Pt I: Prologue
Pt II: SIN – KUL – ICN
Pt III: Day 1 – Itaewon, Namdaemun, Myeongdong & Namsan Park
Pt IV: Day 2 – DMZ Tour
Pt V: Day 3 – Seoul Museum of History & Lotte World
Pt VI: Day 4 – Gwanghwamun, Cheonggyecheon & Bukchon
Pt VII: Day 5 – Insadong & Dongdaemun
Pt VIII: ICN – KUL – SIN
Pt IX: Epilogue
Being Singaporean, I needed to e-mail a photocopy of my passport details a week before the trip. To confirm my place, I needed to e-mail the company the day before. The scheduled meeting time was 08:20 at Tourdmz’s office at Lotte Hotel and this meant an early start for me.
The nearest metro station is Euljiro 1-ga and Exit 8 exits directly to the hotel/shopping mall building. I managed to locate the hotel lobby and with the help of a friendly Caucasian female staff, I found the correct lift to the tour office. The staff even bowed and wished us (the passengers in the lift) a good day in Korean as the door closed. Found it rather surreal though.
I had to wait a while before I was served by one of the Tourdmz staff. She took my passport and 77,000 KRW for the tour fare; after some checks I was issued the tour voucher together with some instructions.
Before departing, we were informed that there would be a change of bus. 6276 would take the Japanese tour group instead.
There was no change to my seat number though. Somehow I got the best seat of the bus.
After everyone was accounted for, the driver got the bus moving and the tour guide introduced herself to us. It seemed that most of the tour participants today were from either US or Europe; there were two other Singaporeans beside me though.
The guide gave us some background information about the division of Korea and how DMZ came about. She also pointed out that our bus was traveling along Imjin River which flowed downstream from the North’s side; there are fences and sentry posts every few hundred metres to prevent incursions of North Korean agents.
Our guide also reiterated the strict dress code for JSA:-
1. No the color has faded or the hole jeans. (Regular jeans are OK).
2. No training wear, Military style.
3. No short pants, mini skirt and opened toed shoes, flip-flops.
4. No T-shirt without collar and sleeveless.
5. No and leather or skinny pants and leggings.
The guide told us that some spare clothes were prepared for those who didn’t meet the criteria. No one needed them though.
Halfway through the ride, the buses stopped at a rest station for bathroom break.
After the rest station stop, I started chatting with my seatmate who happened to be an exchange student from China. She had been to North Korea the year before and it was quite interesting listening to her experience on the other side.
The first checkpoint was before Unification Bridge which was also known as Cow Bridge. A South Korean soldier came up onto the bus to check that we had our passports with us. After given the green light to proceed, the guide started to tell us the story behind Unification Bridge.
It was a gift from Chung Ju-yung, the former chairman of Hyundai who was originally from the North. Remembering that he had left his hometown several decades ago with just a cow, he decided to present the North with 500 cows when there was a thaw in the inter-Korea relations in the 1990s. The old bridge weren’t able to support the weight of the trucks which were ferrying the cows so Chung built a new bridge (Unification Bridge) which became also known as “cow bridge”.
The next checkpoint was at Camp Bonifas when our escort Private First Class (PFC) Choi boarded our bus. He checked our passport details against the manifest and the guide told us that from then on we couldn’t take any photographs unless permission was given.
We alighted at Camp Bonifas where our tour guide distributed the indemnity forms for us to sign and gave us a presentation. The atmosphere was quite serious until we were told that we could take photographs of the model South Korean soldiers while waiting for the UN buses.
Apparently the South Korean soldiers wore glasses to conceal their emotions from the enemies.
We were soon on our way to Panmunjom and the guide pointed out to us the village of Taeseong-dong. One mile away was the North Korean propaganda village of Kijŏng-dong and the 160m flagpole (3rd highest in the World) with North Korean flag could be seen. The residents of Taeseong-dong are given the privileges of exemption from conscription and taxes but have to be subjected to curfew and restrictions on change of residence. Most of them are farmers and they work the land under the protection of South Korean soldiers.
The UN bus stopped outside Freedom House (yet another building by Hyundai chairman) and we needed to wait until the previous group was done before we could disembarked. PFC Choi got us to line up in twos before we could proceed to the front of the Freedom House and stare down North Korea.
Whenever there were tourists on the North Korean side, UN would not allow the tourists from their side to visit blue conference rooms located right on the border. Just my luck.
Throughout our 15 minutes there, we could take photographs of the North Korean side but were kept reminded by the tour guide not to take photographs of any UN installations or do any gestures (pointing or waving) to the North. While there were plenty of restrictions in the South, we could hear the loud Chinese tourists who waved at us from the roof of Panmungak. This got to be one of the most surreal places that I’ve ever been.
Note to self: Come from the North side to guarantee visit to the conference rooms.
After our time was up we were herded back to the UN bus. The bus would drive along the border between the two Koreas and made a stop where the Axe Murder Incident took place.
It also stopped by the Bridge of No Return, where tourists like me could snap photographs from inside.
That was the last stop before the bus drove us back to Camp Bonifas. We got to spend some time at the souvenir shop and I chatted a bit with the Singaporean couple who were on the same tour as me.
While most of the tour participants on my bus would return to Seoul after touring JSA, there were some who would be going on to the DMZ tour (3rd Tunnel and Dorasan) after lunch. The guide had made arrangement to drop them off at Imjingak Park and we got to wander around for a bit.
My seatmate wandered more than just a bit and lost track of time and there was a slight delay in locating her. Lunch was beef soup with rice at a restaurant near Munsan.
My seatmate and I had an interesting chat on our way to Seoul, with topics ranging from living in Seoul to Chinese politics. Bid her farewell when we reached Lotte Hotel at around 3pm and I went to meet up with my family who were shopping at Lotte Mart.
As we were all tired by mid-afternoon, we decided to return to our apartment for some rest. Later in the evening, we chose to have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant several minutes’ walk away from our lodging.
The dinner was rather over-priced but still decent enough. Interestingly it was the first time my cousins tried Vietnamese food and they seemed ambivalent about it.
My thoughts on the DMZ tour? Although I didn’t get to step inside North Korea (albeit inside the conference room), I still enjoyed the excursion. The tour was well-ran and value for money and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one to join the tour. It was sad though that Korea was dealt a bad hand by history and continues to remain divided. I hope that I would be able to visit the same place soon, perhaps from the other side the next time.