Dara Cham, the receptionist at L’histoire Cafe, greets customers in her standard-issue black pajamas, red-and-white checked krama and bare feet. Only her wristful of brightly-colored plastic bracelets, and her high spirits, belie the fact that she is not living under the Pol Pot regime. Rather, she is an employee at a new Phnom Penh theme restaurant just opposite Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that promises diners an authentic “Khmer Rouge experience.”
Justifying its establishment with the old adage that history must be remembered if it is not to be repeated, the cafe serves up watery gruel and a rough, rustic ambience, aiming to provide tourists with an authentic glimpse into life-and dining-in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
“The first time I wear this,” Dara Cham said of her uniform, “I don’t like it and I want to stop, too. But my boss said he just wants to let people know, so we must wear the clothes and show what it was like. Foreign people did not have to endure the Pol Pot regime, so we must let them know, so it does not happen like before.”
The restaurant serves a $6 fixed-price “Unforgettable Menu” that sacrifices flavor for historical accuracy: The main course is bland rice gruel, served in a tin bowl.
“The Khmer Rouge gave a person a bit of rice or corn mixed with water and leaves. This kind of food a person could get only a [serving] in the noon and a [serving] in the evening,” the menu notes.
Also included in the fixed-price menu is a bitter tea “which Khmer Rouge’s officers usually had every day,” a lolok egg sweet that was served once per year on April 17-the day Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975-a serving of salt and a red krama that the hostess kindly knots around the diner’s neck.
“We get many people who come in to look at the menu, but they do not eat,” Dara Cham admitted.
“For me, I think it is a little bit expensive-I tried it one time, but after I ate, maybe I would eat [something else instead].”
The owner’s sister, Hakpry Agnchealy, 18, confessed that she too, did not recommend the fare.
“When I ate, it made me so sad,” she said. “I do not want to eat this food again.”
She spoke at the deserted cafe Thursday, explaining that her brother, Hakpry Sochivan-who already owns a string of traditional massage parlors in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap-had dreamed up the concept for the restaurant after hearing his parents’ and grandparents’ accounts of life under the ultra-communist movement.
“Our grandfather died under the Khmer Rouge, so he wants to remember our grandfather and to let people know about the regime,” she explained.
But neither Hakpry Agnchealy nor Hakpry Sochivan are likely spokespersons for the issue. They-along with all the restaurant’s employees, save one-are under 25, and were not yet born when the Khmer Rouge regime ended.
Hakpry Agnchealy admitted that those who lived through the regime do not always enjoy the cafe experience, which features a decor of rough-hewn tables, rusted farming implements, straw mats wrapping the walls, floor and ceiling and a bird’s-eye view into the courtyard of Tuol Sleng prison.
“When my mother and people who survived the Pol Pot regime came here, they felt sorry and they did not want to come back. My parents came to visit once and never again. They see these things from the Khmer Rouge time and it made them feel sad, horrible,” she said.
Minister of Tourism Lay Prohas had not yet heard of the cafe, but said he planned to investigate the matter next week.
“It sounds very strange,” he said by phone.
But owner Hakpry Sochivan reiterated that L’histoire Cafe was a restaurant, nothing more. “It is for business; it is not involved with politics,” he said. “It is to remind of the communist regime’s worst. What I have done here could not compare to its cruel regime on my family.”
Hakpry Agnchealy said she was concerned that former cadres might have violent reactions. “I worry that former Khmer Rouge cadres are still alive and are not happy to see this restaurant, and will make trouble for us,” she said. “But for people who were victims of the Khmer Rouge, I think it is no problem.”
But in the meantime, she and her brother pondered ways to attract more visitors to the restaurant, which has been open for two weeks but seen only two foreign guests as of yet.
She suggested outfitting employees further in rubber-tire sandals, or requiring waitresses to trim their hair into the blunt bobs favored by the Khmer Rouge.
Contacted by phone, the deputy governor of Pailin province and a former Khmer Rouge cadre, Keut Sothea, called the cafe’s concept “laughable.”
“They are using Khmer Rouge to attract guests to their restaurant,” he said.
“They charge $6 for a set meal of food which is modeled from the Khmer Rouge regime. Khmer Rouge did not need to pay money. Everything was free in Khmer Rouge regime,” he added.
“If they use Khmer Rouge words they should not take money from people. Let them [eat] free,” Keut Sothea said, adding that he wondered how the food tasted. “I will go to test it any day.”