In another place, the great, if harmless, clouds of insects might have been a plague. In Cambodia, they are dinner.
It's a bumper year for crickets here in what is known informally as Cambodia's cricket capital. By night, the rice fields blaze with lights from the traps farmers set up to lure the insects. By morning, the markets are hopping with great heaps of dead and dying crickets.
Men stand around nibbling from the bags of deep-fried bugs they've promised to bring home to their wives and children. Sor Van Nin came all the way from the capital, Phnom Penh, for these crickets, and he can't stop eating them.
"They're so fresh," he says, grinning, a few stray antennae stuck to his chin.
I've come to Kampong Thom with my friend, Yun Samean, who is crazy for crickets. I think he came mostly for the snacks. I came for the history. Pol Pot, who oversaw the deaths of 2 million people in Cambodia in the late 1970s, grew up here, just down a slow lane by the Stung Sen River. His neighbors remember him as a nice kid.
That is a Cambodian mystery I will never solve, but maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to understand the strange – but, to me, terrible – appeal of the cricket. I will try anyway, an effort that will surely involve eating one, and if I am going to eat a cricket, I want the finest, freshest, crunchiest cricket around. And that means driving to Kampong Thom.
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Kampong Thom lies about halfway between Phnom Penh and its most famous tourist destination, Angkor Wat. In addition to being the birthplace of Pol Pot, Kampong Thom was the site of one of the largest slave-labor irrigation projects built by the Khmer Rouge, radical communist ideologues who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and killed, starved, or worked to death about a quarter of the population. Today, people water their rice from the very canals that once nearly cost them their lives. Some 20,000 skulls were found at the local pagoda. Those who managed to survive kept their heads down and did not ask questions.
Compared with a single spoonful of watery gruel or red ants – known sources of sustenance during those dreadful years – crickets probably seem fat, even nourishing to anyone over 35.
Each year, during the May-to-December rainy season, crickets migrate here by the ton. Locals have eaten crickets for as long as they can remember, which for Nuch Mondy – a local government agriculture official – is the 1950s. But, he says, the cricket business didn't boom until a few years ago, when fancy new technologies – namely, the battery- or generator-powered fluorescent tube lights one now sees strung above white tarpaulin traps in the rice fields around Kampong Thom – enabled people to catch commercial quantities of crickets.
In peak season, the local haul is often 3 tons a night, which is packed in plastic bags on ice and sent to markets in Phnom Penh and Thailand.
"Crickets are useful insects," Mr. Nuch says. "People make money from them."
Indeed, for Ang Thy, a rice farmer, crickets are a bit like the lottery: a chance for sudden bounty. On a good night, he says he makes $15, not bad in a nation where the minimum wage is $50 a month. He spends his nights on the edge of a shimmering rice paddy just outside town, sitting on the hard mud with an ax and his dog. "It's very lonely at night," he says, but if he doesn't stand guard, he explains, "People will take my crickets."
Mr. Ang doesn't profess to know why crickets congregate here, or much about their breeding cycle. He just knows that when he turns on his lights, crickets come, and this time of year, they're big enough to eat.
He's strung up three tarpaulin traps, each under a battery-powered fluorescent tube light, on the edge of a friend's rice field. A tarp behind each light acts as a backboard that the crickets, drawn to the light, bounce against before falling into the tarp below, where they're trapped. At dawn, Ang Thy carefully transfers the crickets – most of which have suffocated by then – into plastic buckets that he carries to market.
Ang loves to eat crickets – especially stuffed with peanuts and fried with a lot of garlic. "It's a very good smell," he says.
In the near distance, the lights of other men's traps cut through the darkness, 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 says. Nature, he figures, will give him what he needs, no need to go out and grab it.
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Cambodian crickets come in two sizes: Big and small. The big ones, about an inch long, are the more highly prized. Deep-fried, they're said to have the same appeal as popcorn does in the US. I like popcorn. And so, sitting across from Samean in one of the provincial town's few restaurants, I try to keep popcorn firmly in mind.
Samean is making quick work of a big plate of fried crickets. I decide to start small. He pulls off a leg and hands it to me. Popcorn doesn't have legs. I put it in my mouth before I can think about it too much. It is sweet, greasy, and crunchy, but definitely not delicious enough to continue with the thorax, antennae, and head. Why, after all, deprive Samean of the pleasure?
Samean eats the crickets by the dozen.
Having eaten my first and last cricket leg, I try to smile. I try to say, how nice for you that you have so many delicious crickets to eat. But I can't. What I say instead is: "I don't like crickets, Samean. I just can't eat them."
Just then a grasshopper, I kid you not, lands on the end of my nose. Samean laughs at me. He says, "I don't eat grasshoppers. My mother taught me to eat crickets but not grasshoppers. She said they are dirty. How can I change?"
I say: "My mother taught me that grasshoppers and crickets are both dirty. Though she did serve me cow tongue. And peanut butter pickle sandwiches, but only with dill pickles."
Samean has no problem with cow tongue. I don't know how he feels about peanut butter. He says, "I eat all kinds of insects. The black bugs in the water. Black scorpions, the big ones. They're very expensive, like $2 or $3."
"Big black scorpions are poisonous," I say.
The front of our restaurant opens onto the main street of the provincial town, no more at this hour than a dark strip of low buildings that quickly diminishes into rice fields. Even now, crickets, those foolish creatures, are pushing through the night toward all the great white lights, only to end up a meal for their troubles.
By morning, they'll be so dead but still so anatomically perfect that they look like they could start crawling around at any moment. And, now and again, a diminished cricket will hobble from the great dead piles, and one will almost feel mercy.
But that is me, and not my friend Samean. I think he feels hungry.
• Additional reporting by Yun Samean