Genocide Cafe

Tasteless eats in Phnom Penh

Illustration: Steve Waxman

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


For as long as it lasted, Phnom Penh’s History Café served a depressingly simple fixed menu: a bowl of bland, watery rice soup, a pinch of salt, red corn kernels mixed with banana leaves, and a cup of bitter tea, all served up on tin tableware by waitresses clad in black pajamas and red-checkered scarves. Patrons of the establishment were to sit on crude wooden benches and listen to outdated songs played over a loudspeaker.

The café’s option-free menu and oppressive canteen-style atmosphere were meant to evoke the paltry fare and harsh conditions the Khmer Rouge dished out during its genocidal rule from 1975 to 1979, when it tried to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, killing up to 2 million people in the process. The $6 meal even included a sweet egg dessert like the ones the Khmer Rouge gave workers once a year on New Year’s and a souvenir red scarf, which the hostess was to wrap around diners’ necks as they entered.

“This is a new alternative for learning about the history,” said the owner of the themed eatery, 25-year-old entrepreneur Hakpry Sochivan, who owns four other restaurants and a chain of traditional Khmer massage parlors. Sochivan suspected that the former torture center across the street from his café, now a genocide museum, didn’t offer a complete experience. “People go to Tuol Sleng and only learn about the genocide,” Sochivan argued. “Let the tourists imagine for themselves what the period was like.”

Yet despite some radio play and positive buzz, the forces of forgetting soon overcame Sochivan’s vision. Just two weeks after its opening, the History Café was shut down, ordered closed by the minister of tourism, who cited failure to obtain a license, historical inaccuracy, and poor taste.

No loss. Sochivan confesses that during its short-lived run, his restaurant served exactly two customers. One of them, a tourist from Malaysia, appeared to have missed the café’s message, quipping to a reporter, “It’s good for me to slim down.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest