Prized for its aphrodisiac and energizing qualities, bird’s-nest soup is such a delicacy in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong that ludicrous sums of money change hands for a dish whose basic ingredients are tiny twigs glued together with bird’s spit. Collecting these nests is a lucrative but life-endangering business: sea swifts (known as edible-nest swiftlets) build their nests in rock crevices hundreds of metres above sea level, often on sheer cliff-faces or in cavernous hollowed-out karst. Nest-building begins in January and the harvesting season usually lasts from February to May, during which time the female swiftlet builds three nests on the same spot, none of them more than 12cm across, by secreting an unbroken thread of saliva, which she winds round as if making a coil pot. Gatherers will only steal the first two nests made by each bird, prising them off the cave walls with special metal forks. This in theory allows the bird to build a final nest and raise her chicks in peace. Gathering the nests demands faultless agility and balance, skills that seem to come naturally to the chao ley, whose six-man teams bring about four hundred nests down the perilous bamboo scaffolds each day, weighing about 4kg in total. At a market rate of up to $2000 per kilo, so much money is at stake that a government franchise must be granted before any collecting commences, and armed guards often protect the sites at night. The chao ley seek spiritual protection from the dangers of the job by making offerings to the spirits of the cliff or cave at the beginning of the season; in the Viking Cave, they place buffalo flesh, horns and tails at the foot of one of the stalagmites.
In recent years, entrepreneurs in Ban Laem, near Phetchaburi, across on south Thailand’s Gulf coast, have started competing with the chao lay – by constructing sea swift condominiums and trying to attract the swiftlets that frequent the attic of the nearby temple. The theory is that by constructing windowless concrete towers that mimic the Andaman Sea caves – complete with cool dark interiors and droppings-smeared walls, plus swiftlet soundtracks on continuous replay – they can entice the birds in to build their nests and harvest them with ease. To date, the main beneficiary seems to have been the construction company that builds these ugly towers, as the local swiftlet population suddenly has an awful lot of new accommodation to choose from.