Editor Marissa Carruthers plays tourist for the evening and joins Vespa Adventures Phnom Penh for a trip around the capital.
“Please come to the table. Some snakes are waiting,” called Monorith, our tour guide for the evening. I gulp. Snake? I’d heard there may be a few unusual treats in store during the journey ahead but surely not this early on, and not at the FCC?
I crept towards our table with trepidation, wondering how to wriggle my way out of sampling our first “treat” of the tour, only to find a plate of cheesy garlic bread on the table. “Please enjoy your snacks while I tell you more about our tour,” added Monorith. A wave of relief washed over me. “Phew, he said snacks not snakes,” I whispered to my mum, the horror wiped from my face.
It was my mum’s third visit to Cambodia and, having already traipsed around all of the tourist attractions and more, I was struggling to find something a little different to do in the capital. Then I remembered her fondly talking about her beloved first scooter – a Vespa she rebelliously bought in 1965, two months before the legal driving age. It seemed obvious. I signed us straight up for Vespa Adventures Phnom Penh’s evening outing.
Our meeting point was FCC on the riverside, where we were greeted by Monorith and the rest of our group. He gave us our brief for the night while we enjoyed a cocktail and snacks that weren’t snakes, overlooking the Tonle Sap River. We were each to be assigned a driver and Vespa to tootle along Phnom Penh’s streets, stopping off at a range of food- and drink-related venues, as well as iconic attractions, along the way.
Despite spending a lot of my time on the back of a moto, there was a sense of exhilaration as our convoy of shiny white modern Vespas sparked frantic waves from people we passed as we made our way to Phsar Chas, or Old Market. Strolling through the compact local market, Monorith pointed out flapping fish, squirming eels, stacks of indigenous fruit and veg, giant snails and baskets full of red ants – little known to me at this stage, this ingredient was to become a close acquaintance later on in the night.
Our next destination was a nearby streetside seafood eatery – a spot I would usually pass without taking a second look. As we sat down on the miniature plastic chairs that dotted the stretch of pavement, a tray of fresh oysters with a range of condiments and sauces was brought to our table. Monorith explained each of the ingredients and how to eat the oysters Khmer style; something he continued to do with each of the many dishes that followed.
Just as we were about to set off, the rain started. But we weren’t about to let a pesky evening downpour dampen our spirits, with our drivers whipping out heavy duty rain jackets to keep us dry – branded brollies were recently delivered to keep the sun at bay for Vespa Adventure day trippers.
A quick stop at Wat Phnom followed, before we arrived at Raffles Le Royal to sample the signature cocktail created for former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy for her 1967 visit. Next up was a Khmer beer garden, which was particularly lively because of the musicians rocking the small stage. Beers were delivered – and then came the food, coupled with a mischievous grin from Monorith.
“Please enjoy,” he said, quickly naming each of the dishes, the music almost drowning out his mention of red ants and beef. Saving what actually turned out to be the best for last, I chomped on crispy grilled frogs, fried fish and local vegetables before braving the dreaded insect-riddled dish. Surprisingly, the crunch of the deep-fried ants complimented the thin slices of tender beef, with me wolfing down what the rest of the group declined.
After a couple more sightseeing stops, we landed at our final destination, Bassac Lane, to round off what had been an enjoyable evening of being a tourist in the city I call home.
“Our slogan is see the culture, taste the flavours and meet the people,” says general manager Craig Bowman. “This is what we are all about, providing a local experience and mixing off-the-beaten-track gems with more well-known ones.”
This has been the key to Vespa Adventures Phnom Penh’s success since it launched in April 2016.
Recruiting Cambodian tour guides and drivers, who are well-equipped with local knowledge to share their stories and snippets of information about the city, is a factor that shines throughout the tour, as is the itinerary.
“We could choose a classy restaurant to eat Khmer food in, or a touristy market, but that’s not the experience we want to offer,” says Bowman, adding popular Russian and Central markets are replaced with Phsar Chas for the evening tour.
Orussey Market is a stop on the day trip [8am and 12.30pm], which takes in Boeung Kak’s graffiti and infamous history, wats, abandoned buildings and colonial Phnom Penh. “We also want to offer variety and a taste of Phnom Penh, which is why we include places like Raffles and Bassac Lane,” adds Bowman.
With tailor-made private tours also on the menu, helmets for kids and Vespa outings offered in Siem Reap, as well as Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, jumping on the back of a bike and exploring a city has never been more fun.
For more information, visit: vespaadventures.com.