Should we travel to North Korea? Michael Palin says 'yes'

18th Sep 18 | Lifestyle

The traveller shares his thoughts on the communist destination opening up to tourism.

It’s human nature to wonder what lies beyond locked doors, so it’s no surprise one of the world’s most secretive states holds so much allure. Whether you agree with their ideologies or not, North Korea is a fascinating place, and slowly, the communist country is opening up to the outside world.

Of course, all visitors must be accompanied by a national guide, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer wonder of exploring a society so different to our own.

For his latest TV documentary, Michael Palin was given unprecedented access for a Western journalist, and the country clearly made a big impression on him. Here, he shares some thoughts…

The colours are surprisingly bright

Michael Palin dancing with North Korean residents at the May Day parade (ITN Productions/Channel 5/PA)
Michael Palin dancing with North Korean residents at the May Day parade (ITN Productions/Channel 5/PA)

“People think of it as a grey, cold, rather bleak place, but it isn’t. The buildings themselves are quite bright. They have decorations in all the restaurants – lots of flowers and bunnies, which is a bit juvenile in some way. But they do love decoration. They love colour and they love to express themselves musically or in sport.”

It reminds me of China 30 years ago
“I didn’t see a tractor or a combine harvester or anything like that. All the work in the fields seemed to be done by hand. People had bicycles, so they were cycling, but there were quite wide roads with nothing on them at all. That did remind me of going to China 30 years ago. Little villages looked reasonably comfortable. But then you get to Pyongyang and it’s a city with quite handsome buildings and wide roads, and a hotel that functions pretty much like any Western hotel.”

Billboards are blissfully absent

Michael Palin in North Korea
(ITN Productions/Channel 5/Jaimie Gramston/PA)

“It has a very quiet, almost serene atmosphere. There’s no advertising at all – apart from the propaganda posters, which are not absolutely everywhere. The hoardings have pictures of people either celebrating learning or celebrating missiles. But there’s no consumer advertising, and that’s quite restful after a bit, because it’s always in your face here. You’re in a big city and yet it feels like a city that’s a film set, where you’re given your lines in the morning.”

I’d recommend it to anyone
“If someone said to me, ‘Should I go to North Korea?’ I would say, ‘Yes! Go’. But I think you’ve got to go there in the spirit we went there, which was not to judge and not to condemn, but to understand and learn.

3 ways to see North Korea responsibly

Pyongyang city and Tucheto River (Thinkstock/PA)
Pyongyang city and Tucheto River (Thinkstock/PA)

Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk) offer a 17-day ‘Pioneering North Korea Group Tour’,  including highlights of Pyongyang and the DMZ, along with several regions rarely visited by tour groups. Head to Mount Paekdu and the Paekdu Secret Camps where Kim Il Sung was headquartered in the 1930s and ’40s, and explore the beautiful landscapes of Mount Kumgang. Departing September 2, 2019, the trip coincides with the 71st anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK. From £3,400pp (two sharing), including flights from Beijing to Pyongyang.

Mount Kumgang (Thinkstock/PA)
Mount Kumgang (Thinkstock/PA)

Steppes Travel (steppestravel.com) can tailor-make a 13-day North Korea Highlights Holiday, where guests can observe local life in Pyongyang’s Moranbong Park, visit a centre for gifted gymnasts and harp players, and access a 1000-year-old Pohyon Buddhist temple. From £2,865pp, excluding flights.

Pohyon Buddhist temple (Thinkstock/PA)
Pohyon Buddhist temple (Thinkstock/PA)

Lupine Travel (lupinetravel.co.uk) operate multiple escorted tours throughout the year, with themes ranging from the Pyongyang Marathon Tour to the Kim Jong-il Birthday Tour. Those on a budget might be interested in the two-night Chollima Express Tour, which packs the highlights into a full day and uses local standard hotels. From £399 (two sharing). Flights extra.

Michael Palin In North Korea starts on Channel 5 on Thursday, September 20.

© Press Association 2018

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