Hunting spiders in Cambodia

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is the story to accompany the set of photos that can be licensed through Gettyimages.com.

It details how a new trend amongst adventurous backpackers is emerging, where tourists are finding local guides willing to take them to the places where the local 'a-ping' or tarantulas are hunted from the ground, before being eaten as a local snack.

Submitted: June 07, 2010

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Submitted: June 07, 2010

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Spider Hunting Travel Feature by Tim Whitby

Something is lurking in the Cambodian countryside, nestled underneath the cashew nut leaves - a new adventure tour is emerging.

My guide, a hard working family man from the Kompong Cham Province was difficult to find.  I had spoken to dozens of tuk-tuk drivers and meandering guides before I had spoke to Thor.  Most of them had know about Skuon, known locally as Spider-ville and many knew where to find the ladies who sold the fried eight-legged treats I was hunting.  They were the same places that have been satisfying the Kymers appetite for creepy crawlies and the backpackers desire for a good photo-op for years.  In fact, such is the demand for tarantula in Cambodia, which is believed to be beneficial to your heart, liver, back bone and of course virility, they are getting harder to find.  Much of the area around Skuon, which use to be able to harvest over one hundred spiders a day to a hard working 'spider farmer' has now been cleared for rice paddies and cashew nut plantations.  Thor told me the stacks of spiders you see piled high road-side now come from the jungles near the border of Thailand to the north.

However, I was in good hands and Thor knew of the quiet villages, un-visited by tourists where spiders or 'a-ping' as the locals call them could still be found.  So, hopefully I could find out more about this fascinating sub-industry.  We had met early to enjoy the cool air of the morning and after a NGO cafe had supplied me with a much needed cafe latte we were on our way to Skuon in my guides Tuk-Tuk.  An hours ride through the beautiful countryside, getting glimpses of women washing colourful clothes and men with motorbikes so heavily laden it would amount to a circus trick in the West is a great way a appreciate the spirit of this country.  We soon arrived in the dusty one-horse town of Skuon.  As the only tourist in town I was soon surrounded by women and children selling bottled water and trays piled high with spiders, beatles, crickets, frogs and baby birds - and that's just for starters!  Luckily for me, we were on our way again rapidly, following a local man who claimed he knew of some spider holes at the back of his house.  He had asked for five dollars to take us there, agreed, we traipsed off into the jungle.  Our spider hunter was armed with what looked like a garden hoe and spider inscribed gloves that inspired me with confidence in his abilities.  I was woefully ill-prepared with only flip-flops and a distinct lack of insect repellent, not required for the spiders, but for the large red ants that were making their way from my bare feet to the back of my neck in a matter of seconds.

We spotted the first hole, a couple of inches wide, but with no webbing covering the opening, our would-be hunter said the spider had already been taken.  We rustled through leaves, a second and third hole, but with no luck, as though they had been abandoned on hearing of our approach.  The day was warming up quickly and it was very humid too, sweat began to drip from the end of my nose and I started to lose hope.  Thirty minutes later, Thor conceeded, 'I know another village, not too far from here' and whispered for me to pay one dollar for the hunters time, which he seemed quite satisfied with.  With a national wage averaging two to three US dollars a day, it wasn't bad going.

Soon at the second village, we were greeted by a family packing bamboo with rice ready for baking.  Thor handed me some baked rice, which I happily chewed on.  I was quickly adopted by a ten year old girl, eager to practice her english.  She told me, in her life-time she had seen only a handful of tourists at their home, but more were coming to see the spiders. Only recently an Australian man had visited and purchased fifty live tarantulas.  I never quite got to the bottom of what he intended to do with them.  It was then Thor had an idea, 'I could paint my tuk-tuk', he said, 'like a spider web and offer this experience as a tour'.  I had to admit, I liked the idea, it would be a great opportunity to see how the kymers live outside of the big towns and put much needed money direct into the hands of impoverished families.  Also, with fingers crossed, to get to the root of a national obsession.

Behind the house, a hole had soon been found.  An elderly lady had led us there with her hoe in hand, followed by a small troupe of children and started hacking downwards into the hole.  About ten to twelve inches down the tunnel opened up into a small chamber and there it was.  Somehow, shocking to see for the first time, and this one was a fully grown adult.  A stick was used to flick it out from its hole to shreiks of excitement from the children gathered around.  My adrenaline was racing, as I snapped away with my camera.  The bite could not be fatal but would cause great pain for twenty-four hours warned Thor, adding, that while it had its fangs '..it would strike like a python'.  The spider was then grabbed carefully from the back of its body and skillfully had its fangs hooked over the edge of the hoe.  Then with a bamboo stick and two deft upward swipes the fangs were snapped away, leaving the arachnid harmless.  The cruelty was not lost on me, but in the face of the enormous struggle the Kymers face every day, there is really very little a tourist like me can bring to the conversation of a spiders rights in Cambodia!

The creature was then treated more as a pet, almost with affection.  Now, docile, it crawled slowly along shoulders and childrens heads, and duely did not wriggle as Thor popped it in his mouth, ushering me to take a photo before placing it carefully in his shirt pocket, where it stayed without fuss.  It was fascinating to watch the spectacle unfold.

Thor then took me to the bus stop, where tourists often stop on their way to Phnom Pehn or Siem Reap, where I found many more women and children selling all manner of deep freid critters.  I brought a spider from a particularly greasy looking tray and pulled off a couple of legs.  Disappointingly unlike chicken, they tasted sweet and a little crunchy.  The body I had been advised could taste bitter and slushy, so thought I might save that experience for the rainy season!  My guide for the day was busy buying up more spiders...but not the deep fried variety, but fifteen more live ones from a white bucket being paraded around by an elderly lady.  They were placed into a pastic bag with a few leaves and twigs and loosley tied.  When I asked what they were for, Thor told me for his own 'special recipe'.  This I had to see.

That afternoon, Thor invited me back to his family home, a pretty wooden house, built high on stilits to protect it during the floods of the rainy season.  Inside, he opened a cupboard a brought to the floor a large jar full of a murky clear liquid.  More clear at the top, it became cloudy further down then dark at the bottom.  'This is my special drink, I drink one glass every day.  "It is good for the man!'"  With his third child on the way, it didn't seem right to disagree.  He opened the lid and poured out a shot for me.  He explained the liquid was Cambodian rice wine, similar to Japans sake and the floating lumps on top were peices of jack fruit he had put in for flavour.  At the bottom, it was the final resting place for upto fifty tarantulas.  The white substance all around them, was a mixture of spiders eggs and fermenting bodies.  Thor told me, he believed pregnant spiders were more even beneficial to your health.  The live spiders would go into a new batch, which were placed alive into the wine, so nothing of their goodness would be lost.  I sipped the drink, it was a little crude, but not too unpleasant.  I waited for my super powers to kick-in, but was told I would wake up feeling like a new man. 

Wether or not I did, I'll leave you to find out for yourselves, but at least I lived to tell the story.

If you would like to have a similar experience you will have to do a little ground work.  This tour isn't in the guide books yet.
You will have to travel to Kampong Kong and find Thor, or more likely he will find you.  Unless of course you see his spider painted tuk-tuk first!

Editors Notes

Tim travelled from London to Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia, then from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, also with Air Asia.
From Siem Reap, (home of Angkor Wat) it is about 4 hours to Kompong Cham by air conditioned bus.


© Copyright 2019 Tim Whitby. All rights reserved.

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