YPT’s very own Chris Kelly weighs in on his favourite things to do and see in Pyongyang.
Building in North Korea – Tower of the Juche Idea
It surprises me to hear customers commonly ask, “Aren’t you bored of returning to the same places in Pyongyang?” The answer is honestly, a resounding no! Regardless of how many times I have donned my suit to pay a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, walked up the steps and past the bronze busts at the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery, learned about the ‘handsome’ vase at the Koryo Museum, or singing along to ‘Pangapsumnida’ as the sweet sound of the accordion fills the room at the lamb barbecue restaurant, I have never, ever felt bored in the DPRK. But there is one place that excites me more than all others and on a good, clear day it could even be my favorite place in the whole world. That place is the Tower of the Juche Idea.
When I travel to a new city, I am partial to a good view and even before I first traveled to north Korea, I was unashamedly excited to visit the Tower of the Juche Idea. Due to a number of reasons, many viewing platforms across the world incredibly disappoint. But the long queues, exorbitant entrance fees, crowds of people on the platform, and unnecessary obstructions that plague other viewing points, do not do so here. With quick access, a lack of other tourists, a chest height stone wall separating you with the city, and with an entrance fee of just 5 Euro, the Tower of the Juche Idea does not suffer from the same drawbacks that buildings such as the Empire State Building and the Shanghai Tower do.
There is something spectacular about the city of Pyongyang and it is only by standing at the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea and taking in a panoramic view of the city that one can truly realize just how aesthetically beautiful it is. One second you are looking at canoeists in the Taedong River whilst a slight glance to the left might see preparations under way for a mass rally at Kim Il Sung Square. Take another look and you will see the May Day Stadium and a close inspection to the right will bring you to the colorful communist era housing blocks in East Pyongyang.
I do not exaggerate when I say I could spend hours standing at the top, leaning over the stone wall and observing the people of Pyongyang cycling by on their bikes, fishing at the banks of the river, queuing for buses, or simply chatting with friends. In any other city, it might not make for interesting viewing but this is Pyongyang, where simply everything is interesting.
Activity in North Korea – Munsu Water Park
Bar none, the greatest place to have non-alcoholic (recommended, not enforced) fun in Pyongyang! One of the most interesting experiences I had here occurred after the Pyongyang Marathon in April 2014, when, after foolishly ignoring the attendants advise not to do so, I went down the pink slide and ultimately ended up with a face full of blood and five badass looking stitches. On most occasions though, a trip to the water park has proven to be nothing more than just good wholesome fun and (no doubt to the chagrin of the western media who portray such places as being only for the ‘super elite’ ) it’s is full of local North Korean people from Pyongyang and beyond.
The indoor part of the park consists of a trampoline area, a rock climbing wall, badminton courts, lane pools, and water slides. One of the most interesting things about the water park is getting to see the latest trends in the North Korea swimwear market and, without getting too crude, lets just say people are often surprised that the ladies of North Korea are not quite as conservatively dressed as they may have originally believed.
During the summer months, the outdoor section of the park opens for business and it really is an sight to behold. There is something quite extraordinary about standing with a yellow inflatable raft on steps leading to a water slide, whilst chatting to a young North Korean English student from Nampho, and concurrently catching a glimpse of the magnificent Ryugyong Hotel looming over the entire city. In Pyongyang, ordinary things become extraordinary, simply by virtue of their existence. Munsu Water Park is one of these things.
If I could pass on one tip it would be to refrain from climbing to the highest platform in the diving area unless you are confident you will descend in a manner other than the stairs; the North Koreans will form a crowd to watch you and they will be extremely disappointed if you chicken out!
Restaurant in North Korea – Train’s Restaurant Car
I’m not sure if this is cheating because it doesn’t have a name and its not stationary but who says that should be part of the rules anyway! But honestly, my favorite restaurant in North Korea is the restaurant car on the train from Sinuiju to Pyongyang. Although I think the food is very tasty, It takes a lot more than just that to enjoy a dining experience. In the restaurant car, whether it be from our customers embarking on a first time trip to North Korea, North Koreans from Sinuiju visiting Pyongyang, or Pyongyangites returning home, a constant clinking of soju glasses and chorus of laughter run continually through the carriage. On the occasions when the windows are open and the weather is nice, there is no finer feeling than rambling your way on a train through the North Korean countryside, sipping ice cold beer and enjoying conversations with new friends as the gentle breeze sweeps into the carriage. Truly delightful!
Experience in North Korea – Marathon
There are some experiences that will live with a person forever and if for some reason, my taking part in the Pyongyang Marathon happens to fade from my memory, I highly doubt anything else will remain. Truly, it was not only my greatest experience in North Korea, but without question my greatest experience in life. Having the freedom to run the streets of Pyongyang whilst high fiving local Pyongangites standing by the side of the road and returning waves from those standing on their apartment balconies may not sound like much to some, but try telling that to any of the hundreds of foreigners who took part in the Marathon. After completing the race inside a packed Kim Il Sung Square, I witnessed and comforted people so overcome with emotion that they could do nothing but remain speechless. Afterwards, finding each superlative falling short, people found it impossible to conjure up their true emotions. I too am still searching for the right words.