How I Got Into North Korea As A Malaysian Tourist

My boarding pass had my name spelt wrongly, but who cares!

  • How I got into the mysterious country called North Korea

    • Many of my friends and family thought that North Korea wasn't opened to tourists and they were extremely shocked when they found out where I went.

      Their first questions to me were: "Can go one meh?"

      Well, the answer is definitely yes, because I just came back safe and sound.

      Here are some tips that I think is short enough to answer how I got into North Korea:

      1. You can't go on your own, so find an authorised travel agent that offers tour packages to North Korea (Just like any other country, only that there's a limited number, so dig more) – I chose Juche Travel Services.

      2. Your travel agent will help you apply for a tourist visa. However, as Malaysians don't require any visa, so just fill in a permit form for approval from the North Korean government. After a few months, you will get your approval.

      3. Choose your starting point (currently only Beijing, Shenyang & Vladivostok offer scheduled flights).

      4. Fly to the city you chose and then transit to Pyongyang by flight and meet your KITC tour guides there.

      5. TA-DA! Pay respect to the leaders!

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      • B299 Image via Reuben Teo
        My boarding pass has my name spelt wrongly, but who cares. I’m going to Pyongyang!
  • But wait, it's not that easy

    • Before leaving for Pyongyang, there are some rules on things you can and cannot bring into the country, especially books that are critical of the DPRK and also religious publications of any sort.

      Also, there are some things you have to bring along, for example, formal clothes and tie, torchlights, cameras, medicine, etc.

      All of these rules and tips will be reminded by the travel agent right before you leave.

      Make sure you follow the guidelines and double check the list again and again in order to avoid any unnecessary trouble and mishaps.

      Oh, and good news for tech geeks like me, tourists are able to bring in smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Sadly, though, you won't be able to get any WiFi or Internet there.

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  • Flying to Pyongyang from Beijing

      • D2f0 Image via Reuben Teo
        National Carrier of North Korea – Air Koryo.
    • Their national carrier, Air Koryo, uses a Russian aircraft called the Tupolev TU-204-100. The aircraft may be Russian, but it looks very clean and was comfortable.

      In fact, its interior looked more or less like the Boeings and Airbuses I've taken.

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      • 791b Image via Reuben Teo
        Pictured here is the TU-204-100 used for international flights into the country.
    • The TU-204-100 jet came into service around 2008, and Air Koryo also have the TU-204-300 jet in their fleet.

      Although, it may not have the international star ratings, I'm sure it's still much better than Air Asia. It's also important to note that the TU-204 jets at Air Koryo are fitted with the necessary equipment to comply with mandatory international standards.

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  • The flight from Beijing to Pyongyang takes only about 2 hours

    • However, you can also take the train that will take some 20 hours to reach Pyongyang from Beijing, crossing through the Chinese border city of Dandong.

      The flight from Beijing to Pyongyang was quite comfortable. On the plane, we could get ourselves some copies of magazines to keep us company.

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      • 07e5 Image via Reuben Teo
        Safety Instructions and North Korean magazines are the best reading materials.
    • Also, they will be playing their safety video through the built-in LCD screen in the cabin.

      During the flight, they will play some North Korean movies or cartoons but I never really paid attention because I was too happy enjoying every single detail of the plane.

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      • Ce55 Image via Reuben Teo
        The beautiful interior of the TU-204.
    • To be honest, I was quite amazed by the aircraft as I didn't expect it to look so new and clean. I was expecting something that was old and rusty as if straight out from the Soviet-era. But I guess I was wrong and everything seemed okay.

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  • While the flight was comfortable, the food served wasn't

    • We were served this burger and a choice of North Korean beer or soft drink.

      The burger, however, wasn't good at all. It was cold and hard. The chicken patty in it felt like rubber and it certainly wasn't appetising at all.

      Still, while I somehow finished the burger, when they gave me the same meal on my flight back, I just couldn't look at it again.

      Since I was allergic to alcohol, I tried their soft drink. Not the best one, but it was much better than the burger. If you happen to go to North Korea, please do try their beer because everyone I know who went there said their beer was delicious and super.

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      • 2191 Image via Reuben Teo
        It may look good, but it didn't taste good.
  • In Pyongyang, it was a beautiful day for photography

      • 7cfb Image via Reuben Teo
        Arrival at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport.
    • When we reached, we were then transported from the plane to the terminal by a low floor bus. The new terminal back then was still under construction it seems, so we were led into the temporary terminal beside it that was rather small.

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      • B885 Image via Reuben Teo
        Unloading baggages from the aircraft.
    • After passing through immigration and getting our baggage from the conveyor belt, we had to pass through security.

      Security at Pyongyang airport is very strict, especially when getting into the country.

      They opened our bags and checked our electronic devices carefully.

      They looked and examined each and everyone carefully. Since it was my first time there, I was a little bit nervous. But after a while, the guards smiled to me and allowed me to proceed and I was greeted by my KITC guide.

      Everything was simple and there were no worries. Time for the tour!

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      • B5ac Image via Reuben Teo
        Passing by rows of the Air Koryo fleet.
  • The waiting hall inside the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport

  • Some photos I took from inside the terminal low floor bus:

  • It was now time for some domestic tour

      • 711c Image via Reuben Teo
        View of the sacred Mount Paektu from the Samjiyon airport.
    • On our 10th day in the DPRK, we had the chance to visit the sacred mountain of Mount Paektu. As a volcano freak, I have always been so eager to go there for a long time.

      In order to get to the volcano, which shares its borders with China, we had to travel to Samjiyŏn County. There's a rather small but cute looking airport located at Samjiyŏn.

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      • E4c5 Image via Reuben Tqeo
        The cute little Samjiyon Airport Terminal.
  • And they use this little tractor for baggage

  • At the airport, we took the smaller jet, Ilyushin Il-18

      • 8d1c Image via Reuben Teo
        Air Stewardess giving me the ‘Stop taking photos’ look.
    • It's old and doesn't look like your conventional commercial jet.

      Contrary to many photos of other Il-18 I had seen on the Internet, I found out that Air Koryo's Il-18 has actually been kept quite nicely and well maintained.

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      • 1737 Image via Reuben Teo
        An armed soldier stands guard before we could board the plane at Samjiyon Airport.
    • It's one of the world’s most durable and popular aircraft from the Soviet-era.

      A pretty reliable aircraft indeed. According to some sources, this jet was added to the fleet back in the 1960s. Job well done, Air Koryo!

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      • 4ffe Image via Reuben Teo
        The interior of the Il-18. Economy seats are in green colour.
  • Here are some photos I shot of the plane's interior:

  • The not so bumpy flight to Samjiyŏn took about an hour

    • After take off, you could feel that the plane constantly climbing and climbing as if it was going really high. But when I looked out the window, oddly it wasn't that high.

      However, once the plane got steady, everyone from the Aviation Tour was rushing in and out for photo opportunities.

      It was the first time in my life I had experience so many people in an aircraft moving about and snapping away photos as if it was a museum relic.

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  • Amidst all these, while the air stewardesses were having a hard time manoeuvring inside the aircraft as they tried to serve us our beverages, they displayed professionalism and were very patient.

      • Acbf Image via Reuben Teo
        An Air Stewardess with her jacket on and off.
  • The guy who sat beside me was nice enough to offer me his window seat. That's when I saw a glimpse of how low the plane was flying and how awesome the landscape across North Korea was.

      • 6ab0 Image via Reuben Teo
        View from the round windows are awesome.
  • After a not so bumpy flight, a bumpy ride to Mt. Paektu

    • I reached Samjiyŏn County and boarded the tour van to Mount Paektu, otherwise known as Changbai Mountain. It was a bumpy ride.

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    • After half an hour of a butt cracking ride, we had to take this old-fashioned cable car up the mountain. From the looks of the old cable car, I can just assume that it's a pretty durable device.

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      • 190f Image via Reuben Teo
        The classic and old cable car that took us up the mountain.
  • After reaching Mount Paektu, I could catch a glimpse of the crater lake called 'Heaven Lake' which borders China on the other side:

      • 4e3a Image via Reuben Teo
        A rewarding view of the Chonji Lake (Heaven Lake) on top of Mount Paektu.
  • I stayed in Samjiyŏn for two days, after which I flew back to Pyongyang. From there I took the same flight back to Beijing. Unlike the getting in part, the leaving North Korea part was fast and swift.

    • While the checking in process was similar to our airports, the security wasn't very tight when leaving the country, which was a contrast compared to when I entered N. Korea.

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  • This is the first in a series of posts about Reuben's North Korean adventures. As a contributor to SAYS, Reuben in the next couple of weeks will be writing more on what happened there and sharing with us all his other amazing photos from his stay in North Korea.

  • While we are on the topic, did you know you can now send your kids to North Korea during the summer holidays?

  • A version of this article originally appeared on reubenteo.com.

    This story is the personal opinion of the writer. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]

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