Sep 20 2009

North Korea: There’s no escape from the Yanggakdo Hotel, Communist Resort, and Casino

by in Asia, North Korea

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 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).

Hotel bar

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.

Hello, 1970s

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).

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36 Responses to North Korea: There’s no escape from the Yanggakdo Hotel, Communist Resort, and Casino

  1. From LaurMkor:

    You lied…you said you werent a journalist!

    Posted on September 20, 2009 at 8:39 pm #
  2. From Lindsay:

    lol, having a blog does not equal journalist 😉

    Posted on September 20, 2009 at 9:37 pm #
  3. From Adam Cathcart:

    Great stuff, thanks for posting it. Very luxurious indeed! Will there be further updates with Mass Games analysis? It appears you have quite a bit of material on North Korea. Glad to discover your blog.

    Posted on September 21, 2009 at 1:02 am #
  4. From LiberateLaura:

    Thanks the voluminous amount of photos you have shared, this is the best sense I have ever gotten of what the infamous Yanggakdo Hotel is like. Kudos.

    Posted on September 21, 2009 at 1:05 am #
  5. From Lindsay:

    Glad you enjoyed the post, and yep, got plenty of Mass Games photos and other stuff that I will be posting.

    Posted on September 21, 2009 at 7:42 am #
  6. From Erica:

    The first thing I noticed was that the windows opened in the hotel! I was shocked. Glad you wrote about that.
    Also, did you go to the Golden Spring Island Sauna?

    Posted on September 21, 2009 at 9:37 am #
  7. From Lindsay:

    Never visited the “sauna”, er brothel, as the rumor goes…

    Posted on September 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm #
  8. From john:

    Great, great stuff! And rare. Thank you for the courage to go there, and the great photos!

    Posted on September 22, 2009 at 1:41 am #
  9. From ...:

    Is that Mr Lee bowling on the left?

    Posted on February 25, 2010 at 6:57 pm #
  10. From Lindsay:

    No, those were some random Chinese guys.

    Posted on February 26, 2010 at 11:25 am #
  11. From Patrick:

    Interesting that the casino sign is in traditional Chinese, which has in the communist era been typically associated with capitalism.

    Of course, it could be Hanja, which doesn’t use simplified. But still, why use the evil imperialist characters?

    Posted on April 11, 2010 at 9:48 pm #
  12. From Brianna:

    Courage to go there? The regime is hoping that she is a useful idiot. That’s the only reason they allow tourists in their potemkin cities, to bring back false reports of how awesome Communism is.

    That said, I’m not actually accusing you of being a useful idiot. You sound like you more or less get it, even if you do hail from CA. Just out of curiosity, did you actually sing God Bless America in your hotel room?

    Posted on April 19, 2010 at 3:41 pm #
  13. From Lindsay:

    Eh, really the only reason they allow tourists in is so that they can collect hard currency.

    And no, I didn’t sing “God Bless America.” I prefer “America the Beautiful”.

    Posted on April 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm #
  14. From Bruce:

    Too bad the US will probably bomb this hotel and so many other things in North Korea.

    The North Koreans are moving forward despite US sanctions and neo cons like George Bush.

    Posted on August 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm #
  15. From Brad:

    Get over it, Bruce.

    Posted on August 21, 2010 at 1:53 am #
  16. From MSF:

    Guys, 5th floor is a MUST SEE!! (notice that the elevator buttons skip the 5th .. it goes.. (… 3, 4, 6, 7, …)

    Posted on August 24, 2010 at 11:30 am #
  17. From Bob Davies:

    Hi Hello from a Scotsman living in Australia, I am trying to obtain a golf club scorecard from the Pyongyang Golf Club can anyone PLEASE help me out.
    Scottish Bob

    Posted on December 1, 2010 at 10:14 pm #
  18. From Antone:

    You blog is so interesting !! I love all the detailed descriptions. I’m also surprised you are American because your writing “doesn’t look like” American, more European instead…or maybe it’s just my imagination 🙂 !
    I’ll keep reading !!

    Posted on March 30, 2011 at 7:33 am #
  19. From Dan:

    Hi, I’m enjoying your photos and records… but must say that you seem very sinical of North Korea and its people…

    Posted on August 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm #
  20. From Lindsay:

    Any chance you would be willing to sell your North Korea casino chip? My husband collects casino chips and I would love to surprise him with this one for our anniversary.

    Posted on September 10, 2011 at 7:04 am #
  21. From Lindsay:

    Hi Lindsay (nice name, BTW), no probably not. It is a pretty unique souvenir…but if I do end up going back there I will pick up some more.

    Posted on September 11, 2011 at 10:25 am #
  22. From ivan curtis:

    you’re lucky you didn’t play the golf course. there is no course map or hole numbers, the fairways have 2-foot rough, there are giant spiders and the greens have giant weeds and smell like sewage. stick to the slots.

    Posted on October 5, 2011 at 11:14 pm #
  23. From Curley Lanlong:

    Geezs!! Good stuff. I am going there next week. I grew up in the 60’ies with the ‘coming of age’ era, you know “all the way with LBJ” and Uncle Ho. I love your portrait of a country where the people are like you and me – PEOPLE.
    It is our governments that fucks us up!
    I work a little in Chins. I spent time in Cube and am going to Burma in November. The communist way is not unfamiliar to me. DPRK is one country that is unique and un polluted by western shit.
    Can’t wait.

    curley lanlong

    Posted on May 22, 2013 at 3:11 am #
  24. From Emma:

    I’m doing a project on North Korea all this really helped

    Posted on October 20, 2013 at 8:37 am #
  25. From George:

    Could you also write an article, in which you list all the food you received during your stay there?
    I am curious about it 🙂
    thank you in advance

    Posted on March 16, 2014 at 1:26 pm #
  26. From semiahmoowr:

    That was really interesting. Bleak comes to mind, though.

    Posted on October 23, 2014 at 12:35 am #


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