lifestyle

How I Got Into North Korea As A Malaysian Tourist

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

Cover image via Reuben Teo

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!

My boarding pass has my name spelt wrongly, but who cares. I’m going to Pyongyang!

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

Flying to Pyongyang from Beijing

National Carrier of North Korea – Air Koryo.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

Pictured here is the TU-204-100 used for international flights into the country.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

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.

Safety Instructions and North Korean magazines are the best reading materials.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

The seats on Air Koryo.

Image via Reuben Teo

The beautiful interior of the TU-204.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

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.

It may look good, but it didn't taste good.

Image via Reuben Teo

In Pyongyang, it was a beautiful day for photography

Arrival at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

Unloading baggages from the aircraft.

Image via Reuben Teo

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!

Passing by rows of the Air Koryo fleet.

Image via Reuben Teo

The waiting hall inside the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport

Image via Reuben Teo

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

The low floor bus that transfereed us to the terminal.

Image via Reuben Teo

Aircraft lineup at the runway.

Image via Reuben Teo

Air Koryo jets line up. I’m guessing these are the Tupolev Tu-134 (Correct me if I’m wrong).

Image via Reuben Teo

A very handsome looking Ilyushin Il-76 (Used for cargo).

Image via Reuben Teo

Dropping off some passengers who are going to board the Antonov An-24.

Image via Reuben Teo

It was now time for some domestic tour

View of the sacred Mount Paektu from the Samjiyon airport.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

The cute little Samjiyon Airport Terminal.

Image via Reuben Tqeo

And they use this little tractor for baggage

Image via Reuben Teo

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

Air Stewardess giving me the ‘Stop taking photos’ look.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

An armed soldier stands guard before we could board the plane at Samjiyon Airport.

Image via Reuben Teo

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!

The interior of the Il-18. Economy seats are in green colour.

Image via Reuben Teo

Here are some photos I shot of the plane's interior:

Mach meter, Hobbs meter and whatever meter found at the first class cabin.

Image via Reuben Teo

Air conditioning system.

Image via Reuben Teo

The safety card onboard.

Image via Reuben Teo

Seats in the first class are in blue. I don’t feel more spacious at all when seated here.

Image via Reuben Teo

What’s on the papers today?

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

An Air Stewardess with her jacket on and off.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

View from the round windows are awesome.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

The classic and old cable car that took us up the mountain.

Image via Reuben Teo

The cable car’s tracks.

Image via Reuben Teo

After reaching Mount Paektu, I could catch a glimpse of the crater lake called 'Heaven Lake' which borders China on the other side:

A rewarding view of the Chonji Lake (Heaven Lake) on top of Mount Paektu.

Image via Reuben Teo

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.

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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