Hong Kong (CNN) – For many travelers, spending a lot of time in a hotel means they haven’t properly gone out and enjoyed a destination.
For James Scullin, who has visited the Hermit Kingdom eight times, hotels were the highlight of the trip – and one of the only ways to get to know locals in a social setting.
That is the premise of his new self-published book “Hotels of Pyongyang” with text by Scullin and photographs by Nicole Reed.
“So much of the world is globalized now. There are so few places to go that have a bespoke culture and appearance,” says Scullin.
After moving back to his hometown Melbourne from China, he bonded with Reed, who specializes in portrait and architectural photography. The two spent five days together in Pyongyang, taking photos of hotels and the people who work in them.
North Korea has so many interesting buildings and structures to take pictures of that one question – why hotels?
Scullin first visited the country as part of a recognized tour group and then volunteered to lead trips for the company himself. As he became familiar with the layout of Pyongyang, he noticed other hotels he hadn’t stayed in before and asked his guides if it was okay to visit.
“You go to the same places all the time – you go to the same museums, monuments, subway stations,” says Scullin. Since all tourism to North Korea is tightly controlled by the government, travelers generally stick to places like the DMZ and Kim Il Sung Square.
Hotels were one of the only safe ways for a foreign visitor to get some variety without being on the danger list.
“I wanted to explore these hotels personally, but also document these hotels in Pyongyang that serve international travelers,” he explains.
“It’s ironic that a country that is so isolated has so many hotels. I think the coexistence really sparked the idea (of the book). Hotels are the North Korea they want foreigners to see. What does an isolated one want Country people to get away with by visiting? In some ways, it’s visual illusion. ”
Karaoke is big business in Pyongyang, and the karaoke room at Sosan Hotel reportedly has the largest selection in English.
Pools? Yes. Room service? No.
Reed quickly noticed one thing when she arrived in Pyongyang – her drink of choice.
“Coffee was a big deal for me,” she says. “We could only get coffee in the cafes in hotels. So that was a highlight.”
But these cafes also became Reed’s favorite for more reasons than the availability of caffeine.
She was interested in photographing some of the people who worked in the hotels and this often required negotiating with hotel managers or other senior executives. During the downtime, she and Scullin could just chat with and casually meet the North Korean workers, just as people with new friends do in coffee shops around the world.
The hotels had a mix of amenities. Bars, karaoke rooms, and pools were almost everywhere, but there was no room service or Wi-Fi. Koryo, which both Scullin and Reed named personal favorites, has a revolving restaurant on the top floor.
Scullin compares the interior design of many hotels to Wes Anderson films – bright primary colors, color blocking, and symmetry. Each hotel also has its own insignia. For tourists who are used to hotel logos, this doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. However, North Korea is generally branding-free – there are no advertisements, no television advertisements, and no billboards.
These otherwise innocuous trappings help any hotel stand out from the crowd, but they also believe in an imagination just beneath the seemingly uniform surface.
And despite the fact that all the hotels in the country are state-owned, each has a different management and was designed by different people, making it a rare creative outlet.
“Creativity exists under all circumstances,” he says. “The hotels are essentially an excuse for someone to let these ideas out.”
However, there were some things that the cameras couldn’t capture. Scullin says the ubiquitous North Korean revolutionary songs, always playing in the background in hotels, made a significant contribution to the general “mood” of the country.
This pool is located in Koryo, the second largest hotel in Pyongyang.
Learn to let go
Usually, explains Reed, she “ties” her camera to her laptop during a photo shoot so that she can see and adjust images in real time. But she didn’t want to take her laptop with her to North Korea, so she only traveled with her most basic gear.
Although she only spent five days in the country, she feels that her trip made more sense than usual because she didn’t spend hours of her day at her computer or using social media.
“I didn’t know how I was going to do without my phone, but after about half a day without this technology, I was just amazed,” she says. “I paid much more attention to my surroundings and the people I was with. This allows you to have a lot more time in space.”
Scullin agrees, and he has seen the people on the group tours he organized have a deeper experience without their ubiquitous phones. It also encourages more conversations as people aren’t tied to Twitter or Instagram.
“You have to find opportunities to mingle,” he says to potential visitors to Pyongyang. “When you have a good relationship with leaders and ask if we can go for a walk tonight.” They’ll call their boss and ask if they can take you anywhere. “
Both Scullin and Reed say that some of their most fascinating experiences were simple ones, like shopping a North Korean local grocery store, singing in a karaoke room, or going to a spa.
However, it was in hotels that the most important human interactions took place.
“There are places that locals go but foreigners are not allowed, so you hang out in the hotel. A lot of people see this as a trap, but for me it’s great because you can hang out with the guides there.” says Scullin.
“As long as you’re not talking about Kim Jong Un or missile programs, you can have really interesting conversations. That’s what really excites me about spending time in these hotels. These guides have a lot to say about the country if you can be respectful of it speak. “