have time, on the next day, to find the other memorial (5.18 Memorial Park).
Gwangju Fringe Festival
The Gwangju Fringe Festival (Link in Korean only) is held from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the first, second, third, and fifth weekend at the May 18 Democracy Square. The venue shifts to Geumnam-ro on the fourth weekend. The festival is a celebration and is held from April to December.
I thought: we’d still find the memorial. So, we walked and crossed a bridge that connected to the park. The mood was upbeat here and it was great to see families and young people come together for a party in the park.
Walking under Umbrellas
For a moment, I forgot how tired we were, and enjoyed the festivities around us. The collection of umbrellas looked stunning from below.
Night Street Food & Bridge
It was nearing 10 p.m. and I was ready to call it a night. We took a cab to our hotel and stopped at the bridge over Gwangju Stream. A night market was buzzing with activity. We spotted a board that pointed to Gwangju Confucian School, but it was too late to explore it.
May 18th National Cemetery (국립 5.18 민주묘지)
On the next morning, we made a quick day trip to Damyang. Although, we didn’t have the time to visit the May 18th National Cemetery, we got a sneak peak of the memorial on our bus ride to Damyang Bamboo Grove. The tourist information centre was open in the morning and we finally got directions (along with Korean brochures) to 5.18 Memorial Park.
5.18 Memorial Park (기념공원)
We spent just half a day in Damyang and made it before lunch to Gwangju’s U Square. From there, we caught Bus 14 and got off at the stop that the tourism officer had given us. Keep an eye out for the grey building with 5.18 written in English. Alternatively, the announcements are also made in English. I’m not sure what the announcement was in English as I was paying more attention to the Korean name.
The memorial seems to be built in a nondescript neighbourhood. It’s possible that people were spending a lazy weekend indoors. It was practically deserted in the afternoon.
The 5.18 Memorial Park was built at the former Sangmudae Military Base in Gwangju. The sprawling grounds of the memorial has a culture centre, observation tower, and iconic sculptures.
Inmulsang translates as figure. The three figures symbolise the courage of the people of Gwangu who championed for democracy.
A small stairway leads to an underground chamber. A bronze figure, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Pieta, towers above the ground. The figure captures the grief of a mother who’s just lost her child.
A relief, of the sequence of events that took place during the uprising, is carved on one of the wall surfaces. The figure of the mother and son face this relief.
- 5·18관련자 명단
The list of participants is etched on the opposite wall. A family of four visited the memorial and the young father pointed to a name on the list.
- Kwanbucho (관부조)
We climbed back to ground level. The diagonal rectangular box symbolises a buried coffin that rises up to give strength and courage.
Gwangju Student Movement Memorial (민주학생기념탑)
This statue remembers the students who participated in the movement. The theme for this sculpture is: Look to the Sky-Salt.
There’s a walking path the circles around a winding uphill route. We followed locals who were getting their daily dose of evening exercise. We hoped to find the viewing pavilion (Owolru Tower) and stumbled upon Mugaksa Temple.
The main hall was undergoing renovation and we didn’t spend much time here. Mugaksa Temple used to be a buddhist centre for the armed forces stationed at the former Sangmu military base. Today, it’s the largest buddhist temple in the province and is an integral part of the 5:18 Memorial Park.
We followed some signboards (in Korean only) and asked a local for the path that lead to Owolru Tower. We realised that we had taken a wrong turn earlier and retraced our steps.
Owolru Tower (오월루)
This 3-storeyed tower was tucked in a dense thicket of trees. Owolru tower was built in honour of the people who lost their lives in the 1980 Democratic Movement. It’s a symbol for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
There were very few people around us and the tower was empty. Each floor took us higher and closer to the trees around.
The view from the top floor was stunning and I think we spotted 5.18 Road. We had couple of hours before our bus to Yeosu. Basil tried get some shut-eye in the cool afternoon breeze. I tried to take in the beauty all around me.
Stalking Pretty Birds
I wish Basil was as interested in photographing birds as I am. I tried my best to click pictures of these birds with my phone and was pretty happy with these two shots.
Stainless Steel Sculptures (스테인레스 조형물)
We walked back to the main memorial. These stainless steel sculptures symbolise hope for a better tomorrow. It was the right note to stay goodbye to Gwangju and catch our bus to our next destination: Yeosu.