Day 2 of our trip to Seoul in early summer! The main highlight of today is the DMZ/JSA tour which is actually the famous tour to get as close to North Korea as you can get other than actually travelling into North Korea!
Demilitarized zone (DMZ) and Joint-Security Area (JSA)/Panmunjom tour
We booked this full day tour with Klook as they were having a summer promotion of S$35 off with every S$350 spent! Weekday tours are generally cheaper than weekend tours. According to our tour guide, Friday is a very popular day for tourist to tour DMZ/JSA! After purchasing the tour online, you will be contacted by Klook to send in coloured digital copies of your passports (for Singaporeans) in order for them to give you clearance to go for the JSA tour. This needs to be done at least 3 days before the tour itself. You will then get a confirmation email with your ticket and pick up time from your hotel!
On the day itself, we just had to show our mobile e-ticket to the driver who came to the lobby of our hotel. We went in a mini bus to a few other hotels to pick up passengers before transferring to join a big tour bus (filled with people) to go into the DMZ! DO BRING YOUR ORIGINAL PASSPORT (NO PHOTOCOPIES!)
The first part of the tour is joined with those who only signed up for the DMZ tour without the JSA tour. Each bus had their own dedicated tour guide and our tour guide was “Jay”! He gave us a lanyard with the tour agency’s name, his name and contact number as well, in order to let the guards be able to verify us and for them to contact him if we were lost. Jay’s accent was super super strong and I couldn’t really understand him but he was quite a good guide who tried to point out things to us to see even while we were on the expressway to the DMZ area!
(Our breakfast milk!! So cute right!!! It’s from their convenience store GS25)
Before we enter the DMZ area, there is actually a security checkpoint where you need to show your actual passport to the soldier (something like our NSF) from South Korea who will come up on the bus to match your identity. We have to go through this security check twice (once in and once out)
1st stop of our DMZ tour- The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Apparently, the North Korean Army actually dug many tunnels to try to infiltrate South Korea and unfortunately, they were discovered! When the 3rd tunnel was discovered, the NKs tried to disguise it as a tunnel for coal mining and actually painted the grey stones black! (LOL). Anyway, the South Koreans managed to upgrade the tunnel to become a tourist attraction! We were first led into an auditorium of sorts and shown an introduction video explaining the history of all the different tunnels found over the years.
Next, off we went to go into the actual tunnel itself! As advised by Jay, we should all wear helmets because even though the tunnel was said to be 2m x 2m wide, he says it definitely isn’t! Boy, was he right! YL knocked his head so many times I would think his GCS would be 3 by the end of it if not for his helmet. You are not allowed to bring any bags or phones along but you can bring bottled water! Your belongings will be locked in a locker outside the entry of the tunnel and there is actually a metal detector you walk through before you enter the tunnel.
At the end of the tunnel, right before the military demarcation line, they set up a barb wire obstruction with a tiny peep hole for you to look into the North Korea side of the tunnel (there was really nothing much to see).
To go down into the actual tunnel, the South Korean’s actually built an airconditioned steep slope! Actually the whole tunnel was lighted and airconditioned!
The going up of the slope was OMG TIRING. I was sweating like crazy and panting like crazy. If you ever climbed Bukit Timah Hill, just imaging the steep slope multiplied by 5 times the distance. Some tourists looked quite scared when they were putting on the helmet at the entrance to go down and saw me and my pink face huffing and puffing away (LOL).
There was actually another way to go down (and up!!!) the tunnel which was the monorail! I don’t actually know how to get those tickets but I would have gotten it man. T.T
I chiong-ed the slope so that I could have more time to take photos! The total time we had there was around 45 minutes inclusive of the video, the going into and out of the tunnel, photos, souvenir shopping and toilet break! If you don’t have time for souvenir don’t worry, there are tons of opportunities later on.
There is a photo spot behind the 3rd tunnel building so do check it out!
2nd stop- Dora Observatory!
This is like a stop for you to pay money to see the propaganda village of North Korea through the binoculars! (coin-operated). There is a coin changing machine so don’t worry. Each time you use the binoculars is 500W and it last around 1 min? We didn’t time it. YL had alot of fun spotting security checkpoints.
For me, the highlight was taking photo with a South Korean soldier standing guard there! Dear Mr YL told me he is a captain but it turns out he is a corporal. -.- I still thought I taking with Captain Yoo Si Jin…
We also went souvenir shopping there and bought a DMZ serial number barb wire display set (15k won) which isn’t found in Seoul! Actually none of the souvenirs are sold in Seoul so I guess if you see anything that catches your eye, buy it!
3rd stop- Dorasan station
Before the Korean war, there used to be a railroad connecting the entire korea and the Dorasan station was the last station in South Korea before the Kaesong industral station (which was closed after they became on bad terms again, if not, it was actually part of the tour last time!). They hope that one day after reunification, they can actually set up the railroad to connect all the way to Siberia (if I’m not wrong). Real MRTs do come to this station from Seoul but they are limited to once or twice a day and according to the guide, you need a clearance before you can board the train.
We bought the North Korean Red Wine from the souvenir shop for 10k won as souvenir but we didn’t dare to drink it… They used to have North Korean beer but it was sold out. Apparently they imported these items when they were on better terms.. LOL. Do bring extra paper because there are free stamps for you to collect as souvenir!
After this, it was time for… lunch! For those who only signed up for DMZ tour, it was also the end of their tour. While the tour guide settled us in for lunch, those who signed up for the DMZ tour had the chance to explore the Freedom bridge and its park.
Lunch: We had beef bulgogi for lunch which was included in our tour price! It was quite nice and reminded me of the Japanese Suki-yaki. Our JSA tour guide found us at the restaurant and gave us the bus number to report to after she checked our passport!
Between lunch and the reporting time, we also self-explored the Freedom bridge and Imjingak park and also the tourist centre. There is a hidden photo-spot at the basement of the tourist centre!
If you are into arts and want to tour an underground bunker, you can also pay to go into Beat 131 and it will also give you access to the half blown bridge that was replicated! Do note that the other end of the bridge is in the South side’s DMZ and not North Korea!
You can see the reconstructed locomotive steam engine which was destroyed during the war!
It is quite sad when I start to think about the families separated because you can’t even call or contact them let alone see them.. And I guess it is even more heart-wrenching when the separation likely affected the now elderly Koreans.
We had to go through 2 checkpoints to get into the JSA area (one for DMZ and one for JSA itself). The checkpoint at JSA had a soldier (also NSF I later discovered) who will check your passport and your dress code! Apparently the North Koreans will sometimes take photos of visitors wearing hole-ly clothes and shoes and use it as propaganda in their country to show how poor the outside world is. It was then that I suddenly checked and realised OMG my skirt has to reach my knee and below! Thankfully, for that trip, the soldier checking us was only concerned that we all had covered shoes.
Within JSA, photo-taking was super limited. We were only allowed to take photos when told to. And… to my surprise, the soldier said you CAN BRING BINOCULARS!!!! However, you will have to leave your bagpacks on the tour bus itself while they take you into the highly guarded military area using the UN Securities bus. YL kept our passports in his pocket along with our money and our handphones.
Once we are inside the area, we are led into an auditorium where a video presentation was shown regarding the history of JSA and how UN joint securities are guarding the South Korea side. This is also where you will be asked to sign an indemnity form which in essence means if anything happens to you out there, too bad, you are on your own. The indemnity form will be returned to you as souvenir after the trip (LOL).
The tour guide itself is actually one of the army soldiers from South Korea (the other bus had the US soldier as their tour guide). He was pretty informative and spoke really good English because he actually spent most of his time growing up in US!
We literally had MINUTES to take photos at the JSA area (outside the blue house and inside)! The North Korea building only had 1 soldier that day. According to our guide, she said usually when South Korea has these visits, the NK soldiers will all be withdrawn and only 1 will be left standing there. However, when NK has these tours, then it will be filled with NK soldiers. Inside the building, you are reminded not to touch the microphones on the table and the microphones actually demarcate NK territory and SK territory. WE CROSSED IT (LOL). How exciting. There were no NK soldiers inside the blue house when we visited. Only ROKA soldiers.
After we came out of the JSA area back to the auditorium area (still in the military area) we had some free time for toilet break, to shop at the souvenir shop where YL bought a ROKA Navy shirt (LOL, he tried to ask the uncle mending the shop for a ROKA Armour shirt) and we went to tour the exhibition on level 2! There were a few interesting stories involving the JSA. There was also a chapel and temple there which you can visit but we didn’t have the time!
On the way out and in, we do get a glimpse into the Peace Village by South Korea within the DMZ where majority of them do farming. According to our tour guide, when the Government first started it, no one wanted to stay there, so to entice people to stay there, they are given privileges such as having more acres of land to farm (60 acres or something, sorry can’t remember the exact number) and the male members of the family do not need to serve NS! This is to kind of compensate for their daily inconvenience. The villagers go through very stringent checks before they can live inside the village and they have to live at least I think 8 months (or more, can’t remember the exact number but it is majority of the year) in the village and not elsewhere! Daughters of villagers also cannot live in the village anymore if they marry someone from outside of the village. We weren’t allowed to take photos D:
The bus then fetched us back to City Hall MRT (the Seoul one LOL) and we reached at around 5.30pm.
I would highly recommend joining the tours for DMZ and JSA even though it can be quite pricey but it is like a rare chance to see NK and understand the history behind the war and how they live with this every day friction right outside their doorstep. You can’t do a free and easy in these areas so the only way is to book a tour! Many tour sites such as Trazy, klook, kkday, koreal, tripadvisor offer these tours. I would not recommend families with young children to sign up for the JSA tour!
Dinner: Gaehwa (개화)
- 52-5, Namdaemun-ro, Jung- gu, Seoul
- 서울특별시 중구 남대문로 52-5 (명동2가)
- 11:00 – 21:30
We were quite hungry and decided to try the famous Jajangmyeon because its like YL’s sole purpose of coming Korea. (LOL). It was walking distance from city hall MRT!
After going back to our hotel to drop off some stuff and rest our tired legs, we went to Cheonggyecheon stream! We dropped at the Insadong spot using our hotel shuttle and walked towards the stream! The stream was actually part of the Government’s bid to beautify the city and it was actually a ‘longkang’ or drain. The stream connects many tourist spots and you can stroll along it to get to these spots including Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, Insadong, etc. You can still see warning signs along the stream to warn you of opening flood gates (LOL) and escape ladders. We went in the evening when it was cooler and we saw many couples and families enjoying themselves there! It was definitely quite romantic 😀
You can also visit the Cheonggye Plaza where you can see more lights and stuff at the stream! It is at the start of the stream itself. We didn’t go there due to time constraints!
Image from Cheongdam Guesthouse
How to go:
- Cheonggye Plaza
- Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 5
- City Hall Station (Seoul Subway Line 1, 2), Exit 4
- Cheonggyecheon Stream
- City Hall, Jonggak, Jongno 3(sam)-ga, Jongno 5(o)-ga, Dongdaemun, Sinseol-dong Stations (Seoul Subway Line 1)
- City Hall, Euljiro 1(il)-ga, Euljiro 3(sam)-ga, Euljiro 4(sa)-ga, Sindang, Sangwangsimni Stations (Seoul Subway Line 2)
- Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station (Seoul Subway Line 1, 3 and 5)
- Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station (Seoul Subway Line 4)
- Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5)
How to go:
- Take subway line 2 to Dongdaemun History & Culture Park station, and when you walk out of exit 14,you will see all the malls
We walked all the way to Dongdaemun and wow! It was like a huge huge collection of malls. To be very frank I wasn’t into mall shopping as I like pasar malams (night markets) more. It was a friday evening and there was a hipster pop up food truck market at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza! We also managed to see the very pretty LED white roses 😀 (which was the only itinerary I had to be frank). There was also pop up stores featuring local vendors selling their handmade items such as accessories, t-shirts, clothings and bags. We also came across an opera performance which was honestly quite good! 😀
We then went to shop at helloaPM, Doota Duty Free, Maxtyle (where we bought tons of Zara clothes at a super worth price! B1 of the mall, good for those who don’t mind lat season clothes), and Migliore. YL was quite horrified at the scale of these malls and the moment we walked into helloaPM, he heard a Singaporean auntie say: “this is crazy!”. If you love Bugis street and Far east plaza shopping, you will go CRAZY HERE. Do bargain and bargain and bargain. They love to raise the price for tourists. Aim for at least a 40-50% off of the price they quote you unless it is fixed priced 5k or 10k or 15k clothes. They all can speak chinese, and if they don’t, use a handy calculator to state your price!
In Goodmorning city mall, they tend to close earlier so if you are in Dongdaemun in the day, you can check out the Wedding street which we didn’t manage to see on level 5!
There are also wholesale malls you can buy stuff from especially if you go with a few girlfriends such as aPM Place. They also have free shuttle to apm Luxe.
We then took our hotel shuttle back! 🙂 We loved our haul from Zara outlet (last season stocks) we bought like 150k won worth of clothes (7 pieces)! They were all office attires for men and I bought a really nice dress and full lace skirt!
Do click here for a handy guide to shopping at Dongdaemun by aroimakmak and the malls’ opening hours!
Do share and comment for your own experiences! Thank you! 🙂