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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

The hidden restaurants of Thimphu

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There are a lot of good restaurants in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu.

For non-locals, the question is just how to find them.

At home in Europe, I’m used to most restaurants being on the ground floor, usually with an illuminated sign and a welcoming doorway.

They’re easy to find, vying for my attention (and my money, of course).

Not so in Bhutan.

In Thimphu, you’d starve to death if you expected to just stumble upon a restaurant on the downtown streets.

Can you spot the restaurant sign?

Can you spot the restaurant sign?

Eating places here don’t have neon signs, billboards, or anything else to grab the attention of the hungry.

Restaurants are usually well-hidden on the first floors of the city’s shopping complexes. Tucked away between stalls selling cheap Chinese imported goods, internet cafes and tailor shops.

To find a restaurant, you usually have to climb up dirty, uninviting stairs. The smell and appearance of these staircases can hardly be considered the “amuse geule” of an enjoyable dining experience. On the contrary.

But once you’ve managed to locate the restaurant in the dimly lit hallways (God forbid there’d be a sign or an arrow pointing the way), you’re often in for a pleasant surprise.

The atmosphere can be really nice, the prices are generally low (you can get a full lunch menu for as little as a Euro) and the food is usually pretty interesting.

Ema datse, for instance. Chillies with cheese sauce.

Chillies are considered a vegetable in Bhutan, not a way to spice up some other dish. They’re hot, but if you like spicy food, ema datse is actually pretty tasty.

Other national specialties include shamu datse – mushrooms sautéed with cheese –, or kewa datse – potatoes with cheese sauce.

And those who don’t like cheese might enjoy Bhutanese red rice, a kind of locally grown rice that tastes a little nuttier than plain white rice.

Unfortunately, you’ll only find such good food if you know where to look for the restaurants in Thimphu – and if you don’t let unappealing stairways put you off.

Written by Thorsten

September 30, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Hot dinner in Hanoi

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Cha Ca at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi In Hanoi, there are some eating places you go to because of the decor and others that you go to despite the decor. Cha Ca La Vong is one of the latter kind.

Cha Ca La Vong in HanoiThe place is any decorator’s nightmare with its neon lights, green walls and wobbly tables and chairs.

But – oh – the food! The food is absolutely scrumptious!

And the best thing is that they only serve one dish. So you won’t be spending hours studying the menu, trying to decide what to get.

At Cha Ca La Vong, there’s only “Cha Ca” – the signature fish dish. It’s so popular that it’s even lent its name to the street that the restaurant is on.

Know where to look, or you’ll walk right by it

Cha Ca La Vong has been run by the same family for generations. It’s located in a rickety old house in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. There’s no flashy sign, no line of people, no attractive exterior that’ll draw you to this traditional restaurant.

If you aren’t aware of what’s inside this shabby house, you’ll never notice it or think of going in.

Luckily, a friend had told me about it, so we stepped inside, climbed up the narrow wooden stairs to the left of the entrance, and made our way to the first floor.

Upstairs, one of the waiters showed us to our seats and placed a little laminated card in front of us. It told us that the only dish at this restaurant – Cha Ca – would cost us 90 000 Vietnamese Dong each – roughly € 3,50 or about $ 5,00.

After we’d managed to communicate that that price was just within our financial limits, we were on.

You’ve got to know how to Cha Ca

Cha Ca at Cha Ca La Vong in HanoiThe waiter brought a clay oven filled with red hot charcoal to our table. He put a pan with sizzling hot oil and some pieces of fish on top of the oven.

In addition, we got some cold rice noodles in a bowl, some peanuts, a small plate with dill and Vietnamese herbs and a bowl with spring onions.

Next, the waiter threw some of the spring onions and herbs into the pan. The combination of frying fish, Asian spices, herbs and spring onions smelled great.A bowl of Cha Ca at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi

Unfortunately, we were clueless as to what should happen next: Should we take the frying pan off the grill at some point? Or should we also put the noodles and peanuts into the pan?

No, no, our waiter signalled, and demonstrated how it’s done: you put some of the cold rice noodles in your bowl, add some pieces of fried fish from the pan, sprinkle with some peanuts and add the fresh herbs.

The pan\'s empty - no more Cha Ca at Cha Ca La Vong in HanoiThe resulting combination was unbelievably delicious!

“This is the best dinner we’ve had in Vietnam”, my friend said.

I think it didn’t take us longer than fifteen minutes to clear that pan.

If you can’t stand the heat, don’t order the Cha Ca

But as soon we were no longer busy chowing down, we suddenly became aware of the fact that there was this extremely hot grill sitting right in front of us on our table. A grill with burning charcoal and a pan full of hot oil. A grill on a wooden table, in a wooden house, in the middle of the maze that is Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

How far to the next fire extinguisher in case the oil caught fire? How long would it take fire fighters to get here in case of an emergency? Kind of unpleasant thoughts.Ha Noi Beer to extinguish the fire

We felt pretty relieved when the waiter finally took away that charcoal grill and just left us with our beers. And the bill…

Written by Thorsten

June 6, 2008 at 8:51 am

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