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5 Things you didn’t know about North Korea until now

Wednesday 20 May 2015
By Lachlan Nicolson |

North Korea gets a bad wrap in western media. It cuts the raw end of the bone from various news outlets and is usually found plastered in our TV and tablet headlines for political reasons that are sometimes beyond relevance. As a western society there is a strange fascination with talking about the North, and in a negative manner.

In April 2015 I ventured into the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to see first hand their side of the stories that populate our media headlines. While in the context of a controlled tour I had the opportunity to see beyond the capital city, and interact on rare locations with the locals in person. I was shocked and dazzled by this strange place, but comforted learning more about this incredible hidden state.

Here are 5 things you probably didn’t know about North Korea:

1. People are actually happy in the north 

While most of our attention is focused on the UN malnutrition reports and government regime “crisis” we tend to write off the entire place as a depressed wasteland of poverty and tears, but that’s not completely true.

There IS happiness to be found in the DPRK. Entering pyongyang and sister city Kaesong I encountered numerous locals who seemed extremely happy and passionate about their schools or work or general life.

The photo above shows the May Day Rally, a people’s holiday (a political free holiday) that celebrates family and the working class of Korea. The western media reported that thousands of young and old people were forced to dance in Kim Il Sung Square, but the truth was that local university students and citizens actually volunteered their time to meet at one of the 9 universities and practised the dances in small groups for the rally. (Yes, they have universities! And they’re quite good too.) Nothing was forced, it was simply out of the joy and fun of being part of something spectacular. The rally way an incredible night, we danced and laughed with the locals for hours.

2. The food is delicious & the beer is cheap


The DPRK has some incredible and bizarre food. Yes there is a food shortage in the rural communities, but keep in mind the DPRK isn’t the only country struggling with food supply. Pyongyang however, the capital city, hosted a magnitude of incredible dishes and drinks. We got to experience a mixture of modern recipes and traditional rural and cultural Korean dishes - all which were unique and special in their own delicious way. Out of all my travels in the Asia region, North Korea offered the most unique and enjoyable experience! The beer is also ridiculously cheap, so if you like to relax with a good lager you will enjoy the 750ml 5% Bavaria for just 1 euro ($1.45 AUS).

3. There is not as much control as you thought

Buy clothes, get married, have as many kids as they want, travel overseas for business - these are some of the opportunities and luxuries offered to the North Korean people. YES - you can’t be just anyone, you have to be someone… Someone either bloody important or loyal to the Kim regime. But loyalty has it’s privileges kids, and listen up; there’s nothing new or different about that in our western society either.

I won’t defend that North Korean people are oppressed, because to some level they are. The government has relaxed regulations however on certain things and while the western media will never show that, there is a growing change in the North. People in Pyongyang CAN move freely, buy items, choose study options and their future spouses. However what I and others have noted is only a snapshot, and not a whole picture of life inside this closed door society.

4. Pyongyang is no longer stuck in the 1950’s

You can’t look any direction in this city without encountering something of a “wow!” moment. Pyongyang is beautiful, unique, unconventional, and sometimes feels like a 1950’s Moscow style Disneyland to explore. I have seen cities like Singapore, Los Angeles, London and Beijing - but none compare to the vast sights, activities and exploration packed into Pyongyang.

It’s almost like the Regime spent a tun of money here to make it seem awesome…. And job well done. What the government and the people set their mind to, they accomplish with excellence. Three cheers to socialism? Too soon?

Pyongyang features massive universities, statues, modern high-rise buildings, fountains, monuments built on mountains and everything in between. There is a giant aqua centre, two amusement parks, a Arch of Triumph bigger than the one in Paris (and built ten times faster), it even has a grand underground Subway system that puts Australia and the London underground to shame.

Our hotel was riddled with facilitates too, such as a bowling alley, billiards room, massage and spa, multiple bars and restaurants, a revolving rooftop and even a casino. So if you’re worried about not finding a morning coffee, not having hot running water or being bored in Pyongyang - you can lay those worries to rest. This city will give you a ‘exploration-energy’ that I can personally say I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

5. Foreigners experience more freedom than ever

There are many rumours around what you can do and say in the North. I have been told you can’t bring camera’s, bibles, say a single word out of line or even wear blue jeans. All these I have listed are incorrect. In the DPRK we were allowed to not only bring camera’s, but take many photos. I took over a thousand photos on my DSLR with a 18mm and a 200mm lens, my iPhone and two go pro cameras. I was only once stopped from taking a photo of a military guard, and in the situation the reasoning seemed fair and I respectfully deleted the photograph.

You can ask questions in the North, however you should be mindful and respectful of the questions you ask. Just like any country there is a culture and a belief system you must honour and respect on entry. You can even send a postcard or email from your Hotel in North Korea! However you better make sure it ends with something along the lines of “together, we will crush the American Imperialists, regards….” They love that kind of talk. Remember everything you send is approved and monitored - but there’s no difference between that and what Google reads in our Gmail accounts everyday already. It was a challenging perspective to learn that we are tracked by governments and corporations more in our Western society than in the north.

Not only can you experience the North now with less limitations that ever, you’re also extremely safe. Contrary to the nuclear or famine images we see on our western media, the DPRK is strikingly a safe place to visit. You won’t be mugged on the streets, pick pocketed or run into any trouble. The only time a foreigner has been imprisoned or harmed in the DPRK is by their own actions against the local laws of the land. Follow the rules, and you are ironically in the safest place on earth.

I hope this insight into the North brings more comfort of the strange place than you originally thought. In my travels there I left with a new perspective of the hidden state, but I also leave with more questions than ever before.

If you are an avid traveller and you want to experience the DPRK I would highly recommend it. It is a life changing experience, and a unique one.


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Virgin Australia is now flying their award-winning Business Class across the Tasman

Monday 11 May 2015
By Industry News |

Virgin Australia’s award-winning Business Class have begun flying across the Tasman.

The new Business Class seats now available on all routes signifies an enhancement to the airline’s premium service offering on Trans-Tasman and Pacific Island routes.

Virgin has refit 10 of the airline’s Boeing 737 fleet,  reconfiguring the aircraft with the 2-2 business class configuration, which feature luxury leather seating and menus designed by resident head chef Luke Mangan, as well as the introduction of priority services including check-in and boarding.

Virgin Australia Chief Commercial Officer Judith Crompton said

“The Trans-Tasman and Pacific Island routes remain a very strong focus for us and importantly, customers travelling in these markets now have more choice when it comes to business and premium leisure travel.

“The enhancement also allows us to offer a consistent customer proposition in conjunction with our alliance partner Air New Zealand,” Ms Crompton said.


Virgin Australia Business Class features include:

  • Luxury leather seating with 38” seat pitch on the Boeing 737
  • Comfort packs with luxurious blankets, pillows, and International-style amenity kits including Australian organic cosmetics by GROWN for flights over three hours
  • Newspapers until noon daily
  • Exclusive Luke Mangan gourmet full service dining experience
  • Premium Australian wines, beers, and spirit selection
  • Gourmet tea selection from Madame Flavour
  • Priority baggage service where available


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How to pack light for the long-haul

Friday 8 May 2015
By Leigh Thompson |

 “It’s the journey, not the destination that counts”

When it comes to air-travel (particularly for a long-haul Economy Class flight!), I’m not sure that this is entirely true, but I do know that by giving some thought to what you pack in your carry-on luggage, you can definitely make the journey a that little bit easier!

luggage tips

Many of the major airlines permit one piece of hand luggage per person, to a maximum weight of 7kg, but unless you are on your way home from a wildly successful shopping trip that has your checked baggage bursting at the seams, I would advise to pack well under that weight! Your carry-on luggage will be by your side from the moment you leave home until you finally unpack at your destination – that means, you’ll be lugging it through airports, in and out of taxi’s, into overhead lockers and so on - you don’t want to be laden down with more than you actually need.

Every person differs from what they consider “essential” items, particularly when travelling, but for me, the go-to list is as follows:

  • Passport – let’s face it, you aren’t getting far without this!
  • Documents (tickets, hotel confirmations, important phone numbers) – E-documents are great, but sometimes a back-up comes in handy.
  • Pen – to complete immigration cards, transit cards, check-in documentation etc.
  • Cash – a small amount in the currency of your destination and transit country is handy if you want to pick up a snack, or if a cab doesn’t accept cards.

The second part of the list is not technically “essential”, but for me it’s non-negotiable if I want to avoid the “just rolled out of bed” look after a 10-13 hour flight!

  • Toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste – morning breath is never pleasant, no matter the time-zone!
  • Hairbrush / comb – bed-hair is likewise, not a good look.
  • Socks – two-fold, they keep your feet warm whilst covering them up – bare feet, especially on seats or in the aisle is a pet-peeve of cabin-crew.
  • Ear-plugs / face mask – these help with getting some sleep, and are not always included in amenity kits.
  • Baby-wipes – excellent to clean your hands, take off make-up or to help ‘freshen up’ in lieu of a shower at the end of the flight.
  • Deodorant – keep it fresh!
  • Moisturiser / lip balm – flying dries out your skin!
  • Electrical cables – many airlines now provide USB sockets so that you can charge your devices whilst flying – a fully charged phone with GPS can be a lifesaver if you’re driving in a foreign country!

When it comes to actually packing your carry-on, be mindful that the security staff will ask you to remove all electrical devices and liquids from your bag in order to pass through the scanner so try to keep these items handy.

TIP: Make sure that all liquids are in bottles of 100mL or less, and grouped together in a clear, plastic, zip-lock bag (most airports will provide these).
Every trip  


This post was by Leigh Thompson, one of our World Travel Professionals staff and avid traveller.  

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