Saturday, June 5, 2010

Comedy with your dinner Sir?

To Cambodia With Love will be out and in bookshops in a few months. I was fortunate to have the support of more than sixty people who share my passion for Cambodia and who provided me with a wealth of personal experiences that have found their way into the publication. However, not all the essays made the final cut. The following look at a dining experience across the Japanese Bridge by Steve Gourley was one such essay, which is printed here with his permission.

Comedy Dinner Theater - by Steve Gourley
We all need a good laugh now and then, and when live comedy is combined with a fantastic meal, you're in for a real treat. At Phnom Penh's Heng Lay restaurant, situated across the Japanese Bridge along a stretch of the city's finest local restaurants, both live music and comedy are performed for the well-known restaurant's clientele, which consist of mostly middle- and upper-class Cambodians along with a smattering of expats and their visitors. In fact, the dinner show is a unique experience that I regularly take my friends and visitors on special occasions. Upon arrival, guests are seated at one of well over 100 round tables - yes, Heng Lay is big - each of which sits up to eight people. I recommend the tables immediately in front of the stage, as you will get an unobstructed view of the performers as well as avoid the blaring sound of the loudspeakers, which can be annoyingly loud if you are sitting directly in their path.

The comedy show begins at 8pm, but arrive at least by 7 to catch many of Phnom Penh's famous and up-and-coming singers perform with a live band. A surprising number of male and female vocalists may perform on any given night, trading off the lead role on songs spanning modern Cambodian pop and ballads to well-known western hits. Back-up dancers perform on some numbers with amusing if not altogether synchronized choreography. While taking in the music, enjoy the delicious food, starting with the outstanding crab soup served in small one-portion bowls as the first course, followed by fried rice served in a carved-out pineapple. I order my favourites including sweet and sour pork served in an edible 'basket' made of baked flour; steamed elephant fish with ginger; and mixed vegetables sauteed in garlic and butter. Nearly every type of drink is available, from canned sodas and fruit drinks to wine and beers served by an armada of beer girls employed by the companies to promote their products. For a local treat however, enjoy fresh coconut juice serve chilled and sipped straight from the coconut shell with a straw.

Around 8 o'clock - 'Cambodian time" - which could mean anywhere between 8 and 9 - the fun begins with a comedy troupe featuring the country's top comedians, two men called Koy and Krum, who are the local equivalent of America's Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Rather than stand-up routines, however, each show features an original storyline with a plethora of interesting male and female characters. Although performed entirely in Khmer, the slapstick nature of the show - replete with outlandish costumes, hilarious voice caricatures and delightful physical comedy - would be a treat for the eyes and ears in any language. Often the basic storyline can be deduced from the actions and gestures of the skilled comedians, but to understand the details and inside jokes, it's helpful to take a Cambodian friend or guide along to help translate the highlights of the approximately one hour show. While some skits are better than others, the Heng Lay dinner show experience never fails to result in a memorable evening for my friends and I.

Heng Lay is located on Highway 6A. which is accessed from Phnom Penh by crossing the Japanese Bridge. After the bridge, continue about 2 kilometres until you see a large hand-painted mural on the right depicting comedians and singers; as you get closer the Heng Lay sign becomes visible further in from the street on the right. Shows are performed nightly with the music starting at 6pm. Postscript: It would appear that Koy and Krum have become too well known these days to perform at Heng Lay and they are usually seen on Khmer television, almost nightly, instead.

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