Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.
Heard of birds nest soup? Well this is where some of the bird’s nests come from.
For the most part Phi Phi Island is harsh limestone rockfaces. On the way to Maya Bay is a large cave eroded by waves which opens out to the waters. A shaky-looking bamboo scaffold covers most of it from view. In this cave is a colony of birds called swiftlets whose nests are valued for the Chinese delicacy. They’re believed to have properties such as improving the voice, increasing the libido (of course), relieving asthma, and general immune benefits.
Nest harvesting begins in February, and the first two nest builds are taken before the birds are allowed to keep one to breed. Getting the nests involve climbing up a bamboo ladder to the ceiling of the cave, which is more than a hundred metres high. The cave is covered with bamboo scaffolds and small alters, and if I were climbing up that high to get a nest for a virility soup, I’d want to pray pretty hard beforehand too.
The local name of the cave is Tham Phaya Nak, named by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1972 after the Naga, a great serpent of Buddhist legend. The English name for it is Viking Cave, after a series of paintings on the walls inside depicting four tall ships. Little is known about the paintings or who did them, but reportedly they’re over a thousand years old. The ships appear to be European and Chinese, and while they don’t resemble a viking ship in the slightest the name has stuck.
Lounging on a platform was a man holding a fishing rod. His solitary job was to stay there for a month during the non-harvest season and watch over the valuable bird nests within. For the most part this seemed to consist of fishing. Before the 2004 tsunami the cave had been open to tourists.
I wouldn’t say that the man on the platform was totally isolated – the tourist boats must be pretty distracting, and there were solar panels on the platform so he must have some luxuries – but for a moment there I thought to myself that that is a guy who has found the perfect place for a holiday. Peace and quiet for a month, getting paid for it, and all you need to do is sit around fishing near some birds nests.