Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beyond the Border: A Quick Guide to the North and South Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

We travel to enjoy and collect wonderful memories and it doesn't hurt if we also immerse ourselves in some culture and learn about the history of another country right? The first time I traveled to South Korea, it was all about fun and kpop but this time around, my mother convinced me to visit the DMZ or the The Korean Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ serves as a de facto border between North and South Korea and has been the primary source of divide between the two countries for almost 62 years. I have always been fascinated with this place ever since I saw a documentary about it on Nat Geo and was keen on penning it on my "Places to visit before I die" list.

Some tourists doing touristy stuff

How to visit the DMZ Border?

First of all, visiting the border doesn't come cheap. You will have to shell out at least 40,000-50,000 KRW (roughly 1,500-1,900+ PhP) for the DMZ border tour or 65,000 KRW (roughly 2,500++ Php) for the JSA tour or the Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom.

1. BOOK BOOK BOOK!!!
          You CANNOT, I repeat, CANNOT just travel all the way to the border by yourself and think that you will easily just purchase a ticket and see the sights. You have to book a tour in order to get inside the DMZ. They don't allow walk-ins since safety is the primary concern here. You can easily book a tour from your hotel. Some hotels offer DMZ tour packages or they can book a tour for you.

2. Bring you PASSPORT
          This is very important! You will not be allowed to go to the border if you don't have your passport with you. South Koreans are not allowed to tour the border that is why they will have to verify your identity. My tour guide passed around a piece of paper where we wrote down our names and passport numbers, then a soldier boarded our bus and verified everything that we've written on that paper while holding our passports (opened in the ID page) beside our faces.

3. Dress Appropriately
          The dress code is for those who are visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA). No ripped jeans, no cropped tops, no sleeveless tops, no flip-flops etc. You get the picture...

This was taken from the observatory and as you can see I am all bundled up (and looking stupid).

4. Cameras are prohibited
          There are some areas in the border that prohibits the use of cameras. But they didn't say that cellular phones are not allowed so... ;) Just be careful not to be caught or shot. Whichever comes first.

5. You have a Heart Condition? Asthmatic? Claustrophobic?
          If you have one of those medical conditions or similar, I personally suggest that you sit the Infiltration tunnel tour out. We don't want anything bad to happen to you down there since it is a loooooong way down and a loooooong way up. The tunnel will get narrower and can get crowded so it's definitely a no no for claustrophobes.

And please don't roam around outside the designated trail. There are land mines everywhere!


The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel

This was our first stop on the DMZ tour. Our awesome tour guide CK which stands for Crazy Korean (his words, not mine), strategically placed this 1st on our itinerary to avoid the huge influx of tourists. You see, the tunnel runs 240 ft. below the ground, that's roughly 30 storeys high and it gets narrower and narrower towards the end. So this is definitely a smart call from CK since tourists arrive in huge bulks during mid-day.


Safety Helmets are a must!

We arrived early so we had the tunnel all to ourselves. You can just imagine the tunnel being crowded, 2 lines (one coming in, the other going out), with little air to breathe. Good thing they installed a ventilation system inside.



The 3rd infiltration tunnel was discovered in 1978 when a defector (A North Korean citizen who abandoned N. Korea) informed the South Korean military about it. They painted the insides of the tunnel black so that if ever they were discovered they can use the alibi of mining coals. This is the 3rd tunnel out of 4 that were discovered by the South Korean government. It is believed that there are at least 20 more that are not yet discovered. Talk about persistent! 


The end of the tunnel



The DMZ Theater and Exhibition Hall

Part of the tour was a 10 minute documentary screening on the history of the DMZ. There were so many attempts by the North to infiltrate the South (like sending TONS of spies) but so far none of their plans succeeded. Let's just keep it that way shall we? 


CK and his yellow pants (lol) thoroughly explaining North Korea's failed attempts in invading the South. 

Dora Observatory

So this is where we could see North Korea up close, and what I have been waiting for personally. For only 500 Won, you can catch a glimpse of what North Korea looks like. Unfortunately, there was nothing much to see since their land is somehow bare as compared to their Southern counterpart. But if you have a keen sense of direction and and eagle eye to match, you may see a statue of Kim Il Sung from the observatory. I think it's in the far right side if I'm not mistaken.




How to distinguish North from South Korea:
South Korea - Lush Trees
North Korea - No Trees :(


Dorasan Station
A.K.A. The only railway station in South Korea connected to North Korea
Dorasan Station was one of the few attempts towards unification but unfortunately, North Korea decided to suspend the operations indefinitely. The station was used to transport raw materials to Kaesong Industrial park, a joint venture of North and South Korea. Today, the sole purpose of the station is for transporting tourists from Seoul to the DMZ which is kind of sad.





This train station opened last 2002. It is the last train stop of South Korea, and the first train stop of it's Northern counterpart. Unfortunately this $40 Million infrastructure was left to sit and rot... well not really rot since the station still looks brand spanking new even though it's over a decade old. Korea really knows how to take care of their stuff.



I think he kinda' looks like Psy.

Lunch: The Best Pork K-BBQ in Town
After our Half-day tour at the DMZ, CK took us to the best Pork K-BBQ this side of Seoul. Unfortunately, I forgot the name of the restaurant. The only thing I know is that it is near City Hall. You should definitely order this thinly sliced pork with their Kimchi stew and seaweed rice. This is one of the reasons I'm itching to book a flight back to Korea. Yum!




I am not a history buff or anything like that, but going to this tour is one of the best decisions I've made in my 8-day stay in Korea. It feels great to get to know the country I love a little bit deeper beyond k-pop and k-dramas. When I go back I will definitely have to book the JSA tour, and I promise I will.

"End of Separation, Beginning of Unification"
I am still hoping that one day, these two divided countries would set aside their differences and unite as one again. It will definitely not be an easy task but one can dream right?

<3 D.


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