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:
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:
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:
Besides being dangerous, it was also very hard and dirty work, as this picture of Eric after a particularly difficult climb shows:
Here is Eric setting up a shot inside a relatively small cave on an island called Ko Li Pe:
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:
Because of the value of the nests, each cave is protected by armed guards:
Although everybody assured us that there was little theft nowadays because "the thieves are all dead."
Relaxing after a hard day's climb:
and Eric and I on our way back to Ko Yao Noi, where we were based for the week:
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.