I specifically got a typhus vaccine before my trip to Thailand and Cambodia because I knew I’d eat whatever weird street food I came across. No matter how much our culture shifts and changes and evolves over generations, bug-eating seems to be one Western taboo that will remain intact into the distant future. So of course I’ve always been obsessed with breaking it.
I had already eaten ants and silkworm pupae at a restaurant in Santa Monica, but the bugs were so small that they hardly amounted to more than unconventional bacon bits. This trip was going to be different. Everyone told me I could find insects at almost any street market. My goal was to try a scorpion in Thailand and a tarantula in Cambodia. I had my mission, I had my mind made up, and I had my typhus vaccine. I was ready.
On our first night in Bangkok, we ventured over to Khao San Road. I had been warned away from the area because it’s filled with tourists and everything supposedly feels artificial there. It’s all true, of course. But the repeated warnings to stay away from such a place made me so damn curious that I had to see it for myself at least once.
Life Lesson #1: Recognize that you may have a problem with authority
Khao San Road has an impressive array of street food stalls, and among them are one or two bug vendors. The vendors know their market: Westerners who want to gawk at the weird food and get a picture to take home. A sign above the cart says that simply taking a photo of the bugs on display will run you 50 baht. In that neighborhood, I’d wager they make more money from photography than they do from actual bug sales.
There were several plates of bugs available: some grub worms, some sizable grasshoppers, and some monster-sized cockroaches. Strangely, there were no scorpions at the stand, but later I saw local women weaving through the crowd with trays of scorpions, offering them to tourists with a smile. But this all didn’t seem right. I know I’m not the first white boy to seek adventure by munching on a scorpion for bragging rights, but the whole scene felt very produced. Having the bugs handed to you with the expectation of snapping a photo for a few extra baht seemed so different from stumbling across an exotic stall at a local market and daring to take a bite. And I still needed to gather my nerve.
Life Lesson #2: Just bite the bullet, don’t draw out the inevitable
A few days later, in Ayutthaya, we saw another bug stall. This one didn’t have a sign about charging for photos but out of self-consciousness I abstained from snapping any anyway. As I inspected the food on display, a local woman approached and casually purchased a bag of beetles, snacking on them as she walked away. No tourists in sight. It would’ve been the perfect opportunity for an Authentic Experience™, but I had my heart set on a scorpion, which this stall didn’t have. It was still early in the trip, I was sure I’d have another chance.
Life Lesson #3: Don’t be such a whiner. And see Life Lesson #2.
For two more weeks we didn’t see another bug cart. We traveled high and low through Thailand and saw plenty of night markets and street food vendors, but a scorpion would never again cross our paths. But there was still Cambodia.
On Pub Street in Siem Reap, I spied another bug cart–this one featuring a heaping plate of tarantulas as well as snakes curled up and speared with a stick. Pub Street is the Cambodian equivalent of Khao San Road, and of course this cart expected 50 cents per photo. Yet again I found an excuse to pass.
Life Lesson #4: Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true (–Patrick Swayze, Point Break)
Two days later was New Year’s Eve. I was going to exit another year without having achieved any of my bug-eating goals. Touristy-ness be damned: tonight I was eating a tarantula.
We went for a stroll around Pub Street before dinner and I found the bug cart again. One dollar for a tarantula. Seemed a little high, but I wasn’t about to haggle over prices when I had other things to worry about. As I got my official About-To-Eat-A-Tarantula photo, fellow tourists started to gather. Most people tended to walk by the cart, grimace, and move on. But someone was actually going to eat one of those things? Now they had a show!
I went for the legs first. No big deal. Crispy and fibrous. Gross in theory, but the easiest part of the experience. Some Americans cheered me on and encouraged me to try the snake. An Australian woman watched in terror, but couldn’t pull herself away.
I was nervous about the head and thorax, because I always imagine spiders of that size having big, sharp teeth that would hit my jaw like a piece of errant bone in a hamburger. I looked away as I bit into the head and thorax and maintained my composure while I kept chewing. The consistency didn’t change much from the legs. I was in it now.
It all came down to the abdomen. A big, round, black ball of dread–its contents unknown. I imagined it would squish open in my mouth like a cherry tomato full of demon sperm. It was the part of the experience I had been trembling over the most. It was the true barrier standing between an ant-eating dilettante and a fearless devourer of arachnid beasts.
I popped it in my mouth.
It didn’t squish. It was fibrous and crispy, like the rest of the spider. The texture was somewhere between a soft-shell crab and a stale napoleon, and it had been fried in salt and garlic.
Life Lesson #5: Garlic will seriously make almost anything taste good
Once it was over, I felt different. It wasn’t exactly like stepping off a roller coaster, but there was a certain amount of anxiety and adrenaline swirled in with the experience, and when it was over I thought, “I could do that again!”
We went to dinner and I sang some Miley Cyrus karaoke and later that night we rung in the New Year with our fellow tourists and throngs of locals on Pub Street. On the way home, I thought I would give some of the other bugs a try, but the cart was no longer in the spot where I had left it. The spider would turn out to be my only bug-eating experience on the trip (that I know of, anyway).
At a dollar apiece I don’t know that it would be worth it to keep snacking on them, but if someone offered me a fried tarantula tomorrow I wouldn’t think twice about popping it in my mouth. It tasted fine, the texture wasn’t unpleasant, and once you get past the ingrained mental block of eating something unusual it loses its power to make you uneasy.
Life Lesson #6: Sometimes the thing you fear the most isn’t nearly as bad as you’re making it out to be in your mind. Face your fears sooner than later, and face them head on. You will not only come out okay on the other side, but you may very well find yourself stronger and bolder for the experience.
You may even find yourself occasionally thinking, “I could really go for a plate of spiders right about now.”