Om mani padme hum, or Praise to the jewel of the lotus, plays on the speakers outside a temple in Busan. The 2,500-year-old chant is one of the most important mantras in Buddhism. All around, a thousand multicolored lotus lanterns sway in the breeze. The sun melts below the mountains above. As if on cue from the smiling big-bellied man himself, the lights inside the lanterns turn on. The bright colors pop against the deep blue of the night sky. If this is what nirvana looks like, then I can’t wait to get there.
Every year around Buddha’s birthday, Samkwang Temple, or Samgwangsa (meaning three rays of light from Buddha), transforms itself into one of the most stunning sights in the country. Tourists rarely visit the temple, passing it up for Busan’s two most famous temples: Beomosa and Youngungsa. Strangely enough, neither guidebooks nor the country’s official Visit Korea website even mention the temple, yet it made CNN’s Top 50 Most Beautiful Places in Korea list. Now, I don’t think Buddha endorses top 50 lists, but I can tell you this: Samgkwangsa celebrates his birthday like none other.
When to go: This year the Samgwang Lotus Lantern Festival will take place from May 5 -17. Buddha’s birthday or âBucheonim osin nal’ is a national holiday in Korea. The date of the celebration changes every year according to the Lunisolar Calendar. In 2013 it will fall on May 17th. The best time to go is around sunset to see the lights at night.
Getting there: The easiest way to get to Samgwangsa is to take the subway to Seomyeon station. Then go out exit 11 and take a taxi (about 5,000 won) to the temple. There is also a small bus you can take from across the street of the Lotte Department Store in Seomyeon as well.
Pete DeMarco is a travel writer and photographer who enjoys taking his camera to the edge of skyscraper roofs, into bamboo forests, and to the headhunters of Borneo. Join the adventure over at his blog TheNomadWithin.com.