Ever wonder how North Korea looks like? Are you curious to know how people go on with their daily lives there? How about visiting the border that separates the North from the South Korea?
During our vacation to Seoul last month, we availed a tour service from Panmunjom Travel Center, which basically gave me a partial answer to the questions above. There were various tours to choose from that includes DMZ or Panmunjom / JSA. We initially chose the one with JSA, however there was an ongoing military training that time, thus we were left with the Special DMZ tour.
By the way, DMZ or Demilitarized Zone is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula into North and South, while JSA or Joint Security Area is the only portion of DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand face to face. It is often called as the Truce Village in both media and military accounts (credits to wikipedia).
On the day of our visit, we went straight to the meeting place which was at Koreana Hotel. The tour that we chose started around 9:am, and it took us close to one hour before we reached our first stop.
Odusan Unification Observatory. Our first destination. This site is outside the DMZ, but included in the tour since it gives visitors some insights about the life in North Korea. Unfortunately, it was foggy during our visit, so I was not able to take great pictures of the place.
Upon our arrival, our tour guide first discussed to us the sites around before entering the observatory.
Then, we watched a short film which mainly informs us about the village in North Korea that we will about to see once we peeked through the binoculars. This village is a propaganda in order to show people how “lovely” life is in there.
We went on a short tour inside where various exhibitions are shown depicting the hopes of many for a unified Korea.
Afterwards, another video was shown to us in order to understand further the life of the people in North Korea. This was also the time when we met a North Korean defector (people who fled the North). She did a short slide show presentation and told us how she was able to escape from her country. The Q & A was done afterwards. It was devastating to know that the government controls the lives of the people there, they don’t get to experience the freedom and democracy that we enjoy.
Imjingak Park. The second stop for the tour, and we were given 15 minutes to roam around this place.
After visiting the Imjingak Park, we headed to a Korean restaurant where we had our Bulgogi Lunch (included in the tour price). We were given around 45 minutes to finish, and then we continued with the tour. Before going to our next destination, we switched to a different bus. This is the time that a military official board the bus and checked our passports one by one.
Dorasan Station. This is a railway station which once connected North and South Korea. It was recently restored with 2 trips everyday from Seoul to Dorasan, but no trips going to the North at the moment.
Dora Observatory. Located at the top of Mount Dora, this is also a place where you can see North Korea through binoculars.
The Third Tunnel. One of the four tunnels found under the DMZ built by the North Koreans, which they believed will be used for invasion. It is considered the most dangerous among the four since it is the closest to Seoul. There were traces of coal on the walls of the tunnel because it was initially disguised as a coal mine.
Cameras and Smartphones are not allowed once inside the tunnel. There are lockers available to store your stuff. People with walking difficulties and those with claustrophobia are not advisable to enter as you need to trek a long steep incline and the place is confined.
Then we went for a short stop to a souvenir store, that also sells some authentic North Korean products. I guess it was already 6:00 pm when we arrived in Seoul.
We had a great time during the tour, but as expected, it was fast paced. I found out later on that there were some great places that we missed due to lack of time. Anyway, I still learned a lot. I also commend our tour guide, Gina, as she provided great information about the two countries. She also kept the communication open through out the tour, so we can ask questions anytime. This tour is recommended to those tourists who want to be enlightened and educated on what is really happening to this part of the world.
Like most Koreans, I am also praying and hoping that someday peace will reign and Korea will be united as one.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- You need to join a tour to visit DMZ and JSA premises. I would advise getting the combined DMZ and JSA tour as it will give you a more complete experience.
- You can go on your own only to Odusan Unification Observatory and Imjingak Park. I believe there are buses and trains available to reach the place. Visit this website for more information for Odusan and this website for Imjingak Park.
- Advance booking for the tour is required as it easily gets fully booked and the slots for each day are usually limited. I suggest booking at least one month before your tour or earlier than that if you can.
- Your passport should be with you at all times during your visit. A military official will check it upon your entry and exit from the premises.
- Always listen to your tour guide and be always mindful of the restrictions during your visit. I felt safe when I was there, but keep in mind that these two countries are still at war, so anything can happen anytime.
- There’s a dress code to follow (see below). They said that North Koreans often take pictures of tourists who visit the DMZ, and they show it to their residents. We need to give them a good impression of what is life outside North Korea based on our neat and presentable appearance.
- There are a lot of Travel Centers that offer DMZ and JSA tours, available in different languages. But it is only with Panmunjom Travel Center that you get to meet and ask questions to a North Korean Defector.
- Our tour costs 77,000 won (Php 3,465) per person, the one with JSA was around 88,000 won (Php 3,960). The prices depend on the tour that you will choose.
For more information on Panmunjom Travel Center, you may click on this link.