Entry 27b - Cambodia: eating tarantulas with the spiderwomen of Skuon.

spiders: the video

I was eating my first spider outside Phnom Pen market when I heard a highly agitated voice behind me: 'Oh my Gaahd, what are yoouu eating?' Turning round, I saw a reassuringly stereotypical American tourist - all big hair and outsized leisurewear - staring at me with that Springeresque mixture of revulsion and fascination. 'Oh my Gaaad,' she reiterated, 'what are you putting in your mouth?'

Trying to sound casual I replied: 'Spider - do you want a leg?' She stood there for two or three seconds, mouth flapping, fishlike, before grabbing her husband who was busily working a flashy video camera: 'Dan! Dan! The boy is eating a spider!' Working on a variant of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (viz: nothing truly exists until you video it) Dan swung his costly optics to face me and I obligingly crunched off a couple of furry legs. She continued to goggle, before finally asking, 'Where are you from?'

'England' I replied. 'Oh my Gahhd' came the (by now expected) rejoinder, 'that's so interesting.' Then, once Dan had captured the moment for posterity, they left, still a little stunned, and doubtless convinced that the English like nothing better than a couple of spiders with their Sunday roast.

bugging out

Actually even for someone who will stuff anything within the bounds of edibility and decency into his mouth and is well inured to the rigours of extreme cuisine, a spider is a daunting prospect. By way of a warm up, I had been scarfing the stall's various other delicacies which, in terms of palatability, ranged from the moderately agreeable such as deep fried crickets to some sort of grub with a pale green, creamy interior which tasted like bug flavoured plastercine.

But like most edible insects these were small, crunchy and eaten by the handful. With a little imagination crickets or beetles become a sort of entomological bar snack and even scorpions are easier than you might think. The spiders were of a different order though. For these weren't your average garden webspinners - rather they were tarantulas, black and furry, their legs fully five inches across - and it would have required a phantasmagoric suspension of disbelief to see them as anything other than what they were.

For this reason, my first bite of spider was always going to be something of an anticlimax - the packaging, after all, leads you to believe that you're going to savour the authentic flavour of free-range spookiness. The legs I nibbled on in front of my aghast audience didn't taste of much; they were OK for something that looked like a Hallowe'en prop. I would have gone further but while I was queasily sizing up the thorax and abdomen my girlfriend reappeared and announced that we had places to be and attractions to see. So I binned the difficult bits, but my epicuriosity was piqued.

Later that day, having toured my fill of temples and palaces (including one remarkable edifice with a solid silver parquet floor) I returned and asked the spider seller about her trade. She spoke no English but a nearby taxi-bike driver did and through him, she explained that she was a mere metropolitan outpost of extreme cuisine: if I was serious about my spiders - or a-ping as they're known locally - I needed to head up to the town of Skuon, some 90km north of Phnom Pen.

route 6

The following day, a little bleary from an evening at one of Phnom Pen's Apocalypse Now themed nightclubs, I bade goodbye to my girlfriend and caught a motorbike taxi down to the bus station. My driver, the same man who'd translated for me yesterday asked me where I was going. I replied that I was heading up to Skuon. Why, he asked, 'Skuon is a very small place,' then he smiled, laughing: 'a-ping?'
'A-ping,' I replied, nodding vigorously..
'You like a-ping.'
'Yes' I replied, 'Very good. Very tasty.'
He laughed again: 'You want me to drive you to Skuon?'
'How much?' I asked.
'Ten dollars.' An incredibly reasonable opening price, though one that was perhaps less surprising in a country which is among the world's poorest. I found myself dithering: I liked my driver and, out in the boondocks, his limited English would be useful; moreover, a 90km ride on the back of a moped would have made a good story. But, a good story is not a good story if you are too dead to tell it. And a sudden image of myself, learning to break-dance at 70 km/h, with the nearest half decent hospital 500 km away was enough to convince me that a bus would be preferable to having my bones ground to jelly on a Cambodian road. The driver looked downcast so, I paid over the odds to salve my conscience; I soon knew I had made the right decision.

Bouncing up 'National Highway 6' on surprisingly pukka bus, I quickly realised what a deceptive place Phnom Pen is. The capital is vibrant, has decent bars and restaurants, and is awash with aid money and big spending NGO workers. Everywhere else in Cambodia (the fabulous temples of Angkor excepted) is dirt poor. The level of ambient wealth starts to dip sharply in the suburbs and once you're about 10km out of town, it has pretty much hit a bottom from which it never rises. Flat, shimmering rice fields, people ploughing the mud with buffalo and plenty of sticky heat. Such is the dull reality of much of the third world.

I was afforded a little diversion by the road itself. The name 'National Highway 6' conjures up a sinuous ribbon of concrete, six lanes wide snaking its way across the landscape. No. Here is it is a blacktop road. Here it's a dirt track. Here it's a three-foot deep puddle. But there was construction work going on, which, hearteningly, would suggest that not all of overseas aid which underpins the Cambodian economy is going into the pockets of those who need it the least.

As there is no compelling reason to head north in Cambodia - and few people will endure a five hour round trip to eat something ipso facto revolting - I was the only westerner on the bus. The woman next to me was a teacher, with a few words of English. To pass the time, we chatted away and, presently, she asked me what I did. I replied that I was a journalist. She laughed and told me that ten years ago we would both have been shot.

As the crookedness of the road made distance impossible to gauge, I soon became worried that I'd overshot my destination; after all, in the UK, 90km takes about an hour. Every now and then, I'd walk down to the front and - like a five year old - ask the driver if we were there yet. He would smile and shake his head, gesticulating (I think) that he would tell me when I arrived. I don't know why I was so worried - despite their horrific history Cambodians are some of the friendliest, most helpful people in South East Asia.

Time passed and I saw a roadside stand covered with spiders. 'A-ping' I said to the boy who had by now replaced the teacher. 'A-ping' he replied. A conversation of sorts started where he said things to me and I tried to look interested and make the right sounds and smile at appropriate moments. For all I know, he could have been telling me that he was going to a family funeral. Then the man behind me tapped my shoulder. 'Skuon - fifty kilometres' he said very slowly. As I'd thought we were about five minutes away I decided to stop fretting about time. In places like this, trying to work to anything approaching a European schedule is a sure way to madness.

spider central

Another hour and a half and the driver ceremoniously dropped me off in a dusty little place whose muddy central square serves mainly as a rest stop for long distance buses and trucks. Three sides of the quad were low buildings, the fourth the road. I'm not sure what I'd been expecting - a giant concrete spider perhaps - and feeling rather let down, I went for a walk round the square. Squelching through the chocolatey red tropical mud, I wandered round a ramshackle market, which sold vegetables, fruit, some meat you wouldn't want to eat and truck parts. Every stall I visited, I asked hopefully, 'A-ping?' and was greeted with a blank look. Perhaps, I thought, in the home of A-ping, it is known as something else.

Deflated I went and sat down in the only real restaurant in town and ordered a coffee. My request for a-ping on the side bought more impassivity. I cursed myself for not having hired the motorcycle driver. Then, just as my day couldn't get much worse, I heard a sound I hardly recognised anymore. It was the noise made by a well-serviced engine that is less than 20 years old. I looked out into the square and, a smart NGO LandCruiser appeared in a cloud of red dust; it stopped and half a dozen people, got out. I was greatly pleased, no, delighted, by this development as it meant that there would be someone around who could speak both Khmer and English.

When the group walked into the restaurant, I was a little nervous about crashing their party, but desperation gave me confidence and they turned out to be a pleasant bunch who worked for Christian Aid. I'd always been a bit circumspect about this particular organisation, but no longer - for not only did they buy me lunch, but I also learned from a Brit called Chris that they are not the scary, proselytising lot I'd always taken them for. Having met a couple of rather bovine missionaries a month earlier, it came as a relief to discover that CA is about A, not C and wants to help people, rather than help them find God.

day of the spiderwomen

Over food - a series of soup based dishes with ne'ery a spider in sight - I chatted away to a local NGO manager called Kong who told me about some of the projects they were working on, asked me about my trip, and to my great relief, said that, yes, the spiders would be along shortly. Kong was a prescient man. Five minutes after he'd spoken these words, very slowly, the spiderwomen began to appear. From a distance, they looked as if they were carrying large plates piled high with fried seaweed or squid ink pasta. Close up, however, there was no mistaking it: these platters were groaning with crispy tarantulas.

It is a curious aspect of Cambodian restaurant culture that in all but the swankiest places, it's perfectly normal for hawkers to come into a restaurant and sell you all manner of things - other food included. Even more curious, perhaps, is that the restaurant owners don't seem to mind. A woman came over to our table and Kong bought a couple of tarantulas which she bagged up with the attentive care of someone wrapping delicate flowers. Offering me an arachnid and picking off several legs for himself, Kong explained that he always stopped when he was passing through Skuon, 'to buy a couple of spiders for my children. They love eating them. And so do I.'

Over a spider, he told me how the people of Skuon had long used the local tarantulas in traditional medicine; they were thought to be good for the heart, throat and lungs. The practice of using them as a foodstuff started in the years of terror under the Khmer rouge. Across Cambodia starvation was rife and people ate anything they could get their hands on, including insects. When Pol Pot's murderous regime came to an end, most Cambodians were happy to stop eating bugs, but the Skuonese decided that they'd developed rather a taste for the local tarantulas.

web business & spidey cents

Since then Skuon's fame as a centre for extreme cuisine has spread - and the town's position on one of Cambodia's main highways means that web business is booming. Kong introduced me to Cham, one of the spider women who, shyly, explained: 'At first it was just locals but now people from Phnom Pen come just for the spiders. We even get a few Europeans - usually they think it's disgusting but then they try one and find they're delicious.' Spider vendors, she added, typically sell '100 to 200 spiders a day for 300 riels and we buy them for 150 riels.' So a seller makes between 15,000 and 30,000 riels a day - or £2.50 to £5 a day.

And spidey cents are made not just by the women that sell them but also the men who dig them up. A few minutes later I met to Mr Raveun, a spider hunter. He told me that there were two ways to get a spider out of its burrow: 'Usually we just dig them out, but it is also possible to push a stick down the hole and wait until the spider attacks. Then you pull it out.' A good hunter, he continued, can catch several hundred spiders a day, meaning that, like the spiderwomen, spidermen can make up to a fiver a day.

While this may not sound like much, Cambodia's tragic past and continuing political unrest has impoverished the nation to the point where the average daily income is about 50p. Thus, in a pleasing piece of arachnological wordplay, these furry invertebrates form the backbone of the local economy. Or at least the fast food sector.

separating the spidermen from the boys

So what does spider completo taste like? Well, as they're deep fried with garlic chips, you might expect them to be crispy on the outside and gooey in the middle and that's not a bad start. The legs are pleasantly crunchy and have little flesh in them. Then you get to the head and body: these have a delicate white meat, rather like a cross between chicken and cod, although the anatomy is, unsurprisingly, closer to that of a crab. Once you've got over your reservations, picking off the legs, then crunching up the head and thorax is a doddle; these parts even become rather more-ish. Though you do tend to get little spider fur balls in your throat after a few.

But then there's the spider's large, globular abdomen. This is the only really disturbing part: it's full of a dark brown paste that includes everything from eggs to the heart to spider poo. One man enthusiastically claimed it was a delicacy and was popping spider rumps into his mouth like grapes. But even some of the locals blanched at this display of arachno-machismo. And, after one tentative taste of what may or may not be the foie gras of the spider world, I knew that eating tarantula rump is what separates the spidermen from the boys.

Having decided which camp I was in, I took a few photos of the spiderwomen - who now numbered about a dozen - and were given to fits of giggles in front of the camera. Naturally I gave a small consideration for their photos and, clearly I was being generous as I was presented with…at least a dozen hot 'n' crispy spiders. I managed about half this number before I decided that enough was enough. One woman even bought out a bag of uncooked spiders and I let a couple scamper across my hand, though, after a couple of minutes, I decided that such foolery smacked of playing with your food.

trucked out

Returning to the restaurant I asked Kong and co the best way back - would there be a bus? He said he doubted it - he'd take me himself, except they were heading West. But I could almost certainly hitch back on a truck. This was not a prospect I particularly relished, but I supposed it was a sort of karmic payback for being such a wimp about the motorbike earlier. So I mooched around the square for a while - once you've seen the spiders, you've seen Skuon and wandering off for walks is not advisable in Cambodia - and eventually a vintage truck grumbled into the square. For a couple of dollars, I could get back to town.

This was a frankly terrifying journey. The back of the truck was piled high with sacks of rice and had no suspension to speak of. My fellow passengers, four local men who were clearly used to this, sat happily on sacks of rice, their bodies bouncing rhythmically with the ruts. Those who weren't - i.e. me - lay spread-eagled face down on a rice sack, occasionally glancing at the wildly oscillating speedo through the back window of the cab and hanging on desperately with all four limbs. I would have liked to admire the landscape and shoot the breeze, but I spent two hours trying not to fly out of the truck while all those around me, treated this terrifying ride as the everyday experience it was. All in all a curious mixture of abject terror and boredom.

Yanks again

Exhausted, I got back to my guesthouse at about 9pm and walked in through covered deck areas where my fellow travellers were, as usual, lounging in hammocks watching pirate DVDs, smoking weed and ordering dopey comfort food. The guy nearest the entrance asked me where I'd been all day: I replied that I'd been out eating spiders. 'Oh, yeah,' he drawled without any real interest, 'some guy said there was a place you could do that.' I smiled acknowledgement and left him to his DVD; for these people Phnom Pen could be anywhere, well anywhere cheap and hot where marijuana is quasi-legal. You don't want to do anything too interesting or outré around most travellers. They don't like it and view you with understandable suspicion.

Early the next morning I again took my taxi-bike (the driver was beginning to feel like an old friend) down to the river to get the boat to Siem Riep for Angkor Wat. While I was hanging waiting for the powerful launch to dock, to no particular surprise, I bumped into the American woman who was having coffee.
'Hello again,' I said to said to her, 'are you going to Siem Riep too.'
'Uh-huh,' she said before calling out to her husband, ' Dan, it's the boy who ate the spider.' While I fought the urge to tell her it was 'to catch the fly…' Dan ambled amiably over, video camera holstered but primed and told me about the various temples they'd spent yesterday visiting, before asking me what I'd been up to. I told him that I'd been to see the spider-eating capital of the world.
'So, did you…eat any more?' she asked hesitantly.
'Oh yes,' I replied, 'about half a dozen.'
'Oh my Gaahhd.'

August , 2002