X-Factor: Cambodian Street Snacks

Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia

You know how sometimes an idea pops in your head and it seems really great and without thinking about it, you say it out loud? It’s the kind of harmless thing you do when you watch television shows like Survivor or Fear Factor and they have to eat something gross and you mention to your friends, “I’d easily do that for a million dollars.” It’s fine when you're in your living room with your pepperoni pizza or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey (read: the first things I’m going to eat when I’m back in America). It’s safe when you’re far, far away from the actual thing.

Well, I had one of those moments last night. 

“Man, I could try one of those tarantulas. I heard they taste like chicken.”

My friends and I had just finished dinner and were walking out of the restaurant when I saw a cart piled high with fried grasshoppers, skewered snakes, grubs, and hairy, black tarantulas parked outside. I whipped my phone out in classic tourist fashion, ready to snap some sweet shots, and was mid-taking one, completely zoned in, clicking the camera button when Cody stopped me by pointing at the sign explaining that photos would cost fifty cents a pop.

Oh, fuck. I swung my phone away, blurring the picture orange, squiggly snakes. A little lady wearing a bonnet grinned at me, nodded. I apologized for my presumption and she waved her hand in acceptance. I looked at my photo; it was shitty. I looked back up at the sign. It said that if you bought something, you could take photos for free. 

That’s when it happened, when my mouth moved faster than my brain and my thought, as it formed, blurted out of me. I know now I didn’t have my priorities straight, but right then all I could think about was the free picture.

I would have gotten away with it, I think, if Cody hadn’t been standing right beside me in that moment. But he was. His eyes brightened and his mouth curved upward in joy as he realized the glorious opportunity before him. 

“Hey guys,” he called out to the rest of our friends, who had been wandering into the nearby market. “Cassia wants to eat a tarantula. Right, Cassia?” His eyes glittered with mischievous triumph. He had me. He knew that I can’t back down from a dare, especially in front of a group of people.

Baby was the first one to pipe in, laughing evilly. “Oh yeah, Cassia?”

“Uh, um yeah I heard they’re really not bad. Taste like fried chicken. But I don’t have any money.” I waved it off. My mind was a whirl of fear. Why didn’t I say grasshopper? Why did I pick the biggest, most disgusting thing on that whole cart? What is wrong with me?

“Oh, well, I’ve got some spare cash.” Cody said, that bastard, “Baby, do you have any riel?”

Baby asked the bonnet lady how much the tarantula was. Only $1. My stomach sank as he handed Cody 1000 riel, the equivalent of $0.25 cents. 

Everyone had wandered back, wondering what was going on. 

“Does anyone want to donate to the Cassia-Eats-A-Tarantula fund?” Baby asked. I’ve never seen any of those guys open their wallets and dish out money so fast. They’re all usually cheap (or as they like to call themselves, “financially challenged”).

Baby bought the fried spider. He picked out the fattest one and handed it to me in a crinkled plastic bag.

In less than a minute my role had changed from grossed out tourist to freaky-girl-about-to-eat-a-tarantula. I held it in my palm. It was very light. A crowd had formed around me. A passerby pulled out an iPhone.

“Is it okay if I film you?” The large Englishwoman asked, waving her purple rhinestone-studded phone case in my face. 

“Uh, yeah.” And suddenly there were camera phones everywhere. Damn the tourism district, I thought.

“Well, c’mon, do it!” Someone called out.

I stared down at my snack. It was a deep black that took on an indigo sheen under the florescent lights of the nearby market. I could see little hairs standing up all over, crisped from the fryer. The face was surprisingly visible, its furry fangs bared at me. Oh, Jesus Christ. I knew there were eyes on there somewhere and I closed mine as I brought it up to my mouth so I couldn’t see. 

The first bite was just legs and it crunched easily. The texture really wasn’t bad - kind of like an extra thin, crispy french fry. And it did taste like fried chicken! I could hear hooting and sounds of disgust around me.

I opened my eyes, smiling triumphantly, “It’s pretty good!”

The next bite I went for the head. This time, I had to dig my teeth in and rip. I saw something white right under the sternum. It wasn’t as crunchy as the legs. A little chewy, but still very dry and mostly flavored with salt. I chewed and swallowed easily, barely noticing the hairs tickling my throat as it went down.

I was on a roll. I swallowed quickly, now aware of my growing audience, and embarrassed about it. I just wanted to get this over with. I took a large bite out of the abdomen. It was unexpectedly thick and had almost the exact texture and density of a Gumdrop, one of my least favorite candies. I held the chunk in my mouth, afraid to chew, imagining bits of tarantula sticking to my teeth like the tacky gelatin candy. I then made my second mistake of the night (the first being that I agreed to eat a spider): I looked at the half of abdomen still sitting in my palm to figure out what I’d just put in my mouth. 

The bottom part was just black tar, but the top had white tube-like things all over. Oh God, is that what makes the web? For some reason, that’s what grossed me out. I spat the piece in my mouth onto the pavement, kicked it away, shaking my head and sticking my tongue out in disgust. 

I could hear laughter everywhere; even from the bonnet lady. People started walking away; they’d gotten the show they wanted. I stood there flushed, begged one of my friends for a gulp of water and wished I had anything to get the flavor of spider guts off my tongue. To flush out the memory.

Then I remembered my objective: free photos of all the weird food! I snapped away and got the hell out of there.


  • Tarantula: $1
  • Your Dignity: Priceless 

Travel Tip: 

  • Always ask before you photograph! It’s rude not to, and if it’s something particularly strange, someone’s probably going to charge you for it.