Next to the cluster of shops near the Yak & Yeti, there’s a red sign that says Pyongyang Restaurant. Walk up the steps, past the smiling girl in traditional Korean garb, take a deep breath, and prepare for the strangest culinary experience Nepal has to offer.
The service is impeccable The waitresses – all barely out of their teens – are refined, beautiful, eager to please. God knows the repercussions if they dare be anything less. These girls work under the watchful eye of a grim-faced older woman who barely smiles.
At a quarter to eight, the lights dim, the karaoke machine sputters to life and the waitresses break out in song and dance. It is nothing short of bizarre. Kinda like being sucked into an early-80s time warp. There is much humming and strumming, and swaying of hips. There’s even a North Korean version of a Nepali dance. But it’s hard to tell if anyone is having a good time – they’re all so bent on entertaining us, we have to clap along.
During one of our visits, a young man comes round to chat. He speaks impeccable Mandarin. He is North Korean, he says. But he’s been living and studying in China for a good ten years. His mother runs this joint. He wants to know about opportunities in Singapore. Are there any good schools there?
We talk for a while, but it feels strange, superficial. We are excessively polite. Maybe it’s because the questions we’d rather ask seem pretty damn rude – something along the lines of famines and gulags and nuclear threats.
We learn later that this restaurant is part of a chain. They all belong to the state and more can be found in Cambodia, China and Burma – countries that still maintain friendly ties with Pyongyang. We’re told the nightly entertainment is the same in all the establishments. The waitresses, handpicked, for their intelligence and charm. We ask one of them how long she’s been in Nepal. A few months, she says.
And does she like it here?
There is a pause. A laugh. And then, her reply:
“I don’t know,” she smiles. “I haven’t been out yet.”