Sitting comfortably under the tree-lined wings of the surrounding mountains, Bulguksa (불국사) was built in 528 during the reign of King Beop-heung, under whose leadership Buddhism was adopted as the Silla state religion. It was almost destroyed by the Japanese invasions in 1593 and, though it’s hard to believe now, was left to rot until the 1970s, when dictatorial president Park Chung-hee ordered its reconstruction. It has subsequently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. As one of the most visited temples in the country, it can be thronged with people, many of whom combine their visit with a picnic on and around the path leading from the bus stop to the ticket office. Once through the gates, you’ll walk a pretty path past a pond and over a bridge, before being confronted by the temple. Here two staircases lead to the upper level; these are officially “four bridges” rather than two flights of steps, leading followers from the worldly realm to that of the Buddha. Both are listed as national treasures, so you’re not actually allowed to ascend them. Having entered the main courtyard, you’ll be confronted by yet more treasures, this time two three-level stone pagodas from the Unified Silla period; one plain and one ornately decorated, representing Yin and Yang.
From the courtyard, it’s best to stroll aimlessly and appreciate the views. The whole complex has been elaborately painted, but the artistry is particularly impressive in Daeungjeon, the main hall behind the pagodas, whose eaves are decorated both inside and out with striking patterns. At the top of the complex, another hall – Gwaneumjeon – looks down over Bulguksa’s pleasing array of roof tiles; the steep staircase down causes problems for Korean girls in high heels, but there are other ways back. Making your way across the rear of the complex you’ll come to Nahanjeon, a hall surrounded by bamboo and a cloak of maple leaves. Behind this lie small towers of stacked stones; you’re welcome – expected – to add your own. The tearoom beneath the nearby trinket shop provides a useful rest stop.