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The large, hairy and venomous tarantula spider is found throughout the world in as many as 900 species. Here in south-east Asia the most common of them is the Haplopelma genus. Its habitat ranges from Myanmar to Vietnam and as far south as Borneo where it is found burrowing deep in the soil of humid rainforests. The tarantula comes to the surface to hunt for insects, such as crickets and cockroaches, but it is also known to be able to capture larger prey, including lizards and mice. Some species are extremely aggressive and won’t hesitate to attack and bite a human if approached too closely. The spider inserts venom into the prey through its two fangs and although the effect can be very painful, with discomfort sometimes lasting several days, it is not deadly to humans.
In Cambodia, the town of Skuon (about 75 kilometres north of Phnom Penh) is a place to visit for those interested to find out more about these large arachnids. The tarantulas inhabit the forests surrounding the town and during the terror years of the Khmer rouge rule (1975 – 1979) when food was often scarce, the locals resorted to eating anything with a hint of protein in it. This includes not only tarantulas, but also crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers and even cockroaches. And although “normal” food is plentiful today, these insects remain a delicacy for many and local markets continue to offer a range of highly unusual food products for consumption. Needless to say, the curious culinary habits of the local people have since developed into a major tourist attraction.
Many foodstalls keep a bucket full of live tarantulas and allow tourists to handle them. These insects are not caught in the wild, but are bred specifically for consumption as food. Since their venom glands have been removed, they won’t cause any harm, but their fangs will still attempt to insert the missing venom into any irritating intruder. These particular species, probably Haplopelma longipes, are reputed to be some of the most aggressive tarantulas in the world, but in the Skuon market I found them quite docile, showing little interest in moving around one’s palm or clothes.
I asked a 12-year old Cambodian girl on the market if she would mind being photographed while eating a fried cockroach. She was happy to oblige – she peeled off the insect’s wings, then put the crunchy arthropod into her mouth as if she was doing it every day – all with a lovely smile on her face! Another remarkable aspect of the young lady was her ability to communicate in a number of languages; as she spends much of her post-school days selling fruits (and insects) on the market, she has learnt to solicit customers in flawless English, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese – all that without a hint of an accent….
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