by Suy Se
While a plate piled high with hairy, palm-sized tarantulas is the stuff of nightmares for some, these garlic fried spiders are a coveted treat in Cambodia, where the only fear is that they may soon vanish due to deforestation and unchecked hunting.
Taking a bite out of the plump arachnids has become a popular photo-op for squealing tourists who pass through Skun, the central Cambodian town nicknamed “Spiderville” for its massive market of creepy crawlers.
But the bulk of the clientele are locals who are there to load up on a traditional snack known as aping that vendors say is becoming scarce – and more expensive – as rapid development wipes out jungle habitats.
“Aping are famous in Cambodia but now they are not abundant, they have become rare,” Chea Voeun, a tarantula vendor, said from her stall where she sells other fried insects including crickets and scorpions.
Voeun, who has been selling the delicacy for 20 years, used to source the spiders from nearby forests, where hunters dug them out of burrows dotting the jungle floor.
But those trees have since been razed for cashew nut plantations, forcing Voeun and other vendors to rely on middlemen to procure the spiders, which are harvested from faraway forested provinces.
That has jacked up the price of the tarantulas to $1 a piece, a nearly tenfold spike over the past decade.
For now the price surge is helping line the pockets of vendors who can unload several hundred spiders a day, but they fear that stocks are running low and will kill their businesses in the long term.
“When the big forests disappear, these spiders will no longer exist,” said seller Lou Srey Sros, as tourists snapped pictures of children playing with the eight-legged creatures.
Locals say the spiders, whose taste has been compared to crab, are best prepared simply: dipped in salt and garlic and then tossed into a pan of sizzling oil.
Tarantulas have been part of the Cambodian diet for generations, prized for their purported medicinal qualities.