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Dancing with the spirits

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Sometimes a computer problem can lead to unexpected discoveries. This week, I accidentally lost or destroyed a folder with pictures. Luckily, I had a back-up on an external hard-drive.

On this hard-drive, I also discovered some video scenes I’d shot along with the photographs in 2008 and 2009. But at that time, I didn’t know how to turn these unconnected scenes into one film. Well – I do now.

So this week, I took those old video scenes I’d shot in the secluded Himalayan country of Bhutan and turned them into two little films. Not Oscar material, but I can live with that. One is of the Thimphu tsechu in 2008, the other is of the 2009 Punakha tsechu.

What’s a tsechu? These films can give you a first impression. Or you can continue reading below or here.

Witnessing a tsechu in Bhutan is one of the most memorable things I have ever experienced. A tsechu is a sacred Buddhist festival that lasts four days. It’s the high-point of the year for the Bhutanese people. They come from near and far and meet at their local Dzong or monastery.

During the tsechu, monks wearing fantastic costumes and masks perform a never-changing sequence of dances. These dances tell the spiritual history of Bhutan. And by watching these historic rites every year, the Bhutanese stay firmly connected to their country’s history and spirituality.

Not many tourists get a chance to see these sacred festivals in Bhutan. I was very fortunate so witness two tsechus in 2008 and 2009. And even though I’m not a Buddhist myself, I felt deeply moved – maybe even changed – by these ancient rituals and the spirituality of the festivals.

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Written by Thorsten

September 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

The North Korean dinner show

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The menu at the Pyongyang RestaurantI saw the most unusual dinner show the other day.

It was at a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

Before I make an attempt to put this unique dining and entertainment experience into words, please take a look at a short video I made during the show to get an idea what I’m talking about.

 

What you see in this video are the singing waitresses at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh. Every night at around 8 p.m., they interrupt serving dinner and hop on stage to sing, dance and play music.

Let’s just say that the Dear Leader‘s idea of a proper show and Western concepts of funky entertainment are obviously worlds apart.

Exiled North Koreans, a theme restaurant or the real thing?

Before we entered the Pyongyang Restaurant, we didn’t really know what to expect. We’d heard rumors about singing waitresses and a dinner show, but we still weren’t sure what kind of place this would be.

tasteful wall decorations at the Pyongyang RestaurantWas it a North Korean restaurants run by expats who’d fled the country and tried to recreate a little piece of Heimat in far-away Cambodia?

Was it a restaurant that just devoted itself to North Korean cuisine? For, surely, North Korea must also have food specialties and national dishes – even though the people there are suffering food shortages nowadays.

Or was it the real thing? Could this be a North Korean enclave in Phnom Penh? A place celebrating the Dear Leader and the North Korean way of life? Could such a thing exist?

Yes, it was the real thing

I have no idea how the deal worked, but this restaurant was truly showcasing North Korea in Cambodia. The waitresses were from North Korea, the food was supposed to be North Korean and the entertainment was North Korean.

Waitresses at the Pyongyang RestaurantSince I’m still kind of shell-shocked from this bizarre experience, I’ve just listed some of my observations from that evening.

Sorry, but since the experience was so absurd, so out-of-this-world, I haven’t been able to turn them into a narrative.

  • The waitresses all looked alike. Same hairstyles, same facial expressions, same dresses. Thankfully, they wore name tags.
  • The waitresses looked so pale, you’d think a vampire had just drained them of all their blood.
  • The dresses that the waitresses wore were made of the finest North Korean polyester. The design was somewhere between The Sound of Music and The Stepford Wives.
  • If they weren’t handing out menus or taking orders, they were busy telling people not to take pictures. So all the photographs and videos on this page were taken “undercover”. I wonder why photography wasn’t allowed – were the waitresses all senior officers of the North Korean secret service afraid of having their cover blown?

  • A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a contiuous video of The Wonderful World of North Korea. The film consisted mainly of nature shots. But my favorite scenes showed traffic in North Korea: in one scene, you saw a train travelling the countryside, in another you saw city streets that were absolutely deserted – except for a lone bus. Both the train and the bus looked like ca 1950. The dinner show at the Pyongyang RestaurantAlmost like the kind of miniature trains and vehicles you sometimes find on nostalgic kiddie karoussels. Unfortunately, we can safely assume that that train and that bus in the video must be cutting-edge technology and design in North Korea.
  • The group of Asians at the tabel next to ours remained absolutely stony-faced throughout the dinner show. This was in stark contrast to the waitresses’ pasted-on on smiles. Only during one of the numbers did they smile and clap. But as soon as that number was over, their faces turned to stone again. Soon after that song was over and as soon as they’d eaten up their dinner, that whole group left.
  • A group of Asian men in suits and ties at another table got a little rowdy. It almost seemed as though they were celebrating a bachelor’s party or just plain had a little too much to drink. At the Pyongyang RestaurantAnyway, during one of the songs, one of the business men got up onto the stage, and started to dance around the singer. He also started taking close-up pictures of her, which alarmed the other waitresses. No pictures! And definitely NO such outbursts of joy and emotion! Once they’d ushered him off the stage, one of the waitresses remained stationed right behind these guys’ table, keeping a watchful eye on what they were doing. She even asked to be shown the pictures on the guy’s camera. I don’t know if she made him delete any of them or if she just flipped through them disapprovingly.
  • After the waitresses had ended their dinner show, it was karaoke time. First, one of the well-dressed businessmen got up on stage and sang. Then, an Asian man in shorts and sandals made a very courageous attempt at singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in English. He put on a pretty good show and tried to encourage us to join him on the stage, since we were the only Westerners in that restaurant and the only ones who might have really known the words to that song. We preferred to stay seated and applauded him wildly instead. When we asked him, whether he was from North Korea, he vigorously denied: “No, no, no! South Korea! I’m from South Korea!”

  • After the karaoke, the management began to turning off some lights in the restaurant. A subtle hint for the customers to pay up and leave.
  • As we got out of the place, all the waitresses lined up near the exit, bidding us adieu. I wondered how they lived in Phnom Penh: were they free to explore the city? Did they have lives of their own? Or were they holed up in some barrack-like communal living quarter and not allowed to befriend foreigners?
  • What did these waitresses think of Cambodia and the relatively carefree and colorful life in that city? How would they feel when they’d head back to Pyongyang? What would they tell their friends and families back home about the world out there? Or were they so deeply convinced by North Korean ideology that they really believed in the words of the Dear Leader?

Written by Thorsten

December 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm

Too late for the fun

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Weekend edition of the Cambodia DailyWhen I arrived in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Friday, I was exactly one day late for one of the city’s greatest festivities.

The Water Festival 2008 – or Bon Om Tuk, as it’s called in Khmer – concluded on Thursday night with boat races and spectacular fireworks.

According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, “up to two million people flood the capital for fun and frolics” during the festival. Great. And I missed it.

workers take down light displays in Phnom PenhWhen I walked along the banks of the Tonle Sap river on Friday, all I saw was the clean up after the party.

Workers were dismantling huge light displays that had been mounted on boats. Kind of like Las Vegas on water.

These displays had praised the beauties of Cambodia in millions of colored lights.

save those lightbulbsNow, laborers were meticulously unscrewing all those colored light bulbs, putting them away for next year.

Water Festival is like carnival in Cambodia

The weekend edition of The Cambodia Daily this morning was full of stories about the festival.

One thing that struck me is that there seem to be many similarities between how people in Cambodia celebrate the Water Festival and how the people of my hometown Cologne celebrate carnival every year.

For one, there are special songs composed for both festivals. And it seems that people in both towns love to sing those songs.

In Cologne, those songs are usually drinking songs. But in Cambodia, some songs seem to have an anti-drinking message. Others are sung to encourage the rowers in the boat races.Ladies on board

The Cambodia Daily writes that this year’s favorite songs included one called Kromom Om Touk. For all of those (like me) who aren’t fluid in Khmer, that roughly translates to “Unmarried Ladies’ Racing Boat”.

The lyrics go

All the racers in my boat are unmarried ladies. We’re skillful at racing. We don’t lose any power. The fastest boat is the unmarried ladies’ racing boat. Our boat is wonderful, and many men come to ask us to be their girlfriends. Nowadays, unmarried ladies are as good as men, race like flying, and are also pretty. Thank you for asking me to be your girlfriend. After I win, I will go with you for a walk.

Now going for a walk is about as risqué as you can get in a song sung in public here…

The rest of the lyrics sound a little dry, but I guess they lose through translation.

Anyway, the song reminded me of one of the most popular carnival songs in Cologne: “Mir sin Kölsche Mädcher”, which also praises the strengths of the local women.

And if you just read the translated lyrics to that German song, you’d probably also wonder about the IQ of the people of Cologne…

Singing in the face of terror

In Cambodia, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge past are never far away. And this is also true in the realm of the Water Festival songs.

During the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, some of the most prominent composers and singers of Water Festival songs lost their lives.

Singing satirical songs apparently didn’t rank high on the Khmer Rouge’s list. And it didn’t take much in those days to get killed…

“But now, there is a new generation, and they make good songs, too,” the Cambodia Daily quotes 26-year-old Kea Khunny.

Deaf Husband, Crippled Wife

Water Festival 2008 Thinking of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, it seems strange at first sight that another of this year’s hit songs is titled “Deaf Husband, Crippled Wife”.

But it turns out that the song doesn’t have anything to do with the torture and terror of the Pol Pot regime.

Instead, it’s a husband and wife complaining about typical misunderstandings in a marriage. And the lyrics show that Cambodia is still a very rural society:

I ask him to tiel up the cow, but he goes and ties up the buffalo. I ask him to fish, but he goes and catches chickens. – I bring her to my parents’ house, and she sticks her bow-leg out and my father trips on it. – I ask him to take me to the Water Festival, but he thinks I want to go to bed”

But then the chorus strikes a conciliatory note, hits the listeners with a moral message – and shows that the song is firmly rooted in our time:

Even though both of us are like this, we are an honest couple. We have a baby every year, and we don’t have to worry about AIDS. This is our destiny, so we accept it.

Written by Thorsten

November 15, 2008 at 6:18 am

Of singing flight attendants and such

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My friend Sandro is a flight attendant. In his blog, he recently wrote about flying to Bangkok with a pilot who is about to retire.

This flight was going to be one of the last ones for the pilot.

When they arrived in Bangkok, the pilot invited the whole crew out to dinner.

And to thank him, they sang a song for him after their meal: Leaving on a Jet Plane by John Denver.

The next morning, they sang it again for him – I guess as a double thank you and farewell.

According to Sandro, singing this song for crewmembers who are retiring, quitting or leaving the company is a tradition among airline personnel.

I didn’t know that and thougth it was kind of touching.

In addition, the idea of the whole happy cabin crew singing just made me smile.

Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the flight attendants also sang on the plane during their emergency-exit-oxygen-mask-routine? I mean, what would lend itself better to a musical number than this cabin-crew-choreography before every flight?

What a shame that so many airlines have meanwhile reverted to showing videos demonstrating the emergency procedures. Some even with computer-generated passengers and crew. Yeach!

That has no style whatsoever! I paid for the live show!

More music on airplanes

Speaking of song-and-dance routines and music in general on airplanes: a few years ago, I was on a flight to Spain. It was a pretty rough flight and as soon as our plane touched down, the crew played some soothing music over the cabin sound system.

The first song the passengers heard was Time to say good-bye by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli.

When that was over, the next song was Who wants to live forever by Freddy Mercury and Queen.

I always wondered if they’d played those songs in reverse order during the flight in case those turbulences had gotten worse…

Happy Hair

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sign of a beauty parlor in Cambodia This morning, I heard on the radio that the musical “Hair” premiered on Broadway exactly 40 years ago today.

So if 1968 was the “…dawning of the age of Aquarius” – what is 2008? Its sunset? Or is this the deep dark night already?

According to “The Official Hair Website”, the show has been performed in countless countries across the globe, but apparently never in “…China, India, Vietnam, the Arctic and Antarctic continents as well as most African countries.”

Poor Eskimos.

40 years ago is closer than 10 years ago

I was too young to see Hair in the theaters when it first came out. My first encounter with the story was when I saw the movie ‘Hair’ by Milos Forman. I guess that must have been in 1979 or 1980.

Back then I thought the story was really dated and far removed from life at the onset of the 80’s.

The funny thing is that it’s probably closer to us today than it was in 1979.

Not only that the U.S. is once again entangled in an unpopular war. Also look at what people are wearing: psychedelic prints, frayed jeans, longish hair.

Been there, done that.

The difference between the original hippie fashions of the late 1960’s and today is that back then fashion was a political statement. These days, the torn jeans already look that way when we buy them at Abercrombie’s at an exorbitant price.

And the slept-in-hairstyle today is carefully coifed, blow-dried and gelled.

But as far as funky hairdos are concerned, nothing beats these ladies anyway.

Apsaras

They’re stone carvings of Apsara dancers at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple. And they were made in the 12th century.

Apsaras at Angkor Wat, Cambodia Apsaras

How’s that for avant-garde hairstyles?

Written by Thorsten

April 29, 2008 at 8:48 pm

Tannhäuser Wins Over Fidelio

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Cologne opera logo

I saw a beautiful production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser at the Cologne Opera last night. The music and the singers were wonderful. But what was truly amazing was the stage design, the lighting and the costumes.

The Cologne Opera chose not to produce a “traditional” Wagner – with medieval costumes and romanticising sets. Instead, the singers wore contemporary clothes and most of the production was set in a modernistic steel and glass architecture reminiscent of the Bauhaus . This brought the story of the opera much closer to the audience without doing Wagner injustice. (Check out the link to the Cologne Opera photo gallery below)

Amazing – as so often at the Cologne Opera – was the color scheme and light design: the production used a very reduced palette of colors: red for Venus’ realm and blue for everything that happens on earth at the Wartburg. The only other “colors” were black, gray and white for some of the costumes and sets. But even though the color scheme on stage was very reduced and always highlighted what the protagonists were going through, it was never simplistic or boring.

Surviving torture with starched shirts

The thing that got me thinking again last night is how the Cologne Opera can have such aesthetical, timely productions like Tannhäuser on the one hand and others, which remind you of an amateur company that’s run out of money. Just recently, for instance, I saw Beethoven’s Fidelio in Cologne and was appalled. It simply gave the audience no food for thought.

Cologne’s Fidelio was a totally boring production – even illogical in some aspects: the prisoners, who are freed from the dungeons, for instance, all wear wonderfully clean clothes – you’d think that people who are supposed to appear like they’ve been tortured would wear rags and look like they are filthy and starved. Not so in this production.

Is it a question of costs or creativity?

I wonder if the different standards of these two productions at the same opera house have to do with money. Does one director get less from the theater than the other for his or her production? Do they have to battle for their budgets? Is there in-fighting between different directors as to who gets the most money?

How does the theater allocate the funds? Did it considerTannhäuser more worthy of a big budget than Fidelio?

Or was it just the fact that one director was more creative or innovative than the other?

Of course, there is one other possibility: Maybe all of this is just a matter of taste – maybe some more conservative opera-goers thought the Tannhäuser production was terrible and prefferred the Fidelio instead. Maybe. But in any case: isn’t it great when art gets you thinking, interpreting and debating? What more can art want?

Photo gallery of Cologne’s Tannhäuser production

Written by Thorsten

April 7, 2008 at 9:37 am

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