While backpacking in North Korea, we were based in the capital city of Pyongyang. North Korea is slightly different from other backpacking destinations because your tour company organises everything for you. I’m not normally a fan of this way of travel, until I met Gareth Johnson, and the lads and lasses of Young Pioneer Tours!! Young Pioneer Tours are far and away the best tour company to use for travelling to North Korea. Their motto is “group tours for people who hate group tours” and one of their staff members is fellow Northern Irish backpacker Chris Kelly. They are the cool backpackers choice as they are the cheapest and the best ones to party with plus you can get 5% off your tour if you organise through DSL! I’ve partied with the YPT guys in 4 countries now and loved my nights out with them.
So after getting my North Korean visa, flying from Beijing into Pyongyang, I needed a base in Pyongyang. We would be staying in the 5 star Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang. Yes that’s right – I stayed in a 5 star hotel in North Korea! FIVE STAR, baby.
I haven’t got round to reviewing the hotel yet so here’s my take on it, aiming to give some detailed analysis of the place so you know what to expect on your North Korean tour. I’ve done the best with my memory to remember everything as well as I could, there may be a few inaccuracies or changes but we were there in September 2013 and this should cover what the hotel was like then.
About the Yanggakdo International Hotel
The Yanggakdo International Hotel is the largest operational hotel in North Korea. With 1,000 rooms it can fit the most people. It has lots of shops, bars, restaurants and facilities inside its complex. It is also the second highest building in the country – the highest is the Ryugyong Hotel, also in Pyongyang. It has a 5 Star Rating (at least by North Korean standards).
The weird thing is that the YIH doesn’t have an official website or an Official Facebook Page!! For a 5 Star hotel this is really hard to believe, and I have yet to stay in another 3,4 or 5 Star hotel without either of those. In fact the Wikipedia Page on the Yanggakdo is providing the place with a free website more or less. The Yanggakdo is 170 metres (560 ft) high and has a slowly revolving restaurant on the 47th floor. The hotel is said to contain 1,000 rooms and a total floor space of 87,870 square metres (945,800 sq ft). The structure was built between 1986 and 1992 by France’s Campenon Bernard Construction Company and opened in 1995. It’s the hotel of choice for all YPT tours to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Getting to the Yanggakdo Hotel
Backpacking through North Korea is different to China and South Korea – you have some independence of course as it’s not Big Brother, but you’re never far away from your tour guides.
In terms of getting to the hotel though, you can’t just get on the Pyongyang metro and go here, there are no metro stations on the island. You will be brought here on your tour bus each time. If you have organised a private tour for smaller groups, sometimes you will use taxis, but for us on our budget, it was the tour bus every time. There is security on the bridge to the island.
Exterior of Yanggakdo Hotel and Yanggak Island
The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island called Yanggak Island, which sits on the Taedong River in Pyongyang. The hotel is about 2 kilometres from downtown “Pyongy” and due to its height it is instantly recogniseable. Yanggak Island is pretty big.
On the island itself there is a cinema and some leafy gardens. The island is surprisingly big! It makes a nice walk for sunset. It felt really odd to be staying in a 5 star hotel, on an island in Pyongyang.
Our guides have informed us that every time we arrive back at the island, we are not allowed to leave the island. There is security on the way in across the bridge, so please respect this. Despite its reputation, North Korea remains one of the safest countries in the world for tourists. You are well looked after – respect their culture and they will most definitely respect you.
We asked our guides if we could wander around Yanggak island and we were allowed to – there isn’t too much in the way of sightseeing but some nice views of Pyongyang and a pleasant stroll. Apparently there used to be a mini golf course on the island, but there are now some buildings built over it, including a Health Complex and a Cinema Hall.
I also found it crazy how there is a 30,000 seater stadium on this small island. That’s almost more seats in one ground than my favourite three football stadiums put together (The Oval, Dean Court and Windsor Park). A local league team play their matches here.
There was a lot of work being carried out on the island when we were there, as you can see from some photos I took from inside the hotel. This also restricted the paths we could and couldn’t take when wandering around.
The Reception Area
Once you go through the revolving doors, you are on floor 2 of the Yanggakdo Hotel. This is the reception area. You get checked in here and get your room key card.
We had a gold room key and were in Room 2425.
The reception is stylish, massive and elegant. The staff are warm, helpful and friendly.
The reception and lobby area is clean, modern and spotless. Though there does seem to be an emptiness in the air – like something is missing. It’s an odd feeling I can’t describe and I must admit I have pondered on it a few times since we left North Korea.
The reception area has a postal facility – you can get stamps and postcards here, though I did all of my posting from the excellent stamp shop in the city of Kaesong.
The reception also has an internet and telephone area. For a price you can use both facilities. We were here to get away from that so we didn’t bother.
The Lifts at the Yanggakdo Hotel
There are 4 lifts at the Yanggakdo Hotel and they all work. Sometimes staff join you in the lift. There is no floor 5 option on the lift, which is noticeable. Our guide, Chris told us not to go to floor 5. There will be a reason for this, explained later. One of the lifts offers a decent view over Yanggak Island.
Shops at the Yanggakdo Hotel
There are a few shops in the Yanggakdo Hotel selling a range of North Korean (Korean) and Chinese goods from further afield. If you read about my Blueberry wine and beer experiences in North Korea – then you will be glad to know you can buy both North Korean blueberry wine and North Korean beer here. Prices are reasonable. Payment is taken in US Dollars, Euros or Chinese Yuan. For us, we used Chinese Yuan, it’s just cheaper and easier. We were backpacking in China before and after the trip so this made sense.
1. General Shop
This general shop seemed to have the longest opening hours. It is on floor 2 of the hotel, near the reception and the dining hall. It’s open early morning and also late at night.
I found this to be the best place to buy cans of coffee and energy drinks for the day ahead. At night and for souvenirs, it’s also the perfect place to buy some North Korean alcohol – they have a huge range from local whiskeys to rice wine to beer to soju. Prices are listed in Korean Won but they have calculators at the till to convert it for you. I can’t remember exactly but a bottle of beer was about $1.50 US.
2. 2.Book Shop
The book shop sells a good range of North Korean books and souvenirs.
As well as North Korean books, it also has some souvenirs and back issues of the Pyongyang Times, North Korean’s English newspaper. I picked up a few free magazines on my flight and during my trip but if you want more local literature this is an easy place to buy it. We also visited a really cool bookstore in downtown Pyongyang though – and it had more selection and locals inside it.
3. Souvenir Shop
You’ll get plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs throughout your time in North Korea. But just in case, there is a souvenir shop in the hotel.
Please note the prices in it are much dearer than the rest of North Korea so you might not want to buy your souvenirs here.
4. Clothes Shop
There is a shop that sells some typical North Korean style clothes and this was on the 1st floor. It was quite odd because as well as clothes it sold sausages and alcohol. One thing North Koreans haven’t quite grasped yet is the idea to really sell separate products in separate shops. Like it makes more sense to put all the clothes in one clothes shop, or all the sausages in the same fridge etc. The willy nilly scattering or products in these shops (as well as some in downtown Pyongyang) was somewhat bewildering. In the Ragwon department store, I saw Arsenal FC shirts being sold next to flat screen TVs, cheese and washing powder! I am by no means a fuss pot, but I’d rather not buy a shirt in a shop that smells of Korean sausage, if given the option 😉
Restaurants in the Yanggakdo Hotel
Food in North Korea, as with South Korea, I found to be bland and average. Except for Kimchi which I like. But then again, I’m not a huge fan of Asian cuisine and I often say the same about Chinese and Thai dishes. But really, for me the food is something to eat only.
I wrote about my experience at the Barbecued Lamb restaurant in Pyongyang but sometimes you will just eat at the Yanggakdo Hotel restaurant. We had breakfast here each day in the main dining hall. Breakfast here is included in the price of your tour/hotel. However for an added price, you can also try the other restaurants in the hotel. We didn’t.
1. Pyongyang Cold Noodles Restaurant
Situated on floor number 1 is this a restaurant that specialises in cold noodles. We had the cold noodles one evening in a downtown restaurant so there was no need to eat here.
2. The Revolving Restaurant
The Revolving Restaurant was my personal favourite restaurant in the Yanggakdo Hotel. It revolves very slowly, serves up a decent buffet lunch and offers scintillating views of that non commercial Pyongyang Skyline.
There was also a darker beer being served up here and one thing that is good is that included in the price of your tour will be a limited number of beers, wine and soju. If you speak to your guides nicely, you’ll ensure you always have a beer included in your meals. This was a lunch and I got a couple of beers with it thanks to Rowan our guide. My girlfriend Panny doesn’t drink beer so I had hers 😉
The lunch in this restaurant was slightly better – the pasta was good and there was a good range of vegetables and meat. Plus the view makes it all the more spectacular. Undoubtedly this was a highlight and my favourite meal in North Korea.
3. The Main Restaurant
On the 2nd floor (to the left of the reception) is the main restaurant. This is where breakfast is served. Despite the fact that there is a huge range of buffet food at the breakfast, I still didn’t warm to the food much here. I took a lot of photos here but have included just a few from our breakfasts (and one dinner) here. Beer was served with the dinner. Tea and coffee was served with the breakfast as well as an odd red coloured juice.
Actually on writing this post and looking back, breakfast was decent enough. Tea and coffee was hot and strong and always good. The chefs were able to cook up omelettes and there were donuts which I used to put in a bag to take away to eat on the bus during the day time. But overall the food experience in this country was bland, similar to my food opinions of Myanmar and South Korea.
There may have been other restaurants in the Yanggakdo Hotel but those are the only three I personally visited (and ate in two of them).
The Bars in the Yanggakdo Hotel
Surprisingly there are lots of bars and restaurants inside the Yanggakdo Hotel. This is done so there is always something to do at night for foreigners, so they won’t venture off the island and go partying in Pyongyang’s top bars. You can of course do the cheap option and take a carryout up to your room (as I did one night to blog).
Though, as you may have seen, we went thrice at night in Pyongyang – to see the Mass Games, to eat Barbecued Lamb, to Kaeson Park and to visit some of the bars including “the Diplo”. However here are the best bars within the Yanggakdo Hotel Complex, so realistically you don’t have to leave.
1. The Brewery Bar
The Brewery Bar is my favourite bar in the Yanggakdo Hotel. They brew their own beer here and it is good. The bar is situated on the second floor (Floor 2) which is just by the reception.
A pint of the local beer was 22RMB (so around £2) and it was REALLY GOOD!
2. The Revolving Restaurant Bar
As mentioned, the Revolving Restaurant is on the 47th floor and is the bar with the best view of the city. You normally come here for a meal though instead of just a party but the beer is good, the experience unusual and the views outstanding.
If you want a sneaky balcony view of the Yang, head down the steps to the 46th floor and out onto the terrace.
3. The Bowling Bar
The Bowling Bar also on the first floor (below the reception) is a good place to pit your wits at bowling against your backpacking buddies and the tour leaders. This was the cheapest bar on the complex.
4. Pyongyang Casino
There is also a Casino in the Yanggakdo Hotel as well as lots of fruity machines. I’m not much of a gambler myself but I popped in for a look. You cannot take photos inside the Casino itself (the same for most casinos) but there were a lot of people in swanky suits playing poker and blackjack! I remember getting lost and a bit confused walking round but I’m nearly sure this was also on the first floor, down a staircase by the reception.
5. The Karaoke Bar
Karaoke is massive in Korea and you might remember I was in the Noraebangs of Seoul in 2011. Here in 2013 I headed for Karaoke with my buddies. The karaoke bar serves alcohol and all the songs are available in Chinese, Korean and English.
I played a Michael Jackson cover to complete the Korean double (I had sang it in Seoul in 2011). The Amazing Marawa sang the Copacabana while Huiyen and Rowan treated us all to Barbie Girl!
So as you can tell to have a choice of 5 great bars in the hotel is quite amazing. There may be even more if you explore around the place. We also found a games room for pool, snooker and darts which was licensed so there are at least 7 bars if you also include the dining hall. There is also a Chinese massage parlour.
The Rooms at the Yanggakdo Hotel
We were on the 24th Floor and had a large room, in two parts. It was room 25 on floor 24 so room 2425. I must stress that no matter what tour you take, travelling in North Korea is a very busy trip so you really don’t have much time to yourself and you won’t get much sleep or spend too much time in the room. Here is an overview of our room none the less.
1. Comfy Beds in Bedroom
In the large bedroom we had 2 single beds rather than a double. Obviously we had asked for a double when we applied for the tour, but I’m not a fusspot and don’t like to create arguments so we didn’t complain (I personally hate people that moan about stuff like this).
The beds were really comfy and easy to sleep in.
2. Large Sitting Room
The sitting room has two settees (sofas). There is a small table and I used it for doing my blogging on. There is no WiFi so it’s a great chance to get some offline blogs typed up and one of the chapters from my upcoming book Backpacking Centurion was written right here in North Korea!
There is also a fridge and a kettle. I kept my beers chilled in the fridge but we were so busy we didn’t use the kettle.
On the shelf there are cups, glasses, spoons and a bottle opener. There was no mini bar and no tea or coffee was provided sadly.
The bath room is basic for a 5 star. The hot water comes on after turning the immersion on. The toilet works, the shower works and it’s relatively clean.
4. Wardrobes and Cabinet
There was a wardrobe and a cabinet to keep things in. They also provided us with a laundry bag and laundry facilities are available at a price.
In the wardrobe were two pairs of Yanggakdo Slippers.
5. Desk and Information
There was a desk with a TV on it and some seats. There was a calendar, a mirror, an information booklet on external phone calls and a lamp.
6. Television with BBC
Yes perhaps the biggest surprise was seeing a television in our room that had BBC news on it in English. I made a video of it which is one of the videos at the bottom of this article.
7. No WiFi
There is no WiFi available in the Yanggakdo Hotel for guests. Internet is available in reception for a price. Due to government restriction by the North Korean government, a lot of sites may be unavailable. The only time I checked the internet in North Korea was when we were in Pyongyang library and the three sites I checked – Google, YouTube and Don’t Stop Living were all blocked. Take the hint and use your trip as an offline period. If you work online like me, let your clients know you are going to be offline and if you blog, write all your blog posts in advance like I did.
All rooms have a window view and the views are great. I won’t dwell on it much as unless you’re there it’s useless but here’s a photo.
Here are just a few other photos from the room and our floor.
Check in and Check Out Times
Check in and check out times vary depending on your tour. We were able to get an early check in at 1.45pm on arrival and we had to check out before 10.30 am on the day of departure before we headed on a train to China.
The Secret Fifth Floor at the Yanggakdo
No doubt all those “Self Titled Western Authority Experts” on the subject of North Korea will jump on the whole “Destructive regime bandwagon” but for me I don’t buy any of their shit or want to hear it from ill educated keyboard stars. If you want to have an opinion on North Korea – go there and see it and lose your status as an arrogant capitalist westerner. I have no time for Twitter twats or keyboard warriors (mostly people from the UK and USA) who slam the regime in North Korea when their own countries allow rape and murder daily and continue to open St*rbux and DickMonalds every week when there are starving people out there, not just in North Korea but in Rwanda and Somalia. So if you really care, don’t tweet me about it – put your money where your mouth is – sell your iPhone and put the money into supporting refugees. As for this guy who claims he “smuggled a video camera through customs”, well if you were in North Korea (as you were), you will know there is no customs, there is no strictness and I brought three video cameras into the country, my girlfriend had two. There is no “smuggling” about this so quite how you claim to have smuggled stuff into North Korea is baffling. Why not just tell the truth – that you backpacked here like everybody else and you can bring anything you want into the country as long as it passes airport security 😉
The fifth floor at the Yanggakdo Hotel is not on the list of available stops on the lift and it’s off limits for tourists. Yes that might sound suspicious – but it’s their country isn’t it? I respected this and I didn’t go to the fifth floor. Now according to our legend of a smuggler friend, apparently floor 5 is a concrete bunker full of propaganda and he took some photos of that. Looking at them – nothing out of the ordinary and who cares if they hate the USA? Lots of countries do, including Vietnam and Iraq. Floor 5 is also apparently the surveillance floor where it is alleged “they” are listening to your every word, filming you and recording you. Well quite frankly I think this is bullshit. Nobody has the time in their day or their life to spend listening to other people’s lives. Nobody. We all get on with our own lives. Maybe if there are some high profile visitors to the DPRK, then the surveillance team will put them in a wired room so they can listen in. But when we were there our tour group added to the other tour groups meant there were about 300 – 500 people staying in the hotel at the time. So yeah they recorded 300-500 conversations hoping to find one idiot slagging off Kim Jong Un? Yeah right. Not worth their time of day, or yours, or mine. That said, I knew I’d be asked about stuff like this, so I had a look around our room and didn’t see any suspicious wires or did I ever suspect that the staff here and North Koreans in general actually give a shit about what some Northern Irish travel blogger might say, or what my Belgium and Norwegian friends on the tour might say. The truth is they don’t care. They care that their country is the greatest in the world and that their leader Kim Jong Un is the saviour. That is what they believe and you learn this at their victory parades and the Mass Games.
The truth remains – there are more murders in the USA every year that should be prevented than there are in North Korea. North Koreans believe that the USA has infiltrated the south part of Korea and with St*rbux and DickMonalds on every corner who is to blame them? If the peninsula of Korea is to be united into one country once again, it needs to suit both the traditional North Koreans who have a communist mindset and the commercial South Koreans who are all about money and globalisation. I don’t think it is about the USA to intervene. It is about Korea. Having visited both countries, it is clear that the southern part of Korea has been influenced ridiculously by the USA and is no longer as real as the northern part in terms of being authentically Korean. South Korea is commercial, capitalist, outward and global. North Korea is communist, ancient and inward. So yes there is a fifth floor at the Yanggakdo and it might be a similar experience to my visit to the top floor of the Hotel Viru in Tallinn, Estonia which was once a KGB headquarters. I have yet to write about that and when politics and war rears its ugly head on my travel blogs, buck eejits without a clue get involved, so we’ll leave it at that.
Things the Yanggakdo Hotel Didn’t Have
While the Yanggakdo Hotel was a great hotel to stay in, as a 5 Star Hotel you might have expected a little bit more and here is what was missing that are reasons why perhaps it should really only be a 3 or 4 star. Let’s not forget I once worked in a basic 3 star hotel in Bournemouth which had all of the below (except number 2)!
1. No Swimming Pool
It was a 5 star hotel, so I was slightly disappointed to hear that there was no swimming pool or sauna/steam room.
2. No Brewery Tour
Since they brew their own beer “allegedly” in the Brewery Bar, a brewery “tour” would have been nice.
3. No WiFi
I’ve mentioned that they have no WiFi before – this can be a good thing of course and in my case I’ve no qualms as I was happy to have a bit of offline time. But most tourists will want it.
4. No Free Tea and Coffee in the Room
There was a kettle in the room, but no free tea and coffee.
5. No Safe
Most 5 star hotels should have a safe to lock away your valuables. Your stuff is safe here of course, but a safe in the room would have been nice.
6. No Room Service
Admittedly you can just get your own beers etc. and bring them up to the room, but there was no room service option as far as we could tell, unless in an emergency, which for a 5 Star is shocking.
7. Free Maps and Leaflets at Reception
Normally hotels keep free maps and information leaflets on tourism in the city. This one didn’t and I had to buy my own map of “the Yang”.
So head to the Young Pioneer Tours website and join Gareth Jonhson’s barmy army on tour of the DPRK. Trust me – you’ll have a great time and you’ll be opened up to a whole different world from the way the South Koreans see it.
Here are some of my videos from my stay in the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea:
Disclaimer – I visited the Yanggakdo Hotel in September 2013 and all photos and videos are mine and were taken then. All the information was correct during my visit, it may have now changed.