29 April 2013

My Top 10 Experiences In North Korea

Giant Arirang Pig (20081008_0294)
Yes, this photo was really taken in North Korea.

Although it's been nearly five years since I went to North Korea as a tourist, it's one of the countries that I get asked about the most.  It's also one of the most unique and interesting places that I've ever visited.

Since I haven't written a "Top 10" list on my blog yet and they seem to be popular on most other travel blogs, I'm going to give you "My Top 10 Experiences From North Korea".

10. Seeing the DMZ from the North's side

Joint Security Area (20081008_0052)
The JSA in the DMZ viewed from the DPRK.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean peninsula that provides a buffer between the North and the South.  It is the world's most heavily militarized border.  Soldiers from both sides stand guard on their respective sides of the line, presumably 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  There is a small section of the DMZ called the JSA (Joint Security Area) where there's a row of buildings that sit on top of the MDL (Military Demarcation Line, aka "the border").  It's in these buildings where any negotiations between the two sides since 1953 have occurred.  Tour groups visit these buildings from both the North and the South, but groups from both sides are never allowed into the same building simultaneously.  Inside the buildings, you can have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have one foot in North Korea and one foot in South Korea at the same time.

9. Giving Cigarettes As Tips

Although I am strongly opposed to promoting smoking, I made an exception for my trip to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- the country's official name).  We were told before the trip by our tour company that it is nice to bring a carton or two of Western brand cigarettes to give as a token of appreciation to the drivers and guides, since nearly all North Korean men smoke.  (It was also suggested to bring chocolates, hand/face cream, or cosmetics for the female guides, since North Korean women do not smoke).

As I was leaving Jakarta to fly to Beijing and onward to Pyongyang, I stopped by one of the duty free stores in the airport to buy a couple cartons of cigarettes.  In my limited knowledge of cigarettes, I'm aware that Marlboro Reds conjure up images of American cowboys and are one of the most popular types globally, so I bought one carton of them.  Then, as a lover of all things unusual, I saw that they were selling Camel Unfiltered cigarettes (probably since Indonesian men enjoy their nicotine and tar fix just as much as the Koreans).  I'm not even sure if these things are available for sale in the US these days, so I bought a carton of them just because I could.  Little did I know at the time that those Camel Unfiltered cigarettes would be so coveted in the DPRK.
Good as gold in North Korea.

Along with most people in my group (most of which had brought Marlboro Reds),  I decided to ration the cigarette packs and just hand them out one by one.  On the first afternoon, I gave a pack each to our two male guides, the driver, and one of the guards at the DMZ whom I had my photo taken with.

The next day, I noticed Mr. Lee (the most senior of our three guides), holding a pack of Camel Unfiltered cigarettes, even though I distinctly remember only giving the Camels to the DMZ guard and to Hyon, another one of our guide whom I talked with the most.  It turned out that the Camels were so coveted that Mr. Lee was traded two packs of Marlboro Reds for a pack of Camel Unfiltereds.  After having a conversation with Hyon, I discovered that all of them actually preferred the Camel Unfiltered ones, and he told me that he hoped I had more packs of them to give out.

From that point on, I only gave out the Camel Unfiltered cigarettes when I thought someone truly deserved a tip.  If they were just begging for a tip and didn't really offer superior service, they just got Marlboro Reds.

8. Exploring the Hyangsan Hotel on Mount Myohyang in the middle of the night

Hyangsan Hotel DPRK
Photo by Ray Cunningham
We spent one night in the Hyangsan Hotel on Mount Myohyang.  This huge hotel sits out in the middle of nowhere.  It's brochure boasts of having a revolving restaurant, a dance hall, a karaoke room, a billiard room, a barber shop, and a stamp shop.

A stay in this hotel could be incredibly boring, or you could make your own fun, as we did.  For every perk that this hotel offers, there is a quirk that goes along with it.  For instance, we had dinner in the rotating restaurant.  Now, keep in mind, that the usual attraction of a rotating restaurant is the views it offers.  Well, we had dinner after dark.  Since this hotel is in the middle-of-nowhere DPRK, our evening views consisted of complete darkness out the windows.  There wasn't even a single light that we could see in the distance.  They may as well have spray painted black over the windows.  Did I mention that the restaurant didn't rotate very smoothly?  It would occasionally stall and then lurch forward.  I think it had some bad gears.  However, none of this interrupted our experience.  We had a great time conversing with the guides and getting to know each other.

Another rotating restaurant quirky highlight was the bathroom.  When I asked where the restroom was, I got pointed to a circular staircase going down the center core of the hotel.  I was told to go down to a specific floor and open the door.  When I got there, I noticed that the stairs kept going down further and was tempted to check out where they led, but I chickened out and rejoined dinner after relieving myself in the restroom.  If you ever find yourself in this hotel, be sure to take a bathroom break.  It's worth it for the journey into the core of the hotel.

Most of the group stuck around for some after dinner drinks.  As more and more of the group started heading back to their rooms to get some sleep, I asked Hyon (one of our guides) what we should do after we finish drinking.  His reply was, "After drinking, we go drinking!"  And with that, he led the few of us remaining down to a small bar in the basement of the hotel.  From there, we began a long night of exploring various "hidden" areas of this huge hotel.  We had a massage in the spa (it wasn't very good), watched a couple guys (presumably hotel employees) playing billiards in the billiard room, considered going into the casino, and then just randomly roamed the empty halls of the hotel (many of which were dark, as if there wasn't any electricity).  It felt like we were the only people in the hotel other than the hotel employees.

One of our more bizarre encounters of the night was when we accidentally got off the elevator on the wrong floor.  Instead of waiting for the elevator, we decided to take the stairs.  On our way down, we came across a random Korean guy walking up the stairs.  He didn't look at us nor acknowledge us.  It was like he was a ghost.  Suddenly, walking around this empty middle-of-nowhere hotel in the middle of the night felt like I was in the hotel from The Shining.

If you have the pleasure of staying at the Hyangsan Hotel, I highly recommend not just retreating to your room to sleep after dinner.  Explore the nooks and crannies of this place.  It seems to have plenty of perks and quirks to offer.

[Update:  I've been informed that the Hyangsan Hotel was recently remodeled.  It's now fancier and has lost much of the "soul" that I described here.]

7. Seeing the Pyongyang traffic girls in action

Pyongyang traffic girl doing her thing.
Who needs city traffic lights when you can have beautiful, young women in uniforms directing the traffic? Although there are a few traffic lights in Pyongyang now, most of the city's intersections are controlled by these "traffic girls".  It's mesmerizing to watch them execute their robotic motions armed with only a baton, a whistle, and uniforms that were supposedly designed by Kim Jong Il himself.  Even when there aren't any cars on the road (as is often the case in North Korea), they continue to go about their motions as if there is busy traffic coming from all directions in their intersection.

There's even a webpage dedicated to them:  www.PyongyangTrafficGirls.com and a flickr photo group: Pyongyang Traffic Girls.

6.  Discussing movies with one of the guides

Watching Van Damme and Rodman in action is essential
when you are studying American culture.
One evening while enjoying a few Taedonggang beers with one of the guides, I started asking him questions about how and why he became a tour guide. Among the requirements for being qualified to lead tours with American tourists was a class on American culture.  He explained that in the class the instructor had them watch three movies to give them a better understanding of American culture.  The movies included Titanic and Double Team.  [Unfortunately, I can't remember the third movie they had to watch, but it was equally random].  I would probably become anti-American also if I had to sit through Dennis Rodman and Jean Claude Van Damme's bad acting for 90 minutes.

Oddly enough, Dennis Rodman has been in the news lately for having befriended Kim Jong Un.  The entire Kim family must be big fans of Dennis Rodman.

Everybody loves James Bond.
I then asked the guide if he had seen any other American movies.  He replied, "Do you know a guy named Bond, James Bond?"

"Of course, I've seen several James Bond movies."

"Oooohhhh.... you mean there's more than one movie with him?"

"Ya, there's probably about 20 of them."

"Wow!!!  I've never seen a James Bond movie, but he sounds like he must be a very cool guy!"

Then his voice lowered to a whisper as he asked, "Do you have any James Bond movies with you?  I'd really like to see one."

"Unfortunately, I don't have any James Bond movies with me on this trip.  But you are right, James Bond is cool, and I think you'd really like him."

5. Eating dog soup

[I apologize for everyone that this offends.]

I'm a pretty adventurous eater when I travel.  I like to experience bizarre foods just as much as Andrew Zimmern.  I've eaten belut (duck fetus), crickets, spiders, hakarl (rotten shark), armadillo, horse, durian, raw whale meat, and haggis.  You can imagine then how excited I was when I heard rumors that you could eat dog meat in North Korea.  On our first night in the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, I asked one of the guides if there was anywhere that I could eat dog meat.

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I want to try it."

"In that case, I'll take you to the restaurant with the best dog meat soup in all of Korea."

Dog Meat Soup (PA070144)
Don't knock it until you try it.

We then gathered up a few other adventurous souls in our group to head out to the "best dog meat soup restaurant in Pyongyang".  I have to admit that we felt a bit bamboozled when he took us to one of the restaurants in the hotel.  Although a bit disappointed (but not completely shocked) that we weren't going to be heading into the city for dog tasting, we sat down, ordered some Taedonggang beers, and a few bowls of dog meat soup.

I'm not sure if the dog meat soup at the Korean restaurant in the Yanggakdo Hotel is the best in Korea, but I have to admit that it is pretty damn good!  The meat tasted like tender and tasty roast beef.  It was so good, that I ended up eating it twice in my four nights in the DPRK.

4. Even Anti-American war museum guides have a sense of humor

Victorious Fatherland War Museum (20081009_0583)
The American Imperialist Aggressors
.... blah, blah, blah
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum is a Korean War museum in Pyongyang.  Being a group of all American tourists, it was a bit bizarre to listen to the guide constantly talk about "the American Imperialist Agressors" and all of the bad things they did to the Koreans.  I was actually beginning to wonder if she realized that all of us were Americans.  Thankfully, someone else in the group asked her.  She replied that yes, she was aware we were Americans.  Then, she seamlessly continued her memorized spiel in her ultra-serious voice.

At one point, she was showing us a photo of an American soldier who was captured when his helicopter was shot down.  After finishing her memorized information about him, she continued looking at his photo and then hesitantly said, "Kinda handsome, huh?" to one of the girls in our group.  Immediately, someone in our group busted out laughing and everyone else, including her, joined in.  From that point forward, both our group and the guide lightened up.  We learned that we could joke around with her a little, and she showed us that she has a great sense of humor.  She made it clear that she doesn't hate American people.  She then made a fair point when she said that she just doesn't like our government, just like many Americans don't like the North Korean government.  Fair point, indeed.

After seeing photos of Pyongyang after a bombing campaign during the war, you can seen why the North Koreans wouldn't be happy with America's actions.  Likewise, I probably wouldn't be happy with any foreign country that leveled one of our cities.

3. Witnessing the Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games (20081008_0335)
A spectacle unlike anything else on earth.
The Arirang Mass Games are a choreographed gymnastic, dancing, and acrobatics show held in Pyongyang's May Day Stadium, which is the highest capacity stadium in the world.  The performance tells the story of North Korea. Arirang is a traditional Korean folk song about a young couple being torn apart by an evil landlord, and thus represents the division of the two Koreas.  The mass games feature over 100,000 performers, including more than 30,000 well-trained and disciplined schoolchildren, each holding up colored cards and flipping them on cue to make a stunning illustrative "screen" as the background of the performers on the stadium's field.  It looks and feels like you're at the opening ceremonies for the Olympics, but in this case, there's only one nation that's being celebrated.  It really is an impressive sight to behold and unbelievable how well 100,000 people can be choreographed.

Our tour was lucky enough to get two mass games performances.  The first one was the Arirang Mass Games, which was held at night.  The second one was the Prosper The Motherland Mass Games, which was an event that only happened during the year I was there.  It wasn't quite as grand as the Arirang performance, but the entry tickets were cheaper and it was still well worth seeing.

2. Joining some schoolchildren for a photo at the Mansudae Grand Monument

New Friends (PA090203)
This was before the statue of the Dear Leader
joined the statue of the Great Leader.
As a tourist to the DPRK, you are required to respectfully bow and place flowers in front of this statue of the Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung.

[Following the death of Kim Jong Il, a statue of him was constructed next to the statue of his father at the Mansudae Grand Monument.]

Our group was actually preparing to leave the monument when suddenly a couple of boys came up to me and Adam, grabbed our arms, and started pulling us in their direction.  They didn't speak any English, but it was obvious that they wanted us to come with them.  It was actually a little bit scary at first, since we didn't know where they were taking us.  Obviously, they weren't going to take "no" for an answer, so we relented and went along.  They took us to a middle-aged lady near the Dear Leader statue.  In broken English, she explained that she was a teacher and this was her class.  They were from a city in another part of the DPRK and had traveled here to see the wonderful city of Pyongyang.  She then asked where we were from.  Hesitantly, we told her we were from America.  She then smiled and asked if we would join her and her class for a photo in front of the statue of the Dear Leader.  She gathered her class together and handed her antique-looking, non-automatic film camera to someone else to take the photograph.  As the class arranged themselves to be photographed, it was funny how they were all trying to squeeze their way into standing as close as possible to me and Adam.  The teacher herself was holding onto my bicep nearly tight enough to bruise me.  She was determined to not let any of her students come between her and me.

When the photo was finished being taken, we said our goodbyes.  The students all smiled broadly and waved enthusiastically as we walked back to our tour group.  This was a great moment where people from two supposedly "enemy" nations came together, laughed, smiled, and did our best to communicate despite the language barrier.  North Koreans are human beings just like you and me.

1. Getting to know our local North Korean guides

As a tourist in the DPRK, you are required to be part of an organized tour, and one of your guides will be with you at all times outside of your hotel.  Although most travelers moan and groan about the lack of freedom, you may as well look on the bright side and make the most of your time with the guides.  Considering that they are most likely the only English-speaking North Koreans that you will meet anyway, you may as well take advantage of that fact and talk to them.  They can be surprisingly personable and..... human.

Me and Hyon (20081009_0607)
Hyon, my 5-day friend.
Like men all over the world, male North Korean guides like to drink beer, look at girls, watch James Bond (or similar spy/action/war) movies, and joke around.  And like women all over the world, female North Korean guides like to talk about boys, babies, clothes, and cosmetics.  (Forgive me if I'm generalizing too much here).

Buy your guide beer, and he'll be your best friend for the rest of your DPRK trip.  You'll learn that he can be just like any other friend that you'd buy a beer for back home.

Guides can be great friends if only for a few days. Just as good or better at interacting than guides in any country I've been to.  After all, people are people, regardless of where they're from or what their government preaches.

Drinking at Mount Myohyang (PA090291)
American-Korean Friendship Drinking.
My trip to North Korea was truly one of the greatest and most unique travel experiences that I've ever had.  I would love to return someday and venture further into the countryside.

[Please note that this blog entry is based on my trip to the DPRK in 2008.  Some things may have changed since then, but from what I hear, not much has changed other than the additional of Kim Jong Il's statue next to his father's statue at the Mansudae Grand Monument.]

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My DPRK tour was booked through Koryo Tours.  They are a pioneer in North Korean tourism and take more than half of all the tourists that go there each year.  I highly recommend booking one of their tours.

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Global Goebel's DPRK Flickr Photo Set
You can view all my photos from North Korea by clicking here.

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If you liked this entry, you may also be interested in:
   Global Goebel Travels: Local Guides: Burma - Bagan
   Global Goebel Travels: The Story Behind The Photo: The Heart of Darkness - Nyiragongo Volcano
   Global Goebel Travels: One Day In Bahrain
   Global Goebel Travels: The Story Behind The Photo: "Door to Hell" -- The Darvaza Gas Crater

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Have you ever been to North Korea, or would you consider going?


  1. Gee I have been to Korea. I really enjoyed the Koryo tour in 2008 and I can probably expand a bit. When I met Mr. Lee in 2009 in Pyongyang I immediately asked where Mr. Hyon was and he said, "He was reassigned to the countryside." I knew what he meant. As for Kyung-Il I have seen her every year and she just gets better. I will not forget that moment during the tour of the Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Christine and I loved every minute of it and I think it was the best trip I have ever had. That is why I keep going back. -Ray

  2. I kind of feel like if Dennis Rodman can go to North Korea, I should be able to. I mean, I can be at least as good of a cultural ambassador as that guy.


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