ONLY few people can claim that they have set foot in North Korea and 23- year-old Hairulhasanah Shahbudin is one of them.
Two months ago, she and three fellow members from the Malaysian Seni Gayung Fatani Society were in Pyongyang, North Korea to take part in the First International Martial Arts Games at the invitation of the Youth and Sports Ministry.
It was the silat trainer's first international sporting event and her excitement is still visible today.
"North Korea is an entirely different experience. I learnt a lot of new things there," recalls the wide-eyed Hairulhasanah.
The international business student was particularly impressed with the young North Koreans she met at a youth centre in Pyongyang.
There, children and teenagers are given training in fields of their interest such as martial arts or ballet for free.
"I caught some students at martial arts practice and I was impressed by what I saw. I have never seen children that young perform difficult selfdefence moves with such perfection. They never complained even when they were clearly tired!" she gushes. Her six-day stay in Pyongyang has made her more appreciative of the freedom Malaysians enjoy.
North Koreans are banned from keeping in touch with outsiders, so Hairulhasanah cannot correspond with the locals she befriended.
"They would not give their addresses.
Thankfully, all the memories I have of them are captured on camera," she adds.
Outsiders are prohibited from bringing out any printed material from North Korea.
"My team received a lot of coverage in the local publications. Naturally we wanted to keep a copy of the articles but the organisers wouldn't allow it," she says.
At the end of the games, the Malaysian team was given the highest diploma for its effort.
"I suppose it was because of our performance.
We did not want the crowd to get bored so we added new choreography to each silat demonstration. We were the only team which was asked to perform daily (at times twice a day) throughout the games," she says.
Hairulhasanah is glad to be able to introduce silat to an international audience, particularly the North Koreans, who are very proud of their taekwondo.
"They found silat to be an art form. Groups from Nepal, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan even encouraged us to set up silat academies in their countries," she says.
The Malaysian group has already received an invitation to perform in Italy next year.
You can bet Hairulhasanah and gang will wow the Italians as well.
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