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Cambodia 009

Day 1

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. The next stop had been Bangkok to learn how to make the perfect Thai curry and finally pick up the train and cook on the Eastern & Oriental Express all the way through Malaysia to Singapore. Yes, it’s 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 it’s hard work. My older brother lives and works in Cambodia for some government-led initiative; not completely sure what it is and moreover not really sure what he does either. Phnom Penh looked pretty close to Singapore on the map, 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. However, 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 predetermined 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 already have my visa, but you could do it when you land, all very quickly with no hassle. This was probably the easiest of any immigration control I have been through. I get my bags and walk out to meet my driver, who took me to the Raffles Hotel. The car is there in prime position. My driver opens the boot and my door, a few notes change hands with a police officer, 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 a flag on the bonnet. Suddenly the heavens 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 off 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 it’s 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 that’s happening. By the time we get to the hotel, it’s stopped raining, but still, the sky is very dark. It’s late afternoon now, and feeling a bit tired. I am greeted by the charming staff, who is 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 is obviously an outstanding 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; it is sweltering and close now. The hotel and rooms are very different from Raffles Singapore but equally stunning. The hotel was once the headquarters of the notorious Khmer Rouge when they controlled Cambodia (more about this later). My room I large, cool and airy, with a 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 high 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 my brother in bowls, 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, it 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. It’s 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 honest. We enter a side street, and the jeep starts to sputter, and in no time it stops completely, we freewheel to the side of the road. He tries to start it again and again, I tell him to stop, and it’s 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. It’s pretty dark now, and I do feel slightly vulnerable. I’m eyed suspiciously by the locals, some of 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, it’s pitch black arriving in a Tuk Tuk with a slightly older man. He has 2 lemonade bottles full of diesel and smoking a fag. So 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. Finally, he calls the guy who he bought the car off, and 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 it’s 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. It is warm and balmy and really great to catch up with my bro as it’s 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 amiable. He asks me how long I’m in Cambodia 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 the 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 them 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 accidentally 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. It’s been a long day, so I drink up and head off to my room; sorry, suit! 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. Ya has turned my bed down back in the room, and the air con is set to low; what a top bloke he is. I’m famished now and survey the room service menu, it is vast and looks stunning. My rule of thumb is only to 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, but 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!

Day 2

I wake early; it’s only 6:30, but the sun is rising through the curtains. The rain is hammering down outside, and for a moment, I forget where I am. Then, I fall back to sleep realizing that I’m on holiday.

I shower and dress and walk down to breakfast back past the swimming pools and through the lobby; this really is a stunning hotel. Breakfast is the usual buffet affair now adopted by all hotels. The offering is good with a heavy accent on fresh juices, salads and healthy foods.

I sit outside on the terrace. It’s warm again and sunny, despite the downpour earlier. My cappuccino arrives, and I tuck into breakfast. Steve, the chef, emerges, and we have a good chat about food, CV’s, celebrity chefs etc. etc. He also tells me with glee that he hates British staff; we both laugh. I quiz him on the Obama trip earlier in the year. He’s candid in his reply but did tell me when he had to move all the food to a presidential palace for the lunch buffet. The security guys will not let him out of the hotel until Steve told them if I don’t go, the president gets no lunch!

He wishes me a good day, and I wander back to the lobby and take a few photos of the hotel façade and front gardens. Tuk Tuk guys hassle me, but I wave, as they are not allowed in the hotel grounds unless instructed.
My bro turns up in the now fixed Jeep, and we shoot off into town, heading for the French market slap bang in the centre of PP. The traffic is heavy, and as I have said, anything really goes. I enquire as to driving rules, and of course insurance, basically, there really is none. So we park and have to pay somebody to look after the car, making sure to leave the handbrake off so they can move it if needs be.

The French Market in the art deco style is truly stunning and has been here since 1937. The French development agency renovated it a few years ago, and it’s pretty spectacular. Certainly not what I expected to see slap bang in the middle of Cambodia. We head in to meet a stall owner and her husband, who my brother knows well. They are charming, and we run a small stall selling drinks to hairnets, it’s tiny, but they earn enough to get their daughter through university. We have pictures taken, and they clearly adore my brother. The next-door stall is shaving up huge ice blocks with antiquated grinders and axes. This is why you don’t eat or drink from stalls; my brother reminds me, it’s pretty filthy. Outside huge lumps of ice are loaded sideways onto scooters and are quickly driven away.

We wander through the food stalls where you can buy anything from dried shrimps and fish to pork brains and heads. Frogs, small pigeons and even what look like blackened sparrows are for sale. The smell is overpowering, and all the food is covered in flies. It was time to move on.

Cambodia 020The centre of the market is stunning and beautifully painted and is surprisingly nice and cool, and I take more photos. I buy the US $100,000,000 note for my daughter for £5; what a bargain! The market is heaving now, so we decide to leave. Outside, the Jeep is thankfully still there. We pay up and drive off for a spot of lunch.

By now, it’s warming up, and the air is thick and muggy. The only thing to drink to keep cool is beer, apparently. So we head off into town and look for a bar to refresh ourselves. After a couple of beers, we set out to find a local restaurant my brother loves. But his knowledge of the area, like the internal workings of a diesel engine, is not his strong point. That coupled with beer or two makes it even more difficult. We finally arrive at a restaurant called Romdeng. Like most buildings here, it’s open and airy with lots of plants and pictures. It’s run by a charity called Friends International who take vulnerable urban children and give them training and education so they can fend for themselves and their families. They also provide education, support and life skills such as hygiene, safety and drug advice, plus medical help. Sadly and shockingly, 30% of prostitutes in Cambodia are aged between 12 & 17. Here my brother explains the kids are taken off the streets and are trained to cook and wait on tables.

Romdeng opened its doors in 2005 and has been turning out great food since day one. All the furniture and paintings are made by local children and families, making them all very proud.

The food is based on simple, well-cooked Cambodian cuisine from all the provinces. If I had to explain the style, I would say it was a lighter, simpler version of Thai food.

We order more beer and order a few starters. Prahok, a deeply flavoured fermented fish dip, is served with raw, pickled vegetables. It’s delicious and very, very strong indeed. Imagine triple strength, thick Nam Prik, and is not for the faint-hearted. I remember Steve’s advice and hesitate. Finally, my bro says it’s fine being fermented, and I tuck in. 
Cambodia 040Next, we tuck into crispy tarantulas with lime & Kampot black pepper dip. They are excellent indeed, crispy, tasty with a chilli kick. Here they are eaten as a snack like we would eat crisps. The dip is very spicy, but with a sweet edge, it works well, but again is not for the faint-hearted.

For the main course, we had beef with red tree ants, lemongrass. It was a dry, curry stir-fry very fragrant and came with some red sticky rice and Morning Glory, a type of water spinach. When my brother’s wife turned up, we were pretty full, but I couldn’t resist tasting her dry fish salad with green mango and dried shrimps. It was like the rest of the food, delicious.

We settle the bill, and I purchase some artwork plus their recipe book and head off to a local knife shop. I suppose it must be the chef in me, but I’m fascinated by cooks knives and make sure I spend hours watching cooks and their knife skills wherever I am. I did treat myself to a stingray skin handled knife that is a wonderful piece of work. By now, it’s getting hot, and we decide to go our separate ways for a lie-down. Within no time, I’m back at the hotel and by the pool, dozing. The waiter brings me chilled pineapple wedges, beautifully trimmed and iced fresh ginger tea.

After a kip, shower and change, I’m off out again to meet my bro and his wife. It’s now early evening, and James Bond is waiting. We set off, and after a minute or two, he again asks me if I want ‘Boom boom’ I play ignorant. However, he will not give up and reels off the menu again. ‘You want a girl?’ ‘No’ ‘You want women?’ ‘NO, NO NO NO’ He goes quiet for a few seconds ‘Massag…?’ NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO’ he laughs out loud.
We arrive at The Foreign Correspondents Club, a two-storey building overlooking the Tonle Sap river. My brother and his wife are waiting. James B says he will wait for me. I say I maybe 3 hours he tells me its no problem. The restaurant is light and airy, and the food is simple and outstanding from what I can remember. Unfortunately, I forgot to take my notebook and after several Margaritas can’t recall a thing, so sorry about that. We stagger out, bear in mind I’m also tired, into James Bond’s Tuk Tuk and go back to the hotel. I ask him how much it is he says up to me. I pay him $10; he says it’s too much. I shake his hand and smile. He says he will see me tomorrow and drives off a happy man. I flop into bed.

Day 3

I wake early again for some reason; the sun is up and very bright. Off to breakfast, sitting outside on a lovely covered terrace, coffee good as is the omelette with chilli and tomatoes.

I walk outside the heat hits me. Wow, it’s hot today, and I squint trying to see if I can see JB. He’s not about, so I get another slightly older gentleman. He is very polite, and I show him my brother’s address. He nods, and off we go, the same route past the American embassy and downtown. I really enjoy watching people as we whizz through the packed streets. People wave are very friendly and always seem to be smiling.

As we make our way, I notice what I think is a Costa coffee shop in the distance. I look again, and yes, it really is a Costa coffee. I ask my driver to stop, not really believing what I’m seeing. But, bloody hell, it’s really is a bonafide Costa. I ask my man to wait; he nods and smiles. As I get, close 2 workers are parking cars in full Costa uniforms for punters. The door is opened for me, and the place is spotless. The staff are immaculate and smiling. I order and am told to take a seat, and the coffee will be brought over. Within a few minutes, my perfect, yes perfect, Cappuccino arrives with a selection of sugars. I recap in my mind, parking attendants, door opening, table service, and probably one of the best coffee’s I had ever had. This is impressive stuff. I survey the shop its full of young, obviously well-heeled people really enjoying a coffee. I take a few pics and get back into the Tuk Tuk.

By the time I arrive at my brother’s apartment, he says $4; I say $3. In the end, I give him $5, so he’s very happy.

They are still in bed, and the cleaner lets me in, slightly bemused. She can’t speak English; my Cambodian is limited, in fact, non-existent. He emerges and gets dressed, time for lunch he says, it’s only 11.00, but first I want you to meet a friend of mine, he’s a chef, he booms.

We leave the apartment and rive a couple of streets and walk into what looks like a dingy corridor. At one end is a glass wall like a shop front, and in we go. His friend appears, and we all hug each other. I think my brother spoke to him in Nepali, then in English. It transpires this is a great Indian restaurant. My bro explains I’m the chef brother he has been telling the chap about. He’s over the moon and brings beers. Next plates of samosas and more food, I struggle as I only had breakfast 1 hour ago. I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I force them down.

We say goodbye and merrily head off into town to see the Russian market this time. Just as we get close, the Jeep starts making a loud grinding sound, and as I look out behind, there is a long stream of oil. Oh, dear….. I tell him to stop, and we push the vehicle to the side of a shop. He’s not happy now and starts to get angry. Finally, he calms down and calls Noel again. He will send one of his workers to collect.

We head into the market again past many food stalls. A waft of putrefied fish hits me, and it’s grim. The fish part of the market is fascinating but does stink. I see many varieties of fish and have no idea what they are. Dozens of dried fish, including shrimps and what look like eels, hang everywhere. Baskets of crabs, their claws bound with brightly coloured ribbons, are everywhere. Lots of cuts of pork or a sort of wild boar are next, crawling with flies whilst ladies sit cross-legged, on the stalls trying in vain to swat them away.Cambodia 041 They look bemused when I photograph fresh pig’s brains and cuts of meat, then break into a toothless smile when I smile at them. We head deeper into the market and walk past tiny stalls crammed full of motor scooter parts, tyres and cooking utensils. You can literally buy anything here; it’s amazing. We move onto t-shirts 4 for $8, and you haggle that price?? Next stop, fake watches, every conceivable make or brand all looking pretty impressive. The young girl calls me over and asks me which watch I would like to see. I say to her Rolex, and she produces some 8 watches, all looking very convincing and only $15 each. I laugh and mischievously ask her if they are real. She laughs and says, ‘Noooooooooooo, but I have a customer who buys one, and it still works after 2 years’ and laughs out loud. ‘I give you bruddy good deal’, she enthuses. 3 for the price of 2, she explains. I say I need to think and will pop back. She wishes me a good day. My bro is nowhere to be seen, and his wife Antoinette and I head off to find jewellery for my girls and wife.

I buy a few shirts and then look for my bro, who’s like a small child with an attention span of about 2 minutes. Eventually, we meet up, have a beer. As I remind him, he’s happier now the Jeep has been towed away to be fixed or nicked.

Lunch now, and we tuck into braised aubergines with sweet tomatoes and spices delicious. Quickly followed by fried rice with fried eggs and Morning Glory, perfect!!!!
The wind is getting up by the time we finish, and my bro predicts a storm brewing. Unfortunately, it’s very overcast, almost dark.
We hail 2 Tuk Tuks, and I go back to the hotel. They go home, and we arrange to meet later. I get back to the hotel and flop into bed, pointless going to the pool as it’s now raining hard.

At 6:30, I shower and change, ready to head out again, no JB, so I head into town in another Tuk Tuk. The restaurant is called the Lost Plane and really is out of the way. But, like normal, he can’t find it, and Antoinette comes to the rescue again. Unfortunately, it’s in a dingy part of town with no street lights.

The restaurant is owned by an Aussie chap my brother knows and we meet some friends of my brothers. By his own admission, the chef is an amateur cook, but the food is far more than amateur. I really enjoyed garlic confit and my main sweet pot-roasted belly pork, soft, perfectly cooked and seasoned. Puds were okay also, and I had perfectly acceptable cashew nut and caramel ice cream.

One of my brother’s friends feels ill, so we all leave early, me in a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel. At the hotel, I run the nightly proposition and politely decline, much to the amusement of my driver, who tells me, ‘All girls are good here.’

Day 4: My Birthday

Getting used to Cambodia time now, so sleep well and wake around 8. Realise it’s my birthday when my phone beeps. It’s a happy birthday from my wife and girlies. Shower and shaved, I head off to breakfast; the staff are getting used to me by now and bring a perfect Cappuccino. Omelette again with fresh bread is perfect washed down with fresh mango juice great way to start my birthday.

Cambodia 050The weather is hot and muggy, but it’s nice to be in the sunshine. We meet at the river and chat about family and general life. It’s good to catch up as we only really see each other once a year if that. My bro tells me that Cambodia really has changed so much in the 16 years he has been here working on and off. He clearly loves the place, and I can see why, even in my short time here, I can see why.

We have a cool beer and head off to the infamous Tuol Sleng prison code-named S-21, now a museum that commemorates all the poor souls who lost their lives when the Khmer Rouge and its despot dictator Pol Pot ran the country. My brother came here 16 years ago and was and still is visibly moved by the whole experience. The former high school, now a museum, was a former notorious prison where many thousands of people were tortured, raped and brutally executed. Cells are bare apart from a grainy photograph on one wall showing the disfigured, mutilated corpses chained to iron beds. The iron bed is in the centre of the room, and the air is cool and slightly dank. Outside are large gallows where people were strung up to die for days on end. It is said that some 15,000 prisoners passed through here. Most did not get out alive. It is said that one ⅓ of Cambodia’s population was wiped out.

My brother wants to leave after seeing 3 Japanese girls laughing and eating ice cream…..so we quietly depart. Not much is said as we flag down a Tuk Tuk and head off back into town.

Phil Vickery in Cambodia 036

We have a beer in a small roadside bar, and the mood lightens, and Antoinette turns up. Finally, we all decide that we are feeling peckish. Lunch is in a restaurant called Rendezvous, a Vietnamese cross Khmer offering, it’s light and airy, and the staff are charming. We start with pan-fried spring rolls stuffed with pig’s ears and herbs—next, a refreshing mango salad with peanuts and an open omelette with beansprouts, chicken and pork. A side of incredibly fresh vegetables completes a delicious lunch.

Back at the hotel, I doze by the pool and think about the day. It has been very moving and quite special. Certainly, I will never forget what I saw.

At 6:30, I head out to meet my bro and Antoinette at one of Phnom Penh’s famous restaurants Misla.
This is quite posh, and the place is heaving. The food is excellent and featured on one of Gordon Ramsay’s programmes a few years ago. We start with a frog cooked in a deep spicy sauce and Pak Choy. It’s superb, although Antoinette declines to taste. Next, whole baked salt fish and whole sautéed whole crab with baby peppercorns, amazing flavours throughout. Pork braised with spices and sugar with baby aubergines is deliciously light and packed full of flavour. Fresh mango and peanut salad again round off another great meal. All the meals we have had have been incredibly good value for money, and I have not had one duff course!
We say our goodbyes and call it a night, what a nice birthday!!! When I return to my room, Ya has had a chocolate birthday cake made for me and a card from the staff. When I see him I ask him how did you know, he replied ‘I see passport it easy.’

Day 5

Off home today, so it’s really a case of packing up and making sure I have not forgotten anything. I say goodbye to my Butler and all the staff, Gareth and Steve; they really have been superb. I meet my bro for a quick lunch of chicken curry and rice and head to the airport. The rain hammers down again on the way, but at the airport, brilliant sunshine bursts through. I sit in departures and think about my 3 weeks away, what a fabulous trip and pinch myself.

I have a quick beer and a bite to eat before boarding an early evening flight to Bangkok, where I will hook up with my director/boss Lynsey. She has been on holiday with her sister in Thailand. Wonder where I’ll be off to next???

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