A blog about food in Thailand
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How To Make Bird’s Nest Soup

Posted date:  February 2, 2007
14 Comments


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As mentioned previously, I recently worked as an assistant to Eric Valli, one of 55 photographers involved in the Thailand: 9 Days in the Kingdom book project. Back in 1990 Eric did a National Geographic article and film about the workers who gather swift nests in the caves of southern Thailand. The nests, pictured above, are made from the hardened saliva of the swifts, and are believed by the Chinese to have medicinal properties. The gathering of the nests, which are located deep inside island caves, is also very dangerous and they are thus extremely valuable. For the 9 Days project Eric wanted to go back to these caves to photograph a profession and world that very few outsiders have ever seen.

I’d love to post Eric’s pics here, but reckon the publishing company wouldn’t be too happy about that, so I’ll have to rely on the images that I took, which is too bad, as Eric’s images were simply amazing.

The man below is called Sahat and was the climber that Eric worked closely with nearly 20 years ago:

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Sahat retired from gathering bird’s nests about 10 years ago, but is still very strong, and at 72, earns money by, among other things, climbing and cutting the tops off of coconut palms!

This time Eric worked closely with a young climber called Sun:

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a super guy, and one of most talented natural athletes I’ve ever seen.

It’s hard to explain in words the work these guys do because even after seeing them do it myself, the reality is simply quite unbelievable. Basically the climbers rely on a complicated network of bamboo scaffolding to reach bird nests that are often found at the highest and most deepest corners of the caves. These towers of bamboo can sometimes be literally hundreds of feet high, and the climbers climb up them barefoot, jamming their toes in the knots like steps. In places where the use of bamboo is not practical, they rely on bunches of vines, and increasingly nowadays, rope, to pull themselves up. Although nowadays most of the climbers wear modern harnesses (introduced by Eric), the only time they use them is when they are stationary and lash themselves to something stable (typically bamboo) if they have to reach for a particularly far wall of nests. And the electric light that Sun is wearing in the pic above is also a relatively recent introduction; when Eric was here in the late ’80s the climbers still relied on fiber torches that they gripped in their teeth!

As if this doesn’t sound crazy enough, simply to reach the cave that we photographed involved an hour boat ride, a precarious climb up a sheer rock face, a long hike uphill and a 150 foot rappel, although the climbers simply chose to climb down the bamboo. Here is the cave seen from about halfway down:

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Besides being dangerous, it was also very hard and dirty work, as this picture of Eric after a particularly difficult climb shows:

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Here is Eric setting up a shot inside a relatively small cave on an island called Ko Li Pe:

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As many of the caves are almost completely dark, we were limited to photographing in caves that had some natural light. This particular cave had quite a bit, and with the help of a flash, I was able to do these portraits:

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Because of the value of the nests, each cave is protected by armed guards:

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Although everybody assured us that there was little theft nowadays because “the thieves are all dead.”

Relaxing after a hard day’s climb:

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and Eric and I on our way back to Ko Yao Noi, where we were based for the week:

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In all it was a difficult and sometimes scary, but amazing experience. Because of the high stakes and security, Eric reckons we are probably among the only outsiders, Thai or foreign, to have climbed in these caves with these people, which is quite an honor. And in case you’re wondering how I feel about bird’s nest soup, frankly I find the stuff–basically a sweet, tasteless broth with strands of noodle-like bird spit–rather disgusting. But don’t tell the climbers I said that.


14 Comments for How To Make Bird’s Nest Soup


I would rather die. As I’m suffer of severe acrophobia I can not even go near the fence on my own balcony on second floor. I do enjoy the photos though,

What an incredible experience. I saw a documentary on bird nest collecting once on PBS and I was absolutely amazed, but to be in those caves with the climbers – now that is something else. Thanks for sharing this experience with us through your writing and photography. You totally deserved the vacation in Phenom Phen after this one.

p.s. I totally agree with your comment about the taste of bird’s nest soup.

Total respect. I’ve seen these guys in action (on film…) and I got vertigo in my own living room. Must have been an amazing trip. I hope you keep us posted on where Eric’s photos end up.

Thanks for this post. What an adventure. And your pics are great! I’m glad you didn’t trip, looks like it would have been a long fall…

Hi Austin,

I’m headed to Thailand in a month. Your blog is great! I’m working my way through it in anticipation of all the food I’ll be eating when I’m there!

I’ve seen the place where they collect the bird’s nest. I always think how daringly they climb up the bamboo sticks without any supplementary equipments. Do you know when the photography exhibition of the 9 Days in The Kingdom will be? I searched a TAT website but I didn’t find they mention anything about the dates.

Goran: You would definitely have had some problems there then… I’m not particularly scared of heights but was pretty nervous on the first descent!

anh: Ta muchly, and I’m glad somebody agrees with me on the soup!

graham: It was amazing–I wonder if it was Eric’s film you saw?

gregoire: a wrong step or a slip could have been very, very bad!

taryn: I’m honored I could be your guide!

yata: I don’t know if there will be an exhibition. The photos were taken for a book that will be released in December.

To Austin: I thought there would be the exhibition. I saw that there was a big grand opening. Anyhow, since you say there wouldn’t be one, I will wait for the debut of the book.

Wow, much respect for the climbers. How much do they really make though? Is it worth the danger? I’m not a fan of bird’s nest soup either.

[...] The first time I was on Ko Yao Noi was in 2007 when I was assisting French photographer Eric Valli for the book project, Thailand: 9 Days in the Kingdom. For his assignment, Eric had chosen to photograph the Muslim islanders who gather swallows’ nests (a Chinese delicacy) in local caves, revisiting a topic he had documented in a film, book and National Geographic article in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the nine days we worked mostly with the new generation of bird nest gatherers, but Eric did make a point of stopping by to say hello to Sahat, a now elderly gatherer who was the superstar of his previous work. Despite his age, Sahat was still as spry as ever, at one point proving to us that he could still climb by quickly scaling a vine hanging over our boat! [...]

Hi,
I would love to see the film that has been made about the bird nest climbers. Do you know if I can see it on the net??

Thank you for your help,

mann i love bird’s nest soup but I never knew where the bird nests are coming from!!!

i eat it like once every monthish and used to bought from website hongkong-bird-nest.50webs.com/index_e.htm sometimes, my mom went back to hong kong and bought a full suitcase of it cause its cheaper there XD

You you should edit the webpage name
How To Make Bird’s Nest Soup –
Austin Bush Photography to something more catching for your blog post you write. I enjoyed the the writing all the same.

Super Website…

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