Bangkok Redux

Ban Chakrabongse

Bangkok Redux

This month has been taken up with Bangkok, even though I’m here for only a week. I’ve never been for such a short time, which I suppose is one reason why it seems to have expanded. I’m here to talk at Narisa’s Bangkok Edge event — a festival of ideas, literature and music.

Bangkok has a strange effect on me these days. I now visit so rarely — the last time was four years ago — and yet I’ve been coming for 40 years, and for almost 30 years to where I am now, Narisa’s palace by the river, Ban Chakrabongse. There’s a certain amount of nostalgia in sitting on the verandah of the old Thai house where I’m staying in the grounds, from the early morning ascending call of the gao wow (Asian koel, a cuckoo), the deep rumble of a tug pulling a train of rice barges upriver, the whine of an occasional mosquito as it prepares for an ear-lobe landing, and the smell of Zaico that’s supposed to stop that.

My office for the week

The poster downstairs in the garden features the first book we did together for Narisa’s newly established publishing company River Books, and there’ve been (pause to count) 10 since then, the last being Tea Horse Road, which gets another airing at my talk across the road at Museum Siam.

On the right, Narisa with our first book together. On the left, her father, Prince Chula

From another early River Books book, Ancient Capitals of Thailand

Thailand and I have a history, and it dates from my first whole-book assignment, courtesy of Time-Life Books — a three month shoot to make a book on the Akha ethnic minority in the north. This was before long-haul tourism, hard to imagine now, a time when the Thai Airways flights from London were never more than half full. From then on I kept returning. Many magazine stories, many books.

So it’s good to be back, if only for a week, and there’s plenty going on at the main venue a couple of minutes’ walk from here. The talk I’m giving is called Asian Food Journeys, and the emphasis is very much on the journey part rather than the food itself. This is Thailand, so there’s food everywhere, not least in the stalls lining Maharat Road at the gate, but what interest me more are the stories behind the foodstuffs. One of the more bizarre, which for me started here in Bangkok, and which features in my talk, is Bird’s Nest Soup. I mentioned it back in November under Backstory, but l Ieft this very strange story hanging in the air, so now here it is…

The story came to me, as have so many others, from the Smithsonian magazine. The Picture Editor, Caroline Despard, had sent me the typescript, from a well-known and respected food writer, Roy Andries de Groot. It was a fabulous tale, of a thoroughly improbable foodstuff that most people had heard of or seen in passing while flicking through the menu in higher-class Chinese restaurants, yet the details of which were a mystery. As de Groot put it, “From remote islands in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean they are distributed, in an atmosphere of secrecy like that of the drug trade, by operatives who sometimes have high connections and invariably make equally high profits.”

I’d better explain exactly what these are, because they’re not at all like most birds’ nests. There are three species of swiftlet that make similar nests. The Black-Nest Swiftlet is the largest, and makes a nest of saliva mixed with feathers and odd debris that sticks to rock. The Mossy-Nest Swiftlet makes nests with so much moss that it is valueless. But it’s the Brown-rumped (Edible Nest) Swiftlet that produces the ‘white gold’ for the Chinese trade. It creates its nests from pure dried saliva, and nests high, generally above 200 feet and often at 500 to 600 feet, choosing the most inaccessible parts of caves on the most remote islands. Not expecting, of course, that humans would go to any lengths — or rather, any heights — to take them. There’s nothing logical in the foodway associated with these little cups of dried bird saliva. It’s taste approaches its nutritive value, which is to say almost nil, but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese for centuries from believing in its aphrodisiac and health-giving properties (it is supposed to improve skin tone, balance qi and reinforce the immune system). It does certainly have a gelatinous texture, which you could, if feeling generous, call velvety.

I called the writer and he promised to send me his contacts. These turned out to be rather few, partly, he said, because some of them simply did not want to be identified or involved, given that this was essentially a Chinese mafia business. Well, I could cope with that, and as a good part of the story was set in Thailand, I felt that I could use my own contacts and procedures for getting to the locations. In fact, his nest collecting scene was in northeast Borneo, in the remote Gomanton caves, and thinking about the budget and time, I reckoned that the Thai caves, of which I learned there were several, would do perfectly well instead.

One of the main suppliers is actually not far from here in Chinatown, and I began there…

The real start of the shoot, however, was a few months later, on the island of Koh Phi Phi. This was many years ago, before the island became famous for the filming of the Leonardo di Caprio move The Beach, and there simply weren’t tourists. I’d been introduced to a family from the small fishing village who collect the nests. We set off at sunrise from the main island to the small one, Phi Phi Lae, that has the huge limestone caves where the birds nest…

Once we’re inside this entrance, the cave is huge, but difficult to work out. It simply rises into blackness. There are bamboo poles sprouting from the ground…

I ask Haem, the collector, when he and his family will start work. “There are already four men up there”, he replies. I don’t see how, as I’ve just been looking, but Haem points out that what I thought was the ceiling is in fact just the base of the main shaft, which rises 600 feet. I look back up and wait for my eyes to adjust better to the dark. There, much, much higher and only faintly visible, is a delicate lattice of bamboo.

That’s when I discover that I do actually have vertigo and am not a natural born climber. The idea of climbing that creaking bamboo among slippery limestone rocks makes me feel very queasy. What I do is give the collector some old-fashioned powerful flash bulbs, which he fires off from high up…

So really, I need a more photographable cave, however remote, and on my next visit to Washington I persuade the magazine that it’s worth a trip to Borneo, where the writer visited the Gomanton Caves. One strong motivation is that he writes about steel scaffolding and, which sounds wonderful, steel hawser trapezes on which collectors swing out hundreds of feet in the air to snatch the most inaccessible nests with long special tongs. It sounds like the set of an early James Bond movie.

So, a few weeks later, I’m in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, on the northeast of Borneo, negotiating to visit the normal unvisitable Gomanton caves. Once there, it fulfils expectations. One collector is climbing a 500-foot rope ladder…

As my eyes adjust to the dimness, I can see the ground stretching ahead in what looks, and feels, like large soft mounds of loose soil. It is not. This is a thick carpet of guano — a mixture of bird and bat droppings — that gives off an appallingly strong ammoniac smell. How deep it is I can only guess, and while no doubt compacted at lower levels, on the surface it is spongy and moist. I think inappropriately of Black Forest gateau as I sink up my calves as I wade forward. Not only this, but in the light from the entrance, the dark brown mass is flecked attractively with gold specks that glitter and seem to move. And I can feel something tickling my feet, or is it nibbling?

A closer look reveals that they are indeed moving — a sea of predatory carnivorous cockroaches burrowing through the guano and patrolling the surface for anything that falls. I see them fighting to get into one of the tiny broken eggs that litter the floor like mushroom caps…

A chick or injured adult that falls from the nest stands no chance down here; if the fall from more than 200 feet hasn’t been fatal, they soon die under the onslaught of these golden-backed roaches, which emerge from the shiny moist ground and attack immediately. Any seething ball of cockroaches invariably conceals a chick.

But something is missing. To my surprise, there is no steel scaffolding and none of the paraphernalia such as trapezes described in such detail. I ask the collectors, and all think it very peculiar. No-one knows of such a system, or can think of any reason why it should exist. Here, as in any other cave, local materials from the forest are used, and in Gomanton these are principally rattan and bamboo. What I’d been expecting to photograph now turns out to be a piece of fiction.

And the odd thing is that the cave and the methods of collection are completely fascinating in their own way, without that mechanistic nonsense…

When I next arrived in Washington, the story complete, I met Caroline, only to find a tragic end to the whole affair. “I have some terrible news about the Bird’s Nest Soup story”, she began. “The writer just shot himself”.

I was stunned. For one horrified yet ludicrous moment, I wondered whether my spilling the beans on the fictitious parts of the story had had anything to do with it.  “Why?” I asked Caroline, “What on earth happened?” She told me that it went back a long time, to the Second World War, when he had been injured during the Blitz in London.

“That’s when he started to go blind, and I think he never got used to it”.

“Blind?” I asked, incredulously.

“Didn’t I tell you?”, she asked. “I thought you knew”.

I never guessed. And was someone with him in those huge caves in Borneo, someone who embellished the sight? Though it was wonderful and unpleasant enough without being added to. Or had he never gone? I would never find out.

By the way, if you like the idea of sitting on that verandah (or one of the several others), you can. Just go to the Chakrabongse Villas site.