What is it like visiting North Korea as a tourist?

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Women performing a dance while the military parade is passing through. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — North Korea has always been on my bucket list. So when we found out that the biggest celebration in their country, Kim Il-Sung’s 105th birthday — which is probably the equivalent of Christmas there in terms of scale — fell during Holy Week in 2017, we felt that it was the perfect time to go. We stayed for five days and caught the big military parade on Saturday. That was the time when they were parading their nukes last year.

The process is quite easy, contrary to what a lot of people think. You can’t travel there independently or backpacker-style. Everybody has to go through an accredited travel agency. We ended up with Young Pioneer Tours. They had me with the line “for those who hate group tours.” They specialize in North Korea and other worldwide “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from” (That’s actually on their website). They’re the ones who fix everything, from flights (through Beijing), to accommodations, tours, visa application, etc. Once you go through them, you’re pretty much done with all the planning.

Upon arrival, I was quite nervous with customs because I’ve heard several stories about how they go through all your stuff, phones, and cameras. They didn’t have much time to inspect though, perhaps because there were a lot of tourists. They only questioned my Apple Watch and Fitbit as they are very strict when it comes to GPS. Good thing both didn’t have batteries during that time so I just politely told them that I turned them off and they would not be working for the duration of my stay.

They’re also strict with travel guide books and several literature. Bringing the Bible is a big no no, and of course, any material that would ridicule or oppose the nation. So don’t even think of bringing “The Interview.”

The guidelines during our stay were pretty simple, and a lot of them were common sense really. The number one rule is: Don’t do something ridiculous and avoid insulting their beliefs or ideology.

You can’t wander around alone as well, you need to be with a local guide at all times. Taking pictures is fine; the guide will tell you when it’s prohibited to take photos, which is usually any ongoing construction, the military, or anything that would put the country in a bad light.

There is no phone signal or any internet connection. You probably could ask the tour guide to get internet access, but that’s propbably only for an emergency. So we had five days of no contact to the outside world, which stressed out a lot of people back home, especially after seeing the news on the nuclear bombs being paraded in Pyongyang.

There are a few hotels for tourists, but it seems like almost everybody, if not all, stay in Yanggakdo Hotel, a huge hotel that looks and feels like it’s stuck in the ‘70s. It’s pretty cool actually, like you’re in a time capsule. The whole North Korea experience feels like you’re in a different time. And that feeling starts once you check into your hotel. There’s a huge new hotel that towers the North Korean skyline, the Ryugong Hotel. It looks like a triangular spaceship ready to fly. Construction started in 1987 and to this date, it’s still not open.

As for taking photos (I used a Fuji camera), I think we were lucky also that we came in during their biggest celebration, so everybody was just happy. Snapping photos here and there was fine, and everybody smiled. They paraded their military, which they were really proud of, and they were more than happy to be photographed. I don’t think you can do that on any other day.

North Korea The Monument to Party Founding. The three symbols are hammer, brush, and sickle, to symbolize the workers, intellectuals, and farmers. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea One of the many murals in North Korea. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea Tourist buses parked near the Monument to Party Founding. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea North Koreans hanging out near the river. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea A mural of Kim Jong-il at the Pyongyang metro station. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea Inside the North Korean Metro. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

They allow only the “best” part of the country to be photographed. Actually, even the itinerary itself is probably designed for tourists to see just these “photographable” areas.

Once you’re on the bus, you get to pass local housing. When you travel to the border, you get to see the countryside as well. They’d most likely tell you not to take photographs while on the bus, but some tourists would still do.

It was a special time when we went so it was, all in all, celebratory. But as we all know, they’re culturally very different. It’s nothing like anything else in the world. They respect and “worship” their leaders so much that I got the sense that they’re actually willing to risk their lives and die for their leader.

They treat their three great leaders as their fathers, to whom they offer flowers every morning. And during weddings, the first thing they do is visit Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s monuments to pay respect.

We experienced a lot of memorable things during our stay, like almost running for cover after hearing a loud “boom” while we were walking around the sights, only to find out it was just fireworks. In another instance, the local tour guide, suddenly panicky, ran and rushed so we all followed not knowing why or where we were going, only to find out that we just almost missed the parade and she just wanted us to have a good spot.

North Korea The Mansudae Fountain Park which is dedicated to the memory of Kim Il-sung. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

Photo-5.jpg Female officers during the military parade in 2017 in commemoration of Kim Il-sung’s 105th birthday. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea The Arch of Reunification, which looks like two women in traditional Korean garb, symbolizing the two Koreas. Photo by POMA MALANTIC


North Korea One of the weddings taking place during Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday. Behind them is the Mansu Hill Grand Monument featuring the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

Photo-12.jpg Soldiers waving to the spectators during the military parade. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

North Korea The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. It was built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

The pastel-toned buildings of Pyongyang has form an unexpected symmetry. Photo by POMA MALANTIC The pastel-toned buildings of Pyongyang form an unexpected symmetry. Photo by POMA MALANTIC

But the most memorable one was probably during our last day in Pyongyang. We got to the airport for our 8 a.m. flight back to Beijing, and finally told ourselves that we survived five days in North Korea. Then, as we were checking in, the airport officials and immigration officers just decided to leave. They left their posts and walked out of the airport without even saying anything to us.

We really didn’t know how long we were supposed to wait there as even the local guides were puzzled with what was happening. After about eight hours being stuck there, the guides finally started asking for email addresses of family or friends so they can send them a note that we’re okay in the airport (and I was thankful they did this because I told my friends that I’d contact them right away once I reached Beijing, and they all knew that I was supposed to be in Beijing at 10 a.m.). Cut to 8 p.m. and we were finally allowed to leave the country.

Up to this day, nobody knows the reason why we were all held up for that long in the airport. I guess it was a great way to end a once in a lifetime trip.