How I totally fucked up my DMZ tour in Seoul.

Standing in front of the DMZ sign on the DMZ tour to see North Korea from Seoul, South Korea

Read this if you are wanting to visit the DMZ properly.

I thought it would be easy booking the DMZ tour. Otherwise known as the demilitarized zone. This 20km buffer zone is between North and South Korea and acts as a no man’s land. (the last time I was in one of those I was missile attacked, but more on that another time!)

Because this was my first time visiting South Korea, I really wanted the chance to see the DMZ.

I’d heard there was a part of the tour where you can stand on a little patch of ground that is “technically” North Korea. Sure, it sounded touristy as all fuck, but whatever.

So does Disneyland and millions of people visit there every year?  I also wanted to see the guards from North Korea and South Korea stare at each other out from a few feet away. 

So I googled. I probably typed something generic in like “DMZ tour from Seoul” and then, I went and booked the very first tour that popped up. It said “Most popular DMZ tour” and “Best tour company in Seoul” and it was only $40. So what did I have to lose?

I booked it. 

Big mistake.  

Did you know there are two different DMZ tours on offer in Seoul?

The tour I went on had some good points. 

They picked me up at Hongik University, which was just 1 stop from my Airbnb. 

The tour guide spoke great English. I mean, there were times that I actually thought she was on drugs with some of the stuff she was saying, but it was entertaining all the same I guess. 

The bus was comfortable… what’s not to like? 

This tour was the WRONG DMZ tour! That’s what!

The “Most popular DMZ tour” did tick off the usual spots…

Freedom bridge/ unification bridge

We were given 30 minutes to stroll around the freedom bridge area. Let’s call this for what it is though. It’s a car park. Or bus park. There’s a bridge, that you can’t get to, or even near. And there’s a viewing point some distance away from said “Freedom bridge”. It doesn’t really overlook anything but the car park so don’t get too excited about that first stop. 

All tours will stop here, and all of them tend to stick around for about the same amount of time. The single bathroom was surprisingly clean and there is a shop to buy snacks from if you want some. 

Once you have been up the lookout area and taken your photos of a fuzzy freedom bridge in the background, you can come back down and try and get closer to it. 

On the way, you will pass a small souvenir shop and several memorials dedicated to South Korean family members who are still in the North. 

It’s a sobering sight because many of the letters and prayers for these family members will never be received. Most South Koreans who have family members in the North do not actually know if they are alive or not.

There is an actual mailbox here if you want to use it. I believe all mail sent from this box will take some months to be delivered but will be postmarked with DMZ. Which I guess is kind of cool if you have an old uncle who collects stamps. 

Border control in DMZ

From Freedom bridge, the bus will drive closer to the border. This is where you need to show your passport to the guards. Or so they say. 

I didn’t bring my passport. I’d completely forgotten it that morning and thought the day was doomed, but the guide said it was fine, so I shrugged and carried on with the tour. Sure enough, the guards came on the bus to check everyones passports. 

Yeah, I got a bit nervous when I realised I was the only one without a passport on the entire bus. When the guard got to me, I just pointed at the guide and shrugged. So did he. She said something in Korean. He shrugged again, nodded and got off the bus. I have no idea what happened either.  But it clearly wasn’t an issue that I had forgotten my passport. 

Dora observatory 

Another feature of all DMZ tours is the visit to the Dora observatory. If I’m honest, this is probably the best part of the trip. There’s a video playing in the theatre room, which I’m sure was really informative. Except, for the 30 minutes I was there the movie was being played in Korean and then Chinese. So…. 

If you miss the English video, still pop your head into the theatre room. At the very front, there is a pretty decent map of the area. It shows what you are looking at quite clearly, and is worth seeing before heading up to the viewing platform to orientate yourself.

The viewing platform is on the rooftop. As you can imagine, it does get busy with busloads of tourists descending on the space in a short space of time, so just be patient. There are several free binoculars along the front. Que up behind one to have a look at North Korea from afar. It’s about as good as you are going to see it on this tour. 

You will see the two flagpoles. One for North Korea and one for South Korea. The South Korean flagpole indicates the edge of the DMZ zone. And the North, funny enough, is in North Korea. 

From the Dora Observatory, you can’t really see much… there is the city of Panmunjom that is visible, but you can’t see people walking around. No matter what the guides try and claim they saw last time. You are still several KMs from North Korea, so unless you bring your own high powered military-grade binoculars, you probably won’t see much other than a few rooftops and those flag poles. 

Believe me when I say this is probably the highlight of this DMZ tour too. 

The third infiltration tunnel is the second to last stop on the DMZ tour

Our guide explained the history of the tunnels while we were on the way here on the bus. Basically, the North Koreans were creating all of these tunnels into South Korea so they could sneak in and attack (I guess they heard how good the BBQ is in the south?) but, a pesky North Korean spy was caught and admitted to the tunnels leading South Korea to find them and put an end to them.

What this tour stops at is a tunnel that South Korea has built down to connect to the North Korean tunnel. The two tunnels meet but are totally closed off so no one can actually access either country using the tunnels. Obvs. 

This stop was around 45 minutes, giving the tour groups time to enter the tunnel and shuffle along with it until they get to a concrete wall, and then shuffle back out through the sweatbox of people. Yeah. I didn’t bother doing it funny enough. I heard it was a pretty pointless exercise.

Instead, hang out in the sunshine! Just around the side of the building is a nice garden, some koi fish, and seats. There are also these slightly tacky signs for tourists to take photos with. Don’t miss out!

The final stop on the DMZ tour was a train station to nowhere!

Basically, the Dorason train station has been built and is operational, however, North Korea won’t currently allow free trade with South Korea. So, the start and end of the line are here. It now just operates as a tourist attraction I guess.

There is a souvenir shop where you can buy North Korean spirits. It’s the only place outside of North Korea where you can buy it! I wish I had known that before I went, I only found out after the tour finished from the other people on it! Damn.

You can pay a few dollars to buy a train ticket on the platform. Although, you literally get the ticket, go through the turnstiles, turn around and come back out. Of course, there is nothing there but a dead platform. If you are wondering if I bothered doing that… the answer is of course, no. 

Then we piled back into the bus and set off back to Seoul. 

Why was this tour the wrong DMZ tour to have booked?

Remember at the start I mentioned the area with the guards? Yeah, that’s not a part of a DMZ tour. That’s a tour called the JSA tour. The JSA tour is the one where you do all of those exciting parts of the DMZ tour but you also get to see the guards and conference room with the big line painted down the middle to separate the two countries. 

Yeah, what you need to book is something called the JSA tour or Panmunjeom tour. Who knew?

Not this idiot that’s for sure. 

Instead of booking the half-day DMZ tour, look for the full day JSA tour. Don’t listen to the tour booking websites that exclaim “most popular tour” The tour I went on was probably the most popular one because it was cheap and ticked off the main places to see. But any traveller who wants to explore properly would prefer to do the JSA and Panmunjeom tour. 

I’m, still kicking myself. Don’t fuck up your tours kids. 

On the upside, I ended up stumbling on the BEST rooftop bar in Seoul, South Korea after the tour finished in Myeong-Dong. So, I really shouldn’t complain!

The best rooftop bar in seoul
Round The World Rachel
Round The World Rachel

Rachel Cunningham is a Superyacht Chef and World Adventurer.
With over 110 countries visited in the past 15 years, Rachel wants to you to come along for the ride! Bring a bottle of rum, and a bikini, oh yeah, and your passport. You could end up losing all three items by the end of this journey!
Round the world Rachel takes you off the beaten track to beaches, bars and restaurants of the unknown!

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  1. Everyone in the World
    April 23, 2024 / 10:40 am

    You went to the Civilian Controlled Zone.
    I’m also embarassed as a human after reading your post.
    The pose in front of the DMZ screams “Basic AF”.

  2. Sanjay Gupta
    March 7, 2024 / 8:38 am

    Great to read your blog. I believe that the JSA tour is not happening at the moment, so is it really worth the trip to DMZ? I am having second thoughts.

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