I looked at the water beetle in my hand with a look of dismay - was I really going to eat this? Standing in front of the food stall, with the bug in hand, I looked at the other delicacies our guide was waiting to tempt us with, including tiny fried crispy frogs, spiced crickets and ant soup. The stall owner was looking at me with a cheeky smile on her face, waiting to see what the tourist was going to do. The beetle, unfortunately, looked like a cockroach, one of my most hated insects, but I was out to prove to this lady that I was here, in her country, to do as the locals do.
In it went, the whole thing, the initial taste wasn't too bad, and neither was the crunch sensation as I chomped down on it. What really got me was the soft oozy texture of the inside as it came rushing out. 'Just swallow' I thought, as I gulped down my bottled water in the hope it would move the little fella faster.
Touring Cambodia was never on my bucket list, but it was a dream of my partner to travel here and explore the ancient wonder of Angkor Wat. Cambodia is a country that has gone through a lot of upheaval with thousands being taken by the Khmer Rouge regime. It wasn't that long ago that Pol Pot killed his own people - men, women and children indiscriminately and nearly wiped out all Cambodian history, both artefacts and tradition. It was incredible to think that the people I chatted to and toured with survived this horrible part of their history.
One of the enlightening things I love about this country is the peoples' determination to rebuild. Their friendly positive demeanour is very refreshing - they are more than happy to offer help where needed and always have a smile on their face. So I was more than happy to choose Cambodia Vespa Adventures, a company run by locals who offered the chance to try exotic Khmer cuisine and experience street dining scene, all on the back of a Vespa.
We were picked up at our hotel by orange clothed drivers on their Vespas. I was really excited to start our adventure. Now just a word of warning, the roads of Cambodia aren't the best and traffic rules have a lot to be desired, so I wouldn't be doing this without a local taking charge! Off we went, it was so refreshing to feel the cool wind blow as we zoomed to our first destination, Pub Street.
I have to admit, when I was told where we were meeting, I was a bit worried. Pub Street is very touristy, they even have kebab stalls and Mexican restaurants there - it was not what I was keen to try on a Cambodian food tour. Our drivers pulled up and pointed to this little alleyway, "go down there, that is the meeting place". If I wasn't told where to go, I would not have noticed this little hole in the wall. It was an open-air restaurant/bar with 4 people hammocks, lounge chairs, with a cool comfortable feel about it. The owner came over to us and knowing we were part of the tour group and told us to take a seat and relax while we wait for our guide and a few other guests. Cocktails were ordered and a round of spring rolls were served. Okay, a good start.
The rest of the group started arriving and included a couple from the US, another couple from England and a lone traveller from Canada who was keen to let me know she'd done a similar tour in Vietnam, so couldn't wait to do this. Then, May, our guide and also the owner of Vespa Adventures arrived. She is a slim woman, dressed in black with long jet black hair with a sassy attitude and a dry sense of humour. I liked her straight away. "So who has tried any of the bugs they sell here on Pub Street? If you haven't don't! You don't know how long they have been sitting there and they aren't fresh, take a photo and pretend but don't be the crazy person that gets sick from eating them!"
Okay, so why are we talking about bugs? May also said that's why she's so slim - bugs taste great, are all protein with absolutely no fat. As I looked at my fellow travellers, I could tell this is not what they expected either. "We might have the chance to also try some tarantulas but that's only if they caught some this morning, so there are no guarantees. Is everyone excited?"
First on our agenda for the night was to head to the night street stalls where all the locals head. Here you can taste the different street foods on offer, including fruits, BBQ meats and yes, bugs. It is a staple food here in Cambodia and maybe should be embraced by Western culture too, due to the health benefits as well as being an eco-friendly food source. This could be why I don't see any obese Cambodians.
The markets were alive with people, stalls all the way down for kilometres. The smells and energy were exciting and it definitely wasn't a top tourist spot as there were only a few other small groups that I could see. May lead the way, making sure we kept our eyes open for other Vespas and cars. It might have been a market but it was right on the street!
We tried fruit the way the locals enjoyed it - mango with a little salt and chilli. It was delicious. The salt brought out the sweetness of the mango and the chilli added another dimension and left a little tingle in your mouth. We walked down and tried another favourite, freshly BBQ'd local corn, which has a different texture to western corn. The kernels are much larger and not as yellow. When you bite into it, you don't get the pop of sweet corn, but more of a sticky, soft texture that tastes delicious with the coconut cream and salt they brush on while barbecuing.
Here we were at the last stall with an array of sautéed bugs. The crispy tiny frogs were tasty - they tasted like the best bit of fried chicken wings. The crickets were marinated in a soy and chilli marinade and were delicious. Thankfully, there were no tarantulas "sorry guys, they weren't able to catch any today." "How unfortunate" I thought sarcastically. Who knew bugs could taste so great.
What a fantastic night. I enjoyed the adventure of riding on the back of a Vespa through the streets of Siem Reap, feeling the cool wind blow the humidity of the night from me. May, with her wealth of knowledge, promoting the local industry and letting us know of the work she does to get the women of Cambodia out of poverty, and of course, the feeling of being one of the locals, eating what they eat as we sat on a mat on the side of the street, were priceless moments only travel can offer.