Uncharted Backpacker

A Look into the Real North Korea – Travel North Korea Guide

Pyongyang, North Korea

From the minute I decided to travel to North Korea, to the moment I returned from it, people have looked at me with concern. Before I left, my sanity was questioned by many, people believed I had a death wish, or I was looking for my next big thrill. Now that I have returned they think I may have been brainwashed or manipulated by the nation.

After two weeks in North Korea I can tell you this, it is indeed an incredible place to visit. Everything from the interesting people, stunning nature, and glorious monuments make it simply awe-inspiring. Obviously travel to North Korea has its concerns, and I will cover these stereo types and issues in this post. I will also show you a side of North Korea that most have never seen before, as I traveled overland to the north-east coast from Pyongyang.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Talked politics with this guard on the DMZ

The truth behind my choice to go to North Korea is because I didn’t want the media to dictate what I thought about this country. I was quite frankly sick of the cliché’s, the hate, and how close-minded people are when it comes to North Korea. With this post, I have no intention of changing anyone’s political views, starting arguments or instilling any negative notions towards North Korea and its amazing people. This is my unbiased guide/story into the most secretive country on earth, North Korea.

Photos – Off the Beaten Track North Korea

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Pyongyang City view from the Koryo Hotel

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Wonson Harbour

Photo – While walking around Wonson, North Korea. I got the chance to hang out with some local fisherman to see what they were catching. Locals here were very friendly!

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Photo – In the remote North East Corner of North Korea near Majon, you can get a taste of rural North Korea. Here towns are made in traditional Korean style, and ox carts replace trucks!

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Photo – In Central North Korea, tunnels are decorated with flags and serve as the only way to pass through the counties beautiful mountains.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Photo – North of Pyongyang a North Korean monk poses at the entrance of a 1000 year old temple.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Photo – In North Korea’s remote northern mountains Buddhist temples can be found. This temple undertook many renovations after it was bombed during the Korean war.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Photo – Surfing in Majon, North Korea’s North Eastern coastal regions.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Photo – While crossing North Korea we stopped at this beautiful remote waterfall in the central interior.

DPRK or North Korea?

When you first arrive, you will hear your guides referring to their country as the DPRK. This is a question I often get asked, why do they call it DPRK and not North Korea? To North Korean’s their country is called the DPRK, The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. This is referring to their desire to have a united Korea, which includes South Korea. North Koreans believe that the war is not over, and the South is still a rogue state that belongs to them, so there is no North or South Korea just one united Korean nation.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Pyongyang’s busy metro

If you don’t want to offend the people while traveling in North Korea, then I highly suggest you get in the habit of referring to their nation as the DPRK, and not North Korea. My opinion on this is, why not? It’s their country and they can refer to it however they choose to, we don’t live there so why are we deciding on their name?

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Statues dedicated to the warriors of the Korean War

Dos and Don’ts

While in North Korea there are some obvious dos and don’ts. But just because some things are obvious to some, doesn’t mean they are to all. So, for your convenience I will cover a few things you should do, and of course a few things you most definitely should not.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang’s Centre

Dos

  • Bow with your guides in front of the leader statues
  • Refer to the country as DPRK and not North Korea
  • Tip your guide and drivers
  • Answer questions honestly – locals want to know your opinion!
  • Talk with everyone
  • Challenge locals to bowling matches
  • Learn basic Korean
  • Buy propaganda and other fun shit
  • Offer your guides Soju (Rice Wine)
  • Take photo of leaders in full frame i.e. Don’t cut them in half

Don’ts

  • Talk ill of the leaders
  • Talk about the “Rocket Hotel” in Pyongyang
  • Leave your hotel without a guide
  • Take photos of any military or police
  • Wander off from the tour
  • Tip in front of others (do it in private)
  • Fold the face of the leaders on a newspaper
  • Steal (we all know why I put this)
  • Take photos of people without their permission
  • Say bad things about DPRK while phoning home (common sense)
A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Widow/Cheerleaders in Wonson

Are You Free There?

This sounds ridiculous, but many people ask me how much freedom you have there. The honest answer is as much as your dollar stretches. While traveling in the DPRK you really can go and do whatever you feel, but for this you will need a specialized private tour. On basic tours you will be given options like bowling, BBQ dinners, and theme parks. If you get your own private tour you can go and do whatever you please!

While I was going solo in the DPRK I was able to drive out to the mountains and visit Buddhist temples, bicycle around Pyongyang, and go bar hopping at night. In a nutshell Tourism in North Korea doesn’t mean you’re in prison! The only one rule that is very apparent is you must be accompanied with your guide at all times. Your guide will translate, give history and cultural information, and probably be a life long friend.

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Wonson’s remote coast

Can You Take Pictures?

This is a subject that can be very frustrating to answer. People ask me this and I tell them yes! But not of everything. People look at me like they just caught me defending some crazy dictatorship. But here’s the truth behind why you cannot take photos of everything. North Koreans know that they have a bad image, and a photo regardless of what it might be, can be used to negatively portray their nation, even if it looks harmless!

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Pyongyang’s famous crossing guards

Here is an example. In the photos above you saw an image of a farmer with a wooden cart being pulled by a cow. It took a lot of convincing my guides to get this photo, why you ask? Well in most of Asia a cart being pulled by a cow is very common, but in a nation that is constantly being accused of not having enough food or money, this could look bad.

You see no matter what it is, in the wrong hands an image of a farmer taking produce to town can be twisted into an image of an impoverished nation on the brink of severe poverty. Be smart people, open your minds.

Is It Safe?

Ok here we go, this is where I will get bombarded with “haven’t you seen the news?” and “They imprison and kill tourists you lunatic!” Well the facts are yes, they have indeed imprisoned a tourist who did die. But I am not here to argue facts or talk about previous events, I am just here to give you my honest opinion.

North Korea is a safe country to travel! There it is, I said it. This statement is only true however if you understand where you are traveling. Do the research, and know that North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world, this is not the place to play around and test the government on what you can and cannot do. Its simple, know the rules, follow the rules, and listen to your guide. Do this and it’s a fun and safe place to travel to.

Is there internet and how to contact home?

This was the biggest surprise for me, yes there is indeed internet! While I was in Majon I not only accessed internet, I got on Facebook and made a 30 minute phone call home! Now during my two weeks I only saw internet in two hotels, but hey it’s a start.

Apart from the two internet access points I found the only other way to contact home is from the hotel phones. These however happen to be incredible expensive ($5 US per minute!). So unless you are some sort of millionaire, or you have a family emergency, I would recommend trying to do the Facebook call like I did!

A Look into the Real North Korea - Travel North Korea Guide

Brand new district in Pyongyang

Final Opinion

North Korea was one of the most fascinating, and culturally beautiful countries I have been to. I entered the nation with an open mind, and yes I most defiantly did leave with a new understanding of the DPRK.

I, like all people, have my opinions about the country, but I can tell you this; Many (not all), of my opinions have changed after visiting the county. Once I spoke with the locals and saw how the media had portrayed them so.

North Korea is a good country, filled with intelligent, and amazing people. If you have not been there I encourage you to do so before you form any opinions. Governments do not always speak for their people, a lesson we should all know from the course of history.

Travel free, and open minded, don’t let the hypocrisy of our ignorant leaders limit you. Travel without borders!

North Korea Travel Video

Uri Tours

When you finally make the decision to travel to the DPRK you will be left to the mercy of Google search to find you a company. Traveling here with a company is mandatory and there aren’t many that specialise in DPRK travel. Thankfully for Uri Tours they specialise in only one thing, and that is in travel to all corners of the DPRK. If you are looking for a unique “unseen” trip here then tag along with Uri tours as I did! Check them out here! 

Useful Information

Location: North Korea, DPRK

Tour Company: Uri Tours 

Currency: Use Chinese Yuan, it is the most widely accepted

Tips: Always ask permission before doing anything in North Korea! Remember where you are!

Guide Book: Bradt North Korea

      

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Stephen Gollan

Stephen Gollan

Uncharted Backpacker is a glimpse at the past nine years of traveling I have done. Now at over seventy countries I share my travel knowledge for you so you too can travel the world and see what wonders it has to offer.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Stephen i remember you when you were a lot younger you played with brandon down the street in blackdiamond. To see where you have gone in life is amazing. I would like to thank you for the excellent knowledge on DPRK. I only had the media version of DPRK i would now go there to see this very beautifull country the media can and does only show the dark sides of problems that is what sells papers such a shame the misconceptions that are portrayed .

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