Just two weeks after opening for business, local authorities swooped to shut down the Khmer Rouge Experience Café, opposite the Toul Sleng genocide museum. The theme restaurant served watery gruel, dove eggs and tea for the not-so-revolutionary price of $6. Only two customers took up the offer before officials closed the café on October 1, but locals report it was popular with journalists hungry for a KR story. Despite widespread criticism that the café was in poor taste, the owner says he is determined to reopen, and even expand, the restaurant.
T he owner of the Khmer Rouge Experience Café near the Tuol Sleng S-21 museum, closed by officials last week just two weeks after it opened, is not giving up. He says he's filing an application for a license to reopen.
The barely furnished cafe served rice porridge followed by corn mixed with water and leaves, dove eggs and tea at $6 a meal, and also offered Khmer traditional massage. In the fortnight it was open only two customers tasted the food, but every day several visitors would come to ask about the strange decoration and spartan menu, restaurateur Hapkry Sochivan said.
The authorities closed the restaurant on October 1, after publicity about its opening. Sochivan, 24, said he went to khan (district) Chamkar Morn headquarters on October 6 and asked for a business license to reopen his restaurant but was told the house he rented is not recognized by the khan authority. He has to get a recognition letter from the khan first. After that he could ask the municipal tourism office for permission to reopen his business.
"I will ask for a business license from the tourism office, but I don't know if they will provide it to me or not," Sochivan said.
He said the intention of his controversial theme restaurant is to show visitors to Tuol Sleng the difficulties of the real life of Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge time.
"I had just done about 20 percent of the project, but it was closed," he said. "I plan to show visitors more than that. If the authorities give me a license I will continue to run my business."
Lo Yuy, governor of khan Chamkar Morn, said the restaurant was closed temporarily because it had been opened and run without asking permission from even the local authorities.
"They can reopen any time when they have a proper business license," Yuy said.
However an official at khan Chamkar Morn who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity said the closure of the Khmer Rouge Experience Café was not legal: many restaurants in the city operate without licenses unhindered. The anonymous official said authorities should have warned the owner at least three times that he needed a license before closing his restaurant down.
"I think there would be other reasons behind the closure," the official said. "To my mind introducing the way of life in the Pol Pot time to visitors is a good thing because those visitors will understand how difficult life was for people at that time."
But not according to the Minister of Tourism, Lay Prahos. He said the government will not be issuing a license for the Khmer Rouge Experience Café. The intended theme of the restaurant would be unacceptable to many people, as millions had died miserably during the Khmer Rouge era, and the living had survived painful experiences, Prahos said.
He said the government wanted people to benefit from the tourism industry, but not from this kind of business. The restaurant owners could open a restaurant promoting Cambodian culture, not one wearing Khmer Rouge clothes: visitors could learn about all that at the museum.
"We can not accept this kind of business," Prahos told the Post on October 6. "We regret that he [the owner] does not understand the pain of the Cambodian people. He wants to get benefit from the victims' souls. This should end now."