I like to consider myself a backpacker. Sleeping in cheap but in the same time cool hostel. Choosing the best place to sleep, have a drink and make friends at the same time. When it comes to North Korea, you don’t have this option. To choose. Everything is chosen for you: the guides, the places you have to visit, the food and the restaurants you are about to eat and the accommodation place. You don’t have too many options, as a tourist to sleep in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Home stay is not an option; for me this you are the best place to sleep. I do hope to try a real home stay in Korea, someday.
Koryo Hotel, Pothonggang Hotel and Yanggakdo Hotel are the main options to sleep in Pyongyang. Did I mention I do not like to sleep in a hotel? The main reason is that I do not afford it and the second one is that I REALLY like sleeping in a hostel! Of course, I don’t say no to a 5 star hotel like Sun City Hotel in South Africa; that was a an awesome experience!
Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang
How to get to the hotel: don’t expect to book an airport shuttle. Or to take a cheap bus to the hotel. The only way is with your private bus/tour and two guides. The time transfer from the airport to the hotel is about 35 minutes. Sharp. There is no traffic so do not expect to have a delay and when returning to the airport to miss the flight back home!
Probably we will fall like Napoleon on St Helen Island when he was imprisoned and eventually passed away there. You cannot leave the island without a guide. Of course you can walk around the hotel alone, but there is no one there. On the island you can go to the Yanggakdo Stadium (a bit in ruin) and the Pyongyang International Cinema Hall. This year, it should host the International Film Festival. I wonder is Escape from Camp 14 will be shown! Beside this two site, I have seen several greenhouses; probably the vegetables which are given to the tourist at the hotel are grown here.
View from floor 39 of the Yanggakdo Hotel
Every year only 3000 tourists are allowed to enter DPRK. But this hotel has almost 1100 rooms. So all the tourists which Korea receives in one year can be all accommodated in the same day, one day a year. For the rest of the year, the hotel is empty. But there is Koryo Hotel, The Ryugyong Hotel which will have 5 rotating restaurants when it will be finished; for example Yanggakdo has only one but it was not rotating due to the lack of power. And they have just started the building of the brand new 5* hotel! All just to show the world that they have money. Or they expect that if you have hotels, the tourist will flock to your North Korea. But the infrastructure is poor, food is scarce and except few sightings are not so many to attract too many tourists!
As I was saying before you are not allowed to take walks alone on the streets. And during your stay in North Korea you will probably stay, during the evenings, only in the hotel. So the hotel must have all the facilities so you cannot get bored. And you won’t cause usually the day is so full that the first thing you have in mind when you go back is to sleep. Second one is that there are plenty of things to do like:
It’s not a mistake. You can go shopping in the hotel. In the lobby you can even buy a Swiss watch. The store was all the time closed and don’t know you can really buy one. But the other stores are open and you can buy perfumes, chocolate, books (there is a library at a level -1), drinks and other souvenirs.
The hotel shop – Pyongyang
2. Have a drink
Beside the main restaurants (Korean won, Chinese) there is a nice bar where you can have a local draft beer at a price of 15 RMB or a nice green tea. The only customers beside the tourists are some Chinese business man and a few coins from the elite class. So no reservation is needed. And you can watch along with the waitress a old, black and white Korean movie.
The tea restaurant and the small aquarium
Sauna, Jacuzzi, Swimming pool, Hairdresser, manicure and pedicure salon – plenty of choices for your body. So don’t forget your swimming suit.
Bowling or tennis table. One round of bowling is 30 RMB; bowling shoes and bowling socks are included. There are only 3 bowling lines and one person at the end of the it in case it gets broken. So you must have patience. It’s nice to invite the 2 ladies for a play; at the beginning they are a bit shy but they do know how to bowl! Probably when there is no tourist they have time to practice. The bad thing about this job is that there is no closing time, more or less. After we left some locals came to play and even it was late and the 2 ladies were on the edge of sleeping they had to stay there.
The bowling lanes – North Korea
Karaoke is huge in Asia and in South Korea as well. So the hotel has a karaoke room at level -1. Its a strange place to sing the soundtrack of Titanic and Celine Dion and the main image on the screen to be some girls in bikini! Seems they don’t censor quite everything in the DPRK!
6. Watch BBC & Kim Jong-Un
Believe it or not, the BBC is available in North Korea. Of course, it’s all about propaganda. I do believe that the diplomats there do have access to western television. It’s strange to see image from North Korea while being in North Korea! Or watch a show about trends, apps while the idea of the smartphone does not exist in the DPRK. One day, the main news was that the Koreans fired like 25 missiles into the sea. And the only way to find it was via the BBC!
On local television the only thing that you see is either KIM Jong-UN (not as often as I would have thought) and karaoke music!
The Malaysian Airline missing on news – BBC North Korea
8. Record your voice
There is one floor missing at Yanggakdo Hotel. The famous number 5 floor in DPRK and probably in the whole world. Some guys even made it there a few years ago! It is said that on 5 floors are the spying equipment. Hidden cameras and bugs are placed into your room. When I first entered my room I looked for it, but could not find anything. I am not an expert, it seems.
But here comes the first scary and funny store. After some drinks and a full visiting day, here I am in the room along with my roommate buddy, Daniel from Liverpool. And it crossed my mind: how a Korean Porn would be like? And I started to make the story and to direct it in my head: what the waitress would do with the border soldier and what Kim Jong-UN role would be. The phone only rings in the morning when the waking call us. Now it was 10PM; and the phone rings! Once, twice..did not have the guts to answer and asked Daniel to do it! He answers and listens in quite on the phone. With my voice shivering, I ask him who is. No prompt answer, but after a few seconds he hangs out and says with the a relief voice that was our Irish guide whom asked about some dirty laundry. The problem was not we never give any laundry to be washed! Were they listening to us and scared about the future outcome of our porn story, made the call?! Maybe or maybe not. We will never know for sure!
Faimos Elevator – Number 5 is missing!
8. Play the Casino
When I saw the Pyongyang Casino, I remembered the fantastic night I had in Sun City, South Africa. The difference was that I did not have enough money and even if you win, there is a chance not to get your money. Of course, there was no one at the Casino but some Chinese came here often and play!
Pyongyang Casino – The entrance
9. Morning call
There is not a robot machine, but your guide who is making the call. It was for the first time in months since I did not use my phone alarm to wake me up. To be honest, it’s more interesting this way!
10. Mail & Internet and Phone call & Photos
In the lobby we can find more services. First, you can make a call home to say to your friends: greetings from North Korea! Be careful, the cost per minute is about 3 euro; so make it short and don’t call too many friends.
You can send some postcards back home. For less than 2$ you can buy and send one; stamp included. And, they do make it home! A postcard from DPRK – PRICELESS!
Internet in DPRK is scarce and only few people do have access to a close intranet network. Here at the hotel you can send an email back home. Works like this: go to the lady ask her to send an email to your friend and she sends it; but not from your email address but from a special one! Probably will end in SPAM.
There is another weird service: you can develop your photos; more like having your photo with the hotel.
There are 6 elevators in the hotel. I do not want to know how it will be when the hotel is full or when there are more than 100 persons accommodated in the hotel. The average waiting time was 10 minutes; one way. So if you somehow forgot something in the room it would have taken half an hour to take it! Only 2 elevators were working. One was on exterior, glass and you could see the city from above.
Rooms & Prices
As I was saying before the hotel has more than 1000 rooms. That means there are at least 2000 beds in the hotel. To be honest, I do believe than only 5 to 10 floors are fully equipped. The rest might to empty. As I entered the room, I remembered when I stayed at the Rodina Hotel in Sofia: big, communist and white an old sawmill.
The rooms are big, clean and the view to be honest is very nice. The heat is on all the time, but you do have some blankets just in case you are too cold. Cable TV is available ( only 4 channels). There is even a tea machine in the room. I think the hotel is considered a 5* one. But in my humble opinion, I think it has 3+*.
The two big beds
I liked the bathroom – almost big as the room. The downside is the hot water: its running only in the morning between 7 and 9 and in the evening between 7 and 11. After that you can enjoy the Russian cold showers!
As regards the price, I don’t know how much one room cost per night. The Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang is not available on booking. I think one room can cost up to 90$. This would be the fare price.
Atmosphere & Stuff
Communism is the perfect world to describe it! I did live during the communism in Romania and I do remember the staff, the hotels and the services. Staff were friendly and always very formal to you.