The Rewards of Traveling to Forbidden Lands

Posted on June 26, 2013 by

This is a chapter from my new book, The Adventure Traveler’s Handbook. To find out more about the book, read here or buy a copy from Amazon

In our travels, we’ve visited several places that are considered ‘dangerous’ by many: North Korea, Burma (or Myanmar), Honduras, Israel, amongst many.

Why? Because as curious travelers, we believe by seeing a place for ourselves is the best way to mitigate everyone’s fears and bust the myths surrounding it. Traveling is our way of learning on-the-ground knowledge, and visiting these forbidden lands is a channel through which we see a place beyond the headlines. Through our past experiences and stories from other travelers, I’d like to share why we’ve been drawn to these extreme places:

Learning Valuable Lessons

At the start of 2012, news of North Korea’s nuclear weapons was flashing across TV screens around the world. I had been reading about the country for years, and I was watching the country sink deeper and deeper into isolation from the world. DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is one of the most isolated nations in the world, having tucked itself into secrecy since its division with South Korea. Only local channels are shown on TV, there is no internet anywhere in the country and few foreign tourists visit the country each year (around 2,500 Western tourists not including the Chinese).

I’d heard that North Koreans were only fed the side of the story that their supreme leaders wanted them to hear; I couldn’t help but question if that’s happening to us too. Is the news media obscuring North Korea’s wider picture — is it all true or are our visions being skewed too?

I knew that visiting a country this controversial would subject myself and my work as a travel writer to scrutiny and that strict tourism laws in the country meant that we would be herded from place to place and shown only certain sights of the country. At the same time, I couldn’t miss up this excellent opportunity to step away from everything that’s been fed to us by the news media and make my own judgment for once.

A visit into this misunderstood nation left us awed, wide-eyed, and overwhelmed with emotions. Regardless of the nation’s political standpoint, we found a country with an extreme camaraderie and pride, and people who were just as curious about the world as everyone else is. On the subway, we even interacted with people, showing them our photos and using sign language to talk to them. The biggest surprise for me was just how normal everything felt in DPRK — besides the socialist-style attire and grim-looking buildings, there was little to remind us that this was the country headlining the news worldwide, and often, in a negative light. (Read more about our  impression of North Korea).

By asking a simple question and acting upon it, we took away valuable life lessons that TV news or books would never be able to teach me.

Children in North Korea

People Are People

Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Korea, are names that have unfortunately been associated with war for decades. These countries may have issues with political disputes, unrest or natural disasters — but it is often in these troubled regions where you can find heartfelt hospitality, raw rugged landscapes and untainted authenticity.

Audrey and Daniel from Uncornered Market visited Iran in 2011 drawn by the culture and history, and fuelled by their curiosities. In this article, they share why they decided to visit Iran:

We understand that the history of America’s recent relationship with Iran — or at least the relationship between the two governments — is rocky (I state the obvious). With the recent release of American hikers and the even more recent dust up over the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., an already difficult relationship has been made even more so.

….we understand why some of you may have concerns for our safety. We want to alleviate some of those fears and let you know we’ll be in good hands.

Furthermore, our experience in other places perceived as unsafe – from Burma to Uzbekistan – tells us that the story on the ground is often very different than what appears in media. And no matter what happens between governments, politicians and “leaders”, at the end of each day, people are people — they are generally good and life goes on for them in many fundamental ways just like it does for you and me.

The wall that divides Palestine and Israel

Tourism Can Bring World Peace

Many of these regions need tourism badly to fight off poverty and resolve conflicts. Egypt for instance needs tourists now more than ever to revive the tourism industry that suffered severely due to the revolution; South Sudan is another good example of a brand new country whose fragile economy can benefit substantially from visitors. Most of all, tourism can be a powerful tool to fight off discrimination and advocate equality. If done correctly, it can help to educate the parties involved and the outside world, and bring peace.

In WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013, writer Stephen Lioy wrote a beautiful article on his travel experience in Afghanistan:

Despite its violent history of banditry, Badakhshan has recently become one of the calmest parts of Afghanistan, relatively free of strife for the last ten years. We’re told that even at the height of the Taliban’s control in the country, the cultural norms in this region were never affected by the Talib mindset to the same degree as in the south. Given the reception we’ve received, and the kindnesses of people like Durmohammed and Zeki, I have no doubt this must be true.

I’ve come to realize that, despite the raging war in the south and other ethnic issues, this is still a country in many ways like any other. Perhaps someday Afghanistan will become a country that’s no longer feared, and until then, I relish the smiles, greetings, handshakes and kindness of the Afghans in my memories.

Photo by Stephen Lioy Photo of Afghan girls by Stephen Lioy

Traveling to ‘danger zones’ clearly has both its rewards and risks. For visitors, there are the obvious perils involved, such as terrorist attacks, kidnapping and other crimes; but with some safety precaution and advanced planning, you might be returning home with a gratifying travel experience.

If you’re planning to travel to any of these destinations, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Check the latest blogs, websites, and forums to find out if it’s safe to visit.
  • Follow the news to keep yourself updated of the political situation from time to time.
  • Keep your plans flexible and be opened to last minute changes.
  • When in the country, blend in to the crowd by dressing conservatively and not attracting too much attention.
  • Be respectful of the locals and their ideas and do not try to force your opinions on them.
  • Keep your family informed of where you’ll be visiting and your hotel info. Leave instructions on who to contact if they don’t hear from you after a certain period of time.
  • If you are caught in a dire situation, report to your embassy in the destination as soon as possible.


About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

39 Responses to “The Rewards of Traveling to Forbidden Lands”

  1. Gabriel June 26, 2013 2:21 pm #

    Wow the Vakil Mosque is absolutely beautiful!!! Did you get a chance to see that? The architecture on that looks incredible.

  2. Kristy of Visa USA June 26, 2013 6:40 pm #

    The only thing that I want to say is that you guys are very brave to visit those dangerous countries and find the beauty of the place for us to see it. Good job and hopefully I can also do it.

  3. akiwitz June 27, 2013 1:37 am #

    Interesting post. This is a difficult and very interesting discussion. When I traveled to North Korea ( I wasn't hat much concerned about safety, but rather about moral. Is it a good thing to do, a selfish thing..? Maybe a good discussion for another blog post.

    • Nellie July 3, 2013 5:17 am #

      True, we also thought about it for a while whether it was the right thing to do. But after visiting, we know there\’s no right or wrong, nothing is as clear as everyone thinks it is, but at least we believe education through travel goes a long way.

  4. Encarna June 27, 2013 10:22 am #

    Muy interesante el post.Es un placer conocer sitios en el mundo que por una u otra razón es difícil conocer

  5. Jeremy Branham June 27, 2013 10:29 am #

    I like this post, especially the last section about tourism and world peace. Two years I wrote a post about how travel can change the world. Part of the inspiration for that posts was two things – the death of Osama bin Laden and my disdain for politics. People are caught up in the stuff that doesn't matter thinking that governments and politicians hold the key to peace. That is actually in our hands. The more we travel and build connections with people the more walls we break through and peace we can create. Great post!

  6. Dano June 27, 2013 12:06 pm #

    I'm still not certain about the moral question of travelling to places like Burma and Tibet, given the politics. But I think the benefits of tourism exchange are worthwhile and indirectly we may help the people who live in those countries. Maybe?

    • Nellie July 3, 2013 5:15 am #

      Yes I definitely think the benefits of tourism outweigh other factors. Visiting these places doesn\’t mean that we support the regime or the government, it just means we want to see things for ourselves.

      • Rod Austin February 20, 2014 2:08 am #

        I think this is the bravest thing to do: to come to see it for ourselves. I think the world will be a better place if everyone tries to understand each other a little better.

  7. Robert Brown June 28, 2013 12:49 am #

    The only factor that I want to say is that you people are very fearless to check out those risky nations and get the attractiveness of the position for us to see it. Excellent job and hopefully I can also do it.

  8. Emily July 22, 2013 9:08 pm #

    You guys are awesome. My husband and I have spent the last 3.5 years sailing the coast of Mexico, and your sentiments ring so true with me. Ironically, I just wrote an impassioned post about the "safety" of traveling to Mexico versus the "safety" of staying at home (it is here:

    Oftentimes, staying home is just as dangerous as traveling to "dangerous" places… More important, if you stay home you will miss the beauty that exists in the hidden corners of the world…

    Thanks for a great post!!

  9. Camp America July 31, 2013 10:24 am #

    Brave decision to visit unrest countries, but I still thing we should promote Tourism for these countries too. I was on short trip to Iraq few years ago and I loved locals, culture and everything there. They were very kind to me.

    • Nellie August 6, 2013 11:04 am #

      I have heard that some parts of Iraq are safe to visit and locals are very hospitable and kind. Iran also has a great reputation for hospitable people. Thank you for sharing!

  10. usługi poligraficzne August 9, 2013 3:01 am #

    Wow, impressive photo by David Holt – I want so much to see it by myself. Maybe someday… :)

  11. jeff August 15, 2013 4:54 pm #

    Tourism in the only factor that will unify our world. I have to say you are also courageous visiting most dangerous places in the world. Kudos!

  12. Joanne Joseph August 21, 2013 2:20 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your views on traveling to places off most people's radar. I'm looking into a trip to North Korea next year so this post was one more push in that direction.

    • Nellie Huang January 15, 2014 1:37 am #

      Thanks Joanne, I'm very glad that we helped push you towards making that decision. Visiting North Korea was definitely an eye opener and made me realize how far the truth is from what we see on TV everyday. Enjoy your trip and let me know how it goes!

  13. Makis Giokas September 14, 2013 10:00 am #

    Such a strong and positive message! I really liked reading this. World peace through tourism sounds awesome..

  14. Eitan Herman October 27, 2013 3:41 am #

    I know that Iraq is very risky full place to visit .A very inspirational story! It is inspiring to read about everything that you have overcome. I am sure this will help many readers who follow your blogs, and or just run across this information. Good luck with everything!

  15. Jeanette Todd October 29, 2013 6:10 am #

    "Traveling to ‘danger zones’ clearly has both its rewards and risks" – I have to say that you are correct and evaluating the risk versus its rewards is very critical once you are on a foreign country.

  16. Taxi to Heathrow November 6, 2013 9:31 am #

    Mostly there rumours about forbidden places, 90% of which are based on lies. They are sometimes spread to get some political or personnel goals. Nowadays, media is the important source of rumours; these media persons know how to give height to any issue. I think it should be stooped.

  17. Sebastian November 15, 2013 4:39 am #

    I am convinced that travelling to dangerous places, or at least to places that are perceived as dangerous can really broaden your horizon. In the end of the day all people are human beings and if you treat them with respect they are very helpful and friendly.

    I personally think there are just two many stereotypes that the media tries to feed us. I remember when I traveled to Manila in the Philippines. Everybody told me it is too dangerous and the people just want to fuck you over. In the end I got lost in a poor neighborhood and a homeless man helped me to find the way back to my hotel. So was it really a bad place to go?

    • Nellie Huang January 15, 2014 1:39 am #

      Great story! It's stories like this that really make us question all these information fed to us by the news media.

  18. Hannah November 19, 2013 9:13 pm #

    Traveling definitely has its rewards and one of those is being able to find out more about their culture. Although I have got to say, you are one heck of a courageous fellow traveling in forbidden lands. LOL

    • Nellie Huang January 15, 2014 1:39 am #

      As compared to some other travelers we know, we're hardly courageous! There are still many 'forbidden lands' we'd love to visit – like Sudan and Afghanistan, both of which we've heard great things about.

  19. Charles Rahm December 10, 2013 11:35 pm #

    I quote Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
    That really brings it to the point! Thank you for this article.

  20. David DiGregorio December 12, 2013 9:34 pm #

    This is a great post . Nowhere on the planet should be forbidden. Only through visiting and sharing our combined experiences can we really grown to understand each other.

  21. Katie January 10, 2014 10:37 am #

    While precautions should always be taken, it's never as bad as you think its going to be …!

  22. manisha January 21, 2014 4:34 am #

    Great to see such of amazing places in forbidden lands. i'm wondering about the way you expressed their thoughts. thanks for this one..

  23. W.S. January 23, 2014 2:05 pm #

    Love this so much. As an American, I find it hard to even imagine going to places like these (North Korea? I'd love to go.) so this is so refreshing seeing that others think the way I do. I did go to Cuba last year, which was incredibly enlightening.

    Speaking of hard to get to places, have you been to Antarctica? I'm dying to go. I did see a potential trip on this site called The Trip Tribe ( wondering if you've heard of them or if you have any tips in getting to the land of ice…?

    • Nellie January 25, 2014 8:46 pm #

      hi there! Thanks for dropping by! Yes I have been to Antarctica – it\’s definitely a place unlike ANYWHERE else in the world. It makes you feel like you\’re at the edge of the world. I\’ve written quite a lot about it here:

  24. Dave January 28, 2014 5:55 am #

    Travel to a dangerous country is very risky but you are such a brave person and an inspiration to others. You found beauty in darkness its very it would be very appreciated………….


  25. Cycle Party January 29, 2014 3:48 pm #

    Having been to most of Asia, the one that most resonates is People are People. Awesome article.

  26. Marcello Arrambide April 9, 2014 8:37 am #

    Lovely post! There's definitely a lot of misconception going around about these "dangerous" places. For a traveler to go to them helps shed light on reality. I have been to South Sudan, Israel, and even Colombia. There was never a time I felt unsafe.

  27. Echo Santos April 22, 2014 6:08 am #

    The road less traveled has its own rewards.


  1. The Ethics of Visiting Dubai | Adventurous Kate - September 4, 2013

    […] — everyone is different. I have friends who have visited North Korea — Earl, Becki, and Nellie are a few of them — and I honestly don’t hold it against them in any way. They’re […]

  2. The rewards of traveling to forbidden lands | Geography news & materials - March 23, 2016

    […] “Many of these regions need tourism badly to fight off poverty and resolve conflicts. Egypt for instance needs tourists now more than ever to revive the tourism industry that suffered severely due to the revolution; South Sudan is another good example of a brand new country whose fragile economy can benefit substantially from visitors. Most of all, tourism can be a powerful tool to fight off discrimination and advocate equality.” Full article […]

Leave a Reply


Wildlife Photography ebook|Sign for our monthly newsletter to download for free!