kompong thom – These are antic, crunchy times in Kompong Thom: From roughly May to December, crickets come in great clicking—and, some say, mouth-watering—clouds.
Elsewhere they might be called a plague, but in Cambodia crickets are called dinner.
Sat Keo, 26, has been cooking and selling crickets for a decade, but she insists that even after all those years, she still eats 20 a day when they’re in season. The best place to get crickets in Cambodia, she says, is her home province.
“Most crickets are from around here, so they’re fresh and tasty,” she explained.
This year, there has been a bit of a cricket boom in Kompong Thom, said Ou Bunthsophoan, director of the provincial department of agriculture.
The insects, which usually stick to Stung Sen district, have spread to Kompong Svay, Stong, and Santuk districts, he said.
When the rains come, crickets migrate from around the Tonle Sap lake to Kompong Thom, he said. Locals have long caught the bugs to fry up for dinner, but in 2003 markets in Thailand and Phnom Penh opened up, and the commercial cricket craze began, he said.
Today, the roads, fields and rice paddies around Kompong Thom provincial town are lined with cricket traps, white tarpaulins strung up beneath battery or generator powered florescent tube lights.
“The crickets like the light so much,” said Ang Thy, 53, gesturing at three battery-powered cricket traps he has set up at the edge of a rice paddy just outside the town.
He spends the night here, on the hard mud ground, with just his axe and his dog for company.
“Otherwise, people will take my crickets,” he explained. “It’s very lonely at night,” he added.
Ang Thy said he doesn’t know where the crickets came from, or why; nor does he know much about the breeding cycle of the Cambodian cricket. He just knows that when he turns on his lights, crickets come, and this time of year, they’re big enough to eat.
Some evenings he’s up all night, gathering crickets by the armful, and can make a bountiful $15; other nights, he says he culls only an impoverished kilogram.
All around him, other men have set up traps too, but Ang Thy insists there’s no competition out on the fields. “It’s up to the crickets which trap they want to go to,” he said.
He squints up at the evening sun. “Maybe around seven the crickets will come,” he said.
However, Ang Thy said he sometimes fears people are eating the crickets faster than they can breed.
Ou Bunthsophoan also warns that one day Kompong Thom’s natural bounty could come to an end.
“We have informed villagers that someday the crickets will be extinct. We asked them to raise the crickets like in Thailand,” he said.
Cambodian crickets come roughly in two sizes: Big and small. In Kompong Thom provincial town’s market last month you could buy 58 thumb-sized cooked crickets for $2; a cup of small crickets cost 1,500 riel.
Deep fried with garlic, they have a sweet, popcorn crunch.
At the morning market in Kompong Thom town, drivers load up their vans, each with more than a ton of crickets, packed in plastic bags, on ice.
They give off a dead, sweet smell. They’re bound for Thailand, where big, raw crickets can fetch $5 per kilogram, far more than the local market rate, said Chan Tha, 51, who owns one of the transport vans.
He pinched a cricket with his fingertips to demonstrate its admirable anatomy: “Everything is delicious, except the wing,” he said.
Some crickets had been packed in his van still alive, and they tried to crawl their way despondently out of pink plastic sacks; others hopped one-legged along the ground. Everywhere there were flies.
Nearby, Sor Van Nin, 29, bought a few bags of crickets, ostensibly to bring back to his family in Phnom Penh, where he teaches math at Sisowath High School. He kept eating them himself, though. “They’re so fresh. They’re crispy and they smell like garlic. They’re so good.”