After being away for the best part of 3 weeks filming, I was really looking forward to relaxing and having a complete rest. This trip had taken me to Hong Kong for a week where we filmed Dim Sum, roast pork and tea. Next stop had been Bangkok to learn how to make the prefect Thai curry and finally pick up the train and cook on the Eastern & Oriental Express all the way through Malaysia to Singapore. Yes its great fun and yes I love it, but it really is quite hard work. I can hear the sharp intake of air from you all, and before I get emails and letters I didn’t say I did not enjoy it, just that its hard work.
My older brother lives and works in Cambodia for some government led initive; not completely sure what it is and moreover not really sure what he does either. On the map Phnom Penh looked pretty close to Singapore so I arranged to spend my birthday with him. I left a very rainy Singapore early one morning and was pleasantly surprised to find the airport empty (mind you it was a Sunday). After a nice breakfast of spiced rice and a pretty good Cappuccino I boarded my flight, again empty. The staff were very good and within no time we were back in Bangkok and then onto Phnom Penh.
I woke up as we were getting ready to land. As I glanced outside it looked very parched and hot. Small sheds and villages looked tiny compared to the vast areas of fields and scrub. The roads were teeming with people, like ants swarming along pre-determined routes. With quite a big bump we finally land and taxi to the small terminal.
We quickly are ushered through passport control and immigration. I did already have my visa, but you could do it when you land, all very quick with no hassle. This was probably the easiest of any immigration control I have been through. I get my bags and walk out to be met by my driver who was to take me to Raffles Hotel. The car is there in prime position. My driver opens the boot and my door, a few notes change hands with a policeman I think, he did look rather official and we are on our way. Chilled water and towels are given to me (I’m starting to get used to this) my driver and car are both immaculate, complete with flag on the bonnet.
Suddenly the heaven open and it rains like it did in Singapore, a complete deluge. I have never seen anything like it. We weave through thousands of people either walking of on mopeds and scooters. How we don’t knock anybody off or over I will never know. The rain is still beating down as my driver explains he is a widower with 4 children. His wife died when she was 34, I didn’t have the heart to ask how, but he was very upbeat about his life! He had a good job and he was very happy. He tells me its only 30 minutes drive to the hotel, in fact it was nearer an hour, but I didn’t mind, I quite like watching and taking in all what’s happening.
By the time we get to the hotel its stopped raining but still the sky is very dark, its late afternoon now and feeling a bit tired.
I am greeted by the charming staff who are immaculately dressed in traditional uniforms. I meet Gareth Walters commercial director and Steve Van Remoortel the executive chef. It turns out Gareth Walters is welsh and we have a good chat about the UK. Steve is from Holland and obviously a very good chef with a great CV. We chat about street food and what not to eat!! I am introduced to my personal butler Ya. He takes my passport and checks me in. I say cheerio to the lads and Ya take me to my room, sorry suite. We pass by the 2 stunning swimming pools, its very hot and close now. The hotel and rooms are very different to Raffles Singapore but equally as stunning. The hotel was once the headquarters to the notorious Khmer Rouge when they controlled Cambodia (more about this later)
My room I large, cool and airy with separate sitting room and dressing room. Ya turns up with iced tea and tells me to call him if I want anything (this really is the life)
I unpack and find the number my brother has given me. Surprise, surprise I cannot get connected. He’s pretty useless when it comes to this sort of thing. I resort to email, it works and we finally chat. I tell him that I need a shower, change and nap, then we can meet up later about 6.30.
On the stroke of 6:30 I’m in reception and in bowls my brother, full of life dressed in combat trousers and peaked cap looking remarkably like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. The staff thinks he is some sort of vagrant and looked startled as we hug each other. It's not until I get outside that I understand why they seem slightly worried. Parked next to the very car I had been picked up from the airport in was a full on 1945 American army jeep complete with no doors, rag top and shovels attached to the sides with leather straps, I’m speechless. He tells me it’s the only way to get around this place and starts up the engine. We wheel spin around the front of the hotel spraying gravel everywhere and off out into the street. We make our way through downtown Phnom Penh. Its packed with cars, mopeds and Tuk Tuks. He explains there really are no road traffic rules here you do what you like. It does get a little hairy at points if I’m being honest. We enter a side street and the jeeps starts to splutter and in no time its stops completely, we free wheel to the side of the road. He tries to start it again and again, I tell him to stop and its either a fuel problem or a pump packing up. After a few minutes he admits that the fuel gauge does not work, but he was sure he put some diesel in last week…He tells me to sit tight, don’t leave it or it will be nicked and off he runs. Its pretty dark now and I do feel slightly vulnerable. I’m eyed suspiciously by the locals some who go past several times on scooters to check me out. I take a few pics on my phone just in case I’m never seen again. By the time he returns its pitch black arriving in a Tuk Tuk with a slight older man. He has 2 lemonade bottles full of diesel, and smoking a fag. In it goes, and my bro pays him. We try to start nothing, up goes the bonnet and we fiddle about in the dark to no avail. He calls the guy who he bought the car off, a chap called Noel. He then calls his wife who duly picks us up, drops us at Noel’s. We then return to the stricken Jeep (I’m surprised its still there) Noel opens the bonnet finds the pump and within 5 minutes it's up and running!!!
After all that agro we need a beer and head off to a local bar for a couple of jugs of very cold and welcome beer. Needless to say it slides down easily. I tease my brother about his lack of general common sense. I try to explain to him that no fuel is quite important when trying to start a diesel engine. Whilst he may have some 15 letters after his name and a member of several royal colleges anything mechanical really does not register with him.
We sit outside on the street as the evening starts to liven up. Its warm and balmy and really great to catch up with my bro as its been 2 years since I have seen him. We say goodnight to each other and I head off in a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel. We pass numerous bars and some very cool street food outlets. I’m really tempted to stop but remember what Steve the chef had said to me. The trip takes about 30 minutes and my driver is very friendly. He asks me how long I’m in Cambodia for and says he will be my guide whilst I’m here.
The hotel is along one side of a long boulevard grass and gardens line the centre. At one end is the American embassy, a very modern, stark and bland structure. This is heavily fenced and in complete contrast to the rough houses and some lovely buildings. As we approach the hotel a few girls emerge from the dark and proposition me. I politely decline and my driver barks at them, they move away pretty quickly. He tells me that tomorrow to ask for him, I enquire what his name is, it turns out by a strange coincidence that his name is James Bond, can you believe that!!!
The hotel porters in full local dress help me out of the Tuk Tuk and open lobby door. The blast of cool air-conditioned air really is a welcome surprise (especially as I hate air con) I head into the beautiful Elephant bar complete with rattan furniture and elegantly painted walls and ceilings. The bar is buzzing with quite a few people and a pianist tinkles away in the background. I’m immediately engaged, order a gin and tonic and shown to a nice table, this really is proper service. I survey the room it’s a mix of Americans and Germans rather pissed and loud. My G & T arrives at the same moment said German accidently hits me in the side of the head with a pool cue. He’s very apologetic and goes on to win, making him even louder. Its been a long day so I drink up and head off to my room, sorry, suite! Through the back of the lobby into a smoking room with half a dozen Japanese chaps are enjoying huge cigars. They survey me suspiciously. Then out under a covered walkway dividing the two swimming pools, they look stunning and are beautifully lit. I’m quite tempted in my semi drunk state to strip off and jump in, but I resist. Back in the room Ya has turned my bed down and the air con is set to low, what a top bloke he is. I’m really hungry now and survey the room service menu, its vast and look stunning. My rule of thumb is to only eat the food from the country I’m visiting, so plump for the Khmer mango salad and Nasi Goreng, whilst the latter is not strictly Khmer food, it did beat a pizza!
It arrives and is stunning and I flick on the telly to find Manchester United playing Arsenal, what a great day!