TOP 10 Most Difficult Countries to Travel in

TOP 10 Most Difficult Countries to Travel in

NOTE – This article was published in July 2011. There are probably a few other countries that’d feature pretty high now!

Travelling isn’t always fun and pain-free and there is a seemingly endless list of things that can go wrong on the road. Some countries however go the extra mile in making things difficult for travellers and the freedom of travel can quickly turn into a bit of a nightmare. These are ten of the worst countries to travel in:

1. Somalia

The Main Problem: Pirates, Civil War, Islamic Militants

Yeah, Somalia’s not great for backpacking at the moment. The capital Mogadishu was once quite an impressive and stylish city. It’s not any more. The city is now considered the most lawless and dangerous in the world. You’ve probably heard about the Somali Pirates who crop up in the news every now and then. In summary don’t go, you might die.

2. North Korea

The Main Problem: Brutal Communist Dictatorship

It’s fair to say that North Korea isn’t really suited to independent travel. This weird country is only possible to visit by organised tours and you will be accompanied by government officials at all times who will do all they can to show you the best of North Korea and hide the mass poverty that exists here. Would make a fascinating visit no doubt, but don’t expect any sort of freedom to speak your mind or go where you want.

3. Afghanistan

The Main Problem: Warzone

The capital Kabul is actually pretty safe, but the Taliban still control many parts of the country and needless to say aren’t overly fond of Western visitors wandering through their turf. Most of the south and west is basically a warzone that the Afghan government has little control over.

4. Pakistan

The Main Problem: It’s Dangerous

In days gone by Pakistan was a wonderful country to visit. Today however with rising Islamic extremism, a spill-over of the Taliban from Afghanistan and the odd US drone missile dropping in the country it’s now pretty dangerous. Hopefully one day the situation will improve and travellers will return to take in the vast history, ancient cities, stunning Northern mountain ranges and of course Osama Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad (future backpacking hotspot!).

5. Canada

The Main Problem: Thousands of Miles of Nothing

It may seem a little harsh putting Canada on this list alongside some of the world’s most dangerous places. Yes, Canada has some cool cities but there are a few problems that make backpacking in the traditional sense next to impossible. The country is blooming huge, the cities are often 1000’s of miles apart (Montreal is closer to London than it is Vancouver) and there’s not really anything in between them.

Read about the cost of travel in Canada.

6. Saudi Arabia

The Main Problem: Most Backpackers don’t follow strict Islamic Principles

The Middle East isn’t exactly a backpacker’s heaven and is often a difficult place to visit. If you have an Israeli stamp in your passport you won’t even be allowed into Saudi Arabia or many other countries in the region. This oil rich nation is also pretty expensive and doesn’t exactly have much of a budget accommodation scene. If you make it in at least there’s the buzzing nightlife to look forward to. Errrm maybe not, No alcohol, no nightclubs, no music, no mingling with unrelated women! Sounds like a blast.

7. Monaco

The Main Problem: Extortionate Rip-off

The French principality may well be the millionaire’s playground but it certainly doesn’t cater for backpackers. Hostels don’t exist as rents are so high here it is virtually impossible to make any money out of people travelling on a budget. The cheapest hotels are likely to set you back well over 50 Euro’s per person. Just about everything else including food and drink is very expensive so if you do come here, do it a day-trip from one of the nearby French or Italian towns which are still pricey but by no means as bad as Monte Carlo.

8. China

The Main Problem: Paranoia & Bureaucracy

China is a fabulously diverse country with more history and tradition than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. The problem is that the country is bureaucratic to almost farcical levels. Getting money out of the bank or exchanging cash can take up to an hour, with huge bank queues and a mountain of paperwork to fill out for a relatively simple procedure. To go online in an internet cafe you have to hand over your passport and have your photo taken. There are just several completely unnecessary hassles to deal with which can make travel in China a right pain.

9. Russia

The Main Problem: Big & Traveller Unfriendly

The only thing that saves the country is the great Tran-Siberian railway which is a long but wonderful adventure into deepest Russia. There’s also some pretty cool hostels in Moscow and St Petersburg but the hassle and expense of getting a visa sorted plus the lack of English (or any other foreign languages) spoken or on signs, even in the main cities makes things difficult. Moscow is horribly expensive and the rest of the country is enormous to try and get around and not really tourist friendly.

10. Venezuela

The Main Problem: Western Prices in South America

Easily the most difficult country to travel in, when it comes to South America. The country is fairly wealthy thanks to its oil reserves and therefore isn’t as dependent or interested in tourism as other countries in the region. Add into that President Hugo Chavez’s official exchange rates which are designed to fleece tourists. If you stick to these your trip to the country can end up costing you a small fortune.


This article was published in July 2011.

Visiting the Secret State – How to Travel in North Korea

Visiting the Secret State – How to travel in North Korea

pyongyang airport

Note – This article was published in February 2013. Things may have changed since!

Can you visit?

In a nutshell, yes you can visit but travel in North Korea is not like it is anywhere else on the planet.

Unless you fancy illegally crossing at heavily patrolled borders where officers have shoot on sight instructions, independent travel in this highly secretive state is impossible. The only options are ‘guided’ tours where you will be supervised and monitored at all times by at least two ‘tour guides’. Their objective is to showcase the country in the best possible light and they will only take you to places they want you to see. Even if you opt for an individual tour as opposed to a group one you will still be allocated two guides and a driver.

From time to time the tours are stopped when tensions on the peninsular are particularly high. Tour companies, mostly based in China such as Koryo Tours run the trips and as of April 2013 contrary to media rumours they seem to still be running. Most cost in the region of 1000-1500 Euros with trips varying from 3 days to a couple of weeks or more. In recent times they have began to include previously off-limits areas of the country meaning visitors get to see more of the real North Korea.

Koryo Tours have an informative website and a large range of tour options for visiting North Korea

Young Pioneer Tours offer similar trips and are slightly cheaper.

The Sights

Capital Pyongyang has been described as a thriving metropolis by the North Korean government. It is not. The streets are practically deserted and visiting the city is a quite bizarre experience. Only a select few North Koreans (those from a high class and deemed extremely loyal to the state) are allowed to live here and most others find it impossible to get a permit to visit. Even for North Koreans it is impossible to freely travel around their own country and many have barely moved more than 20km from their hometown

Pyongyang is a surreal place and in no way reflective of a typical North Korean city. The main sights are pretty much all related to Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong-Il with no doubt Kim-Jong Un statues and monuments coming soon. The giant 100-story Ryugyong Hotel dominates the skyline but when the economy crashed in 1992 so did the funding and it is still to be completed. The Arch of Triumph celebrates Korean liberation from Japan in 1945 and is a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris only bigger.

north korea showOther sights include the North Korean Film Studio and rather oddly a funfair. For all it’s aggressive anti-imperialist rhetoric, the North Korean powers that be are desperate to put on a show for foreign visitors. Intricately planned shows often including thousands of performers are regularly put on for tourists and for the leaders of the Communist party. The Rungnado May Day Stadium hosts the performances (right) and is reportedly the largest in the world holding 150,000 spectators. It is also used for major sporting events with the odd execution thrown in for good measure.

The few westerners that do visit Pyongyang are normally put up in an otherwise empty hotel in the middle of a lake, to prevent anyone wandering off in attempt to freely explore the city. In any case unless you happen to look and dress North Korean, the sight of a foreigner wandering around alone is likely to quickly draw attention. The fact is you are likely to be caught and arrested potentially on espionage charges so it’s best to do as your guides say (as frustrating as that may be).

The country does however boast a few hidden gems and is probably more scenic than it’s southern neighbour. Depending on the current situation Kumgangsan is visitable on tours from South Korea. Literally it means Diamond Mountains and boasts many impressive peaks, lagoons and sizeable waterfalls.

north korea borderThe North Korean side of the DMZ (a 4km wide de-militarised zone that separates the two Koreans which technically remain at war) is another popular place to visit and a common inclusion in the official tours. The DMZ can be easily visited from the South but the perspective is very different when you approach from the North Korean side. The village of Panmunjeom which happened to lie on the front line when the truce was signed has been deserted ever since and serves as a bizarre reminder of the dark days of the Cold War. 1km east is a jointly policed zone which is the only thing that resembles an actual border point. For the most part South and North Korean soldiers stare at each other not daring to step foot over the line that separates the two countries. Soldiers on the two sides of the border used to communicate by phone but in March 2013 the DPRK cut off the lines effectively ending any formal contact between the two Koreas.

At the other end of the country close to the Chinese border is Mount Paektu, the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsular with a huge crater lake (below) at the top. It is supposedly the mythical birthplace of the Kims who have controlled the country since the Korean War. In a land where religion has no place, founding father Kim Il-sung is the closest thing North Koreans have to a God and the state media frequently speak of super-human achievements by him and his son, Kim Jong-Il.

Mount paektu north korea

Is it dangerous to visit?

Bizarrely North Korea is probably one of the safest countries in the world to visit. The risk of a traffic accident is low as the roads are deserted because virtually no-one owns a car. In a land where image is everything yet nothing is at seems, every effort is put on to ensure foreigners are treated well and stay safe on their visits to the country. Should anything happen to a tourist it would be a PR disaster for the government.

The other slight concern that you may have heard about is the possibility of nuclear war. North Korea has a huge military and a sizeable weapons collection but very few remaining allies. It would in all likelihood be totally annihilated should they decide to launch into any military action against South Korea, USA or Japan. Despite recent declarations of war and aggressive threats to its enemies, Kim Jong-Un and his cronies are surely aware of this and it seems probable that his bark is significantly louder than his bite.To cut a long story short, while the new leader appears to be something of a fruitcake, a war is still very unlikely to break out any time soon.

Should you travel to North Korea?

North korea wandering swallowThis is a difficult one. North Korea’s human rights record is frankly horrendous, people have been starving to death for almost two decades and yet in a ridiculous attempt to prove otherwise vast amounts of food are often put on for visitors while children living in the streets go hungry. Little is known about what goes on in North Korean prison and labour camps but whole families have been sent away to these Soviet styled gulags. North Korean defectors who make it South Korea do so with the knowledge that any family members left behind will probably be sent away to the camps and will potentially spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Many people are passionate about the state of North Korea and some foreigners have visited on numerous occasions. They believe it is important to visit and the few journalists who have snuck their way in feel they are bringing greater attention the humanitarian situation inside the country. One of those is Barbara Demick who wrote the excellent ‘Nothing to Envy’ which follows the life stories of six North Korean defectors and is well worth a read to understand life in this most isolated of states.

Before choosing to visit it is worth learning a bit about what is probably the most difficult country in the world to understand. Although extremely secretive it is clear some terrible things have happened in the country and the Kim Dynasty are arguably the worst dictators in modern times.

That said atrocities are committed all over the world, many in countries that attract millions of tourists each year. It is ultimately a personal choice, but those who opt to visit North Korea are in for a truly unique and unforgettable experience.

pic of border by kalleboo on flickr


This article was published in February 2013.