Khmer Rouge's place is in the kitchen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 1997, 12:00am

The prices are not fixed but no one questions the bill at the Restaurant Pailin . . . an attempt at haute cuisine in the jungle base of Khmer Rouge defectors loyal to breakaway leader Ieng Sary.

After feasting on prawns, squid and mackerel smuggled from the Gulf of Thailand, diners have to confront the cashier, Major Lone Ly, a 27-year veteran of Pol Pot's frontline forces until he defected late last year.

'This is very new for us and we are doing our best to learn,' said Major Ly, propped up on his one leg. 'No one has complained yet. But we do prefer customers to pay in Thai baht.' The restaurant has been open for more than a week in battle-scarred Pailin, still an important gem-mining and logging centre.

Financed by the wife of Y. Chhien, mysterious Pailin military supremo turned mayor, local residents say it will be the only eatery ever licensed in the area now under the firm control of the defectors.

Like the rest of Pailin, the restaurant reflects a heavy Thai influence, from the years when Bangkok timber and gem dealers were the rebels' only links with the outside world.

It lacks menus, but at any time the kitchen will rustle up a hot-and-sour soup, fried rice or sauteed chicken - all Thai-style.

Hospitality is an acquired taste. Diners enter from a grimy back alley. Inside, the bugs are kept away by an unsophisticated arrangement involving skewered tomatoes placed between gleaming silver rice bowls on round Formica tables. In pride of place is a glass drinks cabinet beneath a portrait of King Norodom Sihanouk. Inside is an array of smuggled booty, from Thai beers and Bordeaux wines to 5,000 baht (HK$1,500) bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky.

Between the tables sit former foot soldiers, many still in Mao caps, taking advantage of the only place in town with electricity.