Our journey to Phnom Penh was quick and painless. A private bus company called Giant Ibis operates in Cambodia, running a spotless and efficient bus service. With online ticket purchasing and seat selection, quiet, comfortable and modern busses with power outlets, real air conditioning, and no stinky bathroom perfuming the last several rows, the trip felt like luxury.
Upon disembarking our tranquil chariot, though, we were immediately overwhelmed by what would become a staple of our Phnom Penh stay – oppressive swarms of overbearing tuk tuk drivers. While we have certainly been pestered for rides elsewhere in Asia, I’m not sure we’ve seen quite the level of persistence we encountered here. We’d make our way down a line of idle drivers, having to decline each one in turn despite them being mere feet from one another, and sometimes being asked to justify why or where we were walking. On many occasions, I would say “no” only for the driver to respond, “yes, okay?” Had I not spoken English before visiting, I would have left the city assuming “hello tuk tuk!” was a standard local greeting.
Aside from the voracious tuk tuk drivers, Phnom Penh was not a very remarkable city. It was large and busy, with dozens of bland, forgettable bars, hotels and hostels dotting the waterfront. A large walkway sprinkled with benches and exercise equipment meandered along the riverside, offering a gathering place for people of all ages. This provided an ideal people-watching location, providing plenty of amusement as we observed a little girl carefully place her handful of peanuts on the ground and proceed to eat them off the sidewalk, or watched the uncoordinated group aerobics classes that appeared to go on all day, led by two distinctly unenthusiastic men who seemed to wish they were anywhere else.
We wandered through the enormous central market, full of every kind of wriggling seafood and colorful fruit you could imagine. There seemed to be no end to the alleys and walkways lined with everything from freshly cut flowers to knock-off Rolex watches. In the center of the market, a building housed dozens of counters full of glittering jewelry, with somber-looking men engaged in serious negotiations over the ludicrously-oversized rings they were examining. After the market, we spent some time exploring the city, seeing the royal palace, the beautiful supreme court building, and a number of monuments and sculptures.
For one of our meals, we found a little place called the Connecting Hands Training Café, a non-profit training restaurant for women at risk for sex slavery/prostitution or human trafficking, as well as rehabilitation for victims of those trades. The organization provides housing, good wages, an English education and job skills training, in addition to ongoing job support.
The sex trade in Cambodia, and in much of Asia, is a sad story. It’s suggested that the sex trade generates nearly $32 billion annually, and an estimated 2-4 million children and young women will be sold for sex trafficking in the next year. The combination of Cambodia’s poverty and young population – nearly half its residents are under 20 years old – put it at especially high risk for these markets. Compounding the targeting of young women and children is the significant premium paid for virgins, which some cultures believe can cure disease or grant increased youth. Many of these women simply have no options, lacking the skills or education to make a living, which is where organizations like Connecting Hands are making a difference.
Our entire meal there was delicious as well as humanitarian. After a couple months of nothing but local food, I selected a hearty, nutritious, Western plate for dinner – cinnamon French toast with caramelized apples and ice cream. Jenn’s mango and passion fruit smoothie was typical of the passion fruit in this area – simply amazing, likely making it impossible for us to enjoy passion fruit back home.
There’s one culinary experience, though, that Cambodia – and Phnom Penh in particular – is infamous for, and that is bugs. Fried bugs are a growing food source for much of the developing world, since they’re inexpensive and easy to raise, and also high in protein. Prior to leaving on the trip, Jenn had announced that fried tarantulas were also offered in Cambodia, and asked, with a certain amount of evil in her smile, whether I was up for the challenge. It was easy to declare then, nearly 10,000 miles away and with a fully stocked kitchen containing no dead arachnids, that of course I was up for it.
While it seemed that many people had stories of eating bugs in Phnom Penh, we had a surprisingly difficult time finding any. We finally located a street cart near the Koh Pich bridge with a variety of treats – giant platters full of crickets, grasshoppers, silkworms, hard-shelled beetles, tiny dried shrimp and frog legs. I managed to convey that I was looking a sampler pack, and eventually found myself staring down into a snack bag full of insects (and the hindquarters of a few frogs). It seemed I was going to have to go through with it.
It’s a strange feeling to reach down into a bag full of bugs – it seems like they should be moving. Wanting to start small, I plucked a cricket from the creepy pile, posed for a photo and popped it in my mouth. It was surprisingly anticlimactic, since the cricket was actually fairly tasty, almost like biting into a small potato chip. Emboldened, I reached for the biggest grasshopper I could find, and crunched down. Other than the strange sensation of small legs being stuck in your teeth, it was bland and not nearly as good as the cricket. I worked my way through the rest of the choices, only being stymied by the hard-shelled beetle, whose tough black carapace was like crunching through a jawbreaker, preventing me from chewing it enough to swallow. Overall, a fun experience, but the crickets were the only one I’d happily eat again.
Of course, we still hadn’t found tarantulas. Tarantulas are primarily farmed by the hundreds in the town of Skuon, a village about 80 km north of Phnom Penh. While they have many street carts serving the crispy critters in the village, we were hoping to avoid a 3+ hour round trip just to gag on a spider. After finding an appetizing menu online, we ventured to Romdeng, a local restaurant that has a specialty in serving insects and, like Connecting Hands, that also does good work, focusing on providing job skills and training for at-risk young men who come from poverty and are unlikely to afford an education or job training. With some trepidation, I ordered the fried tarantulas, served with a lime and black pepper sauce, while Jenn stuck to a beetroot, pomelo and moringa smoothie. The food arrived far too quickly and I found myself staring at a nicely presented plate containing 3 enormous, black spiders. Jenn watched me expectantly, as I delayed my fate for a few minutes by snapping photos. There were only so many photos to be taken, though, so eventually I squeezed on some lime, squeamishly cut a few of the legs off one, steeled myself, and bit down. The visceral feeling of spider legs and tiny hairs was a little off-putting, but they essentially tasted like cooking oil, pepper and lime. I worked my way through the rest of the body, finding it to have little flavor, except the abdomen, which tasted like a black olive.
After a little chatting with a friendly traveler at a neighboring table – who, funny enough, was from Greensboro, NC and at Romdeng for the same spider experience – I ate my way through nearly the whole plate. A few legs remained, and Jenn hesitantly reached over. With more than a little trepidation, she picked up one of the legs and gingerly put it on her plate. We kept chatting with our neighbor, and Jenn would occasionally pick up the leg, examine it, and put it back down. After a good 15 minutes of working up courage and several false starts, she popped the leg into her mouth, accompanied by the most amazing facial expressions. She nearly didn’t swallow it, but eventually choked it down and pounded the rest of her smoothie, and we cheered for her stepping so very, very far outside her culinary comfort zone.
I can’t say I’ll be putting spiders on my list of favorite foods, but it was a unique experience and not one either of us will soon be forgetting!