In this post, I describe the odd obsession travelers have with Viva, a Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and share some of the best TripAdvisor reviews of its food.
The famed “Khmer-Mexican” fusion restaurant chain. A favorite of the backpackers of Southeast Asia desperate for a the closest they can get to south-of-the-border cuisine. It’s even a go-to for any Westerners craving a slice of exoticism once their tolerance for cheap and repetitive noodles has dried up.
I don’t blame them. I imagine it happens a lot like this: They arrive in the dusty streets of Siem Reap after bumpy, head-jerking 15-hour bus ride though twists and turns. They get off the bus into the stench and vapor of the mid-afternoon heat. They feel the dizziness, a combination of hunger and sickness from the stale air of the bus. Taking an overpriced tuk tuk to Pub Street and paying with USD, they carry their already sweat soaked backpacks past screaming massage parlors, men with their bellies showing and street vendors. Two kids are trying to fish from a puddle on the side of the road. They shiver – it’s going to take a bit to shake sharing a vertical “seat mattress” with a strange man.
Then, they see it. VIVA! Mexican Food? I’m tired, hungry and don’t have patience for much else. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Just this once!
It must be noted that I never went to this restaurant. No, I’m not above the tired backpackers. I’ve been in that very position multiple times. That explains why I’ve paid exorbitant prices (relatively speaking) at places like Red Snapper in Ko Lanta, Thailand, and Sister Srey in Siem Reap, Cambodia. But I shied away because in my experience, a fusion restaurant that seems unlikely in an unlikely place probably is. When Kimberly and I were in Portugal and we ate at an Indian-run Italian-Indian fusion, I stuck to the tikka massala (that’s not to say it can’t be done. Every night at Diamond B&B in Rome we had pasta classics with an Indian flair). All particularities aside, I have another reason to avoid faux-Mexican. I have a sister who is hesitant to pay money for anything that can’t be trusted as excellent. “We have the best Mexican food in San Diego,” she’ll explain. “I’m picky.”
And therefore I didn’t dare step foot into Viva. But somehow this small establishment became the talk of the hostels, a debate among travelers and point of argument between those who knew Mexican food. According to Mike, a Mexican-American from San Diego, it was good. But what ultimately put the breaks on our temptation was the food poisoning it caused several of our fellow backpackers. Germans, Canadians and British alike proved to have ill-trained stomachs for the powerful concoctions found at Viva. After seeing this, I’m glad to have a taco connoisseur of a sister.
This new intriguing obsession with the suffering Viva causes and the determination of travelers find Mexican food inspired me to read its TripAdvisor reviews. In a recent This American Life episode, Ira Glass discusses the human tendency to hide behind the internet and say any number of defamatory remarks without the real-life consequences that uttering these phrases in person might cause. Your average mail delivery guy can end up being a misogynistic troll telling feminists to “go die” and “jump of a cliff” in the comments under an article.
It’s a little far-fetched to compare TripAdvisor reviews with such brash behavior from the people on the internet, but it is worth noting that because there are no consequences to malicious writing, TripAdvisor too has entertaining descriptions. Especially if your food gets the patrons sick. Some of the best reviews were brutally honest.
One titled “I would rather gorge myself on McDonalds mystery meat.” (excellent illustration of your disgust, Robert!) describes the unpleasant setting as well as the derelict food tasting of “cardboard.” Robert writes:
We sat outside on the patio which ended up being a huge mistake due to the heavy population of tropical bugs flinging themselves at you with gusto to fill your hair,plate,and skin with nothing short of a swarm due to the bad taste in bright lights outside, the kind of lights that bugs adore. This is Cambodia though so we got over it until the food arrived.
If the surroundings weren’t unpleasant enough, he was in for a rude awakening. The food wasn’t much of an upgrade from the tropical bugs flying with gusto. He then goes on to explain how much he detested his meal:
The filling of both the burritos and the fajitas was disgusting. It tasted like sweet ratatouille with chicken and steak and covered in taco seasoning…absolutely atrocious. My time in France tells me this is either French owned or using a French recipe. It is the same filth they pass off as Tex-mex in France.
Robert wasn’t the only one who thought the food “atrocious.” Juan from Chicago was utterly appalled in review “Great if you’ve never been to Mexico, aren’t Mexican and have no clue.” He too, was informed that it was a good choice by fellow travelers. Man, he must have wanted to slap them across the face after his disappointment. According to Juan, there is “better Mexican to be had in food courts around the world.” OUCH!
Besides Robert and Juan hating the food, other travelers spoke of even less pleasant experiences. A slew of other reviews described the food poisoning they got as the result of the poorly prepared food. One would think that after so many bad experiences, even in writing, on TripAdvisor, people would begin to second guess spending their money there. Yeah, you can technically get food poisoning anywhere, in any country. But so many instances? Something doesn’t add up. It is important to note that like the hypothetical backpackers described at the beginning of this post, many are too tired and hungry to consult TripAdvisor before being lured in by the tantalizing thought of fresh avocado and hints of lime.
A review titled “Nice food but made me very sick!” explained that she saw the crowds and thought it must be a great restaurant. Later, she probably wanted to join a support group with all the other victims:
I had a veggie ‘pizza’ with a taco base and enjoyed every bite. Unfortunately I spent the next 24 hours staggering between the toilet and the bed, with violent diarrhoea and vomiting.
Another review “Stay clear” wrote:
Six of us got sick that night and the next day, no wonder after seeing the condition of the toilets they were disgraceful , would hate to see the kitchen.
So, what keeps people coming? If the food is dismal, the conditions unpleasant, and the result coming out of both ends, why are they still in business? With over 360 people giving Viva an “very good” rating on TripAdvisor, they seem to have pulled a fast one on some vulnerable travelers.
Maybe I’ll have to ignore the wishes of my Mexican food-loving sister, go back to Siem Reap and try it out myself.
Have you been to Viva? What did you think?
Featured photo: A California girl desperately searches for that burrito she’ll never have. Taken in Phnom Penh.