Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel: Nampo
The ‘hot spa’ name comes from the local water, said to be rich in bromine and radon.
Legend has it that a 15th-century farmer noticed an injured bird soaking its wounds in the warm spa water, and over the years the area has become popular not just as a place of convalescence, but also conviviality; this hotel was once a countryside retreat for senior Party figures.
The Ryonggang Hot Spa is located close to the West coast in North Korea.
Most foreigners overnighting in the Nampo area stay at the Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel, half an hour’s drive northwest of the city into the countryside. And it is quite the experience.
Before arriving at the hot spa hotel, you will drive through North Korea's countryside and rural areas, before arriving at the big entrance gate to the hot spa compound. (If you don't get lost on the way.)
At this entrance gate you make a short stop to check you in, then carry on driving up the driveway to the hot spa resort's reception.
At the hot spa reception, you check-in to the hotel and get your keys, then go to find your accommodation for the night.
The hot spa is located seemingly in the middle of nowhere in the countryside. This makes the surroundings very peaceful.
It is located in a kind of hot spa compound, which is surprisingly large. There are two sections to it where you can stay. The older original area which is separated into hot spa "houses" where you will get your own room within the "house" - each with their own gate and garden/BBQ area.
To go to each house it can be a bit of a walk. There is also no lighting on the walk. Far outside of the city, it gets pitch black at night. It's a good idea to take note of where your house is as you won't be able to see the signs pointing towards your house number later at night!
A memorable pastime here is to enquire about the availability of the famous West Sea clam barbecue which will be cooked invariably by your bus driver, his culinary expertise perhaps a revelation to the group at this stage. Illuminated by the headlights, local clams are carefully arranged in concentric circles on a concrete table outside one of the chalets. Once he is satisfied with the layout, he syphons some fuel from the bus (really), lights it, and pours it gently and calmly over them.
All house areas have a BBQ spot, and there is also one near to the hot spa resort reception area, and one next to the public bath new building. This one is arguably the best BBQ spot, with the most space. You can often see families and groups of local North Koreans enjoying their clam BBQ here. Next to this BBQ area, there is also a small inside dining area that can provide food, cups for soju, drinks, and chairs.
There are three main buildings areas; the old houses section, the reception in the middle, and behind the reception the new building which houses the public pool. You can stay in both the new and old building.
A central service building house is the reception area, bar/ restaurant, and halls where you can play table tennis, badminton or billiards into the early hours. You can also dine here on the buffet and purchase other food and drinks.
In the 27 original chalets, there’s an air of faded glamour meets grandparents spare bedroom- think doilies, dusty cut glass decanter sets, china teacups and threadbare carpet.
Each room has a private bath you can fill with the piping hot spa water; that said, all those minerals give it a rather alarming brown hue, and you are sagely warned not to stay in the water too long (although it’s never made clear quite what would happen if you did).
Some rooms also have balconies equipped with a lounging chair.
You may be situated on the upstairs here, and there is no lift in these old small houses - so you may need a hand with your luggage!
If the old chalets are a little too ‘real' for your liking- worry not, other options are now available.
After years of sepia-tinged decline, there has been a flurry of recent development and a brand new building has opened its doors, complete with modern hotel rooms facing onto a central indoor pool and leisure area. It is convenient to stay here as it is closer to the pool and you have free pool access. However, the rooms are slightly smaller.
- Make sure to visit in the right season. Nampo, close to the sea, can get cold in winter. If you want to use the hot spa and the surrounding areas to the full, going in spring or autumn is best. It is cold enough to enjoy the hot spa, and also warm enough to enjoy a walk outside in the grounds beneath a starry sky. If clam BBQ is your thing, visiting in summer is best when clams are ample and cheap.
- Clam BBQ can cost anything from 5EUR to 15EUR per person, depending on the season and the size/quality of the clams.
- There are two different styles of housing. The new and the old version. Both have their perks and downsides, but in the end, it is personal preference. However, the new building also houses the public pool which has two public baths of spa water. It is more convenient to stay here if you wish to use the public bath, but it can also get pretty noisy at night.
- If you want to use the public bath, swimsuits are for rent at the reception in the building.
- There is a bar inside the public bath area, and you can also get a massage here at the side of the pool or in a private room.
- During the winter months, it gets dark pretty early. It is good to bring a torch as there is little lighting outside.
- A top tip from the local North Koreans, and indeed one that is not just a tip but a seeming necessity, is to make sure you drink at least a little soju during the clam BBQ. Not only do these go well, but this is also the safest way to enjoy your clam BBQ.
- Depending on where you are staying, there may be a fee to use the public bath/pool