6 things you didn’t know about a tour in North Korea

1. The driver cleans the bus before entering Pyongyang

If you take one of the longer tours to North Korea, say more than 5 days, chances are that you will visit places outside of Pyongyang. During these visits the drive might take you off the highway onto some dirt roads. As a consequence the bus will get dirty (duhh!). However, driving a dirty bus is not allowed in Pyongyang.

Each time, on the last stop before Pyongyang, the bus driver gets a bucket of water and a mob and cleans the entire outside of the bus.

2. Taking photos is allowed almost always in North Korea

Unlike what popular media wants you to believe it is usually fine to take photos. Of course some exceptions exist. It is not allowed to take photos in most museums, but this is no different from most other museums in western countries. Another exception are construction sites, because construction workers do not like to be photographed while on the job. At least that is what our guides tell us.

Usually it is no problem to take photos of statues and paintings of the leaders. However, you are urged to photograph the entire statue or painting.

BONUS: When leaving the country the photos on my phone weren’t checked. Although the search wasn’t thorough my phone was checked during entry.

leaders North Korea

3. Very little change for foreign currency

As you may know foreigners cannot use the local currency in North Korea. Instead tourists use US dollars, Euros or Chinese Yuan, where the latter will give you the best rates. Despite this it rarely happens that the cashier has the right amount of change. It happens regularly that the cashier hands you change in either a different currency or in bottles of water. Yes that’s right, bottles of water! You need these anyway, so I wouldn’t complain about it.

4. You will get very little sleep

Little sleep and nights of heavy drinking are not the things that pop to mind when considering a tour to North Korea. Yet, if you feel like it, this is exactly what happens. This is simply a consequence when you lock up 20-something westerners in an hotel with a bar. This is very good for group spirit and getting to know you Korean guides on a more personal level. Unfortunately, it leads to short nights and hangovers (what goes around, comes around).

Hungover guide North Korea

Unamused guide right after telling me he felt hungover

5. Sleeping on the bus is virtually impossible

On longer tours there are many long bus trips throughout the country. You might have the great idea to catch some sleep during these bus trips. However, I must crush your idea right away. The Soviets constructed most roads in North Korea, but the roads are now in desperate need of repairs. The bus is constantly shacking and rocking making sleeping virtually impossible. After two weeks in North Korea my record of uninterrupted sleep on the bus is approximately 15 minutes.

6. Your main activity on the bus in North Korea

As I mentioned before you will spend many hours on the bus. In Pyongyang it feels as if you travel through the city in an aquarium with one-way glass. People do not look at tourists at all. However, when the bus leaves Pyongyang this changes.

North Koreans living in other settlements stare at the bus as it drives past. When you wave at them they will smile and wave back at you. This is very satisfying, because it is one of the few moments that you actually connect with the locals. Albeit very briefly. This is one of your main activities on long boring bus rides.North Koreans waving

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