Iknow, this story is fronted by a seemingly paradoxical title – North Korea has long been known as what must be one of the least fun nations in the world, after all. I mean, we’ve all heard stories about the strict laws, poverty is a generally-accepted condition, and you can’t even get on Facebook. No – fun and Pyongyang, the country’s tightly-controlled capital, have not been synonymous. But things are changing. I have now been to North Korea on several different trips, and my most recent visit inspired one main thought in my head: North Koreans know how to have fun.
I would like to first acknowledge the fact that many of the experiences in this story are not available to most of North Korea’s population. There is no burgeoning middle class as there is in China, and if you’re a North Korean who’s not prominent or wealthy, you’re likely not in a position to experience much of the fun enjoyed by the upper-class. It’s currently a sad state of affairs, but I recognize that the country is slowly but surely opening up. As more foreigners like me filter in, our influence could potentially give rise to such a middle class, who may then reap the benefits. It’s a hope, anyway. During my first visit to Pyongyang in 2009, I found a quiet city, whose wide open roads bore the weight of few cars, where traffic women robotically directed what little traffic there was, and propaganda posters were strewn throughout the place like billboards for the latest Hollywood blockbuster would be in New York City.
Though I’ve been back to the city a few times since, it was my most recent trip that really opened my eyes to a definite change taking place in the capital. The number of cars had vastly increased, though it should be noted that there were still far fewer than in any other capital city I’ve been to. That being said, it still represented significant progress to me. What’s more, I even spotted a few luxury vehicles, as well as brand new metered taxis. Taking this progress one step further, the once ubiquitous traffic women are starting to be replaced by far more practical traffic lights, which are dotted throughout the city nowadays. And if that weren’t enough, 3G phone service is now readily available, though it is expensive and locals are limited to domestic coverage.
And I was to discover all kinds of more exciting activities in the capital that showed me North Korea’s penchant for fun, despite its stark reputation. Amusement parks, water parks, and normal city parks are frequented by families who love to sing and dance, an active beer culture is enjoyed by North Koreans who love beer just as much as the rest of us, and there’s even a Dolphinarium. Here is my list of activities visitors can enjoy in North Korea’s capital, that’ll not only be great fun, but allow a glimpse into a culture of fun not well known outside the country’s borders.
Visiting a fun fair in North Korea is a great way to see locals having fun and to join in the amusement yourself. On my recent trip, I visited the Kaeson Fun Fair, which features brand new rides that have been specially flown in from Italy. I rode three of them, starting with a rollercoaster. The attendants had us lie down horizontally in a cage and strapped us in. The ride then whisked us through a series of flips and flops that whirled us around in all directions. It was pretty crazy.
The next ride was shaped like a large saucer, rotating in the air while we were tossed up to 120 degrees in each direction. I should have known it wasn’t a great idea to get on when I heard our guide’s pet name for it: the vominator. One of those with me who partook in the fun learned where that name came from the hard way. The final ride I took was again in a saucer-shaped contraption, but this one lifted us high above Pyongyang, offering us a treat of a view, with the Arch of Triumph lit up in all its glory. I hurriedly took a photo before we plummeted to the bottom. The ride not only allowed me to gain a new perspective on the city, but was also a huge thrill.
There are other fun fairs in Pyongyang, but they are practically relics now, and Kaeson Fun Fair is the one to visit if you want to experience the true thrill of a modern North Korean amusement park, while the others – Mangyongdae and Taesongsan – are more interesting for those interested in their retro rides.
The enormous Pyongyang Waterpark represents yet another opportunity to witness North Koreans frolicking during their downtime. The imposing, modern structure boasts outdoor and indoor areas. During my visit, the outdoor area was closed, but we were able to visit the indoor area, which was filled with over 2,000 people. At the building’s entrance, we were asked to put on shower cap-like covers over our shoes – I quickly realized that this was how they had managed to keep the place in such pristine condition. Never before have I visited a huge, busy place that was so clean.
When it’s open, the outdoor area of the waterpark is impressive, with vibrant slides winding their way throughout the park and the beautiful backdrop of East Pyongyang on the bank of the River Taedong. The park itself was impressive, with winding waterslides, thrashing wave pools, and locals enjoying it all. Also on the premises is a salon, a pub, a restaurant, billiards, and more.
Yes, it’s possible to get a real taste of Italy in the heart of the world’s most isolated country. And for anyone who may scoff at the thought of pizza in Asia – having perhaps tried some far-fetched attempts at a Japanese izakaya or a roadside stand in Thailand – they’ll be happy to know that this pizza is the real deal. Indeed, it was Kim Jong Il himself who had not just one, but three Italian pizza chefs flown in, who were tasked with training North Koreans to make the perfect Italian pizza.
This undoubtedly satisfied the leader’s 10-year obsession with pizza, though he brought in the chefs under the guise of wanting to bring the world’s famous dishes to his people. The country’s first Italian restaurant serves up authentic pizza and pasta, with ingredients flown in from Italy. There is also a hamburger restaurant in town for those who are so inclined.
Many are surprised to learn that North Korea, particularly Pyongyang, is home to a thriving beer culture. While I was in Pyongyang, I visited three microbreweries. By far my favorite was the Paradise Microbrewery, which was one of the highlights of my trip. It’s small and not quite as swanky as the other places, but the beer was outstanding, and it had more of a pub feel, with a great social environment. The Taedonggang Brewery was a nice, brand new space with pub food available that would not be out of place in New York or Seattle – it’s clearly a hangout for the city’s elite. There are also two hotel microbreweries – at the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Some of the best places to spot North Koreans at leisure is in the city’s many parks. On weekends and holidays, Pyongyangians head to the parks in droves for picnics, singing, and dancing. On my most recent visit, I happened to be there once during the May Day holiday, also known as International Workers’ Day, during which the big events of the day are sports matches and picnics. The parks were packed on this special day, and we had a great time, even being invited to participate in a tug-of-war competition with the locals.
Another popular activity in Pyongyang’s parks is target-shooting with toy guns. In the past, the targets were depictions of American soldiers, but those (thankfully!) no longer exist, instead having been replaced by more politically-correct targets.
The one thing on this list that may not be as surprising as the rest is North Koreans’ love for karaoke – a pan-Asian favorite activity. I was, however, surprised to learn that most North Koreans are actually quite musically-talented. Many of the karaoke bars are done up in the South Korean-style, with salons where the male clients are served by female attendees. During my recent trip, I visited a local bar, and my guide performed karaoke with the bartender. It was great fun.
A controversial topic in the international news media has been Kim Jong Un’s recent opening of a dolphinarium in Pyongyang, at Runga Theme Park, which also boasts rides and waterpark attractions. The dolphinarium is home to several highly-trained and mature salt-water dolphins and three endangered Antarctic Belluga whales. The facility was reportedly brought to the DPRK to improve the emotional lives of its people.
So, there you have it – a list of fun things to do in Pyongyang. Of course it is important that during any trip, one visits the cultural and historic sites that give context to the city and its position in the international climate, but hey – having fun is part of what traveling to new place is all about.