Cruising around Siem Reap on the back of a Vespa is the perfect way to discover Cambodian cuisine. Marissa Carruthers jumps on the back of a bike to find out more. Photography by Rudi Towiro.
A rattan basket full of plump yellow insects is thrust in front of me. I try to hold back the grimace forming on my face. “It’s a shame, there are normally tarantulas here,” Cambodia Vespa Adventures co-founder Ly Akim says, glancing at rows of tables filled with deep fried crickets, bulging water beetles and grasshoppers.
I secretly breathe a sigh of relief as I recall the time I was cajoled into munching on a spider’s legs during a brief stop-off in Skuon, the notorious tarantula town. Since then, I’ve managed to avoid any creepy crawlies passing my lips.
However, I fear that’s a claim that’s about to change because the stallholder at this stop-off on our After Dark Foodie tour of Siem Reap with Cambodia Vespa Adventures doesn’t look like she’s about to take no for an answer.
I discreetly hunt out the smallest cocoon and toss it into my mouth. Surprisingly it’s not that bad, especially when washed down with some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice from a neighbouring stall, with the crunchy shell containing a gritty, woody paste.
The road lined with a colourful collection of food vendors on the outskirts of the city marks the half-way point. There isn’t another foreigner in sight and the street is alive with crowds of Cambodians clamouring to get their hands on the ripest fruit, plumpest prawns and juiciest pieces of chicken.
“Help yourself to whatever you want,” Ly calls out as we pass tables spilling over with pungent-smelling durian, scaly snake fruit and shells containing steamed egg with salt, pepper and sugar.
In July, Ly and her Dutch expat husband Chris Wijnberg launched Cambodia Vespa Adventures as a sister company to Vietnam Vespa Adventures.
Business has been booming since the latter was started in 2007 by friends in Ho Chi Minh City, where the couple lived before relocating to Ly’s hometown of Siem Reap last year.
“It was always my dream to own a business in Siem Reap that allows me to show visitors the places I grew up; the place I call home,” Ly says. And she has come a long way since her humble beginnings.
Born into the Khmer Rouge era, Ly grew up in the shadows of Angkor Wat, with generations of her predecessors operating as chief monks at the temple complex. Living in war-shattered Cambodia meant there was no access to education but Ly’s grandfather and grand abbot of Angkor, Loung Sake, was determined not to let this stop his granddaughter from learning.
At the age of five, Ly shaved her head and was told to behave like a boy so she could study and live at the pagoda, where no girls are allowed, with her grandfather. At 11, she left to attend school, and by the age of 14 had opened her first restaurant, near Angkor Wat. It is now owned and run by Artisans d’Angkor.
“I was determined I wanted to do something for myself,” she says. “Looking back it was a hard life but it made me who I am today.”
In 2000, Ly met Wijnberg and the couple moved to Vietnam for his work. They married and had two children before returning to Cambodia in July 2013 to kick-start plans for their business venture.
They snapped up a 10-strong fleet of shiny new models of the classic Italian scooter that rose to fame during the 1950s, thanks to the likes of Hollywood icons such as Audrey Hepburn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Dean Martin. They then set about training guides, who double up as drivers, and mapping out routes.
“We want to show people real Cambodian cuisine in a unique way,” Ly says. And that they do from the moment guests are collected from their hotel and taken via Vespa to the sumptuous surroundings of Asana for meeting cocktails and local snacks.
The next 4.5 hours are stuffed full of foodie delights, from eating frog on the side of the road and lashings of red ant salad, glass noodles and seafood and chicken with garlic and shallots at a beer garden on the Cambodian Pub Street, to the array of flavours in swanky distillery Sombai’s local rice wine, infused with ingredients such as ginger and red chilli, pineapple and coconut and banana and cinnamon.
“Vespas have the cool factor,” Ly says as we sit down to tuck into barbecued chicken and stuffed, spicy frogs’ legs cooked over a homemade barbecue. “They’re stylish and very stable, safe and have low carbon emissions.”
Add into the equation that it’s heaps of fun and it’s little wonder the tours have been a hit. The company is on track to double operations by mid-2015, with plans to double up again to 40 bikes by the end of next year so it looks like very soon the city could be awash with Vespas.
For information on Cambodia Vespa Adventures, visit cambodiavespaadventures.com