Picture two open-air football field-sized airplane hangars set in an enormous T. Unfinished concrete floor. Curved, corrugated steel ceiling perhaps 50 feet at its center, descending to the building’s sides, where it joins a series of motor-controlled garage doors that are raised and lowered to keep out the rain and let in the breeze.A raised platform stage stretches along the end facing the structure’s entrance, with stadium lights, Chinese lanterns and a pretty damned good band (more about that in a minute). Scattered across the flow lie lie dozens of banquet tables, each accommodating eight people, and each covered with tablecloths and lace coverlets. To the back, where we sat, is an enormous raised gazebo lined with tables and chairs, each of which has a lace back attached to the top of the seat.
Cats prowl beneath the tables in defiance of the staff, who staff have placed mosquito coils there in an attempt to keep the eating a human event.Welcome to Hang Lay. Part restaurant, part floor show, all spectacle. Hang Lay is about five kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, a 15 minute tuk tuk ride to a side of Cambodian lifestyle unlike anything else we’ve experienced. On our first visit we walked into the place behind a gang of teenagers who, as it turns out, were headed to a birthday party being held front and center in the cavernous place. The girls were tiny, decked out, glittery and smelled great. The guys had their hair spiked, their shirts pressed, and there were excited smiles all around.
On our second trip – this past Saturday night, this time with my daughter Kirsty and Gabi’s brother Jonathan in tow – the wait staff recognized us and took us to prime seating so we could have a birds’ eye view of the scene while we ate.
This, apparently, is where the well-heeled Cambodian families come to play, where birthday parties and other noteworthy occasions are celebrated, and where stage music and great Cambodian singing meets great food.The latter is managed by a talented group of musicians – a listless bass player, two keyboardists (don’t spare the special effects of a synthesizer), drummer and extremely talented guitarist. They backed a steady flow of singers, who without fail would start their crooning backstage and emerge somewhere after the first 10 or 12 bars, prance around the stage while they were singing, and stand perfectly still during the bridges. It’s as though they switch off when the vocal chords go still to let the musicians take over.
At the front of the stage, a bunch of little kids tumbled, ran and spirited about – one young boy with only a t-shirt on, perhaps training for future rock concerts – as the band did their thing behind them, unfazed by the kids’ presence or the fact that the little boy had stopped to stare down and admire himself.A young man in a tight black suit and gelled hair wooed the girls, followed by another male with a slightly too-tight shirt and patent leather white shoes with tips that humorously headed north about three inches from the tips. A gorgeous young woman in a flowing pink gown, and another in, well, I can’t remember what. The pink gown kind of dominated. They sang love songs, the erstwhile national anthems of Cambodians, and we picked up on a few words that helped us follow the sagas. I love you. I’m sorry. You are here. You are gone. I am sad. Two giant projection screens at either end of the hall made all the goings-on visible to diners, no matter how far from the action they were seated. Around 8 the place began to fill up, and the waitstaff kicked into high gear. Heaping plates of incredible food – crab, shrimp, fish, chicken, beef, vegetables, noodles and rice poured out of the kitchen. Our eyes glazed over as we flipped through the 70-page menu, passing over the pig intestines and weird concoctions, settling for shrimp with cashews and vegetables, special Chinese noodle and sauteed “kaliflower”. Our selections arrived quickly, steaming piles of delicious, hot food, and the attentive waitstaff stayed close without hovering to make sure our rice bowls were full, the ice in our glasses replenished, and the sauces adequate and present.
On our second trip we went with “plian”, a kind of Cambodian ceviche, and whole steamed fish with shredded ginger…sorry for the restaurant review-quality details, but the food’s good enough to warrant some time..a noodle dish with veggies and a delicious tofu vegetable dish that arrived on a hot plate.It’s typical Cambodian service in a restaurant for 500 where every diner is treated with deference. Forget about filling your own glass from the mammoth bottles of beer left by your table. Think Saturday night at the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Mass., or The Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas, but with a gentleness one simply cannot find in the US.
This, my fellow Americans, is no Applebee’s.
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven,” mused Jonathan as he gazed at the spectable.
Kirsty picked out an enderly woman in the crowd – her shaved head a sign of widowhood – and she ate with a jaw-flapping intensity that indicated that her teeth were probably long gone. Once Kirsty pointed her out I couldn’t take my eyes off her…a krama (traditional Cambodian cloth that locals use for everything from bathing to doubling as a napkin) draped over her shoulder, surrounded by doting family who served her food, tended to her needs and generally looked out for her.
A huge gathering at the back of the room broke out the cake and sparklers, and the band kicked into another rendition of “”Happy Birthday,” which they play here with only the “Happy birthday to you” part, played over and over and over and over….
By 9:30 it was the four of us and the band, having endured a Cambodian vaudeville act that was spoken too fast for us to follow and returned to the parade of “Cambodian Idol” wannabes. It’s all part of the magic of the place, were all the major ingredients of Cambodian life – family, food, music, fun – come together in a style also typical of Cambodians: show up, order, eat, leave early.
We left a $3 tip on a $31 bill – expensive by Cambodian standards, but inflated by the beer that seemed to keep flowing throughout the meal – and we watched as the two waitresses assigned to our table reacted to the tip. Their faces lit up as they divided the take. Tips aren’t a given here, and when they’re offered they’re usually 500 to 1,000 riel (12 to 25 cents), so the money we left made for a good night for all.
We left as another singer took the stage, belting out a ballad to an audience of empty chairs, a few waitstaff and four very happy and satisfied baraing who headed back to Phnom Penh with yet another incredible experience under their belts.