All but swallowed up by Seoul, SUWON (수원) is a city with an identity crisis. Despite a million-strong population, and an impressive history – best embodied by the UNESCO-listed fortress at its centre – it has had to resort to unconventional means to distance itself culturally from the capital, the best example being the dozens of individually commissioned public toilets that pepper the city. Suwon, in fact, came close to usurping Seoul as Korea’s seat of power following the construction of its fortress in the final years of the eighteenth century, but though the move was doomed to failure, Suwon grew in importance in a way that remains visible to this day – from the higher parts of the fortress wall, it’s evident that this once-little settlement burst through its stone confines, eventually creating the noisy hotchpotch of buildings that now forms one of Korea’s largest cities.
An hour away from central Seoul, Suwon is certainly an easy day-trip from the capital, though if you do choose to stay you’ll benefit from cheaper accommodation, and get the chance to enjoy some interesting nightlife. East of the centre lie Everland and the Korean Folk Village, two sites ideal for anyone travelling with children, though just as easily accessible from Seoul.Read More
Central Suwon has but one notable sight – Hwaseong fortress (화성), whose gigantic walls wend their way around the city centre. Completed in 1796, the complex was built on the orders of King Jeongjo, one of the Joseon dynasty’s most famous rulers, in order to house the remains of his father, Prince Sado. Sado never became king, and met an early end in Seoul’s Changgyeonggung Palace at the hands of his own father, King Yeongjo; it may have been the gravity of the situation that spurred Jeongjo’s attempts to move the capital away from Seoul.
Towering almost 10m high for the bulk of its course, the fortress wall rises and falls in a 5.7km-long stretch, most of which is walkable, the various peaks and troughs marked by sentry posts and ornate entrance gates. From the higher vantage points you’ll be able to soak up superb views of the city, but while there’s also plenty to see from the wall itself, the interior is disappointing: other fortresses around the country – notably those at Gongju and Buyeo – have green, tranquil grounds with little inside save for trees, squirrels, pagodas and meandering paths, but Hwaseong’s has had concrete poured into it, and is now a cityscape filled with restaurants, honking traffic and ropey motels. Even on the wall itself, it’s hard to escape the noise, which is often punctuated by screaming aircraft from the nearby military base. Another complaint from visitors is that the wall looks too new, the result of copious restoration work, but as this slowly starts to “bed in”, it will once again don thin veils of moss and ivy, achieving a look more proximate to the original appearance. Most visitors start their wall walk at Paldalmun (팔달문) – a gate at the lower end of the fortress, exuding a well-preserved magnificence now diluted by its position in the middle of a traffic-filled roundabout – before taking the steep, uphill path to Seonammun, the western gate.
Bar its fortress, central Suwon carries precious little sightseeing potential, though one interesting facet is what may be the world’s greatest concentration of public toilets – they all have names, and some are even marked on tourist maps. This concept was the brainchild of Sim Jae-deok, a man referred to, especially by himself, as “Mr Toilet”. Apparently afflicted by something of a cloacal obsession (best evidenced by his house, custom-built to resemble a giant loo), Sim claims to have been born in a public restroom, but transcended these humble beginnings to become mayor of Suwon and a member of the national assembly. He then went on to create, and declare himself head of, the other WTO – the World Toilet Organization. Undoubtedly spurred on by his team’s debatable findings that the average human being spends three years of their life on the toilet, Sim desired to improve his home city’s facilities for the World Cup in 2002, commissioning dozens of individually designed public toilets – armed with the relevant pamphlet from the tourist office, it’s even possible to fashion some kind of toilet tour. Features may include skylights, mountain views or piped classical music, though such refinement is sadly sullied, as it is all over Korea, by the baskets of used toilet paper discarded throne-side.