1. A Polaroid camera and plenty of film.
The first time we hit the DPRK, we took thousands of photographs.
And whenever we took photos of locals, they always wanted to see what they looked like on camera. As it turns out, most North Koreans rarely, if ever, have their photo taken. It’s a special moment for a population without much digital technology.
We thought it was a shame that we couldn’t give them a copy, so on our next trip we brought along a Polaroid z340 digital camera.
It’s a little clunky at first, but it provided a ton of opportunity to interact with local people — which is one of the biggest joys of a trip to North Korea. Everyone from children to military officers were thrilled by their images (imagine not having a photo of you and your best friend or spouse!), and handing out polaroids made us the life of the party everywhere we went. We were often mobbed by friendly crowds of curious people keen on their having photos taken.
This fun, simple gesture built some wonderful friendships and created tangible memories in a place devoid of this kind of technology. Highly recommended!
2. A Korean-speaking companion.
Language is key in the DPRK. Beyond practical day-to-day communication, interactions with locals require a certain cultural finesse and the intimacy that only Korean can provide.
Yes, your tour guides speak both English and Korean, but they often they can’t (or simply won’t) translate a conversation in an informal context, especially if something goes wrong — and those are the moments you really want to be part of.
Remember that incredible frisbee tournament we competed in on our first trip to Korea? There was a pretty amazing moment when we began playing frisbee with some children on the sidelines, and a handful of adults tried to scare them away (concerned, perhaps, about tossing around a frisbee with a bunch of “imperialist aggressors”).
It was only after a friendly guide came over and explained that we were all friends that we were able to interact with the kids again. Then the adults jumped in the game and started playing too, and it was an awesome moment for all of us.
Short of a Korean speaker, get your hands on a Korean phrasebook or electronic dictionary to help translate a few words. A little bit goes a long way.
And, of course, let your guides teach you some phrases. It’s a blast, and they love sharing their language with foreigners.
And speaking of frisbees…
3. A frisbee.
Simply as that. Seriously.
Bring a brightly-colored flying disc, bust it out in public places where appropriate, and prepare to be mobbed by kids and adults alike. Be warned: It’s super addictive. You can spend hours playing, chasing and laughing with the locals. It’s a phenomenal way to bond without language.
Thank us later for this one.
4. Pictures of your home life, friends and family.
Here’s a cool discovery — your local tour guides are fascinated by you.
Because they’ve likely never been outside the country, showing them photos of where you live and the people in your life adds a whole new dimension. I left a bunch of printed photos with one of my North Korean guides, and she said it was one of the most interesting gifts she’s ever received. The photos are apparently displayed in her room at home.
So share your story!
5. A notepad and voice recorder.
You will be overwhelmed with thoughts during your time in the DPRK. It’s a meditative, absorbing place, and you want to have a way to capture your impressions.
We recorded a couple of podcasts on our trips there, and those recordings contain some of our greatest memories and reactions. They’re a fantastic record of how we felt in the moment.
The more you take notes, the more you’ll remember later. And when it becomes difficult to scribble notes on the shaky bus ride, grab a voice recorder so you can narrate what’s going on as it happens. You won’t regret it.
6. An open and present mind.
Without this one, your trip will only be a quick jaunt through a strange country.
It’s cliche, but this trip really is what you make of it. Bringing the right mindset with you — one that’s up for a fun, educational, enlightening experience — will make all the difference in the world. Your judgments and opinions will form later from a full range of observations.
Enjoy the process of interacting with people. Let them articulate their views and ideas. Check your opinions for a few days and instead focus on asking the right questions and listening closely. Trust us — the payoff is much better than being right. It’s really not about that; it’s about being present to the journey.
Because it’s a fantastic one.
And we want you to have an amazing time.
And bringing these six things will get you there!