We paid a visit the ancient Pohyon Buddhist Temple founded under the Koryo Dynasty in the 11th century which remains active with practicing Korean Buddhist monks today.
Pohyon Buddhist Temple (보현사)
Pohyon-sa was located in Hyangsan county in North Pyong'an Province, near Mount Myohyang.
Walking around this temple felt nostalgic to other times I was visiting buddhist temples in Gyeongju, South Korea. It is so easy to forget that you're in the hermit kingdom and drop your guard when there's gorgeous views.
International Friendship Exhibition
Infamously dubbed the “world's biggest treasure-house” but in more accurate terms it's actually massive complex housing the gifts given to the Great Leaders by foreign dignitaries.
Gifts are displayed in over 150 rooms, everything from gem-encrusted swords to tea sets, bullet-proof vehicles and basketballs signed by NBA stars Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman. My favourite being a golden Temple of Heaven gifted by China.
Unfortunately and obviously - we also weren't allow to take any photos here. So you just have to take my word that it was absolutely massive and they walk us through it all!
Myohyang is a local tourist attraction and there are several hiking routes on the mountain. The area was packed when we visited - filled with children and people rocking on the karaoke again.
During the walk, the guides let their guard down a bit and start speaking to the group more. So this time - I actually got to understand their background more.
Paek Bom Sun
Meet Paek! My favourite guide - she was a blast to talk to and gave me a lot of insight into the privileged class in Pyongyang.
She like her other work colleagues went to University and continued studying languages and tourism. She knows Chinese (Mandarin), but when I mentioned I spoke Cantonese - there was a genuine confusion of what that actually was. Our guides were at the forefront of information flow - and they would ask more questions about you and absorb it all for another conversation later.
A lot of the guides I meet in my travels struggle to remember your name let alone a whole conversation with every member in the group. These guides were good...
Paek's father works in government and travels at least five times around the world a year - even in London. Her mother works near Ryugyong hotel at a souvenir shop and joked that she would use that as an opportunity for her customers.
Some of my favourite moments were captured here. There was some genuine laughs being had by the group on our tail - so much so it was echoing throughout the mountain.
🍻 The final pint
On our final night we had drinks at a brewery near our hotel with our guides to say farewell. The trip would not have been what it was without them - and is another reason to revisit and see more parts of the country with them.
We played drinking games, chatted about highlights, debated the guides that tomato is a fruit, and finished off with a game of reading Irish names.
👋 Departure notes
Koreans are obsessed with clinging to their past but hold onto communal and respectable values - which their ancestors have passed down.
They have been governed by lunatics and corrupt leadership whose interest is not in the people - but you need to work very hard to separate this view out. This isn't rare in our world *cough* Boris and Scomo *cough*; they have just been dealt even poorer choices through a chain of unfortunate events that draw more international attention.
During my time there, the Koreans were respectable, polite, hospitable, and really wanted us to enjoy our time there. They wanted to learn about us and us to learn about them and their views. Nothing they showed us seemed malicious or ill-intent but rather holding loyalty and respect for their leaders and family.
There weren't clear signs of starvation or malnutrition, there also wasn't any homelessness that we could catch a glimpse of. Could they be more wealthier and healthier? Yes. But in my eyes - they didn't seem like they were unhappy; they were happy with what they have. It seemed like what we typically know of North Korea is from a different era of tyranny which doesn't hold much weight in the modern day.
If we were to airdrop modern developments of technology, shopping centers, bars, world class food, entertainment - I doubt any of this would make an improvement to their lives or would be better for them overnight.
It would take decades of cultural change and governance to lead them to where we would like them to be. Perception shapes our narratives of the country - so we have to fight hard with questions to uncover more views and answers for ourselves to form a real discussion.
All in all, it was a bittersweet trip to a country with no definitive answer to when they will join us in the rest of the world - and that is the empty feeling I left with.