2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

The Singular Experience of Drinking Beer in a North Korean Restaurant in Cambodia

The Singular Experience of Drinking Beer in a North Korean Restaurant in Cambodia

Beer in Phnom Penh

At the Pyongyang Cold Noodle Restaurant in Phnom Penh, one of a dozen plus eateries around the world owned by the North Korean regime, beer flows as freely as the blessed waters of the Kuryong Falls. An experience there is a grand show and, like any fiction, it is enhanced by alcohol, which is brought to you by spotless women in puffy joseon-ot dresses.

Pyongyang is so much more than a restaurant. It is a concert hall, a cultural variety show, a carnival of exported oppression (the North Korean staff cannot, of course, quit) and, most interestingly, a glimpse into a secret place. But it is North Korea as North Korea wants it to be seen: convivial, confident, and grand.

Look around: the place is packed with Chinese patrons, banquet style. Massive landscape paintings line the walls, LOTR-esque, with deep gorges and pristine waterfalls graced by majestic eagles and fierce tigers. Posters warn against the use of photographic devices. It smells like a Chinese fridge, the air icy with an artificial chill. The Dear Leader is suspiciously absent.

On stage is a spectacle. Women in white and red skirts dance to space rock. They step behind some traditional Korean drums and bang away to an increasingly intense soundtrack. Horns. Synth. Electric violin. Drum fill. Boom! Bang! Bop! Guitar solo.

One woman (they are all women) scuttles over to the biggest traditional drum and the other three take the other drums and suddenly it’s a drum battle. Then, before I can finish my first Chinese beer, they rush off stage and the violinist takes over with a beautiful singer. “Danny Boy, the Pipes…” melds into a techno version of Mozart’s Turkish March. The crowd eats it up like gourmet kimchi.

A new singer comes out and begins a solo performance. “What’s she saying?” I ask my friend Claire, a South Korean who’s joined me here with her Swiss-German husband Simon. She studies the karaoke screen. “…a bunch of birds flying around… Talking about a special flower: Moran. ‘The fragrant flower makes me wanna’… I don’t know. Dance or fly or something.”

A rock band appears. The guitarists are faking. You could tell during the key change.

Then the stage lights flash on. Mario-like music blares. Four identically dressed dancers with shiny, unblemished, robot faces come out and sing in perfect unison, “Under the bright sun we will prosper!” We all order another beer, then another and another, melting away the myriad ethical questions about coming here for fermented barley from Harbin. You couldn’t look at the tome of a menu without thinking of the famines.

A dancer with a fan and a red hat with a green peacock feather takes the stage with a revolutionary waltz. She starts spinning. The feather flutters in her inhuman torque. “That hat,” Claire belts over the music. “That hat is what the shamans wear.”

“I didn’t know there was shamanism in Korea,” I remark.

“Yeah. Shamanism is the deepest root. Then Buddhism, then Confucianism.” The music picks up, drowning Claire, and the dancer spins faster as the crowd erupts.

I ask Claire about growing up with such a strange neighbor. “You’re taught to hope for reunification,” she says. “You’re taught to love your people to the north. You think less about the dictator and more of the normal people. And then when a Westerner comes along and gets really political about it—I’m just like ‘okay okay,'” she says as she takes a sip of beer. “The weirdest part for me is that I could have been them.”

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