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A Cambodian monk

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Khmer temples

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Off the beaten track


CAMBODIA > SOUTH-WEST COAST

Coasting along Leave behind Cambodia’s brutal past and delve into its hopeful present with a trip to the idyllic beaches and unexplored rainforests of the country’s south-west coast WORDS LUCY C.E JORDAN

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FAST FACTS s I walk Phnom Penh’s hot, busy peaceful, but not a ghost town. “What WHEN TO GO The best time to streets, tuk-tuk drivers call out to me. really strikes me in Kep is the sense of visit is from December to February, Do I want to go to S-21? The Killing Fields? isolation,” a fellow traveller, Dmitry, says. when the weather is dry, but not blisteringly hot, and the vegetation You can’t blame them for making an “But in a good way.” is still green from the wet season. assumption about a rucksack-toting tourist. Kep National Park looms above the However, during the wet season it After all, most visitors to Cambodia come town, and can be circumnavigated in rarely rains all day, the flights are cheaper, the tourists fewer, and the two hours – just long enough to warrant a for little more than a hit-and-run tour of its countryside lusher. rich and tragic history – the sublime reward at Knai Bang Chatt, a dazzlingly ACCOMMODATION Check out temples of Angkor Wat, or Phnom Penh’s white luxury hotel on the seafront. The our recommendations on P5. CURRENCY £1= 6250KHR macabre monuments to its bloody past: rates, which begin at US$115 (just less than (Cambodian riel). former torture camp S-21 and the Khmer £75) a night, are too rich for our budget, SEE tourismcambodia.com Rouge’s Killing Fields. but we savour the two-for-one happy But right now I’m not looking for hour cocktails as the sky blushes pink over Cambodia’s history. I’m looking for a taxi to meet friends the Gulf of Thailand. in Kep, to begin a more chilled out, and less touristed, The seafood in this town is renowned, and rightly so. exploration of Cambodia’s present day on the country’s Our waitress at Kim Ly, for my money the best of the south-west coast. restaurants in a row of stilt houses jutting out over the water, tells us that Kep crabs are particularly delicious because they spend half their lives in the mangroves, >> Kep An erstwhile favourite of the French and Cambodian elite, I find that even in Kep Cambodia’s history proves hard to THAILAND GETTING THERE escape. The town is dotted with the bombed-out bones of Fly from London once-grand seaside villas targeted by the Khmer Rouge Heathrow to Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA via Kuala Lumpur, with for righteous destruction. Malaysia Airlines from But Kep is vital, too. Colourful flowers and lush vegetaPHNOM around £708 return. PENH tion erupt from the ruins, and irrepressible goats have the (malaysiaairlines.com) run of the place (they bear no respect for personal Koh Kong belongings). Monks in ochre robes amble down rust-red dirt tracks, and local kids compete to give us directions to Kep the crab market, thrilled to practice their English. It’s tntmagazine.com/destinations

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DE S TINATI O N S AS IA Rabbit Island

Hassle-free beach time

and “it makes them fat.” After the waitress takes our order, we see her brother calmly wade into the pitch-black sea and pluck our still-living supper from a tethered wooden crate. They are unbelievably good – plump, succulent, and perfectly spiced with fragrant local green pepper. Mainland Kep doesn’t have a decent beach, but the scruffily idyllic Rabbit Island is only a 20-minute boat ride away. You’re as likely to meet a friendly puppy or a cow as a fellow sun-seeker here. Good seafood, cold drinks, and massages are on offer, but there’s no sense of urgency – it’s all tout-free and wonderfully laid-back. There are a few bare bones bungalows where you can stay, but don’t expect a scene – the handful of locals shut off their generators after 9pm.

Koh Kong Four of us then split a taxi to Koh Kong, and squeeze ourselves in for the five- or six-hour, US$70 (£45) ride. Until relatively recently, residual fighting and poor infrastructure meant Koh Kong remained largely untouched by tourists. Now new roads and bridges have allowed eco-tourism projects to flourish and help protect the area by giving a wage to locals who have historically logged the rainforest or poached to survive. We’ve opted for Rainbow Lodge, a solar-powered cluster of bungalows wedged in a verdant corner between the Tatai river and the edge of the Cardamom Mountains – an expanse of rainforest containing some of

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Asia’s most endangered species: Malayan sunbears, clouded leopards and Irrawaddy dolphins. The Cardamoms are widely considered to house Southeast Asia’s greatest natural resources in terms of forests and habitats that have never been fully explored.

He wades into the pitch-black sea and plucks out our still-living supper Janet, Rainbow Lodge’s British owner, sends a boat to meet us at the bridge where the taxi drops us and take us down river to our bungalows. Koh Kong is a great spot for energetic travellers, and we’re pretty busy over the next few days. We bike to a tangled, otherworldly mangrove swamp. We kayak up the Tatai river to a waterfall. (I’ve never seen so many butterflies.) On a day-trip to Koh Kong Island, which boasts almost painfully beautiful beaches, deserted but for a few yawning Cambodian soldiers, a pod of dolphins frolics in the wake of our boat. And, somehow, we also manage to spend a decent amount of time lying in hammocks, cold Angkor beer in hand, listening to gibbons holler and whoop in the trees, as though at a raucous party. I willfully push thoughts of returning to the city out of my mind.


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Photos: Dmitry Gudkov, Allan Michaud, Getty, Thinkstock

www.asiavipa.com On our penultimate night, we take Janet up on the offer of a night in the jungle. I love the outdoors, but remain a reluctant camper, having one too many grim childhood memories of wet holidays spent pathetically needling my teenaged sisters to play cards with me. But this is no dank Welsh hillside. After a few hours of trekking through the jungle, we reach a spot where the river snakes and flattens out into a wide, tranquil pool, and the vista opens up to reveal clouds settling over an adjacent peak. We dive into the water. Our guides pitch shelter and set up a barbeque. Despite the jungle’s cacophony, I sleep like a baby, well-fed and exhausted. It strikes me, lying there, that so many come seeking Cambodia’s history that they miss out on what might be a short-lived heyday for these quiet areas. This could be a tipping point – political stability and growth have allowed access to these remote regions, but that access has yet to be exploited in full by aggressive economic interests. In April, Prime Minister Hun Sen withdrew permission for a titanium mine in the Cardamoms after a campaign by conservationists. It’s a win, but it’s hard to say if this sudden eco-consciousness will last – the decision came as a surprise to many here, and his track record elsewhere hasn’t been great, to say the least. But for now, this part of Cambodia remains enchanting and feels a world away from the crush of Angkor and Phnom Penh’s intense museum circuit. Come see it while you can. n

Rainbow Lodge in Koh Kong is an incredibly scenic eco-lodge perched on the edge of the Tatai river, with the rainforested Cardamom Mountains stretching behind. There’s free access to kayaks for puttering about on the river, and Janet, the owner, can arrange trekking, boat trips and camping. Double bungalows are about £45pn for two people. rainbowlodgecambodia.com; janet@rainbowlodgecambodia.com

Wildlife Alliance has helped set up two CBETs (Community-Based Eco-Tourism projects) in Koh Kong, in Chi Phay and Trapeang Roung, both of which employ former hunters to run their tours. ecoadventurecambodia.org

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The world’s longest wooden bridge

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Get lost in the jungle

Making a splash

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THAILAND > SANGKHLABURI

Welcome to the jungle Ever heard of Sangkhlaburi? Exactly. We stray from the well wandered trail to find a Thailand that’s far removed from beaches, cocktail buckets and ping pong WORDS ALISON GRINTER

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s soon as I clap eyes on Sangkhlaburi, FAST FACTS The next day, our adventure is WHEN TO GO March to May can I know it’s the Shangri-La I’ve been supposed to involve white-water rafting be uncomfortably hot. It rains least waiting for. From my hotel balcony I can on the Song Kalia river. But the rain has and is less hot between November and February. see the sleepy frontier town set low in a made the rapids too powerful, so we go CURRENCY £1= 48.49 Thai Baht valley beside a calm, limpid lake dotted tubing instead. While floating down a river ACCOMMODATION with longboats. Two gold temples jut out of on the inner tube of a tractor wheel may Sangkhlaburi: P Guest House, Tumbom Nonglu. Accommodation sound lame, it’s brilliant fun – the sort of the lush foliage on the mist-shrouded hills and adventure packages from above. Hot, manic Bangkok seems like a simple pleasure you experienced as a kid. £17pppn. (p-guesthouse.com) distant memory to me now. Plus, with the strong current threatening to Bangkok: Navalai River Resort. Doubles from £60 per night (high From the capital we have travelled spirit us to Burma, it’s actually more of an season); £43 per night (low). north-east and stopped overnight in adrenaline ride than I’d expected. (navalai.com) Kanchanaburi, famed for its bridge over Back on dry land, there’s an SEE tourismthailand.org the River Kwai. The fast-running Kwai was undeniable ‘ah-this-is-the-life’ moment, as beautiful, and the town laidback, but the I sip a Leo beer in a bamboo hut beside tourist-infested bridge was enough to make us want to the river. If you get sick of drinking beer, there’s always the flee into the jungle – which is exactly what we did. local whiskey, Hong Tong – but it should come with a Peaceful Sangklahburi, 150km north of Kanchanaburi and warning: too much Hong Tong can make you ting tong a few miles from the Burmese border, fits the bill perfectly. (that’s Thai for ‘crazy’) as we’d found out the night before. We are now in Karen – pronounced ‘Callian’ – country Next, it’s time to explore Sangkhlaburi properly. The >> where the people make up the largest of the major hill tribes of northern Thailand. GETTING THERE In this part of the world, it’s almost obligatory to have Thai Airways flies daily an elephant ride, and our hosts don’t let us down. But this from London to Bangkok Sangkhlaburi from £598 return. being the tropics, it has rained overnight and our truck THAILAND (thaiairways.co.uk) journey via slippery roads is a white-knuckle ride. It’s still drizzling when we climb on to our beasts and go tramping through the jungle. My Indian elephant, Papoo, behaves impeccably and thankfully doesn’t start trumpeting wildly like some of the others when a group of Buddhist monks roars past in a motorboat.

BANGKOK

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DE S TINATI O N S AS IA BEST TOURISTY THAILAND Bangkok The bars, the markets, the ping pong, the street food: there’s a reason backpackers love Bangkok. Actually, there’s about 100 of them. Chiang Mai A quieter alternative to the capital, leafy Chaing Mai is still a backpacker mecca, but a more cultured one. Elephant rides, street markets, and the unique northern Thai food are big draws; also go check out the ‘monk chat’ at the Buddhist University.

Elephant trekking

original town was flooded when the reservoir was built in 1984, and remains underwater, a bit like the original town of Jindabyne in Australia. It is a fascinating blend of ethnicities with Burmese, Karen, Mon, Thai and Lao people all living here. It’s also home to the longest wooden bridge in the world which leads to the Mon Village of Wang Kha. The Mon people, who fled the oppressive regime in their homeland of Burma, now call Wang Kha home. Here you can get up close to the two gleaming

This part of Thailand barely gets a mention in guidebooks, but it won’t stay undiscovered

Ko Phi Phi With pristine white sand, soaring cliffs and turquoise waters, Ko Phi Phi’s reputation for otherworldly, paradisical beauty precedes it. It’s also a party island, so don’t come here for peace and quiet. Koh Samui Nightlife, beaches, shopping, budget bungalows, luxury hotels, Buddhist temples: this large island resort has something to suit all tastes. Koh Pha-Ngan Famous for the Full Moon Parties which attract thousands of hedonists each month. Koh Tao This tiny, scrubby island offers some of Thailand’s best diving. Free from massive resorts, it’s also a quieter brand of tourist trap. Krabi Forget sand and sea – with 700 climbs to choose from, Krabi’s dramatic limestone cliffs will entice climbers of all levels.

temples known collectively as Wat Wang Wiwekaram.

» Alison Grinter travelled to Thailand with Real Gap Experience. Prices start from £999 for four weeks including accommodation, airport transfer and tour of Bangkok and Kanchanaburi. realgap.co.uk

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Photos: Getty, TNT

Though this part of Thailand barely rates a mention in my guidebooks, there are signs it won’t stay undiscovered for long: the guesthouse behind our hotel serves flat whites to a soundtrack of groovy lounge music – the Western influence is creeping in. Go now, while it’s still off the beaten path. n


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DE S TINATI O N S A DVERT O RIA L

Kuang Si Falls

Feeding the big fella

Stray off the track Stray Asia is a ‘hop-on hop-off ’ travel network getting adventurous travellers further off the beaten track in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia

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t is true, public transport is cheap, but this only goes from point to point between the bigger towns, particularly in Laos, and it will not help you access the truly unique stuff that is well off the beaten track. Stray’s route visits remote villages with amazing culture such as Tha Bak, where you can ride in boats made out of old bombs, or Nong Khiaw, where you can learn to fish in a traditional way. The route also offers amazing scenery and wildlife such as elephants, tigers, bears, monkeys and turtles. We employ both Western and local guides who have in-depth knowledge of history and culture, helping you to get the most out of your trip. Combine these features with frequent departures and the freedom to break your journey at any point to do things like spending three nights in the rainforest with the gibbons, partaking in a mahout course, or learning Muay Thai boxing, and you really do have the ingredients for the perfect adventure! Stray has offices in both Bangkok and Luang Prabang, offering

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travellers a handy point of contact with the crew who are close to the action and up-to-date with what is happening at all times. Stray use their own buses in Laos to pioneer the wilderness, ensuring reliability and comfortable travel.

Take your time Stray urges travellers to take a bit more time to truly experience the amazing destination that is South East Asia. Do more than simply go to a ‘Full Moon Party’ and spend a few days in Chiang Mai and you will quickly realise how much you miss out on by not venturing further afield. Northern Thailand still offers a lot of great cultural and off-the-beaten track experiences, but Laos is particularly mind-blowing. This area only opened up to Western tourists in the Nineties, and, accordingly, the environment, the culture and the people are relatively untouched by the rest of the world. You will also be amazed by how far your money will go with great meals


STRAY TRAVEL

Good times at the White Temple

All aboard the Bomb Boats

for less than US$5 and guest-house accommodation still going for US$5 in many places. Stray Asia attracts adventurous travellers from all over the world, those who seek an amazing experience that is unique to each and every one of them. We have passes to suit everyone, whether you are travelling for only a few days or for months. Two of Stray Asia’s most popular passes are Tom Yum and the Big Wat.

The Tom Yum The Tom Yum pass explores northern Thailand and northern Laos (minimum 10 days, although you can hop off anywhere and spend longer of course). This is a comprehensive trip starting in Bangkok, beginning with a train journey visiting the ancient capitals of Sukhothai and Chiang Mai enroute to the northern Laos. Once in Laos, join the Stray bus and encounter the magic of the northern provinces; Luang Namtha, trekking central; Luang Prabang remote river villages and the monastic capital of the same name; Vang Vieng with its tubing and nightlife; and Vientiane, the country’s capital. Hop off the Stray bus in Vientiane for the overnight train back to Bangkok.

The Big Wat The Big Wat pass is designed for those travellers who have three weeks or more and want to see as much as possible

Fishing near Nong Khiaw

in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. This adventure Strays into northern Thailand, south through Laos, and on to Cambodia. By joining Stray in Bangkok, you can travel to Sukhothai and Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, enjoying a free day in Chiang Mai, before meeting the mighty orange Stray bus in Huay Xai, Laos. Experience Laos from the mountains and vibrant cultures in the north to the amazing culture, wildlife and wilderness in the south. Our southern circuit goes to some truly pioneering territory, including the Tad Leuk waterfall and wilderness camp in Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area, and the Kong Lor 7km cave; you also get the chance to to make new monkey mates by our remote homestay in Xe Champhone wetlands area. Head south through Cambodia on a local bus to the main highlights of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and then back to Bangkok. This is an incredible adventure that will blow you away! n

» Stray Asia offers great a range of passes, for varying time frames and start/finish locations, including our 5 Day Northern Heritage Route (The Long Thaang) covering important historical sites such as the Plain of Jars, and our unguided transport option to the beautiful Thai Islands and the home of the Full Moon party, Koh Phangan (The Bucket Pass)

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DE S TINATI O N S AS IA The Annapurna’s snowy peaks

The backpacker trail

Terraced rice fields

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NEPAL > COMMUNITY TREKKING

Take a hike Trekking the Annapurna mountains in Nepal is on every traveller’s to-do list. We discover how to do it and help the local communities along the way WORDS LISA YOUNG

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FAST FACTS n the early morning darkness I clamber herders charge their mobiles by using WHEN TO GO During the dry into a taxi that will transport me from the small portable solar panels. season, between October and peaceful lakeside town of Pokhara to Six steep hours of zig-zagging trekking May. October and November are the best months with consistently Naya Phul, a gateway to Nepal’s fill the next day, as we climb up to Kopra warm days, but they are also the Annapurna Range. Over the next few days, Ridge (3870m). busiest. December to February I will explore a new trek route, where my At the top of the ridge I’m greeted with is quieter, but can become uncomfortably cold at altitude. staying in locally run lodges will help widescreen panoramic views of the CURRENCY £1 = 126NPR support the community. mountains. Across the Kali Gandakhi (Nepalese rupees). The first part of the trail climbs Valley – the deepest valley in the world – ACCOMMODATION Try Annapurna Guesthouse in deceivingly slowly, then there is an abrupt the western skyline is totally dominated by Kathmandu. Rooms from £5pn. change of pace; the next two days require the Dhaulagiri Himal, bright white and the (hostelworld.com) me to climb a steep stone staircase through SEE welcomenepal.com world’s seventh highest mountain. small villages, forests and terraced fields to Kopra Ridge lodge is the highlight of the villages of Birenthanti and Ulleri. the community trek and profits have On average I’m walking six hours daily, covering up to contributed to a secondary school in the nearby village of 7kms, depending on the mountain’s incline. After the first Nangi. The ridge is home to a yak herd. Watching more couple of days, I enter into the territory of the new trek, than 100 of the animals coming down the ridge with the where there are so far very few tourists. snow-dusted Annapurna mountains and an incandescent Funds raised by local villagers and donations from orange-and-red sunset behind them is spectacular. >> trekking businesses, such as Imaginative Traveller, have enabled the locals to build and run lodges here. This CHINA GETTING THERE pioneering concept creates village rather than private Return flights from ownership, and profits from trekkers who stay at the lodges London Heathrow to Naya Phul Kathmandu, with a stop-off will contribute towards various community projects. NEPAL in Doha, cost from £497 The scenery here is lush and green, with ingenious contour with Qatar Airways. farming and immaculately cared-for terraced fields. (qatarairways.com) KATHMANDU Three days in, I navigate thick rhododendron forests until I reach a small herder’s settlement at the top of a ridge. This is my home for the night. It’s clean, comfortable INDIA and well-constructed. There’s no electricity, but the tntmagazine.com/destinations

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The following morning I rise with the sun and am traversing the ridge along a narrow path with steep drops and rocky terrain. The trail rises and falls all the way. My latest lodge boasts awesome views of the Dhaulagiri Himal, with the 6000m deep Kali Gandaki Gorge below.

Seeing 100 yaks with the snow-dusted mountains behind them is spectacular The last two days of the trek descend sharply from 3448m to 2100m, a drop of 1348m straight downhill for 7kms over knotted tree roots, past gushing waterfalls, across old landslides and through humid jungle. The temperature increases with each step I take. Down and down I go, through stunning scenery until I reach the beautiful Gurung village of Gandruk. Returning to Naya Phul, I head straight down a stone staircase through small farms. In contrast to the serene and peaceful mountains, I return to Pokhara and onwards to the organised chaos of Kathmandu. n » Imaginative Traveller’s 11-day Annapurna Community Lodge Trek tour starts from £495pp, including accommodation, transport, trekking staff services, porters and a tour leader. imaginative-traveller.co.uk

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Grazing yak herds

TREKKING TIPS Travel insurance is highly recommended before setting off. Take two water bottles. Avoid buying bottled mineral water. Instead pay a few rupees to the lodge staff for freshly boiled water – let it cool overnight. Take plenty of small Nepali Rupee notes as lodges struggle to find change. Tips are discretionary, but the going rate is £2 £3 for each porter and guide per day from each trekker. Avoid trekking alone in remote areas, especially if you are a woman. Carry a dry-bag or plastic rubbish bags to protect your gear from rain. Be polite and courteous to locals and fellow trekkers, ‘Namaste’ is the local greeting for a friendly ‘hello’.

Photos: Lisa Young, Getty, Thinkstock

View from Kopra Ridge


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Mansudae Grand Monument

Kumsusan Memorial Palace

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A guard at the DMZ

SOUTH KOREA


NORTH KOREA > WHAT TO SEE

Inside the hermit kingdom One of the world’s most mysterious nations, a trip to North Korea will earn you some serious kudos on the backpacker circuit. Here are the top sights to see WORDS LUCY CORNE

orth Korea is the world’s most secretive nation. Independent travel is unheard of; instead, tour groups are watched over at all times by government guides on an intense schedule – an exhausting but mesmerising peek into the totalitarian regime ruled over by Kim Jong-il (The Dear Leader) and his dead father Kim Il-sung (The Great Leader).

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Pyongyang Metro

Kumsusan Memorial Palace

Mount Paekdu

The final resting place of the Great Leader is the jewel in capital Pyongyang’s crown of bizarre monuments. You pass through a doorway blasting out cool jets of air into a room lit only by red bulbs. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dim lighting, you gradually make out the shapes before you – a glass case and, behind the glass, the embalmed remains of deceased head of state, Kim II-sung.

The alleged birthplace of Kim Jong-il is an extinct volcano in the country’s far north and a spectacularly beautiful spot. If you’re getting propaganda withdrawal symptoms, the Secret Camp and monuments to the Dear Leader’s glorious life will deliver your fix. Want more natural beauty? Try Kumgangsan, the ‘Diamond Mountains’ perfect for hikers, mountaineers and photographers.

Mansudae Grand Monument

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)

This 20-metre-high bronze statue of Kim Il-sung is revered by North Koreans. Take flowers to lay at its feet and reserve your deepest bow for this gargantuan image.

The world’s most fascinating (and heavily armed) border separates North from South. Tours from either country offer an interesting slice of history and a chance to peer at soldiers from the other side just a few metres away.

In most places, the metro is a way to move between attractions, but in a country as mysterious as this, everything becomes a sight in its own right. The alarmingly deep stations (doubling as nuclear bunkers) are adorned with chandeliers and the ubiquitous propaganda paintings that characterise North Korea.

Photos: Getty

Tower of the Juche Idea ‘Juche’ is Kim Il-sung’s theory of self-reliance, the ideology that makes North Korea the secretive nation it is today. Overlooking the Taedong River, the 170-metre-high tower topped with a perpetually glowing fibreglass flame (electricity flows at the monuments, though not always in the city) gives great views over Pyongyang.

International Friendship Exhibition Admire highlights from the 100,000-plus collection of gifts presented to Kim Jong-il and his father from admirers worldwide – from teddies and crockery to animal pelts, bullet-proof cars and a full-size waxwork of the Great Leader in Disney-like surrounds. n

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TNT Destination Features - Issue 9  

TNT Destination Features - Issue 9

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