Truckee-based Southeast Asia-travel company serves up a side of philanthropy
January 14, 2015
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Andrea Ross had no idea what to expect when she crossed the border of Thailand into Cambodia more than 13 years ago.
"Throughout our travels, we kept hearing about Cambodia, so when we had two extra weeks at the end of our trip, we bought a bus ticket to from Bangkok to Siem Reap, and just went for it," Ross said of the six-month adventure in Southeast Asia with her then-boyfriend/now ex-husband Brandon.
The $20 "VIP" bus ride provided transportation to the Cambodian border where passengers were instructed to cross by foot, then re-board the bus on the other side.
Or so the bus company had advertised.
“Truckee has that small village mentality similar to what I had in Cambodia, and I feel very lucky to have found that in this world because not everywhere is like that.”
Journeys Within Tour Company | Journeys Within Our Communities
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"After six months of travel, I was somehow still naïve at that point, and after crossing the border, these two pickup trucks pulled up and I just assumed they were picking up the luggage, so we threw our backpacks in," said Ross. "They didn't speak any English, and of course we didn't speak Khmer, so when they motioned for us to get in the back, we did."
Twelve hours later, Andrea and Brandon were still in the pickup, bouncing along a dirt road that, in a few stretches, had been washed out by recent monsoons, forcing the driver to detour in and out of rice paddies.
"We were literally breaking every rule we had been given, like don't drive at night and don't drive off the road," said Andrea, twirling a string of Pad Thai noodles around a fork at Siam Cuisine in Truckee.
Exhausted and muddy from pushing the truck out of a few potholes, they arrived at a guesthouse in Siem Reap around two in the morning.
"I looked at Brandon and said, 'there's no place on earth that is worth what we just went through" Ross recalled.
'SO MUCH POTENTIAL'
It wasn't until the next morning that Ross began to see things clearly.
Not only did Ross find Siem Reap brimming in ancient history, religion and culture, she also found a hamlet of welcoming and gracious people who had overcome insurmountable struggles, like the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians were killed by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime.
Six months after that trip, Andrea and Brandon left the United States again, this time moving to Siem Reap, otherwise known as the gateway to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.
"We wanted to have an adventure, and we felt like Cambodia had so much potential," Ross said.
The couple wed in Thailand, then returned to Cambodia's northwestern province in 2004 to launch a boutique hotel and travel guide company, both aptly dubbed Journeys Within.
But as the newlyweds settled into their new surroundings, they quickly recognized some jarring holes in Cambodia's infrastructure, like the lack of clean water, inadequate education and overwhelming amounts of poverty.
This inspired them to create the nonprofit Journeys Within Our Community. Since its inception in 2005, it's provided clean water to over 20,000 people, has funded educational opportunities for over 200 university students, and has helped hundreds of business owners launch their endeavors.
"Everyone wants a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience, and everybody can see Angkor Wat and have an amazing time, but not everyone can leave the temple and go visit the woman they gave $200 to so her kids could go to school and she could open her donut business that is now flourishing," she said.
A MOVE TO TRUCKEE
Meanwhile, the couple and their company continued to grow into one hotel, two kids, and over 10 office locations in five different Southeast Asian countries.
Ross knew it was time to build a home base in the United States, both for her business and family, and in 2007, she hired a full-time director of operations to oversee her first state-side office in Sacramento.
"It sounds silly, but I didn't even have my passport at the time, and I remember looking at a map to see where exactly Cambodia was before I went in for my interview with Andrea," said April Cole, who was hired on the spot for the role.
Two years later, when Ross called it quits with her marriage, and thus left Cambodia, she approached Cole with the idea of relocating the business — and Cole's family — to Truckee, where Ross's parents had recently retired.
"Truckee has that small village mentality similar to what I had in Cambodia, and I feel very lucky to have found that in this world because not everywhere is like that," Ross said.
This year, Journeys Within will celebrate its 10-year anniversary by donating $10,000 to JWOC so it can continue to help those in need overseas.
"It's an amazing experience when you're able to travel somewhere and can see how your donation — big or small — has altered the course of someone's life," Ross said.
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.