Photo by George Nickels
In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge committed one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, killing an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians (21 percent of the country’s population) through starvation, torture, and forced labor. The country is still deeply scarred and divided by the man-made disaster—in June a law was rushed through parliament by Premier Hun Sen making denial of the Khmer Rouge’s war crimes punishable by two years in jail, which critics say will let Hun Sen target his political opponents. The genocide also reshaped the country’s culture in countless smaller ways, including, according to some, altering its eating habits.
Under the Khmer Rouge, starving people were forced to find food any way they could—including hunting, killing, and cooking the massive tarantulas that are found all over the country. Today you can buy fried arachnids for the equivalent of 8 cents, and spiders are often hunted by children no older than 12 as a way to support their families.
The photographer George Nickels recently spent some time with these kids and their families. We asked him what he saw.
VICE: How did you meet these kids?
George Nickels: I was in a coffee shop when I overheard a man talking about going back to his family in the jungle. Two hours later, we became friends, and he invited me to come and meet his family. They are very poor and virtually anything that moves is food—especially tarantulas, which are everywhere.
How many kids did you see running around in the woods?
I remember seeing five kids who hunted for at least seven hours a day. They had absolutely no protection, not even shoes. To them, hunting tarantulas is just like picking fruit—as soon as you can walk, you can also provide food for your family.
How do they cook the spiders?
Once the spider’s caught, they put the—still living—thing into an old plastic water bottle to carry it back to their huts. Then they have a simple process of drowning and washing the spiders by putting them in a bowl of water and stirring them around with a stick. Spiders are then put in salt and fried in oil over a fire.
Did you taste this spider meat?
I did. They kept giving me the pregnant females full of eggs, and eating them isn’t that pleasant. When you bite into them the abdomen pops in your mouth. That’s a strange experience.
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