The North Korea gambit


You know those old Westerns where a stranger walks into a saloon and everyone falls silent and watches as he sits down? — That’s what it’s like when Roo and I and our new friends Harriet and Dan walk into the Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh last Friday night.

The place is so flooded with fluourescent-white light, you can’t miss us. And as all the other patrons at this government-run North Korean restaurant were Korean or Chinese, I guess we stand out.

Still, they do have a menu in English, or rather a photo album with a picture for every dish. The metal chopsticks could double as weapons; and the walls are decorated with gaudy landscapes and cartoonesque tigers.

Jokes aside about UN food parcels, we eat quite good dumplings, a tasty mystery vegetable dish (seaweed? ferns?) and meaty pork ribs, washed down with draft Tiger Beer — no doubt a lot more than the average North Korean family. But the real draw-card at Pyongyang Restaurant is the entertainment.

On a stage against a backdrop of video footage of North Korean landscapes (waterfalls, snow), six beautifully groomed women in matching traditional hanbok dresses demonstrate a range of arts: opera, classical violin, folk songs and — our favourite — synchronised dancing. They are so well coordinated, even their pony-tails are identical in length.

The audience applauds. The violinist performs an encore. But no artists linger to enjoy individual accolades. They blend back into the team.

Soon the male patrons have drunk so much their faces turn bright red and they hit the karaoke machine to sing ‘My Way’ and ‘My Heart Will Go On’. They are rescued from complete ignominy by the talented and tolerant waitresses who join them in duets.

A drunk man in a floppy camouflage hat prowls around as if looking for a fight. We are careful not to catch his eye though it’s hard to hide in a place this brightly lit.

It’s a unique cultural experience.

Meanwhile Tash is at home with China the babysitter having a fun night together. China shows Tash all her tattoos and Tash shows China all her Maisy DVDs (lucky China).

Pyongyang Restaurant closes at nine and we adjourn to the rooftop bar at Meta House film and arts centre, pausing on the way to view the ‘Art of Survival’ exhibition downstairs.

The bar is quiet with a view of the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument, and we talk over vodka and tonics until the barmaids start to yawn.

(Dedicated to my brother Luke)

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