Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The biggest freak show I have witnessed

...happens to be at  a North Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh. I almost do not want to write about it because I want to keep this gem hidden for my own pleasure, but it is too good to not share with my friends and readers.

I have traveled a substantial amount in my life and I have seen some freaky stuff. But nothing comes close to this spectacle. I was in Phnom Penh for work... to kick start our malaria control study and other activities. One day after a long hard day of working, I decided I am tired of eating at the hotel every day and I should venture out in the neighborhood. Asian food is my favorite - from Indian to Japanese and every country in between - and it is a crime to not taste the glorious Khmer food. So, I went on a little walk around the hotel in search of a place to eat.

There are numerous restaurants in Phnon Penh...in fact, too many! It is difficult to pick because they all look good. However, one place caught my eye. I saw at least a dozen massive SUVs parked outside, spilling on to the sidewalk of this restaurant. It baffled me because you don't see that many mega gas-guzzling SUVs in one place in Phnom Penh...this is not America. I look up and I see a huge brightly lit neon sign saying "Pyongyang restaurant". I couldn't believe my eyes for a second...is it really a NORTH Korean restaurant? I have eaten at numerous Korean restaurants (I can live on Bibimbap, Dol Sot, and Jap Chae for the rest of my life) but they all seem to be South Korean. I have never seen a blatantly North Korean restaurant. Needless to say, I rushed in.

From the moment I entered to the the time I left, it felt like I was in a different world. I cannot do justice to the experience by writing about it, it is something you have to sit there and experience. From the dolled up wait staff who all look like barbie dolls and run around in high heels to the dog meat stew on the menu, it was all quite entertaining. However, the freaky part starts when you notice the North Korean government propaganda videos on the flat screen tvs. The videos show North Korea as a beautiful country with stunning beaches, luxurious homes, and happy smiling people. Of course, we all know that is far from the truth! I have heard of these propaganda videos before, but it was my first time watching them. I started experiencing disbelief, then I started laughing, but then I became angry realizing how the innocent civilians are suffering while their government is advertising N.Korea as a rich country.

There were the regular Korean staples on the menu...beef, pork, chicken, sea food, and dog meat. Nothing extraordinary from what I have eaten before. The only thing I noticed, which I haven't seen before, is a hot pot with various cuts of dog meat. That was new. I did not order it. The wait staff are all young women. They wear heavy makeup, faint pink dresses with high heels, high and long ponytails (all seem to be the same length), and have a smile plastered to their face. None of the smiles look genuine, but you probably guessed that. They run around like robots and tend to the numerous patrons. Speaking of patrons, the place was packed on a weekday evening. Most of the patrons looked Chinese and Korean, I was the only non-SE Asian in the room. Needless to say, my appearance and presence drew stares from some patrons. Also, everybody seemed to smoke in the restaurant, which was annoying to me. I was able to snag the only table available, which was near the kitchen door. I had a good view of all the wait staff running in and out of the kitchen in their high heels and swinging ponytails...it looked like some kind of a cartoon show to me. My waitress spoke minimal English, but we were able to communicate the basics. She understood beer, water, and food...which is all that matters when you are in a restaurant.

Just when I thought the freak show ended with the propaganda videos, cartoonish wait staff, and smoky patrons, the real attraction began in the form of live performances. Now THIS is something that I was not prepared for!

All of a sudden, some of the waitresses came out of the kitchen in costumes and started dancing on a stage at one end of the restaurant. Two waitresses started playing the keyboard and guitar (I think they were pretending to play). The first "show" was three waitresses dancing to traditional Korean music and singing in - what I assumed to be - Korean. It was actually nice. I was about to take pictures when three waitresses descended on me as soon as I pulled out my iPhone...their smiles disappeared and in their place was a stern look and they all repeated at once "NO PICTURES". The look on their faces told me they aren't joking. Then one of them says "Our leader do not like foreigners taking pictures". Word to word!

Did she just say LEADER?? This experience just got richer!!

That is the reason I cannot share any pictures of the performances with you. I was not going to risk abduction and being sent to a North Korean prison for taking pictures of some freak show in Phnom Penh. I have work to do and meetings to attend!

So, I started eating my food, drinking my Angkor beer, and enjoying the live performances. My waitress brings me extra rice and another beer and while she is serving them, stops abruptly, drops the tray with my food on my table, and rushes to perform on the stage. I guess she forgot it is her turn to perform. For the next 3 minutes she swayed, gyrated, and lip synced to Celine Dion's "My heart will go on" with a boat prop on the stage. They tried real hard to recreate the scene from the Titanic...and failed! She finished her performance, came to my table, and took away my dishes as I finished eating by then. As if nothing happened in the previous 3 minutes. Now that's what you call a professional!

This, my friends, is something you will not experience at many restaurants worldwide. The whole experience felt very staged, very robotic, and forced. I left a $3 tip on my $18 dinner bill and tried to leave silently. However, the waitress seems to have noticed when I was leaving my tip because she ran to the door in her high heels, held the door open for me, and thanked me profusely for the tip. I was very uncomfortable as it was quite the scene. I thanked her for the excellent rendition of the Titanic song and walked away.

You know where I am eating next time I am in Phnom Penh.


  1. The LEADER thanks you for your kind review and will edit it for an official release after government intervention.