Entertainment

Emperor Hotel And Casino Room Rates

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Room rates at the Emperor Hotel and Casino in Rason SEZ, North Korea. 780 RMB = 128 USD for the cheapest room, 1680 RMB = 276 USD for their top suite.

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Pipi Island and the Emperor Hotel and Casino – a custom gambling trip could easily be arranged if anyone is interested!

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Humvees, Pawn Shops, and 5 Star Bathrooms – North Korea’s Surreal Rason Casino

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

No visit to Rason, North Korea would be complete (at least for those interested in business or entertainment) without a stop at the Hong Kong investor owned Emperor Hotel and Casino. The second casino in North Korea (the original being a small dodgy room in the Yanggakdo International Hotel basement), the Emperor Hotel and Casino is located on a lonely stretch of coast with farmers and oxen tilling fields right up to the empty parking lots.

The lobby is spotless, the restaurant promising (but empty), and the signs politely remind Chinese gamblers not to spit. Visitors can only gamble if they exchange a minimum of 500 dollars into chips – we didn’t, so we couldn’t visit the gaming floor. Neither did we visit the dodgy Chinese massage parlor, but as per our guide’s proud recommendation, we did use the county’s only 5 star bathroom.

The casino has a fleet of Humvee vehicles reportedly confiscated from Chinese mafia gamblers who lost millions of dollars and refused to pay their debt. They left the Humvees instead, which are now used to shuttle patrons down from the Chinese border – they must have been on a run, we searched for the Humvees but the casino motor pool was empty.

And if this wasn’t all surreal enough, there is even an associated pawn shop for unlucky gamblers located on the road leading to the casino!

More pics of the Emperor Hotel and Casino:

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Rason, North Korea Emperor Hotel and Casino

Dodgy Chinese massage!

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


Chongjin Kindergarten Performance

With all the colors and adorable costumes, the Chongjin City kindergarten performance is my favorite student’s show in North Korea.  Below are photos from my April 2013 Chongjin kindergarten visit:

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


Pyongyang Military Circus Trapeze

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A trapeze artist prepares for the Pyongyang Military Circus finale – the inspiration for the film Comrade Kim Goes Flying?

Comrade Kim Yong Mi is a North Korean coal miner. Her dream of becoming a trapeze artist is crushed by the arrogant trapeze star Pak Jang Phil who believes miners belong underground and not in the air.

My friends at the Koryo Group continue showing the film around the world at select film festivals.  Don’t miss it at the Sydney Film Festival, June 5th – 16th, and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 19th – 30th.

With all the action just a blur I put my camera down to concentrate on enjoying the show; readers will just have to be content with more pics of the finale setup:

Pyongyang Military Circus, North Korea

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American G.I. Clown At The Pyongyang Military Circus

The Korean War era American G.I. clown is alive and well at the Pyongyang Military Circus.  Performed while the nets for the trapeze grand finale are being rigged, the skit always portrays the G.I. as the butt of jokes and as a helpless buffoon.  The skit changes with time, one past visitor reported seeing a performance where the G.I. repeatedly had his plate of dinner hidden on him by a cunning South Korean military cook.  The skit I watched had the G.I. beat up by a South Korean street bum with 4 legs.  Why 4 legs?  I assume the audience is meant to see the action via the perspective of the drunken American soldier, which of course is blurred, confused, and absolutely absurd.

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American Soldier Clown at Pyongyang Military Circus

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American Soldier Clown at Pyongyang Military Circus

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American Soldier Clown at Pyongyang Military Circus

And no, this is not a real American G.I., but a North Korean soldier with a fake nose and a heavy makeup job.


A Traffic Controller on Crossroads

A great film about my favorite ladies, A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is newly out with English subtitles on Youtube. In The DPRK the film is described as a romantic comedy, and while through a western perspective I found it neither, the film still provides a unique look into North Korean culture via their domestic film industry.


North Korean Craft Beer

On my March 30th- April 6th, 2013 trip I brought in Josh Thomas, a craft beer expert living and working as an expat in Hong Kong. This spring trip was customized for Josh’s Easter Holiday with a special itinerary designed around his passion, craft beer. After the trip I asked Josh to comment on his experiences with the North Korean brews he sampled, and the various venues we visited:

Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery

Josh Thomas and Ms Yu enjoy draft beers at the bar of the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.

You approached me to arrange a trip to DPRK with a focus on beer and nightlife. As a craft beer expert did the DPRK live up to your expectations?

It absolutely did! It actually far surpassed it. Like many things about North Korea, there wasn’t much information available about what the drinking culture was like there, but what I did know was that Koreans, North and South, love to socialize over alcohol and the rumor was that North Korean beer far surpassed the quality of South Korean beer. With the exception of a small number of American-style craft breweries in Seoul, this was 100% true! North Koreans do much more with much less and really seem to embrace the idea of experimenting with their brews. I fully believe that beer, being the one beverage found around the entire world, is a great unifier among all cultures. For me, as a home brewer and overall global beer nerd, I knew it would be one cultural aspect that I would share with the North Koreans. And it was true! Nothing was more special on this trip than the smiles shared over a beer, comparing and critiquing the beers, and talking about the differences between American beers and North Korean beers. There is no propaganda over beer, just real conversation, smiles, and drunken stumbles back to our respective rooms. And yes, North Koreans get hung over too.

We visited a lot of venues and drank a lot of beer on the trip, where were your favorites and why?

The best beers we sampled were found at the Paradise Microbrewery. Quite an interesting find in North Korea, it seems to operate as a highly independent brewing company, outside the confines of the state brewing Taedonggang Brewery. Unfortunately the brewer was not around when we visited, and the bartenders knew very little about beer and wouldn’t let us visit the back where the beer is made, but whoever made the beer seemed highly knowledgeable about beer. In my opinion the Paradise Pale Ale was the best beer of the trip!

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

Beers on tap at the Paradise Microbrewery bar.

Without a doubt the best venue was Yanggakdo Hotel. Not necessarily because they were my favorite beer we sampled, but because I was able to meet the brewer and even visit the microbrewery where they made the beers. It was a bit sad to see eight 25 gallon fomenters when there was no chance of them using more than one at a time due to the famine, but the smile on the young lady brewmasters face when I told her that I thought she had the best job in North Korea was the most heartwarming moment of the trip for me.

Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery

Josh Thomas and Jordan Harbinger visit the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.

Tell me about the craft beer served and the venues at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the Paradise Micro Brewery, and Taedonggang Brewery Bar.

Beer in Asia, recently imported American-style craft breweries aside, is largely based on American-German style pale lagers. These beers, like Tsing Tao in China, OB in South Korea, and Asahi in Japan are roughly similar to the American-German pale lagers like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. Fine for a hot day when you need a cold beverage, but not something I’d choose first – I said I’m a beer nerd, not a beer snob, I will drink a Tsing Tao on occasion, as I live in Hong Kong! I’d much rather enjoy a Harpoon IPA or Mikkeller Hop Bomb Challenge given the choice!

Interestingly enough, economic sanctions in DPRK have lead to an entirely different tradition of brewing, not found elsewhere in Asia. Electrical shortages, causing unexpected and spontaneous power outages, mean that the refrigeration required for lagers is simply impossible. Budweiser-style, largely tasteless, lagers such as is popular in South Korea (OB and Hite) simply cannot be brewed. As a result, North Korean beer is ironically a “steam beer”, the only type of beer invented in the United States. A “steam beer” (better known in the United States from the brand Anchor Steam) is simply a lager brewed at Ale temperatures giving increased flavor, a pronounced bitterness, and a greater body. Crazier still was their affinity for stouts and porters in the DPRK, serving us elegant Coffee Porters and Chocolate Stouts. Their own discovery and version of a Pale Ale was astounding considering the lack of formal brewing training available to the budding brewmasters. Speaking with one of these brewmasters at the Yanggakdo Hotel, I encouraged her to try brewing an American-style India Pale Ale, if she was able to get the hops imported. If I learned anything from the North Koreans, however, is that they make do with what they have. I’d love to try her result!

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Tell me about your experiences in the more local venues?

Well I’m a bit of a cynic. Some of the local experiences I truly believe were local. Some of the experiences I think might have had some actors planted to stand between the tourists and the real locals. The diplomatic club and the clam bake in particular were great local experiences. It was amazing to see some Koreans finally ‘let their hair down’ so to speak, and stop being mascots for their country, and start being real people. Over the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel clam bake I got to know our bus driver, Mr Lee. It was over this meal, while he poured petrol over live clams, blowing out his bottle when it caught fire, and downing huge amounts of “Pyongyang Vodka”, a 40% alcohol form of Soju, that I really became friends with this quiet and unspoken man. He was unbelievably friendly and never stopped smiling and really seemed to love hanging out with us whenever he could. He, more than anyone else, became my true friend while in the country. What surprised me the most was that he quietly told me that he used to be a soldier in the North Korean People’s Army. Its hard to wrap your mind around, as an American, this short, quiet, and friendly man was once a soldier in the army we seem to most fear in the west.

What was your favorite experience of the trip that was not related to drinking?

Undoubtedly the petrol clambake. Part of traveling around the world for me is trying local foods. North Korea, in the midst of a famine, doesn’t necessarily have “local” foods that they would be comfortable offering to foreigners without being embarrassed. Much of our food was simply iconic Korean foods such as kimchee, banchans, and prawn pancakes. The petrol clambake, however, was fully North Korean. Like much I saw in North Korea, they used unconventional means to solve problems by themselves. No charcoal or wood to bake clams? No problem. Just douse them in gasoline! Most people would think they clams would come out tasting of fuel, but I’m happy to announce that they were actually delicious. Fresh, clean, and tasting of nothing but clam!

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

Nampo Hot Spring Hotel petrol clam bake.

Would you go back? Suggest others to travel there?

I certainly would! Actually, I think the second trip would only be more fun than the first. Like anyone on their first trip to North Korea I was quite a bit scared going in. However, the nerves quickly dissipate when you meet your amazing guides and realize that you’re going to be just fine, but I can only imagine that a more relaxed mood going in will only enhance my second trip. I would highly advise anyone who can should organize their own trip and choose their own itinerary. To get the most out of a trip to North Korea, find an interest of your own that you can mirror in the North Koreans. They’re not the Taliban and they enjoy having a good time with any number of western things. If you’re a surfer, organize a surfing trip in North Korea. If you’re a chef, organize a local food tour. If you’re a cinema fanatic, get yourself into the Pyongyang International Film Festival! The options are literally endless and by organizing a tour that matches your own interests, you will get a greater insight into the culture and country.

American on the DMZ North Korea

Josh Thomas and a commander on the North Korea DMZ.


Return to the Kaeson Youth Park Fun Fair

In the Spring of 2012 I made a return trip to Pyongyang’s Kaeson Youth Park fun fair ; chilly nighttime weather meant less crowds and interactions with locals than on my first visit, but the experience was enjoyable  nonetheless.

I really only have new 2012 photos to add – I’m going to let my cometary from my 2011 visit tell the story.

Local North Koreans would wait hundreds in line for theses new modern rides. As visitors we paid in hard currency at a rate 35 x what the locals paid, at that price we got the privilege of jumping line and holding up the locals as we enjoyed as many repeat rides on the amusements as we wanted. We were told by our minders that the rides had all come from Italy – they were new and modern, and included old favorites such as bumper cars and the pirate ship swing ride, and new favorites like a lay down style roller coaster and the “Vominator”.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korean locals enjoy imported fun fair rides.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korean locals enjoy imported fun fair rides.

Pyongyang Kaeson Fun Fair

A nice view of the lay down roller coaster.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

A quiet chilly spring night at the fun fair.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

Bumper cars!

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

Bumper cars!

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

Old racing video game.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

Coin op skeet shoot game.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korean boy and his mom in charge of an old video game.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korean boy in charge of an old video game.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

Old racing video game.

Kaeson Fun Fair Pyongyang, North Korea

Old racing video game.

North Korean Fun Fair Food Stand

The burrito stand attendant.

In the end our Kaeson Youth Park Fun Fair escort served our group up a bill of over one hundred Euros. As I had seen elsewhere in North Korea, when hard currency is involved a fist full of dollars will get the job done, and our escort gladly accepted what we had with a smile. We never got to visit any of the old and decrepit fun fairs during our visit to North Korea. Some of the old fairs, such as the Mangyongdae, have games that feature the classic old US anti imperialist propaganda. Times are a changing and the most bizarre thing I saw at the new Kaeson Youth Park Fun Fair were booths serving up Mexican burritos.

The Kaeson fun fair was responsible for the creation of this blog – more accurately the use of my fun fair pictures under the creative commons license  in a sensationalized and entirely misinformed viral photo essay got me so upset that I decided to blog as accurate a portrayal of the North Korean tourist experience as honestly as I could.  I am truly amazed at how far this journey has taken me!


North Korean Nuclear Program

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Top North Korean scientists split the atom – photo by Joseph A Ferris III


Pyongyang Gun Range

Need someplace to get your gun range fix once President Obama takes away your firearms? Why not consider a trip to the Pyongyang gun range?

Guns, Girls, and Beer in North Korea

An afternoon spent at the Pyongyang gun range is my favorite activity in North Korea.  Here you can target practice using pistols and sport rifles, enjoy a few beers at the bar or over a game of pool, flirt with the cute North Korean rifle attendants, and even test your skills against live targets!

Pyongyang Gun Range Prize

For 5 € a shot you can take a crack at pheasants.  You get to bring home what you kill, but it’s highly suggested you give the bird to your bus driver as a tip.

Most companies running trips to North Korea don’t include a visit to the gun range on their itineraries – it’s included on all of my custom trips, as well as most scheduled trips with Young Pioneer Tours.

My related Pyongyang gun range posts:

Guns, Girls, and Beer – the Pyongyang Gun Range 2012

Bagging Your Own Breakfast – The Pyongyang Gun Range Pheasant Shoot

North Korea Shooting Range – Guns, Girls, and Beer!

I’m still looking for people to join up with my May 14th – May 23rd Mega Trip: Nampo, Sariwan, Haeju, Kaesong, Wonsan, Kumgang.

The more people who sign up the better deal I can give!


Dancing and Singing Waitresses of the Pyongyang Lamb BBQ Restaurant

My look behind the scenes of the DPRK tourist experience wouldn’t be complete without introducing the famous singing and dancing waitresses of the Pyongyang lamb BBQ restaurant. The girls are also available for catering; long time readers might have seen them cooking and dancing at the Mt Taesong Amusement park in my Ultimate Frisbee tournament post.

Cute, flirty, and always ready for a little dancing, relaxing with these girls is always a highlight of any trip to Pyongyang (at least for the guys) – they serve up one of Pyongyang’s tastiest lunches too!

Pyongyang Singing Waitress
Pyongyang Dancing BBQ Girls
Pyongyang Dancing BBQ Girls
Pyongyang Dancing and Singing Waitresses
Pyongyang Dancing and Singing Waitresses
Pyongyang Dancing BBQ Girls
Pyongyang Dancing BBQ Girls
My Secret North Korean Girlfriend


Paradise Bar and Microbrewery

For my April 2013 trip I’m bringing in a group of beer aficionados; top of their request list is for a visit to the Pyongyang Paradise Bar and Microbrewery.

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

The beer is cheap and tasty, if sometimes off color, and the facility is atmospheric and relaxing. Just don’t expect to hang with locals here; this may be a haunt for the North Korean elite but only expect to get a quick glimpse as they make their way to one of the brewery’s private rooms.

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

Pyongyang Paradise Department Store

The bar and brewery is located on the top floor of the foreign currency Paradise Department Store. A visit here to check out the goods and stock up on some beer snacks before going up to drink is often possible. Above our North Korean guide Ms. Han walks the aisles.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


More photos from the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

Gymnasts, dancers, and little stars perform at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace:

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace; a place for children of the privileged elite to spend time after school practicing sports, art, folk dance and music – and of course, show it all off with military like precision and forced smiles to groups of visiting foreign friends and tourists. More from this series linked below – all photos by Joseph A Ferris III

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Amsterdam Pyongyang Restaurant Closed

I fly to Europe in a few weeks and had plans to meet up with some of my Dutch friends for dinner at the Amsterdam Pyongyang Restaurant, the only North Korean state run restaurant outside Asia.  Unfortunately I just learned the Amsterdam Pyongyang Restaurant has closed, and not without a little controversy.

Their website claims that “due to holidays temporarily closed”, but news sources offer a different explanation:

This writes the newspaper. The tent was an initiative of two of Amsterdam that the ties between our country and the Asian dictatorship wanted to tighten. That did not work, because the owners had a fight with their North Korean personnel. The workers complained that they barely got paid and that there was exploitation. Director Remco van Daal was in turn the impression that the whole operation was a deliberate plan by the Koreans to gain access to the Netherlands and to obtain work permits.

Lowering of the whole affair has been provisionally fill of everything with North Korea faces. “We have done this out of idealism and we are very far. But it’s about. I do not think we ever go back to that country.” – internet translation from Dutch Telegraph article.

Singing North Korean Waitress Dandong, China

A lovely waitress sings to diners at the Dandong, China branch of the Pyongyang Restaurant – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

The Chosen Exchange chimes in with their own insights:

Accusations and counter-accusations abound: the Dutch partner says the restaurant was drained of money by the Koreans so they could start over without him, the Koreans say the Dutch guy didn’t pay his share, including wages.  Indeed, a court ruled yesterday that the employees are owed payment by the Dutch company.

Despite whatever hanky panky that lead to the closing of the Amsterdam Pyongyang Restaurant I still highly recommend you make a visit to one of their remaining Asian branches for a fantastic night of exotic dining and unique entertainment.  The list of cities with a Pyongyang restaurant can be found here, but make sure to double check locally before heading out.