Day 68: North Korean hospitality brought to Yangon

SIX beautiful North Korean women wearing long, elegant joseon-ot greet us at the covered entrance to Pyongyang Koryo a restaurant run by the reclusive country.

According to Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, the restaurant – one of 130 around the world, mostly in China – is one of several overseas business ventures of Room 39, a North Korean government organization dedicated to acquiring and laundering foreign currency for the North Korean leadership.

The restaurant is situated on the bottom floor of the multi-story building inside the compound, where the highly trained women on their three-year contracts live and work. It's a sparsely decorated establishment with poorly framed pastoral paintings hanging on the walls. A small bar has a thinly stocked liquor shelf with import whiskey and Burmese beer. On the far side of the open, low-ceiling room is a raised stage with a keyboard, drum set and two guitars idly sitting on it.

I arrive with Michelle, a tall, elegant Australia nutritionist I met at the cafe at Scott Hostel this morning, and of course Yu Ya. Three of Yu Ya's friends are sitting at a long table, waiting for us. Only one other table in the restaurant is occupied.

At the table is another Michelle, the classically beautiful young woman from Hong Kong I took a shine to on my birthday and Niva, who is the kind of friend you'd always want to bring with you to get a party started, but expect to be ditched by before last call.

“Oh my god, she's so beautiful,” Niva says, chin resting in the palms of her folded hands as she bats her eyes at the waitress. The boy by her side, perhaps a pseudo-boyfriend, but not the guy she went home with the other night, has a well-trimmed beard and a quiet demeanor.

We end up paired off with each other based on dietary restrictions. Aussie Michele and the bearded are vegetarian, Yu Ya and Niva not eating seafood and Michelle and I are wiling to eat anything.

Niva remains in constant rapture of our waitress, and less-obviously, so does Michelle. The conversation at the table is conducted as if the waitress can't understand it. However, she speaks Korean, Chinese, Burmese and English exceptionally well.

After a bought of confusion, we manage to order. Michelle and I order a whole chicken and a kimchi mixed platter. The waitress, questions whether or not we only want one whole chicken, which becomes a running joke, until the little plump chicken arrives in its tiny pot – it's barely enough for the two of us.

The only thing, outside of the staff, that is clearly North Korean is the sojou – 50 proof booze often refereed to as (South) Korea's most popular alcoholic beverage.

Conversation with HKT Michelle is stilted and never really takes off, which is amusing given how naturally I usually strike up a conversation. However, the crowd in general is loud and fun – mostly due to Niva.

Our meal, when it arrives, is dull beyond belief: the whole chicken is in a flavorless rice porridge and I've had better kimchi from supermarkets back in the States. However, halfway through the meal, the entertainment starts.

A single woman in her traditional joseon-ot takes a mic and starts to sing, swaying in the middle of the stage, several other women glide up next to her, there voices joining together in the North Korean song. The group dances. Though the timing isn't perfect, you can see from the control in their wrists that they've all been professionally trained.

The same small, controlled smile remains on all of their faces as they preform. It's hard not to read into it in a way you wouldn't if you were watching someone performing at Medieval Nights in the United States.

“Her smile disappeared immediately,” Michelle points out, her eyes following the women as they exit the stage, splashing through the gray curtain into a hallway hidden from view. “They seem to take their anger out on the curtain.”

“The experience of N. Korean singing and dancing on stage will leave you thinking... are these real or rehearsed and forced smiles?” writes a previous guest to the restaurant on TripAdvisor. His sentiments are echoed by the group, with a concerned curiosity of whether or not the women are forced into this line of work or might be happier back home. However, having read Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, I'm not convinced that even life back in Pyongyang would be that wonderful for them.

“Where we are from... [s]tories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change,” writes Johnson. “But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can't live with what they've done.”

A bouquets of thick plastic flowers that's rough to the touch and has the tangy, dusty smell of cheap plastic, is handed to me, as well as both Michelles. An Asian man from the only other occupied table in the small restaurant, gets on stage for a photo. Niva, Michelle and I follow, holding bouquets.

The North Korean waitresses took to the stage. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

In a moment of confusion, it's unclear what I'm supposed to do with the pile of plastic flowers. Someone quickly explains that I give it to the girl singing on stage.

I stopped eating when the show started; the food isn't that interesting anyway.

The keyboardist holds it all together, her hands occasionally sliding down the keyboard like a stiff rock star.

A sign in the corner says no photographs, which is what we also read online. However, at this particular moment there doesn't seem to be any issues as we snap pictures on our phones and take videos. The conspiracy theorist in me – a very, very small facet of me – can't help but wonder why my phone is acting up while taking photos. It's jamming, saying “busy”, which I've never seen before.

I guess I'm probably on Pyongyang's list, as well as Washington's now.

Two women take the stage in shiny blue and red martial arts uniforms that are more like cheap pajamas than clothes for combat. They go through something similar to what is broadcast during the Mass Games in North Korea, which is performed in May Day Stadium. It's sort of a dancing karate.

As if the nights evolved, four women take the stage in short skirts, just above the knee, and start their soft-rock show. The music is so familiar. Sung in a sweet, heavy North Korean accent it takes me a moment to decipher the lyrics.

“Country roads, take me home... To the place I belong... West Virginia... Mountain mamma, take me home... Country roads,” she sings.

After they finish the song and the scattered applause dies down – mostly seeming to come from between my two big hands – the lights come up. One of the women, who isn't our server approaches me, starting to say something.

In a sudden burst of commotion, another one comes up to her and then a handful of them disappear behind the gray curtain in fit of giggles.

“What was that about?” Niva wants to know. Already jealous that Ya Yu was able to speak enough Korean that the our stunningly beautiful server told her to call her big sister.

HKT Michelle, sitting across from me spotted it immediately, as did I. With lady-like delicacy, she makes it clear doesn't want to talk about it. There is a moment of back and forth between us, as we try to figure out whether or not we saw the same thing.

Eventually, we just tell the table: the woman who approached me, probably in her early 20s, hadn't done up the side of her skirt all the way, baring a streak of pale white skin along her hip.

“I didn't want to embarrass her,” Michelle explains. “I don't think they'll come back out.”

Eventually, after we pay our bill they do.

Niva goes to pay for her and Michelle with a credit card, though not surprisingly for a facility most likely designed to maintain a foreign currency slush fund for North Korea, they don't accept cards.

In fact, Michelle, Michelle and Niva don't have enough to cover their portion of the exorbitant bill – 24 dollars a head for mediocre pickings. However, I happen to have an enormous pile of cash on me from having exchanged Euros earlier today. So, I cover – to be paid back as soon as we find an ATM.

Strangely, we're also allowed pictures with the girls on our way out, near the entrance.

The evening moves to Penthouse, a rooftop bar and restaurant full younger foreign expats enjoying a nice wines, good steaks and expensive cocktails. It could be transported to any big city around the world and would seem just as out of place and in place at the same time. It's generically stylish and well put together with foreign managers greeting guests as they arrive.

Aussie Michelle and I immediately get wrapped up in a bit of banter and good conversation. I talk to HK Michelle too. However, Yu Ya is at the far side of the table and so is everyone else, leaving the Aussie and I mostly in our own world. She's dynamic, funny and all-in-all good company, so I'm not complaining.

With the huge chunk of money back in my pocket I order a Old Fashioned, and eventually talk everyone, but the Aussie into a Jagerbomb. Because I'm still a bit sweet on HKT Michelle, I cover her shot, though it doesn't really matter one way or the other.

It's the first time that I think I'm simply too old for someone of legal age. Nonetheless, it's fun just to go a little tinder. The reality of it is that the Aussie and I have insanely more in common and can actually hold a conversation, which is pretty high up in my list of priorities when it comes to spending time with people.

Last call comes at about 11:45pm and we prepare to leave. In the distance, Shwedagon Pagoda shines a glorious gold in the rainy night sky. Earlier today, Aussie Michelle, Yu Ya and I visited this wonder of the world.

We arrive at the Pagoda ahead of dinner at the North Korean place. Michelle was sitting next to me at the cafe, so I invited to join Yu Ya and me.

Photo tour of Shwedagon Pagoda

Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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