Edible Bird’s Nests and the Swiftlets of Bokpyin
The Bokpyin I Knew
The Thanintharyi Region is a long, narrow strip of land on the southern section of Myanmar that stretches out like a bent elongated arm trying desperately to catch the spoils of the Andaman Sea. The sleepy town of Bokpyin, situated in its southernmost tip, is so isolated from the center that locals are more familiar with Thai markets and commodities than those normally found in Yangon.
It was not my first time in Bokpyin but my first few visits were mostly focused on the scenic though isolated islands scattered all over the archipelago. And, when on dry land then, my insatiable appetite for seafood kept me and my hosts equally busy. The locals have become so familiar with my love for the town’s fresh fish, crabs and prawns that our favorite seafood restaurant (actually the only one in town) always reserved the best catch of the day and always knew how to prepare them when they hear that I was in the neighborhood.
It was only on that day in September, when I and some friends decided to skip the car and walk to the seafood restaurant for dinner that I noticed something else. The roadside scenery at dusk was just as I always remembered it; dark and quiet, occasionally disturbed by rowdy youngsters in motorbikes. But the atmosphere that day was different. There was a strange sound — a large, not so harmonious blend of buzzing, shrieking, and chirping — dominating the late afternoon Bokpyin sky. And when I looked up, there they were; thousands upon thousands of birds filling the strands of electric cables flowing above the streets like the unending musical notes for an unknown melody. I took it as a grand introduction to Bokpyin’s growing bird’s nest industry prepared just for me!
Moving to the City
The usual habitat and nesting places of edible-nest swiftlets were the caves and clefts on cliffs of many islands scattered all over the archipelago where they feed on flying insects and breed in colonies. The demand for edible bird’s nest has been there for hundreds of years now and the traditional way of harvesting the nests from these habitats in Southeast Asia was by risking life and limb to scale the treacherous cliffs and cave walls without harness or protective equipment.
Some ten years ago, according to a local bird’s nest entrepreneur, the swiftlets started coming home to one of the old Bokpyin houses to roost. Motivated by the promise of big income, enterprising local people quickly learned how to attract the birds and converted the upper floors of their houses or even constructed new structures, the size of ordinary houses or bigger, to be used as bird houses or man-made nesting places for the birds.
It was not too difficult to make arrangements for me to see and photograph one of the town’s roosting rooms. It turned out that the other restaurant we go to when we choose to eat traditional Myanmar food has been maintaining a swiftlet roosting place on its upper floor. And so we went there the next day and, after enjoying a sumptuous meal of spicy meat and various unfamiliar greens, the owner gladly escorted us on a tour of the upper floor. As we reached the darkened room, his face beamed as he proudly pulled out from his pocket a nest that he just recently harvested and pointed to the rafter where the birds built it.
The set-up was not very complicated. The windows and outward doors of the room were boarded to simulate the dark environment inside a cave or a cleft. Only a little amount of light was let in through small holes that they bore on strategic locations on the walls. Small, gable-shaped openings were built on the roof as the main entrance and exit for the birds. Swiftlets flying or perched outside the building get attracted by sounds of other swiftlets being played endlessly through miniature speakers and tweeters installed inside the room. The floor was lined with tarpaulin sheets to collect the birds’ droppings which would be used as compost.
I felt amused to learn later that the male swiftlet was the one building the nest, mostly during the breeding season which takes about 35 days. It would venture to guess that the male bird built the nest to attract a mate — not too different from a debonair yuppy buying a condo first and using it to attract a partner to live with him. And the male swiftlet does the construction by producing strands of saliva and carefully weaving them into delicate netted layers that eventually solidify and take the shape of a shallow cup clinging to the cave wall — or a wooden beam in this case. And then the female swiftlet, attracted by the shape or the level of craftsmanship applied on the nest, or simply got hooked by the nest-builder’s charming personality; moves in to lay and hatch the eggs.
Caviar of the East
Edible bird’s nests are sometimes referred to as the “caviar of the East” not without reason. Traders can charge up to US$2000 per viss (equivalent to 1.63 kg) and the global market is estimated to be worth $5 billion, with Hong Kong and the US reportedly being the biggest importers. In Hong Kong, a bowl of bird’s nest soup would cost US$30 to US$100.
The reason for the high price is its extreme popularity in Chinese culture due to its rarity, the supposedly high nutritional value and medicinal qualities, as well as the belief that it is an aphrodisiac.
Many Asian women consume bird’s nest soup out of the belief that the nest can help smooth their complexion and make them look younger. The bird’s nest tonic is also said to help during pregnancy. One local newspaper reports that a high-end spa in Shanghai for mothers-to-be maintains it’s own bird’s nest restaurant and sells gift bags of the bird’s nest tonic for as much as 3900 RMB or more than 500 dollars.
In Myanmar, the price of one viss of edible bird’s nest, at US$2000, is more than what an average Myanmar person earns in a year. This has made ‘farming’ of edible-nest swiftlets very attractive to prospectors. State media reports that there are now more than 130 structures devoted to swiftlets in the Thanintharyi Region. Competition for space in Bokpyin between nest producers and tourism developers has seen land prices surge to as high as $75,000 a plot in the downtown area — almost the same price as some commercial areas in Yangon.
Being more worried about the bird population than the bird’s nest soup, I asked the shop owner when he does the harvesting. As if expecting my question, he answered, “Only after the eggs have hatched and the fledglings have flown out”. I guess that time marks the fulfillment of the male swiftlet’s mission in building a nest out of his saliva and a hint of profit to the person who built a bird house out of his upper floor bedroom.