Much like your choice of air carrier, there aren’t many hotels to choose from when planning a trip to Pyongyang. You can’t exactly go to priceline.com and put in a bid for a non-smoking room at a four star hotel with a great view and no covert listening devices hidden in the light fixtures. Perhaps in a few decades you will be able to do so, but for now you will find yourself at whatever hotel the tour company assigns you to. Ours was the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47 story, 1,000 room behemoth conveniently located on Yanggak Island in the middle of the Taedong River. Since, as a tourist in North Korea, you are not allowed to wander around without a guide, the hotel’s island location certainly makes it easier for the North Koreans to prevent you from doing so.
Our hotel, as seen from the Juche Tower
Thankfully, the North Koreans have filled the Yanggakdo Hotel with a wide variety of diversions to keep tourists occupied during those late nights when you would rather be out exploring the city. There is, of course, a bar (bizarrely called a tea room) that served delicious draft beer. We inevitably found ourselves here late at night (luckily, as to be explained later, our guides were very cool and did not take us back to the hotel right after our dinner/touring was finished but rather took us to bars and cafes so we could stay in the city for a bit longer. As such, we did not have hours and hours of free time at the hotel).
Surprisingly good beer
Sometimes, at 1am, we would go bowling. Of course, the North Korean guides (who also stay in the hotel while they are leading our tours, and thus have plenty of opportunity to hone their bowling skills) thoroughly schooled us.
In the basement of the hotel you can find the Egyptian themed “Casino Pyongyang”, which is owned and operated by a Chinese company, with North Koreans barred from entering. The casino was practically empty each time we ventured down there, and everything, from the faux Egyptian decor, to the old slot machines (you still pull the handle!) seemed to have been imported from 1980s Vegas, or at least a casino that had gone bankrupt and needed to liquidate everything. I am not a gambler at all, but did hand over 10 euros ($14) to try my hand at the slot machines and sic bo, which is like a Chinese version of craps. I actually won a few times, nothing big, but promptly lost all my winnings. I was ready to file a complaint with the North Korean Gaming Commission until two members from our tour group won $80 on the slots and $160 playing blackjack. I guess it was just me, then. Nevertheless, it was definitely a weird experience. While I was at the casino, I couldn’t help but think, “It’s 2am, and I’m sitting in a casino in North Korea playing the slots. This is so…fucking…bizarre.” Also, I’m certain that the casino was also the only place in North Korea where you could buy Pringles, which were behind a glass display case alongside cans of Coke and Sprite.
Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the actual casino.
I kept one of the chips as a souvenir
In addition to the hotel bar, bowling alley, and casino, there were billiards and ping pong rooms, several stores and restaurants (including one that revolved!), a barber and salon, banquet halls, business center (where you could place those 8 euro per minute phone calls!), a sauna, and karaoke room. Per tradition, we spent our last night in the karaoke room drinking beer and singing “Hotel California” and Dancing Queen” until 2am with our North Korean guides (and then went to the casino).
Outside the hotel was a nine hole golf course which cost 20 euros to play a round on. Our guide also told us that there was a driving range where you could hit balls into the river. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to do this since we had hardly any free time, but I would have liked to. Maybe next time.
Yes, there is DHL service in Pyongyang
Decorations for the national holiday on September 9
The business center
Obligatory Kim Jong-Il photos
Poor turtle in a tiny aquarium
North Korea is obsessed with revolving restaurants. I have no idea why.
I was on the 33rd floor of the hotel. Could use some interior decorating, eh? Usually the hallway lights weren’t on (or sometimes just a few were) in order to save electricity, which North Korea has very little of.
As for the room, I had no complaints, and it certainly seemed better than some of the hotels I have stayed at in the past (A certain Wyndham in Houston comes to mind. Ugh). When I first entered my room I threw my bags on the ground and ran over to the window (which you could actually open, whoa) to check out the view. I was not disappointed.
That bizarre pyramidal structure is the Ryugyong Hotel.
Tower of the Juche Idea on the right.
I then proceeded to go over every square inch of the room. I opened up all the drawers, hoping to find a copy of a book by Kim Il-Sung, which would be the equivalent of the Bible over in North Korea. I was a bit disappointed when I didn’t find one. Perhaps us foreigners just can’t be trusted with such a thing.
Prior to departing for Pyongyang, we were also told that our hotel rooms were possibly bugged, but it was unlikely that anyone was listening. I guess, then, it was unnecessary to turn on the shower and TV full blast when I had the sudden urge to sing “God Bless America” or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
How about we play a game of “Where are the bugs hidden”?
This calendar conveniently lists all important dates in North Korean history
Some sort of contraption
The 1970s called and wants its telephone back
I was surprised that they had the BBC, but nevertheless preferred to watch the DPRK’s channels, which had some awesome music videos at 6:30am.
I really hope I never have to consult this
Overall, the Yanggakdo was a good hotel, especially considering the location. Sure, it was a bit shabby and in need of some updated decor, but that was part of its charm, I suppose. The hotel staff was incredibly pleasant and helpful, always greeting you with a “good morning” and holding the doors open. Apparently, this was somewhat new, as we were told that the customer service was definitely lacking in the years prior. Maybe they hired Marriott to come out and train all of the staff members? What’s next, wireless internet and room service? (Yeah, right).