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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Supper with Pol Pot

by Bronwyn Sloan

October 2005

The updated restaurant guide for Phnom Penh has been a challenge. There are now more than 100 foreign-owned restaurants and bars in the capital, let alone the hundreds of Cambodian establishments.

But the most horrifying surprise of the hoard of new haunts came in the form of a little place that smacked tourists in the face for a double whammy as they walked out of the gates of Toul Sleng Gencocide Museum. It was L'Historie Cafe, a newly established first - a Khmer Rouge theme restaurant.

Climbing a steep flight of stairs above a branch of a traditional massage chain (which is under the same ownership), a fearsome monkey is restrained by a security guard to allow visitors to enter one of the grimmest restaurants on Earth.

Barefooted waitresses in black pajamas with a red chequered krama knotted around their necks—the trademark uniform of the Khmer Rouge—greet punters with an offer of the $6 set "Unforgettable Menu", which consists of a tea made from bitter leaves, rice or corn gruel, a plate of salt and a dessert that was served once a year to mark the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

The interior is decked out with farming implements, straw matting and wooden benches in imitation of the infamous Khmer Rouge communal feeding stations, where millions of Cambodians ate meals similar to that featured on the restaurant's chilling set menu while toiling under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Many of them proceeded to die from overwork and starvation.

"We are making business, not politics," fresh-faced manageress Hakpry Agnchealy explains with a smile. Nevertheless, the 18-year-old is quick to give all credit for the concept to her brother, owner Hakpry Sochivan, who at 25 also never experienced the full horror of one of the most bloody political experiments of the last century.

The word "gobsmacked" rarely springs to my mind, but it did as I sat in that restaurant confronted on one hand by a teen businesswoman and her smiling new age KR cadre, and on the other with a clear view of the grounds of Toul Sleng. "Latte?" one of the faux Khmer Rouge waitresses offered helpfully. My translator, who lost his entire family to the regime, began to pale. Unlike under the Angkar, or "organization" as the KR called itself, you could stray from the set menu at this establishment.

The cafe opened mid-September and had, by the manageress's own admission, had few customers by the time it was discovered by the media, although she tries to encourage visitors who decide dinner with the Khmer Rouge is too much after the bloodstained walls of Toul Sleng to visit the shop downstairs for a soothing massage.

But we all live with fears, and for her sins in the brave new world of the international tourist trade, Agnchealy admitted she lives with a new one now. "I worry that the former Khmer Rouge will come to try the menu," she says, looking less than cheerful for one, refreshing nanosecond. I have a horrible feeling my translator is going to puke over the balcony.

It is a valid fear. Calls to the Former Khmer Rouge to ask what they thought of the concept turned up quite a few who claimed they would love to try the food and remember old times. Realistically, however, it is doubtful they will come—Toul Sleng holds few good memories for anyone from any side of Cambodia's typically complicated civil war. But, surprisingly, the news sparked little anger amongst them either.

"I will come to test (the menu) anytime. Anything to promote tourism is a good idea," one of the deputy governors of former Khmer Rouge stronghold Pailin and a former member of the cadre, My Meak, said by telephone.

But although former KR battle commander Prum Sou also welcomed the news, he had a warning for the restaurant's young proprietors.

"I will sell them all the ingredients they need," he said of the starchy root-based tuber and the bitter leaves that feature in the menu. "But they must prepare it properly. If it is not well prepared, it will poison the tourists and it can kill."

The irony! The former Khmer Rouge, whose government is held responsible for the deaths of up to two million people of starvation, torture, disease and execution during its four-year reign, unperturbed at its history being reduced to a tacky theme restaurant. Not only that, but then they helpfully highlight the prospect of visitors being accidentally killed by an imitation KR cook more than a quarter of a century later as you gaze over the evil that was Toul Sleng.

Agnchealy bravely defended the price of a menu that would put most fad diets to shame and single-handedly disprove the theory behind the Atkin's diet. "The ingredients are hard to obtain," she says, drawing a muffled chortle from my normally cheerful but obviously traumatized translator, who was confronted by the set menu despite pleas not to be made to see it and has now assumed a precarious position atop the railing in an effort to be as far away from the business as possible.

After all, the Khmer Rouge managed to feed the country with it for years, the management reason. "Yes, a few Cambodians have come here and cried," an unabashed Agnchealy says, eying my translator nervously and divining his mood perfectly. But as far as authenticity, one young waitress confides later, they don't actually put the leaves IN the food—if these people actually tried the food, it wouldn't taste as authentic as it looked. The implication is obvious. They should just get over it and allow their misery to be marketed, as far as she is concerned.

The entire experience is made even more chilling by an insistent and apparently authentic Khmer Rouge dirge being cranked out over the restaurant sound system. "Trouble music," my translator whispers with a shudder. Music he remembers from the evening after his father's execution, he says later. 

Restaurant ratings are hard to give for something as creative as this place. The Ministry of Tourism was going to attempt to do that before the placed was quickly and discreetly closed, which management had said did not worry them. What could be better than a business highlighting exactly what Cambodia is most famous for, after all? Their own, homegrown Ultra-Maoists, who took the concept of Oliver Twist into a new dimension. Who could stamp on entrepreneurship such as this? Come and get fleeced for a starvation meal in a miserable setting before being set upon by a monkey on the way downstairs for a foot massage, where you can reflect on your miserable day. Ten out of 10 for imagination, 10 out of 10 for enraging sensibilities, eight out of 10 for presentation (the waitresses could do with Khmer Rouge bobs and they are a little too, well, happy, all things considered).

Perhaps a floor show would improve the atmosphere; you know, some little unheralded comedy act where random guests are pulled away from their tables for self-criticism sessions in front of their horrified friends before a handily placed farming implement is ripped from the wall and they are led out the back with the promise of a free "holiday" to reward them for their confessions.

Maybe theme rooms, where your waiter for the night appears dressed as a colorful figure from the period. What could make a traveler smile more than an espresso delivered by Pol Pot or a gruel encore dished out by a limping Ta Mok look alike? The thought of what sort of international outcry would follow if a theme restaurant featuring waiters decked out in Gestapo uniforms opened across the road from Auschwitz sends a shudder down my spine, and I make a weak attempt with myself to laugh this travesty off inside my head than put it into horrifying perspective. Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen. Maybe it's about time some more contemporary historical figures got a look-in, I tell myself. It doesn't work. I know too many Cambodians who are still crying.

The place was closed the day after it featured in a Cambodia Daily frontpage story and was subsequently bombarded with foreign journalists and wires. Management expects to iron out problems with the authorities. The authorities might have other ideas.

On that day, the last day the restaurant opened its doors, my translator and I finish our visit, walk outside and climb back in the car. I am speechless. I don't dare look at my translator's face. And then as he starts the car and we pull away into the street, I hear him gently beginning to sob. "I never wanted to see that food again," he says. It is obvious then, once again, that for those who lived through the Khmer Rouge, the wounds are still fresh. It is too early to use as a setting for dinner and drinks, at least just yet.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan.

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