24th January 2020
The second time we came to Cambodia we flew in... no sadness in missing the 12 hour pickup truck ride we’d endured on our first visit. As we came in low over the landscape, we watched sunlight glint off the flooded rice paddies while water buffalo rested in the shade.
On exiting the plane, the air was so heavy you felt like you could taste it – a soup of humidity, jungle and heat.
We had lunch that first day with our original moto driver, a 20-something kid like us, who, with his excellent English and college diploma, had convinced us that this country – so fresh out of civil war but bursting with ambition – was where we could make a living, have an adventure, make a difference...
By the end of lunch he was hired as our business manager! (Business concept to be decided at a later date.)
That afternoon it poured. We stepped onto the $5 a night guest house balcony and watched the rain stream down like giants were dumping buckets over the land, a deluge rather than drops.
As the sky cleared and the sun came out we enjoyed the new freshness and walked down the dirt road towards town. Back then Siem Reap only had one paved road, and we weren’t staying on it. We approached a large pothole, now full of recent rainwater, and saw fish swimming in the puddle. The water hadn’t been there earlier and clearly neither had the fish. We looked up to the sky and back down to the tiny guppies enjoying their new home. We were in a land where it rained fish!
It suddenly seemed like anything was possible.
My mom describes our next two weeks best… First she remembers getting an email announcing our arrival and informing her we were headed out to look at homes to rent. A day later she gets an email explaining we’d seen three homes: one was too basic with an outdoor kitchen, one was too hard to get to, and one was beautiful but too big.
Two days later my next email arrives letting her know we’d rented the house that was too big and we were turning it into a Bed & Breakfast. She remembers turning to my dad and asking, “What do those kids know about running a B&B?”
It was a good question with a dubious answer. But over the next three months we figured it out. We found staff and developed a team; we planted a lawn and leaned the Khmer word for roses. We planted a vegetable garden and learned to negotiate. We bought a motorbike and explored every temple, every path, the jungle, the beach… and we realized the amazing country we were living in.
We found a woman who sold fabric, a seamstress to turn that fabric into pillowcases, and a man that made furniture. We worked out the electricity (kinda) and the plumbing (kinda), and we made friends with Cambodians and felt part of a community.
We held our grand opening in January and we got written up in the LA Times and Condé Nast Traveler. People nervous about visiting Cambodia felt safer knowing an American couple was living there, and the draw of a country now out of civil war and boasting the world’s largest religious monument pulled them in. We served them drinks and dinner and arranged wonderful guides and adventures and introduced them to the community.
Our little B&B was full that first year. When any one guest showered, all the lights dimmed. We cooked on a tiny stove in the back and served guests on our balcony under the stars. We learned about hospitality and touring, and slowly our business took shape.
Over the next decade I opened offices in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Each one offered new challenges, new cultural revelations, new adventures. I had two babies and watched them grow up with our teams’ kids, solidifying our staff as family.
After a decade, our little B&B boasted 10 bungalows and a family suite. We had a pool, a restaurant and had remained number one on TripAdvisor for 10 years. Our tour company spread over five countries offering unique experiences and personal care.
When it rained our kids would pull off all their clothes and run out into the rain. “Be careful,” I’d tell them, “the fish might land on your head!”
Andrea Ross is the founder of Journeys Within Tour Company, which was acquired by Wild Frontiers in 2018. She now serves as the Director for Wild Frontiers USA, overseeing all U.S. operations while still planning custom itineraries throughout the Southeast Asia countries she originally fell in love with.