There are mysteries you encounter while travelling that you never get to the bottom of. Here’s one Tim Roxborogh can’t get out of his mind.
Mr Fancy tells his story with such pride that who am I to burst his bubble?
It was while dipping roti-canai as the sun set after swashbuckling through the steamy jungles of Malaysia's Tioman Island that I'd first heard the whispers. The month was May, the year 2010 and my fellow backpackers on the Southeast Asian trail were insistent there was a signed picture of Elton John hanging above reception at the encouragingly named Fancy Guesthouse in Phnom Penh. These sincere young travellers would launch into platitudes such as, "Isn't it cool he's so down to earth he can stay at budget hotels while travelling through Third World countries?"
Touching down in Phnom Penh several weeks later, I made a tuk-tuk beeline for Mr Fancy and his house. As a massive Elton fan I had to find out if this unexpected story was true. Sure enough, at reception was the smiling picture of Elton. Emblazoned with a fat red marker in true Elton John flamboyance was the grammatically unusual and curiously jumbled caps and lower case sentence: "To FANCy GUEST House, ThANK's foR ALL." His signature followed.
According to Mr Fancy, a chirpy chap of limited English and indeterminate age, it most certainly was Elton John who decided to forgo his traditional five-star luxury and settle for something a bit more budget conscious. Maybe Elton was going through a rough patch financially? More likely, says Mr Fancy, he was tired of being recognised at the plush hotels across town and wanted the privacy, comfort and less pretentious atmosphere the Fancy Guesthouse offers.
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I can attest that the rooms at the Fancy Guesthouse are very clean and start from just US$15 before rising up to a bank-busting US$25 if you prefer a balcony. Bedding can be changed daily, there is TV and even a hot shower. While there isn't a lift, at only four-storeys not even a baby boomer like Elton really needs one.
Mr Fancy explained he'd never heard of Elton and was only informed by other guests just how famous this portly, middle-aged Westerner is. At the time, the Fancy Guesthouse was newly opened and the man who'd once accounted for 2 per cent of the entire music industry was said to be "very impressed" with the accommodation, not to mention the savings he was making.
Not comfortable in accusing the sweet Mr Fancy of being a little liberal in his definition of "stayed at my guesthouse", I researched if in fact Elton had been in Cambodia at the time in question (2008). Shock. He had. What? Could Mr Fancy's photo be legitimate? Could Elton John, a superstar who for 40 years had given every impression he'd be aghast at being considered "down to earth", indeed be down to earth?
Unfortunately, I couldn't verify which hotel Elton had chosen during his 2008 Cambodian jaunt, but I could compare the signed picture with other published Elton autographs.
And that's where the story becomes ... how do I put this? Less fun? Over? That feels so mean-spirited. Let's just say that the overwhelming online evidence when Googling "Elton John's autograph" is fairly conclusive. Not to mention a more forensic inspection of the signed Fancy Guesthouse picture suggesting a spelling closer to "Eldon" than "Elton".
I concluded that, whatever the motive, Mr Fancy tells his story with such pride that who am I to burst his bubble? And maybe Elton John, the man who placed at least one hit in the US Top 40 every single year for three straight decades did stay at the Fancy Guesthouse, even if it wasn't him who picked up that big red marker? Hmmm ...
Regardless, it makes for a half-decent yarn and one I'd love to one day put to the man himself: "So Sir Elton, new album to one side, what everyone really wants to know is did you or did you not stay at the Fancy Guesthouse while in Phnom Penh, Cambodia back in 2008? And are you really thankful for all?"
Tim Roxborogh is co-host of Newstalk ZB's 'The Two' (Sundays 8pm-11pm), has his own iHeartRadio station Coast Soul and writes the music and travel blog Roxborogh Report.