A quick twist of the fangs and the spider is rendered poisonless. A thumb squeeze of the thorax and it is left lifeless. It is tossed onto a pile of perhaps 100 other arachnid cadavers as the cooking begins. Once they have cooled, the cooked spiders will be despatched from this countryside kitchen by motorcycle to the nearby dusty town of Skuon and touted alongside dried crickets and stuffed frogs to countless salivating punters. But those other delicacies are secondary to the spiders; treats of the eight-legged variety are undoubtedly Skuon's most renowned product. An hour outside Phnom Penh, unassuming Skuon sits on the main route to Angkor Wat, Cambodia's biggest tourist draw. At first it appears little more than a dust-blown truckers' stop - perhaps a dozen scruffy roadside restaurants scattered around a barren roundabout. But not much traffic passes through Skuon without stopping and the edges of the roundabout have grown increasingly indistinct as minibus after minibus skids to a stop to grab its fill of arachnid specials. Punthea Khoeun has made the journey especially from Phnom Penh to stock up on fresh Skuon spiders. Only one, a type of tarantula known as a-ping in Khmer, is eaten. Like all spider aficionados, she rates the town's fresh produce much more highly than what is available in Phnom Penh. 'I just love them,' she says. 'And every time I pass through Skuon I have to stop.' And like other connoisseurs, Punthea especially prizes pregnant females laden with eggs, claiming that both the nutritional value and the taste of the spider are at their best. But as dozens of arms reach out of every minibus, almost matching in number the spindly legs they crave, there are few signs of fussiness. The origins of arachnid consumption lie in necessity rather than gourmandaise. During the years of terror and genocide instigated by the Khmer Rouge, eating spiders helped save the population of Skuon. As people were driven deeper into the jungle to avoid persecution, starvation was rife and culinary invention became essential for survival. The size of the spiders was undoubtedly their undoing - being up to 15cm across made them obvious targets - and they provided vital protein during severe shortages of more orthodox food. But although reliance on the spiders for survival is a thing of the past, the taste for them has endured, and Skuon has capitalised on it. Deang, 19, stands with an arachnid platter held proudly aloft like a silver-service dinner tray. A huge live tarantula hangs on her blouse like a brooch; apparently it is a must-have advertising accessory for the throng of spider vendors, all of whom sport at least one as part of their working attire. There are perhaps a dozen vendors on one side of the roundabout alone, the retail end of the spider-catering industry. The supply process is divided among various families of hunters and vendors. The vendors buy bags of live specimens in bulk from spider-hunting families, placing their orders each morning in the knowledge they can usually sell up to 300 a day. The hunters at the dangerous end of the process - when the spiders are still poisonous and highly territorial - sell individual spiders for 350 riel (69 HK cents). The hunters begin their work by locating a particular type of hole in the ground, each home to an individual spider. After inserting a stick to determine the direction of the hole, the surrounding ground is hacked away with a hatchet-like implement. The disturbance usually causes the spider to flee its subterranean refuge, at which point it is at the mercy of the hunters. But the spiders are far from docile and in their struggle to survive, bites are common. Tarantula poison is not fatal to humans, but blackened, rapidly swelling flesh and agonising pain have become accepted occupational hazards by the hunters, and are dealt with not through hospital treatment, but with spells cast by voodoo doctors, who are trusted by the locals. The spiders are believed to have medicinal properties themselves. One remedy for coughs and bad chests calls for a live specimen to be grilled (frying is believed to worsen chest problems) and left outside overnight to collect dew before being eaten. This is just one of many curative applications; the black shadows floating in yellow jars of medicinal wines lining the shelves of a restaurant hint at others. But the spiders are primarily a remedy for hunger and the simple way in which they are cooked produces a treat that is delicious and packed with protein. In a small farming village five minutes' drive from the Skuon roundabout 'market', Deang prepares a new batch of spiders between the wooden stilts of her family home. After thoroughly washing the spiders, she prepares them, like many meat dishes, with a simple marinade. The ingredients used are hardly haute cuisine. After the spiders have been doused in monosodium glutamate and red food colouring, the next culinary addition is a sachet of Knorr ready mix. They are then showered in sugar, to appeal to sweet teeth, and left to soak up the flavours for 30 minutes. Some have survived the thorax squeeze and a number of legs twitch weakly among the mass of black bodies. But they soon meet their end as perhaps 30 at a time are drowned in burning hot oil and fried for five minutes, then scooped out to make room for another batch. When about 100 blackened leggy treats lie tidily arranged on the platter, they are ready to feed Skuon's demand. For many families, the revenue from spider sales is a vital supplement to their more conventional agricultural incomes. Selling at 5,000 riel for 10, they give families such as Deang's half their livelihood. 'There will always be spiders here,' says spider hunter Kun, 22, hopefully. 'And as long as there are spiders there will always be people to eat them.' Judging by the relentless flow of patrons, her confidence seems well founded and Skuon seems set to endure as one of Cambodia's most curious visitor attractions Getting there: Dragonair ( www.dragonair.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. Buses for Skuon leave Phnom Penh central market every hour.