Strolling through Trang Town in Southern Thailand, we paused on a side street when we heard an enormous number of birds making quite the racket. It was just coming on evening and above us what looked like swallows were swooping to and fro collecting their supper. But the cacophony of birdsong wasn’t coming from them. The building behind us had no windows, just what looked like sheetrock nailed to the side of all three stories, and a few screened vents. At the front of the building was a tower structure almost like a short church steeple, likewise sealed up with gray sheets of building material and with but a single dark square hole into the upper portion. There we could see speakers aimed out.
This is a black-nest swiftlet shot by “wokoti” who has a very nice collection of bird photos on Flickr.
We stopped a passerby who informed us this was an urban nesting area for the swiftlet, a bird whose nests – made from the bird’s saliva – allegedly possess great health benefits when consumed. You may find bird’s nest soup on some menus, especially in Chinese restaurants, and at the supermarket the tiny one-swallow bottles of a concoction made of the stuff are kept locked up like cigarettes or very high-price top-shelf liquors.
Out in the Andaman Sea among Thailand’s islands of karst limestone, caves are quite common, especially some that open to the outside world high above the turquoise waters. But you won’t find rock climbers scaling the cliffs to explore them. In fact, in some cases, you are liable to get threatened or even shot by hired guards who sit at the mouth of the big caves or nearby, guarding the resident birds within. This is no joke. Robbing the nests could bring a hefty sum to the daring thief, and to protect their interests, the owners and companies take security very seriously. Companies controlling the caves on Koh Petra, for example, not far from Koh Laoliang, have managed to get visiting snorkeling tours banned from their territory after some alleged nest snatching.
Does the stuff even work? Doesn’t matter. As long as a market exists that is willing to pay handsomely for some bird spit, the nest farming – and hoarding – will continue.
The woman we stopped in the street claimed that the bird populations are moving to the mainland, perhaps attracted to these custom-made colonies in abandoned buildings. I wouldn’t necessarily count on that, but it sure would be nice if those magnificent caves – as well as the snorkel-friendly waters around them – were open to adventurers.
Read more about things to see in Trang.