Pyongyang via Phnom Penh

Cambodia – July 2012

My wife and I are staying with a former colleague of hers in Phnom Penh before heading to Siem Reap for a few days. He has an apartment on the riverfront and a lot of connections, which we use to explore the area as he is working while we’re visiting. His evenings are free and for one of them he suggests a nearby North Korean restaurant. Pyongyang Restaurant is a chain of eateries named after the capital of North Korea, with over 100 locations worldwide. The restaurants are owned and operated by a North Korean government organization. As this is probably the closest we’ll ever come to visiting North Korea, we give it a go.

The restaurant is unassuming from the outside and its menu includes kimchi dishes, Pyongyang cold noodles, barbecued cuttlefish, and dog meat soup. The prices are relatively high and in US dollars. The staff consists of young Korean women in traditional Chosŏn-ot dress. Our host tells that they typically work on three-year contracts and are often highly trained graduates of arts colleges. They live above the restaurant and can only go out accompanied by “minders,” who ensure they do not attempt to defect.

Unlike China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand, whose chopsticks are primarily made of wood and bamboo, Korean chopsticks were traditionally made of iron and today of stainless steel. In addition, Korean chopsticks are typically flat rather than round or square like other Asian cultures. While I consider my chopstick skills to be quite good, I struggle using these. They are heavier and slipperier than I’m used to, which makes eating noodles nearly impossible for this metal chopstick novice. Fortunately, you don’t really come here for the food.

After the meal is complete, the servers disappear and the entertainment portion of the night begins. There’s a brightly painted backdrop, colored lights, and even glow sticks at one point. Each of the servers is part of the act at one time; our server turns out to be the drummer. I’m getting a particular eighties vibe, especially when one of the women comes out with a keytar. And I’m sure that rhythm pattern is coming from a Casio keyboard from the era.

Photography is not permitted during the performance, and anyone spotted trying to snap a photo during the performance is quickly approached and asked to stop, though we are able to get a photo with our server after the festivities. Having not been to North Korea, I can’t say how authentic the meal was, but it’s more about the experience here and it was memorable. Now to practice more with those metal chopsticks.

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