Cambodia's iconic crunchy crawly cuisine critter, the fat black spider known popularly and erroneously as the tarantula and dubbed the ah-ping by the Khmer, is in increasingly short supply with resultant skyrocketing prices.
The town of Skoun, 75 kilometres from Phnom Penh on the highway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, is the traditional home of the spider, but local sources are now so thin on the ground that some vendors have to import supplies from nearby provinces.
Su Thary, 33, who has also sold spiders for ten years, says that the price of spiders always increases in December and early January because the females are egg-bearing and hence are bigger and more tasty than usual.
But she concedes that now arachnid pregnancy is not the sole reason price increases – scarcity also plays its part.
“In the last three years, we could still find some spiders here, but now we don’t have any spiders in our village,” she says. “Skoun is now just the place to sell spiders, but there are no spiders left here. All spiders are brought from various provinces.”
Thary says that her husband has to go to Kampong Thom town where the dealers sell him spiders, and many of those dealers buy from villagers in Kampong Thom or Preah Vihear province.
Chhoem Sreynen has sold spiders at Skoun for about six years, and she can sell from 400 to 500 spiders daily, mostly to passengers from Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, Kratie, Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri as well as Phnom Penh.
She used top sell spiders for 600 riel (US$0.15) but now the going price is just over double that, at 1300 riel, and she won’t discount.
Recently she noticed that Vietnamese travellers want live spiders to soak in their wine and are prepared to pay more, up to 1700 riel.
Puth Krorn, 42, who also deals in spiders from Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear, says that his business has become smaller than in previous years because the spiders are becoming rarer – and pricier.
During the last ten years, he brought about 5,000 spiders to Skoun every day. But now he can only get about 1,000 spiders, so instead of bringing in spiders on a daily basis, he now only brings them every three days.
“The price now has to be higher because the spiders are rare. If we sell at previous prices, we won’t earn enough money to pay for transportation. By the way, the pregnant spiders cannot cope travelling in bouncy taxis. Every delivery, 600 of 1,000 thousand spiders die.”
Meanwhile the Skoun Spider Sanctuary, which was originally set up to breed spiders to restock the area, has been shut according to the founder, a London businessman Martin Leighfield, who is gearing up to re-open at the end of this year if he can find interest among his London-based business circle.