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I don’t recall seeing “chow down on deep-fried tarantula” on the tour itinerary, but when our local trip guide reviewed the day’s plan – mouth in a wide grin, eyes dancing at the mention of “eating spiders” – there it was. Given I’m willing to try (almost) anything once, I was game. Besides, I’ve already tried beetle, scorpion, and cricket, so what’s a big ass spider?
During the 6.5 hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we made brief stopovers in several small towns in the Cambodian countryside. Towns served by the same unpaved and uneven two-lane road from which vehicles zooming by kick up mini-dust storms so intense, that sometimes those closest to the edge wear face masks for protection. One of those places is Skuon, more colloquially known as “Spiderville” because of its proliferation of tarantulas.
Eating spiders may seem weird to some, I know, but during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, catching those sizable, eight-legged, hairy insects could mean the difference between starving and starving a little less. Nowadays, deep-fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy and enjoyed as a snack.
Three cute Cambodian children greeted me as I descended the steps of the passenger van once we’d pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor market. The only boy among them – I guessed he was around 9 – said to me: “Sister, you are beautiful.” The oldest girl, standing to his right, shook her head and added, “Your hair is so pretty.”
What is this? Me? My hair? My looks? Who put these kids up to this? People with my dark skin, kinky hair, and African features aren’t exactly held up as paragons of beauty in the US. I wasn’t accustomed to this type of attention.
I didn’t have much time to consider the kids’ comments before they began trying to charm me into buying from them: plastic bags filled with mango or other fruit, colorful origami birds, and various smaller packages of what vendors were selling in the stalls 15-feet away.
K_, our Cambodian guide, strongly discouraged us from buying from the kids – much to my dismay. It’s hard to say no to a sweet child with a gap-toothed smile who’s pleading with you to buy fruit “so that I can go to school.” However, as K_ explained, if they’re able to make an income by hawking goods to tourists, sometimes parents will pull their children out of school so they can work instead. I knew the kids I met were in school because they told me so when I complimented their great English. We’d arrived during the students’ two hour lunch break.
Despite my refusals to part with my cash, the kids trailed me – like an entourage – as I walked toward the market and the many platters stacked high with an array of fried insects and fruit for sale.
K_ handed each of us a crispy tarantula leg to try. We giggled and teased each other through the experience. Once I got over the initial disgust at the idea of what I was eating, the tarantula actually tasted decent – not like chicken, more like beetle. The salt, sugar, and oil flavoring no doubt helped. It did take me a while to chew though. Like the hairs from the leg didn’t want to leave my mouth. Ick.
As we were gearing up to leave, K_ tapped my shoulder, pointed toward an aged woman wearing a deep-pink head scarf and clothed in long, floating layers, and told me: “She said she likes your hair.”
This never happens to me. What is this magical place?
I waved goodbye to my adorable, pint-sized entourage from behind the window as our van eased out of the lot.
From Silkworm to Silk Scarf
Santuk Silk Farm in Kampong Thom marked the second stop on our countryside excursion. Run by a US veteran of the Vietnam War and his Cambodian-Laos partner, the modest farm employs 15 women and one man from the local community. The weavers work hard spinning the silk into beautiful, color-rich scarves. We got the opportunity to learn about the process of turning the byproducts of silkworms into soft threads for weaving – a 6-week cycle – from one of the co-owners.
After getting the lowdown on the world of silk, we sat down to a home-cooked meal for lunch.
The cat family of the farm joined us for the meal, eagerly anticipating fallen morsels and scraps. A small dog resides on the farm, as well. For lunch, he chose to kill one of the clucking chickens. Thankfully, I did not witness this animal act of gallinicide, but a few of my tourmates did.
Sugar Palm Candy
Not too far from the silk farm, we made a pit stop at a roadside sugar palm candy stand. Made from the sap of sugar palm trees, the hardened candy is sweet enough to make your eyes pop. You can also cook with it, boil it into a juice, or melt it into your tea or coffee if a shocking jolt of sugar isn’t your bag.
After making our purchases, we piled back into the van and our driver, Mr. S_, pulled out onto the dirt road. The afternoon had barely settled and already we’d done so much; I couldn’t wait to reach the next stop and adventure.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Would you eat a deep fried tarantula?