By: Anthony Bourdain
I am a total whore for a grand, old, colonial hotel in Southeast Asia. In my early, adolescent fantasies of what it might be like to be a writer and what land such exotic creatures might occupy, I imagined a place where Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene would look at home. Pierre Loti, Norman Lewis. In short, it would look like this:
Le Royal in Phnom Penh, the smell of jasmine flowers and burning coal, the occasional waft of jackfruit. Gin tonics by the pool, fiery noodles in broth for breakfast, and the history bearing down as heavily as the humidity.
Day one after a long, long flight–over 36 hours in transit — Zach and Todd are in their rooms, sorting equipment and are due down here any minute. I think the plan is beer at Hurley’s, the local Expat Central–said to be the information hub–then shooting starts in earnest tomorrow.
It’s been ten years since I’ve been here–the last time in the still not-so-good old days, the third episode of COOK’S TOUR, my first time really out on the road with a television crew on the other side of the world. Me, Chris and Lydia, not yet really knowing what we were doing, still feeling our way–and over our heads in Cambodia, a country still reeling from one of the most awful genocides in history. We arrived to dark, unpaved streets, random road blocks, and a country that frightened, confused and beguiled us. We then went straight out on a spectacularly misguided, foolishly arrogant and misinformed plane, boat and road trip to Pailin, then the retirement village/heartland of what remained of the Khmer Rouge.
Things have changed. The decidedly unlovely government hasn’t–but the country has.
Then? I had a very different life to return to–which may or may not explain the recklessness with which I careened through this still tragically afflicted country. It was, in late night, Battambang, not the first time I’d had a loaded gun pointed at me. But it was certainly the first time it was a group of locked and loaded AK-47′s, held by a group of very angry persons trained in their use. We’d just attempted to blow though a roadblock and these men had not taken this breach of etiquette lightly. It was, as they say, a learning experience.
There are now consumer goods in the streets. New cars and motorbikes. School children in clean uniforms. It seems, at first glance anyway, a younger and slightly more prosperous and hopeful country. I no longer feel the paranoia of my previous trip. But maybe it’s just me that’s changed. They no longer serve alcohol at the gun range after (it is said) a depressed expat blew his brains out. You read the local English language paper and it’s still a litany of the depressing and the lurid. But these days–at very least–it’s easier to recognize the obvious about this country: that it’s spectacularly beautiful. Electric green rice paddies, tall sugar palms, the incredible temples, the moldering, French style villas of the long gone or long dead.
Today, it’s gin tonics by the pool and expat quesadillas. Tomorrow? We jump right in.
I’m clinging particularly hard to my current creature comforts as–in general–the next few days and weeks and this season as a whole–are not about that at all. After a season six, which found me in Rome, Paris and Madrid in cushy succession, we’ve decided to move out of our comfort zone a little bit, off the usual travel show grid, confronting destinations with more… challenging histories.
Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Yemen, the Congo, the Ozarks. Needles to say, it won’t all be gin and tonics and five star water pressures.