Chea Sophorn gets up early every day to get to the market in Tunlab village, Kandal province in case his new favourite food — rat — runs out.
Eating rat is a common phenomenon over the border in Vietnam, but increasing numbers of Cambodians in nearby villages are adopting rodent cuisine with relish.
“Nowadays, I and my family members eat this food,” Sophorn, 34, says.
“I think it is a favourite food for people here [on the border between the two countries]. Most people like to eat rats.”
As many as three tonnes of rats are caught every day in Cambodia and exported to Vietnam to feed a growing demand there, where it is considered an affordable delicacy and eaten as a daily meal.
As a result of the increasing trade, Cambodians in neighbouring provinces such as Prey Vang, Svang Reang, Kandal and Takeo have developed a taste for the meat.
Rats are caught in fields in Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom provinces and taken to the border to be sold in Vietnam. Most are sold live to be grilled, roasted or turned into meat pâté; others end up as food for crocodiles or fish.
But there is a growing demand for the meat in Cambodia, where the rodents are cheaper. A kilo of live rats costs US$2 in markets in Cambodia, whereas over the border it sells for US$5.
Rainy season is the prime time for eating rat. During the rains, wild rats run in lush fields and eat a grass-based diet that villagers say produces a more healthy, tasty meat.
Many villagers avoid the meat in the dry season, fearing sickly rats will pass on disease.
“The rats we eat are from the wild, not rats kept as pets at home. They come from nature,” Sophorn says.
“You have to get to the market early, because the sellers bring only limited orders from buyers in each village,” he adds.
Chan Vanthorng has been selling rats to eat for nearly 10 years. He gets live rodents from Kampong Thom and exports at least 200 kilograms daily to Vietnam.
Vanthorng is one dozens of sellers who work at the border, each carrying at least 150 kilos on a moto and exporting two or three tonnes of rats a day.
But that’s not enough to feed demand, he says.
“The Vietnamese market needs more rats, and the dead rats are needed to feed fish or crocodiles.”
Men Sophal, a taxi driver in Neak Leoung who ferries people to the border, said that he sees 20 motos there each day, each carrying a cage of 150 kilos to 200 kilos of live rats.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sou Vuthy at firstname.lastname@example.org