Kimchi in Cambodia
January 19, 2012 11:40 AM   Subscribe

The small village of Siem Reap, Cambodia has mushroomed since the 19th century French discovery of Angkor Wat. It is now Southeast Asia's most visited tourist destination, notably among South Koreans. In 2010, they accounted for 12% of foreign visitors to the region, ranking just below neighboring Vietnam. But the sprawling temples of Angkor may not be the first stop on every South Korean's itinerary.
On the frosty Korean Peninsula, relations between North and South are perennially tense. But here amid the balmy breezes of this Cambodian tourist town, Koreans from both sides of the border are enthusiastically fraternizing at the North Korean restaurant as if reunification were just days away [NYT].

FTA: A meal at a Pyongyang restaurant is one of the more expensive in town. In a country where a bowl of noodles costs $1.50, a hungry customer can easily pay $100 for a simple meal of kimchi, beef shoulder, stir-fried squid and a bottle of wine.

Cash-strapped North Korea has been exploring capitalism outside its borders, opening several more "Pyongyang" restaurants in Dhaka (Bangladesh), Dubai and Vientiane (Laos).
posted by obscurator (11 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I spent a month in Siem Reap in 2006 and the food culture I experienced was bizarre. Downtown near the hotels there were expensive spots catering to tourist with a definite streak of extravagance. One place, if I remember correctly, had something likem live alligators in a poorly enclosed pit near the middle of the main dining room and a menu that included a fair amount of the SE Asia equivalent of bush-meat. I got the impression that place served a place similar role of the Aussie Tom Yum Goon restaurant in the Tony Jaa film "the Protector." Another place served 8-10 dollar cocktails. These places were much more likely to be surrounded by 8-10 year old beggar children, who often turned angry or nasty if you didn't give them any money.

Then further out near the local hostel there was a weird ex-pat, backpacker vibe. One place was opened by a Cambodian who worked for several years under an ex-pat but left after learning to make exactly 7-8 popular semi-western dishes like "Banana pancakes" or "chicken curry pizza" that comprised his entire menu. He had a signed Headshot of Angelina Jolie framed by the kitchen and would talk about her in an excited voice. He was located next to a place called Happy-Pizza, where, we were all sure the eponymous happy pizza was served with roasted weed nuggets (or something that looked like weed) as one of the ingredients. One place was owned by an ex-pat who visited in the 90s, wanted to stay, wife disagreed, so he left his wife and opened a bar.

Then, near Siem Reap river, which smelled exactly like you imagine a third world sewage ditch to smell like, there were open air food courts that seemed the most likely to serve both westerners and the locals who had a couple dollars to spare. It was also the only place that served what one would guess to be "Cambodian" food. Downtown or by the hostels even, every restaurant that seemed to have English singage advertised itself as Western or Thai or Chinese food. It was just as good as the food served anywhere else, just more likely to come on a paper plate instead of a ceramic plate.

I guess I'm not describing anything totally different than Ulaan Bataar, or other less developed tourist destinations... but I guess what made Siem Reap special was the whole ephemeral nature of the Rule of Law in the area. Even though the hospitality sector seemed mature and developed, you could tell the who enterprise sprung up when the country stabilized in the 1990s, and even the ex-pats are largely holding their breath for things to go chaotic again. In the meantime, there's a real any-thing goes mentality of "what can we throw together and make money off of right now."

Oh, and one guy I met at a food stall asked me if I wanted to fire AK-47s with him the next day. That was unique as well.
posted by midmarch snowman at 12:19 PM on January 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

I saw this yesterday and it's bugged me since. The Time Out review for the Dubai location has the cost of the meal at $50 for two. I was in Siem Reap last year, and for $100 per person, you'd get to keep the restaurant after the meal. I'd guess that $100 per TOUR BUS of Koreans would be a closer approximation of the cost.

And I've said it before, but it bears repeating, if you have any interest in the world at all, Siem Reap must be seen soon. There is no way that the unfettered access to priceless ruins you enjoy today will be allowed forever. "What's that fat white tourist? You want to climb all over these ancient works of art? Hell yeah, knock yourself out, maybe we'll go shooting afterwards."
posted by Keith Talent at 12:41 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The NK tourists represent the fat bastards that run that country.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:04 PM on January 19, 2012

when I visited Siem Reap six years ago, I ate "Happy Herb" pizza.
'twasn't as happy as I hoped.

also the dusty, scorching, purgatorial 8-hour journey on the unpaved, chasm-riddled road from the Thailand border to Siem Reap in a janky van with no air-conditioning was among the worst 8 hours of my life -- but also the fodder for the very first travel writing piece I ever had published.
posted by changeling at 1:22 PM on January 19, 2012

The NK tourists represent the fat bastards that run that country.

Exactly. 'Tourism' per se is not an activity that normal North Koreans are allowed to engage in, even if somehow they had enough money to do so. This is a North Korean government-run business. Any of this purported mixing that's going on is ROK tourists interacting with rigidly controlled DPRK government 'employees', just as it was at Mt Gumgang while ROK tourists were still allowed to visit there, workers who no doubt live in fear that if they represent North Korea as anything but a happy-fun-goodtimes socialist paradise, it'll be off to the concentration re-education camps with them (and their families).

The NYT piece is written breezily, as if this is some kind of happy story. It isn't -- like pretty much every story that involves the DPRK, it's fucking horrifying if you take the time to think about what's really going on.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:04 PM on January 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

when I visited Siem Reap six years ago, I ate "Happy Herb" pizza.
'twasn't as happy as I hoped.

"Happy Herb's" must be a chain, because I ate at the one in Penom Phen back in 2003. My fellow backpackers and I were dubious, but gave it a shot, and to our pleasant surprise it indeed made us very, very happy. We stumbled around in the dark back to our hostel, where many of the guests were smoking out in the restaurant/veranda area. Cambodia must be the only country in SE Asia that's really lax about cannabis; Thailand is notoriously strict, and I think Vietnam is as well. Not sure about Laos, though I would suspect it's lax there, too. And the touts were trying to sell us trips to go out and shoot machine guns, throw hand grenades...I think someone mentioned an RPG. You could buy a chicken for five dollars or so for live target practice. Not something I would be interested in on a normal day, and after visiting the Killing Fields and Tol Sleng Prison earlier, those offers felt downright offensive.

I spend just a few days in Siem Reap, and don't really remember much about the town itself. From Bangkok took the bus, which was very normal on paved roads and more or less normal traffic rules. Then we crossed the border into Cambodia and followed a dirt road for 5 more hours, bouncing and jostling and miserable the whole way. At one point a bridge was out and the bus driver had all us backpackers get out so he could detour, but then the bus got stuck, and everyone had to help push the bus free. Good times. I spent most of my days there, naturally, at Ankgor Wat, so didn't see the town much; I understand it's grown quite a bit since I've been there. I did spend my nights at the most aptly named bar in SE Asia: The Angkor What? Small but cool, and seemed to be the go-to place for backpackers.
posted by zardoz at 4:42 PM on January 19, 2012

FTA - "Mr. Lintner says the Pyongyang franchise is an attempt by the government to generate hard currency, a supplement to the country’s sales of missiles and nuclear technology."

After thinking about this a while, I wonder if the role of USD in Cambodia has as much to do with this location choice as the presence of S. Korea tourists.

When I was there, dollars were preferred to the Cambodian Real, but currency exchanges didn't seem to get USD from traditional markets as most of the bills were really faded, old style bills from over a decade ago. The people with me all remarked that the bills seemed... not counterfeit, just weird - possibly since we weren't used to seeing the old style of money in so long, and they all looked like they were exchanged about 5 times more often in their lifespan than the bills in a our wallet back home. Remembering that the PRK was implicated in USD counterfeiting, I wonder if a business dealing in US currency in a place without many institutions that would traditional scrutinize fake bills might be in aide in laundering the fake currency now that the US has enhanced the security features in the higher denomination bills. And having said that I feel like my paranoid uncle... okay, done conspiracy theorizing...

Cambodia must be the only country in SE Asia that's really lax about cannabis

Yeah, it's illegal there, but that seemed unenforced. I wonder if that's due to cultural reasons or the whole, decades of turmoil leading to bigger problems for the rule of law along the countryside. Anyways, my friends agreed the pizza didn't SEEM too happy at Siem Reap's Happy Pizza (hence why I hedged on declaring it weed), possibly since they were from the PNW and used to much better weed, or baking weed at 400 degrees and then eating it does not make for the most efficient ingestion of THC...

...fodder for the very first travel writing piece I ever had published

Oh, is that available on the tube-net? Self promote!
posted by midmarch snowman at 6:00 PM on January 19, 2012

Angkor Wat is the place I have always wanted to go. It's been like my Shangri-La. I am finally going to get the chance for an extended visit this coming winter. It all sounds excellent, and I can't wait. :)
posted by Meatbomb at 7:35 PM on January 19, 2012

"unfettered access to priceless ruins you enjoy today"

Huh. When I visited Angkor Wat I was kind of impressed at what a tight ship the goverment was running. You pay 20 USD for a day-pass, or more for a two-day or a week-long pass or what have you. They digitally photograph you and you have to present a passport.

I had a great time, but I also had the feeling that if you were dumb enough to try and steal or deface something there'd be hell to pay.

Also, I had no problems finding good Cambodian food in Siem Reap. This was 2011, so maybe things have changed.

Cambodia in general is an amazing experience, as is Laos. Vietnam? Meh.
posted by bardic at 9:24 PM on January 19, 2012

I wonder if a business dealing in US currency in a place without many institutions that would traditional scrutinize fake bills might be in aide in laundering the fake currency now that the US has enhanced the security features in the higher denomination bills. And having said that I feel like my paranoid uncle... okay, done conspiracy theorizing...

South African bloke who ran the Western Union franchise in Phnom Penh used to get real shitty with me when I'd go through a bundle bill by bill and fling C-notes back at him just because they were printed off the edge of the paper. We really did get the arse end of the superdollar runs..

(As an aside, the Australian embassy, which had a policy of refusing all US $100 notes, was quite open about blaming North Korean counterfeiters for it's refusal.)
posted by Ahab at 4:39 AM on January 20, 2012

Yeah, I hadn't considered NK's deviant brilliance in setting up shop wherever American ¢a$h money is accepted..but the theory probably holds water. Although given Pyongyang's penchance for dubious dollar creation, one wonders if this is just NK doing some (tone deaf, as always) brand marketing...? Although, part of me wants to be compassionate and embrace the open window of interaction between South and North Koreans, albeit on someone else's lawn. But it's a fucking minstrel show of ball-and-chained karaoke singers, attended by tourists who must know their dollars will be fired somewhere near their half of the peninsula in missile form.
posted by obscurator at 7:19 AM on January 20, 2012

« Older   |   Inform the troops Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments