New guide Inns of Pyongyang reveals how North Korea has surprisingly glamorous lodging
Pool bars, revolving restaurants, marble lobbies and huge indoor pools.
These are standard features in posh Western hotels – and, it turns out, in North Korean hotels too, as a fascinating new book shows.
Hotels of Pyongyang, by author James Scullin and photographer Nicole Reed, whisk readers away to the frozen but surprisingly glamorous hotels of the capital of the hermit land.
The huge pool at Changwangsan Hotel, which opened in 1975, was renovated in 2006 and offers 420 rooms over 18 floors
The Sosan Hotel (pictured), says James, “is famous for its individual and colorful karaoke rooms, which are said to have the best song lists in Pyongyang.”
Extraordinary photos in the ribbon show how the hotels have a wide variety of amenities – although Wi-Fi and room service are not available.
It is also clear that they offer managers and interior designers a rare creative medium in a desolate authoritarian regime, as some of the decors are dazzling and even psychedelic.
The decors of the hotels, James said, left you with the feeling of being on a Wes Anderson set.
For example, he stated that they met a waitress whose pink blazer matched the tablecloth and aesthetics of the entire dining room.
“There is so much design and color that is very much considered in North Korea,” he said.
The pool bar of the Koryo Hotel. James said this hotel is considered the most luxurious in Pyongyang
One bedroom in the Changwangsan Hotel. The rooms here have traditional Korean underfloor heating, as the book shows
James, who is from Melbourne, visited 11 hotels and said one of his favorite rooms was the karaoke room at the Koryo Hotel.
He told MailOnline Travel: “It’s very cheesy and psychedelic. There are three different types of floor tiles, and each wall has a different wallpaper. It has pearls hanging from the ceiling giving off a 70s vibe, while the futuristic swivel chairs at the bar look like something out of the Jetsons.
“It is interesting to imagine someone who has not designed this room in an accredited manner without ever traveling overseas or being exposed to other countries that are not North Korea.”
James was also a fan of the hotel’s revolving restaurant on the top floor, where meals are eaten on a loop against a backdrop of North Korean revolutionary songs – a feature of all hotels they visited.
He added: “The Koryo Hotel is considered to be the most luxurious of the hotels. With its revolving restaurant, it is a nice place to have a drink and explore the Pyongyang skyline.”
He stated that the hotels “are all immaculately maintained and fully occupied at all times”.
And the staff, he said, always provide excellent service.
This picture shows one of James’ favorite hotel rooms in Pyongyang – the karaoke room at the Koryo Hotel. He said, ‘It’s very cheesy and psychedelic. There are three different types of floor tiles, and each wall has a different wallpaper. It has pearls hanging from the ceiling giving off a 70s vibe, while the futuristic swivel chairs at the bar look like something out of the Jetsons
The chic lobby in the Ryanggang Hotel. James visited a total of 11 hotels to research his fascinating book
He said, “All employees take their work very seriously and proudly and want to make sure that you get the most out of your stay. In some hotels we had to stay with them to photograph them for our book.
“That was great because we got to stay in more of them and experience them. Some come with traditional Korean underfloor heating called Ondol, which makes them cozy. ‘
However, he did not experience the exclusive rooms – as these are for VIPs and diplomats and are apparently “very expensive”.
The Karaoke Suite at the Sosan Hotel has an impressive music-themed staircase. The hotel was opened in 1989 and built for athletes as part of the 13th World Festival for Youth and Students
The leisure center at the Koryo Hotel, which, according to the book, “has long been the first choice for foreign diplomats and business delegations”.
The Chongnyon has a sprawling marble lobby that houses a late-night burger stand and Air China’s offices on the first floor, the book says
The Pothongang Hotel pictured was opened in 1972, renovated in 1998 and has 160 rooms on nine floors. The book says it is a favorite with Japanese visitors and that the lobby and tea shop offer Wi-Fi for 10 RMB (£ 1.15) / 10 minutes – “a rare service in the DPRK”
The piano bar of the Sosan Hotel. The book states that this hotel has “a large beer garden with neon lights, outdoor BBQ facilities, and the DPRK equivalent of a pop-up bar.”
The self-published photo book includes photos of hotel staff, but getting their permission was not always easy.
He found the North Koreans very humble and throughout the project, each employee portrait required a lot of persuasion.
The waitress in the pink blazer, for example, only agreed to pose after some determined conviction from James’ North Korean leaders.
He said, “Most people enjoyed being photographed, but there is only a lot of humility to overcome. Fortunately, our guides worked hard for us and made sure we got all the footage we wanted. ‘
Scullin explained that the hotels were actually quite full, mostly with Chinese tourists, but that his photos were taken when the tourists were on guided tours.
He said, “This has made our job easier, although it maintains the fact that all hotels are empty, which it certainly wasn’t before Covid.”
A doorman at the Pothongang Hotel. James said, “All employees take their work seriously and proudly and want to make sure that you get the most out of your stay.”
James explains that the Rangnang Hotel pictured has a hairdresser, billiards, steam rooms, saunas, several bars and a café
Scullin lived and worked in Beijing when he ventured to North Korea as a tourist in 2012.
All tourism is heavily government regulated, so Scullin visited the country for the first time as part of an approved tour group. He was so impressed with what he found that he volunteered for the company and started offering tours to travelers.
He said: “I’ve always been interested in countries with a Soviet past. They have such different cultures and aesthetics than we do in the West.
“The fact that North Korea is so isolated also makes it fascinating to see how a country outside of the globalized world is developing.”
But why should you focus on hotels in a country with such an interesting and complex history?
“It was as objective as possible in North Korea,” explained Scullin.
“Plus, it’s not that difficult for foreigners to get access to hotels.
“Its brutalist architecture is a relic of a bygone era, and I wanted to document it along with its marbled lobbies, large dining rooms and kitschy karaoke rooms.”
The Yanggakdo Hotel is the one most frequented by western tourists, reveals James. In the book, he explains that guests can enjoy a beer at the local microbrewery and at a basement casino run by a Macau company that offers gamers free WiFi. There’s also a pool, bowling alley, and tailor outfitting guests in a western suit or Kim Jong Il-inspired khaki.
The Ryanggang Hotel (pictured), says James, “has an imposing presence that is reminiscent of a James Bond film”.
And has he ever felt unsafe on his travels? He didn’t, but admitted that North Korea is not for everyone.
He said, “When we were down in Pyongyang it was fine. As long as you respect the different political system, the North Korean leaders we were dealing with were very easy to understand. Most tourists develop close friendships with the guides that are much more personal than expected.
“Traveling there is certainly not for everyone, but overall I think it’s better to be engrossed in a country like North Korea than to remain isolated from each other.
“To see how a country with a completely different society, isolated from the West with its own political, economic and social structures, is a unique experience, especially in the globalized world in which we live.”
visit www.hotelsofnorthkorea.com and www.instagram.com/hotelsofnorthkorea for more information and to order a copy.
The book by James Scullin and photographer Nicole Reed is a tour of hotels frozen in time