the unpainted exterior of the yanggakdo hotel
The experience of choosing a hotel to stay in North Korea is quite unlike that of any other country. To put it simply, one does not get to choose at all. In the overwhelming majority of cases, accommodations are assigned without taking into account travelers’ preferences. That being said, options are rather limited. In the capital for instance, the number of hotels open to foreigners can be counted in one hand.
i wonder what the punishment is for feeding the turtles
During my trip to North Korea in 2013, I was booked at Yanggakdo Hotel – the largest functioning hotel in Pyongyang. Located on an island in the Taedong River, this is also the most popular hotel among tourists in the country. Its relatively inconvenient location is seen as a plus by North Korean authorities who don’t want foreigners wandering off by themselves in the city streets.
classic socialist style lobby
To say the hotel is massive is an understatement. Despite not having more than a couple of thousand tourists in North Korea in a given year, Yanggakdo contains around 1,000 rooms and easily bests some of the grandest hotels around the world in terms of room count.
Entering the hotel for the first time, I was greeted by marble – lots of it. In true socialist style, the lobby was as cold, colorless and impersonal as I pictured it to be. There was no bellboy to greet us at the front door and inside, the only staff we could see were the ones manning the front desk.
hallway leading to the rooms
Check-in was a breeze. I had no choice on the rooms with my guide just handing me my keys after obtaining them from the front desk. Like other visitors to North Korea staying at the Yanggakdo, I was assigned to one of the highest floors. Our guides also stayed at the hotel albeit at the lower floors.
My room was clean but felt much older than the 20 years that the hotel has been around. The hotel sleeping quarters had a retro vibe and were reminiscent of hotels in China back in the 1970s in terms of style and overall look. That being said, there was a flat screen TV inside the room and while I expected only to find local channels, I chanced upon the BBC. In the end, I resorted to watching the local channels which had a lot more entertainment value.
We had some of our meals at the hotel. While there were a couple of in-house restaurants including a Chinese, Japanese and Korean dining hall, our meals were confined to the aptly named #1 and #2 restaurants.
The food was fine, though looked a bit plain. It was a mix of traditional Korean and western dishes such as barbecued pork and a side of salad. Breakfast was a similar affair so I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.
Being a very large hotel and given its isolation from the mainland, the Yanggakdo has plenty of facilities to keep guests busy. One can choose between a karaoke bar, bowling alley, casino, plenty of souvenir shops and a pool.
Overall, the Yanggakdo served my needs just fine. One doesn’t come to North Korea expecting utter comfort or the lap of luxury and in this sense, the hotel was more than adequate. Aside from Kim Jong Il’s mausoleum, this was the only place we stepped foot on in North Korea that had air-conditioning. During the hot and humid days of August, that was definitely a plus. I must admit though that the Yanggakdo was not my first choice. If I had a say, I would probably choose the Koryo Hotel downtown which has a similar look but is within walking distance to the city center. Perhaps on the next trip!