On the morning of our scheduled border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand, Peter and I woke up nervous. Why our anxiety? Well, first, we had a time limit: the next day marked the beginning of the 50th annual Elephant Roundup in Surin, Thailand, which was the reason we were crossing the border to begin with. And second, here’s what our guidebook had to say about our intended route:
The remote, dirt poor province of Oddar Meanchey, created from parts of Siem Reap province that the government didn’t control for much of the 1980s and 1990s, produces very little apart from opportunities for aid organizations. . . .Only a trickle of foreign visitors uses the O Smach/Chong Jom border crossing, which is pretty remote on the Thai side and in the middle of nowhere on the Cambodian side. At the frontier, there is a zone of Thai-style modernity, with two big casino-hotels, a paved dual carriageway a few hundred meters long and a modern market. But from there south you’re in outback Cambodia. The road meanders between minefields and at one point you have the choice of paying 20 baht/2000 riel for a dodgy private toll bridge built of logs by enterprising locals, or driving through a river. All along the way, you pass motorbikes so overloaded with fruit, cheap household items, and petrol smuggled in from Thailand that they often topple over. . . To Samraong (40 km, ½ -2 hours), a moto costs 250 baht, a private taxi 1200 baht, and once you get to Samraong, where are you? Nowhere.
Right. We decided to get an early start, and met our driver at 7 in our hotel. The first thing I noticed was that his Toyota Camry* had the steering wheel on the right side, an unusual and questionable choice, since Cambodia drives American-style. Second, he had a faded tattoo melting into his chest (which was visible through the opening in his low-buttoned shirt) – the sort of tattoo one might imagine a child soldier getting in the mid-1970s as part of his allegiance with a murderous guerilla force. Combined with his mustache and aviator sunglasses, he didn’t project an image of my ideal chauffeur. And third, despite reconfirming our destination several times, he seemed to be driving on the wrong road.
In fact, he was definitely driving on the wrong road – there are two border crossings that could conceivably lead to Surin (unlike Rome, not too many roads go there) and O Smach is to the west. We wanted to go there because, unlike the other one, O Smach has a regular bus service on the Thai side of the border. But instead, we were barreling along toward the eastern border, passing everything from dogs to pigs to people on motorbikes carrying enormous sacks of rice. We began making contingency plans of how to get a ride back to the correct crossing.
But it turned out that our driver was smarter than we were – the road that we were on was paved, and the road leading to O Smach (with the aforementioned log bridge) was, presumably, not. A quick left turn close to the unwanted border crossing and we were zooming toward O Smach on what turned into a well-maintained dirt road, somehow managing to bypass the homemade bridge, the lake, and the smugglers along the way – though we did pass a hotel called “Porn Phun.” As for minefields, we saw several signs from international organizations claiming credit for their clearance – but we also saw several people on motorbikes holding crutches. I didn’t get out to pee.
There were indeed two casinos in the no-man’s land between Cambodia and Thailand (which didn’t get too many foreign visitors, judging from the stares I got when I went in to use the bathroom). A casino at 10 a.m. is an inherently depressing sight, but instead of a smoke-filled room of quarter-pumping pensioners, the cavernous interior had no customers except for two women playing roulette. It was a sort of existential place – empty casino in the middle of no-man’s land at a border crossing in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t linger. Instead, we walked across the border, hopped into a minibus, and were off.
As our minibus hurtled down the road, I instinctively reached for my seatbelt, and felt a little sheepish when I looked up to find the rest of the passengers staring at me. What was this crazy American doing? I smiled back, self-conscious about being such a safety-conscious westerner in a land without infant carseats – and then noticed that other people were following my lead. One by one, the other passengers buckled up, occasionally glancing toward my seatbelt to see how I had done it. Exchanging a smile with an old man seated behind me (who was now more likely to stay there), I decided that, at in terms of road safety – or at least peer pressure — Thailand was ahead of its competition.
Our first stop, after checking into the hotel, was to try to get Peter some medication for a potential case of parasitic worms that he may have contracted in Nepal. (Word to our mothers: Dr. Kurth has been consulted and the situation is under control.) We were a little worried about the availability of Praziquantel in remote Thai cities – but the hospital ended up being more efficient than a drive-through window. Ten minutes after we got there we’d seen a doctor, been shepherded into the pharmacy to confirm medication and dosage, been given a bill, paid, and walked out the door. What’s more, on the way to the hospital I had my first run-in with an elephant, whose handler was selling 20 baht bags of sugar cane that you could feed it. So my day, begun on the Cambodian border, ended on a much more promising, if a bit disgusting note: with my hand in an elephant’s mouth.
* The Camry Question:
There are a ridiculous number of Toyotas – and, in particular, Toyota Camrys from the mid 1990s—on the road in Cambodia. As in, out of 45 cars we passed on the way back from the temples one afternoon, 38 of them were Toyotas. (During a later experiment, we got 19 out of 20.) The owner of our guesthouse claimed it was simply because people in Cambodia “really like Camrys,” but we’re both suspicious. Peter pointed out that Toyota sedans were among the most stolen in that time period, and we saw at least one dealer sticker from Rhode Island. I’m not sure how to research our hypothesis, but I have a feeling that petrol isn’t the only thing that’s been smuggled across the border.
Here’s something I have never craved for dinner: spiders. Too bad, then, that tonight we went to dinner at a place in Phnom Penh called Romdeng — a delicious place specializing in Khmer food and staffed by former street children. (The parent organization, Friends International, seems pretty great.) We’d heard that it served a traditional Khmer treat – deep fried tarantulas – and whereas I laughed this off as the sort of food one might gawk at in a night market but never think of actually eating (such as the scorpion kebabs on offer in Beijing), Peter insisted that he was going to try them. “You know how you feel a weird need to visit traumatic sites just to absorb their history?” he asked me (I was the driving force behind our visit to Tuol Sleng). “I feel a need to eat weird food.” I was going to challenge him on this until I remembered his unfortunate choice or ordering smoked pigs’ ears in Lithuania. Oh god. I can still see the hairs.
Sure enough, when we got to the restaurant, deep fried tarantulas were on the menu – a starter, should you be wondering – and Peter ordered them. As we waited, we discussed what we thought they might look like. Both of us were imagining that they had been dipped in some kind of batter, and would be presented as a sort of tarantula fritter, so coated in tempura that their true arachnid nature would be completely camouflaged, nothing more than a stomach-turning afterthought.
We were wrong.
Our smiling waitress approached our table with a white plate, garnished with artfully carved cucumber and a small dish of dipping sauce. Arranged around the greenery were three large tarantulas, each the size of my palm. There was nothing batter-y about them. They were still clearly black; even their hairs were visible. These were just straight-up tarantulas, dipped in oil and fried.
“It looked like they were alive,” says Peter, remembering the scene. “They really looked like they could crawl away.”
He later claimed that once he took the first bite, it became easier to swallow. In the moment, Peter didn’t seem particularly reassured after he first sampled a leg. In fact, his exact words were, “This is going to be much harder than I thought.” Then he spit out a small clump of something black.
But what are you supposed to do? You’re in a restaurant staffed by former street children who probably grew up struggling to find food, and here you are with three palm-sized spiders, artfully presented – they came with a garnish, for god’s sake. What kind of asshole doesn’t finish their tarantulas?
So Peter plowed on. After working his way through a leg, he gamely bit into an abdomen, a bulbous pouch of spider innards. “That didn’t taste so good,” he said. I pointed out the dipping sauce.
As I giggled and took photographs, he started in on what we later learned was the body and the head. According to wikipedia, they have “a delicate meat inside.”
“This part really isn’t so bad,” he said, chomping on another leg and trying to get me to take a bite of what we later learned was the thorax. “It’s really not so bad.”
He was clearly becoming delusional.
“No, seriously,” he said, gesturing toward me with a half-eaten tarantula body.
I looked more closely. I’d never considered the idea that spiders might have meat inside, but this one did. It was white and flaky and looked a bit like fish. Now, I would never have ordered the tarantulas on my own. But this was probably my once-in-a-lifetime chance to try one. I decided to take a tiny bite. By tiny, I mean less than a nibble. A nibblet. Basically as little as I could possibly eat and still claim to have tried it.
And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. It tasted meaty and fried, but that’s about it. Emboldened, I broke off a tiny piece of leg and popped it in my mouth. It left behind an unchewable crunchy material, sort of like a shrimp shell, that I spat out into my napkin. I decided not to eat any more tarantula.
Peter, on the other hand, kept going. By the time they cleared his plate, only an abdomen and several orphaned legs remained. What’s more, he had begun to insist that the cooks had cleaned out the spiders’ innards and replaced them with stuffing. “See, they all have splits on their backs,” he said. “It tastes like tamarind.”
I was doubtful, and so we checked out the recipe for the tarantulas in the restaurant’s cookbook, the aptly titled “From Spiders to Water Lilies.” It begins as follows: Step 1 – Kill the spiders by pressing firmly on their backs. Step 2 – remove the fangs.”
It says nothing about tamarind fillings. Also, as we later noted, pressing firmly on their backs to kill them would likely cause the splits in their shells that Peter insisted was evidence of their being stuffed. According to Wikipedia, here is what Peter mistook for a tamarind filling: “a brown paste, consisting of organs, possibly eggs, and excrement.” A good chef , the entry continues, will fry the spiders until the legs are almost completely stiff, by which time the contents of the abdomen are not so runny.
We later asked our waitress where the restaurant got the spiders – we both were envisioning a cage full of live tarantulas in the kitchen, similar to a tank of live shrimp. But she told us the spiders arrived dead, having been gathered from a nearby province.
“How do they raise the tarantulas?” I asked. “Are they farmed? You know, like fish?”
“No,” she said. “They use a flashlight to find them. They are in trees or in holes.”
When we left Vietnam yesterday for Cambodia, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I kept thinking of the part in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Committed, in which she gets chased down the street by a horde of begging Cambodian children and holes herself up in her hotel room. Or, for that matter, the stories I’ve heard from other travelers of what an emotionally difficult place it is to travel, due to its recent history with the brutal Khmer Rouge.
We haven’t yet met hordes of street children, but I could see how that second part could be true. This afternoon included a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge used to detain and torture more than 17,000 people between 1975 and 1978, nearly all of whom were subsequently executed in the infamous Killing Fields. It is a terrifying place, more so because its setting – a high school, still with pull-up bars in its grassy courtyard – is so mundane. As Peter pointed out, one of the most disturbing aspects of the experience was noticing that the checkerboard-patterned tiled floor shown in the gruesome photographs of the murdered victims was the very same one that we were standing on. It’s one of those places that are important to visit, but deeply upsetting.
As a result, we decided not to visit the Killing Fields themselves, much to the disappointment of the many tuk-tuk drivers we encountered around town. (Tuk tuks are two-person chariots pulled by motorbikes.) That was one of the most bizarre parts of walking around Phnom Penh. About every five minutes, you’re approached by a guy driving a motorized pedicab asking you – in a very cheerful voice — if you want a ride to the Killing Fields. It’s the same tone one might use to offer a trip to the Royal Palace, or maybe a romantic tour around town. “Hello, you want tuk-tuk? Maybe visit Killing Fields?” The only thing odder than their advances was the fact that the admission to the Killing Fields — $3 according to the latest Lonely Planet – is controlled by the Japanese company responsible for repairing the road that leads to it. I’m not sure whom, exactly, I think should be getting the money, but I don’t think that’s it.
Another legacy of the craziness of the Khmer Rouge – which, in addition to restarting the calendar at year zero, decided to abolish money – is that no one seems to want to use Cambodia’s official currency, the riel. Instead, they use US dollars. I don’t just mean that prices are quoted in dollars, as they often are in Vietnam with a poor exchange rate. I mean that the dollar is the de facto currency. You buy things in dollars; you get change in dollars; they’re even dispensed by ATMs. (People use riel in place of quarters, but that seems to be about it.) Locals deal with riel more often than tourists do, but they use dollars as well. Does anyone else find this weird, that an entire country can decide to use a different country’s currency? I feel like that’s somehow against the rules. But the problem-solver in me thinks this might be an excellent way to combat our immense national debt: just get other countries to give up their currencies. Who needs the Euro? They can just buy a ton of dollars – thus sucking up some of our potential for inflation and making them more dependent on our success. I recognize there are large holes in this theory of global economics, but I’ve been walking around all day in 90-degree heat. At the moment, it seems to make a lot of sense.