When we asked mom and dad which of the things we did was the most memorable during our Korea trip, dad instantly replied, "DMZ". Mom nodded and agreed.
"Suspense e! Exciting!" - Dad
"Nakakakaba, lalo na yun may pipirmahan!" - Mom
(It's nerve wracking, most especially when they asked us to sign a waiver!)
I was surprised because during the whole JSA (Joint Security Area) Panmunjom Tour they were just silent. Mom even had her nervous face the whole time, I was kind of regretting we went for it! 😂 But after hearing this now that we are back home and just reminiscing, I am glad my Ate and I continuously searched for open slots for this tour because they are always fully booked. We were able to still get in via Trazy.com.
During our JSA day, we went out of our guesthouse early to catch our tour bus and follow all the guidelines Trazy.com sent to me prior the trip. They won't wait for later comers, so I made sure to resend all the reminders to the fam the night before. We reached the meet-up point at the President Hotel around 30 minutes before call time, and conveniently claimed our reserved spots.
The tour agency Trazy is partnered with is JoongAng Tour (approved by UN). You can't go to this tour on your own, and must be part of a UN-approved agency and bus tours. After checking our passports, JoongAng Tour asked us to wait at the lobby for our bus. Cea and I went outside the hotel to find a kombini. When we got back and sat with the fam, our tour guide Sun Mee approached our area and asked for our names, referring to a list she's holding. Our group picked up with the rest, and joined the bus.
There are several RULES when you join the JSA tour, and it is better to comply than to waste your money or cause a commotion. Here are some of them:
1) Please note that there are areas where they do not allow photographs, and please do follow the orders! Breaking the rules is not cool! 🙈
2) Bring your PASSPORT at all times. We submitted copies during the online booking, but the actual copy was also checked around 3-4 times during the whole tour--1 at the tour office, and 2x at the bus during checkpoints.
3) Do not carry too much things, just bring what you need unless you are comfortable in leaving them in the bus. There will be times when bringing a bag is not allowed so you have to leave them in the bus.
4) Note that there's a dress code. There were instances before when a guest was not allowed in some crucial parts of the tour because he/she is wearing the wrong footwear! No sleeveless shirts, tank tops, leather, transparent, short pants, sandals, slippers, ripped jeans, faded jeans, or military themed clothing.
Don't worry, everything's emailed by Trazy prior the trip, just review them several times and you're good to go!
First Stop: War Memorial of Korea
Barely 30 minutes away from Hotel President, we went off the bus to our first stop. The War Memorial of Korea is an educational venue that exhibits Korean War artifacts and mementos, and commemorates the sacrifices of the patriots. Aside from usual tourists like our group, the place is also filled with locals, military members, and kids on a field trip.
Our English speaking tour guide Sun Mee explained to us the Korean War, why there's the need for a border, and the different acronyms like DMZ, JSA, MDL, etc.
"So you think that the war is over? It's just a ceasefire."
Then she allowed us to go around on our own and explore the museum.
Filipinos who died while helping South Korea during the Korean War:
When we left the museum, stomachs were grumbling just in time for lunch.
Second Stop: Imjingak Resort
Lunch is already part of the tour (Bulgogi), and yey that they have an option for vegetarians (Bibimbap). The place is already inside the Imjingak Resort, and everything tastes good for me! Lots of side dishes were served, and Korean stars' signatures were all over the walls. Must be a popular place!
After relaxing, I forced the fam to maximize our time by going around before the bus leaves for the next stop. The Imjingak Resort is a DMZ tourist spot that allows visitors without going through any check points.
In here you can find the Unification Park, an observatory, the Gyeongui Train Line, the Bridge of Freedom (where South Koreans crossed when they returned from North Korea after the Armistice Agreement), and the Mangbaedan Alter--the famous ribbon-cladded wall where Koreans separated from their families in the North visit to perform ancestral rites.
We bumped into Tour Guide Sun Mee who requested us to go back to the bus for our next stop. We passed by the Unification Bridge, heading to the meaty part of this tour....
Third Stop: Camp Bonifas
Our group stopped taking photos and filming when we were bound to Camp Bonifas (formerly Camp Kitty Hawk), the base camp of United Nations Command Security Battalion (UNC). Their mission is to make sure that the Korean Armistice of Agreement of 1953 (ceasefire) is properly enforced. Camp Bonifas was last attacked by North Koreans in 1967, which killed 1 US and 2 ROK soldiers. Nakakanerbyos ha, but we were told that land mines and security that we can't even see are everywhere!
We had a briefing where we first watched a 30-minute film on the Korean War in a cold dark theater, and after that they handed us pens and waivers to sign. This was when the whole room went silent. No one wants to put their pens down, *nervous laugh*! 😬 I was so anxious, but had to show to my parents that it's okay! So I signed first hoping I won't regret anything! Haha!
Here's what's written in the Visitor Declaration. Click photo to enlarge.
When everyone submitted their waivers, they distributed IDs for us to wear, and divided the big group into two. We rode a different bus to the JSA, and were given last minute instructions: no gestures and no eye contact with North Korean guards to avoid misinterpretations.
Fourth Stop: JSA
I went in the blue house as fast as I possibly can, with minimal movements! I don't think I even breathed properly at that time, haha!
Our group was assigned to this military / tour guide who gave us the briefing in Camp Bonifas, and guided us throughout the JSA tour.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the "Truce Village", the only place at the DMZ where North and South Koreans stand face-to-face. This is also where North and South Korea and the UNC hold regular military negotiations.
We had a quick time inside the blue house, and were told that it's okay to take photos so I took a lot!
I quickly handed Cea my camera, for this once in a lifetime moment, and she took this one quick shot of me with the UNC. Nanenerbyos na nga sya, ang seryoso ko pa sa photo! Haha!
People lining up for their turn, so I moved along:
When our military guide asked us to stop taking photos and move back to his side of the blue house, he said, "Welcome back to the safe zone" and I saw a tiny smile.
The UNC (whom I had a photo taken with) guards the door leading to the North Korean side of JSA. We were told that North Korea also has their own version of this tour, but that day they have no tourists who availed the offer.
After barely 15 minutes inside the blue house, they asked us to file and head outside.
We stood here longer than our time inside the blue house. While waiting, we were told not to go down the stairs, and we can take pictures but only up front--facing the building on the North Korean side. We were forbidden to take photos of the Freedom house building on the South Korea side.
If you look closely at the center of the photo above, you will see the line on the ground, or the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). This truce line defines North and South Korea's territory on the 38th Parallel.
Sun Mee offered to take our family photo:
My solo photo, that's the ID we were required to wear while inside the JSA:
When we were back at the Camp Bonifas, we had the chance to take a photo with our oppa military guide. I heard him say, "Don't be embarrassed to ask for photo, you came all the way to Korea."
Of course, I availed the souvenir booklet with two group pictures (around Php 800)! Then we had an unbelievably short ride to Seoul, barely an hour away from that infamous demarkation line.
A quick snap of North Korea from our bus:
Read more on my Korea travels: