I’m on a serious mission to catch up on my latest travel stuff, so North Korea needs more posts on here. I didn’t just backpack the hell out of its charming capital city, Pyongyang, we also checked out the DMZ, the city of Kaesong and took the train north to Sinuiju on route back to China.
I have to say I loved North Korea, from a traveller’s perspective, it sure kicked the ass out of South Korea and Japan. It’s one of those countries that all your preconceptions of it, are torn to shreds when you actually visit the place! Incidentally, anyone wanting to visit can grab a handy 5% discount through quoting Don’t Stop Living when you travel with Young Pioneer Tours.
To the city of Kaesong then. This is a city of 200,000 people. It sits nicely just north of the border with South Korea. Try and get it included in any tour you do. I really recommend it. Mostly because you don’t want to go all the way to North Korea and spend your whole time in Pyongyang. Yes Pyongy is a top spot, but there’s some beautiful countryside, and then there’s the dreamy old city of Kaesong. Here’s a top 5 things to tick off when you’re there.
How to Get to Kaesong, North Korea
Currently access to Kaesong from the South Korea side is tricky, so get yourself booked on a tour of North Korea/DPRK to make things smooth and easy. Kaesong only takes about 3 hours maximum to get to, from Pyongyang. Public transport isn’t really an option for tourists at present in the country, so you’ll probably be in a shared private car or a tour bus, depending on your budget. The backpackers party bus to Kaesong was my choice. Beers allowed on board of course 😉 The countryside on route is also stunning.
1. Koryo Museum
This is probably the main event in Kaesong. The good old Koryo Museum. North Korea actually has quite a lot of museums. This one has a special history behind it. Once a Confucian Academy and dating way back to the Koryo Dynasty, long before the current regime, the Korean war and the divide between North and South. This is a really cool museum to get a feel for the real Korean history. Relics, mock houses, tombs and art show you the real Korea you dreamed of.
It’s a splendid courtyard setting too with a load of rooms. Your guide can explain everything to you, but it’s also written in English.
2. Koryo Songyungwan University
North Koreans are well educated folk. Kaesong has one of the country’s biggest Universities, and while you’ll have to ask to go inside and be with a guide, you can admire the building and watch the hoardes of students run out waving at you! It’s a totally massive building!
3. North Korean Stamp Shop
North Korean souvenirs are epic. The Stamp Shop in Kaesong is so good that it would be an absolute heaven for stamp collectors. You would not quite believe the vast quantity of North Korean stamps that are out there! I managed to pick some up and send my brother a postcard.
The biggest surprise was seeing a stamp with a Northern Ireland flag on it – from the 1986 World Cup. Sadly they didn’t have any spare.
There is a vast range of other souvenirs too. Fridge magnets, posters, ornaments etc. Almost everyone buys something here – it’s probably the best souvenir shop in the whole country.
4. Chomsongdae Park and Observatory
This place is cool for a few different reasons. One is that it sits at the end of a road out of the city centre and has an elevation. This makes it the perfect spot to look down on the city of Kaesong and admire.
It also houses a massive statue of Kim Il Sung and attracts a lot of flowers, wreathes and parades.
It also has some pretty gardens to walk around and more memorials. The weirdest thing was the whole park reminded me of Stormont’s parliament area in Belfast in my home country of Northern Ireland!
5. King Kong Min’s Tomb
Strictly speaking King Kong Min’s Tomb isn’t in the city of Kaesong, but the region. I’m including it here however as it’s a must see if you’re down that way. Most tours will stop off here on route anyway. Again you’ll get your fix of old Koryo era history as you wander round tombs in sparse countryside. It’s all too beautiful.
As well as this top 5, we also enjoyed the views of the city of Kaesong and lunch in one of the local restaurants. Here’s a photo of our Kaesong feast:
Here are a few of my many videos from Kaesong. You can find more on my North Korean YouTube Section:
20 thoughts on “Backpacking in North Korea: Top 5 Things to Do in Kaesong”
Thanks for introducing us to Young Pioneer Tours! I have been checking out their website since you first mentioned them a few months ago. They have been expanding their International and North Korea tour offerings big time to some really “off the beaten” path destinations, such as Eritrea and Haiti, as well as offering a ski trip in North Korea now!!!! Out of curiosity, which North Korean tour did you book with YPT specifically?
Ray recently posted…How to Prepare for the Winter Classic
It looks like you had a great time on this visit.
I often read that visiting North Korea is highly restrictive. You can only go on organised tours with designated tour guides. You can’t just go wandering off and venture into areas off the tourist trail. Was this your experience?
The NI stamp is cool.
Ray – they are a cool company – mainly cos I love the staff. They want their customers to go and party, enjoy their holiday and have a good time. I recently read a few other blogs on North Korea from different tour companies and they seemed less fun, more restrictive and certainly not a party atmosphere.
I’m hoping to do another tour with them at some point – their others tours are somewhat epic. Check out the Transnistria and Chernobyl stuff and like their Facebook Page – it’s a well run page with good PR and the odd funny story. Ski-ing there would be amazing!!
I thought I had mentioned before (can’t find the post) but I was on the NATIONAL DAY TOUR (9th September) – which included the Mass Games and Victory Parade!! It was brilliant and I promise to write more soon.
Safe travels, Jonny
The Guy – this is actually what annoys me a bit about some other travellers (have to admit it). Some travellers will not tell things how they are, often write about restrictions etc. and how dangerous places are. I’ll tell it how it is (hoping to write another story about this soon). But any preconceptions you had about North Korea will be torn to shreds when you get there. It is NOT highly restrictive. Visa easy to get. Passport check at airport, one of the easiest intros to a country ever. Plenty of time and chances to look around on your own (check my videos). Also if you have more money then you can actually pay to have a private guide where you can do a lot more – they will take you to a load of places that normal backpackers like me couldn’t afford.
As for wandering off – within good reason you can do what you want as long as you’ve told your guides, asked your guides and don’t do anything you wouldn’t do somewhere else.
The photo restrictions thing is worse in Northern Ireland than it is in North Korea. I felt more uncomfortable taking a photo in Belfast than I ever would in Pyongyang. Pyongyang is full of tourists – there are thousands of travellers there. Belfast just isn’t.
The only real restrictions on photos are don’t take photos of the mausoleum interior or of soldiers. Which I have to say are the same restrictions from any country the world over.
Don;’t believe the bullshit – head to North Korea. It’s a totally amazing country. Check out my other posts on drinking there, top bars, top night time activities etc.
Plus depending on the tour you pick, you will know how much freedom you have.
Really hope I can inspire more people to visit countries like North Korea and Iraq (where I’ve just been).
Safe travels, Jonny
That is great to hear Jonny. You are breaking down the incorrect perceptions set by the media which puts off many travellers. You have no agenda other than telling it as it is.
That is why I respect you for what you do. No where is off limits. Great to see you write as you do.
Thanks for the explanations.
I aim to write more about North Korea and its so called “restrictions” and it’s by far the safest country I have ever been to – no robberies, theft or even pick pockets. I felt safe even leaving my laptop in the hotel room. I’d say each year it’s getting more touristy and easier to visit. I’d head there soon before it becomes the next Disneyland!! Safe travels. Jonny
Johny, you are correct regarding everything apart having enough time of your own in NK. There is no enough time of your own as you are guarded all the time by 2 NK guides and you are not allowed run freely around. You go where you are told to go. I menaged to skip their watchfull eyes for some time and stand alone on a road and just watching suroundings. But never far away. Its just against the rules.
I went with YP in may last year, thinking of going again. Loved country.
Greetings to Chris from YP.
Thanks Ivan – yes of course some restrictions on North Korea – that’s just the way it is – but doesn’t take the sparkle off this amazing country. Safe travels. Jonny
You only hurt the people of NK with your BS about what a wonderful country it is. Maybe you should make your home there and blog about the government. We’ll see how long it is before you get fed to the dogs.
Hi Lin – we’ll agree to disagree. I try not to get political on my travel site and here am just highlighting the TOP 5 travel things to do in Kaesong!! It’s a travel site not a government site!! I’ve eaten dog too and didn’t like it, which you’ll know if you read my stuff on South Korea. Did you not like North Korea then? What country would you describe as “beautiful” if NK isn’t? Safe travels, Jonny
We know by satellite imagery that electricity is almost non existent in NK, at night did you get by with candles or flash lights? We also know the population in general suffers from malnutrition and in many areas outright starvation. Did you share food with any of these unfortunate souls? Did they let you visit the slave/work camps? Get to see any of the torture, rapes or executions that happen daily according to Amnesty International?
Will the slaves be building this new”Disneyland”?
Really, the fact is that you are either an incredibly naive dupe or a paid schill for the murderous regime of North Korea
Hi Rebecca, it seems you’re trying to judge my site or my post on something other than travel! This is a travel site for backpackers and travellers, not for people with political agendas. Do you live in North Korea? I can’t see how your experience there would be any different to mine. It also sounds like you come from what I would class as a “western perspective” i.e. brainwashed by media into thinking places like Ethiopia, North Korea and Mexico are horrendous third world countries. They’re not. They’re just different to places like U.S.A., France and England. At night the lights are turned off mostly – a lot more clever than “western countries” who even keep lamposts on and waste resources and electricity. Perhaps North Korea have got it right and the U.S.A have got it wrong. Malnutrition is all over the world Rebecca – why pinpoint North Korea for it? Countries in Africa are much worse and if you’ve travelled there you will know that. Yes I shared my food, but not with “unfortunate souls”. I shared it with North Korean humans who have as much place on this planet as you or I. There is more torture, rape and executions in countries like Venezuela, U.S.A. and Egypt daily than there is in North Korea, but again I went there for tourism reasons – not to criticise the government or their laws. All in all it’s a safe and beautiful country, and thankfully no Disneyland. I detest fabricated places like that. Hope you’re having fun wherever you are and safe travels. Jonny
In the 1930’s, the Soviet Union sponsored tours of the “worker’s paradise” that it had created. Credulous Western visitors came back to the US and Europe and gushed about the prosperity and freedoms enjoyed by the people they were shown in the USSR. Of course, an inconvenient detail, during this time, millions of it’s citizens were dying in slave labor camps and through deliberately created famines to kill off peasants who opposed the Soviet forced collectivization. Google: Gulag Archipelago, or read ” The Man-made Famine in Ukraine “and “The Great Terror” by Robert Conquest . Look up Walter Duranty and a book about his time partying in the USSR: “Staliin’s Apologist” .
You certainly are right about one thing: “It’s a totally amazing country”. If you have any curiosity at all about the truth about the regime in North Korea and what it chose not to show you, start with Wikipedia “Human Rights in North Korea”. After that, hopefully you will see your cheerleading for North Korea in a different light….that is, if you are not too busy enjoying the ” top bars, top nightlife activities” in Pyongyang.
Hi Jay – if you had gone backpacking with me in the last few years you would realise it’s all about the travel for me. It’s not about the political regimes. I grew up in a country much worse than North Korea so I know my stuff about politics and have worked with political parties before but I don’t normally post that sort of stuff on my TRAVEL blog. I also went to South Korea and Japan but yet have received more comments about North Korea on here. For the record, I hated Japan – found it much worse a regime than North Korea ever could be. Let this wonderful country get on with their lives before it succumbs to the ridiculous commercial nature of other places such as U.S.A., England and Germany.
Be interesting to read your travel stories from North Korea too – do you have them on a site. I’ll most probably comment just to disagree with you as that’s what you seem to want to do here!
I’m a people person and I hate conflict so try and enjoy your life.
Safe travels. Jonny
Hi Jonny, i’m brazilian, and let me tell you how important is those relates about the DPRK, you promote the humanization of a country, and also the humanization of a people. Here in Brazil, a capitalist country since ever, we still have hungry persons including children who live in the streets eating trash, violence (incluiding state violence). But no one say nothing! Just about North Korea! Why? Of course that the problem is not the abuse of human rigths, but the fact of NK be a socialist country.
Hi Nathaniel, thanks for the comment. Yes I was in Brazil and North Korea and loved them both. Of course, there are problems in every country we backpack but I focus on the positive and the wacaday. Stay safe. Jonny