On one of the dive sites here at Phi Phi Ley, Thailand, we have a unique cave dwelling bird called the Swiftlet. They live inside the caves by the dive site called Viking Cave and have been used for many years for their birds nest in a Chinese delicacy of birds nest soup.The Swiftlet is a small bird, belonging to the Swift family. They have very narrow wings for fast flight and what distinguishes them from other species is their ability to effectively use echolocation to navigate themselves in complete darkness in the caves where they nest and breed.
Although consumed mostly in China, Swiftlets are commonly found in southern Asia and build their nests on cave walls and seaside cliffs using twigs, grass and (what makes this delicacy very popular), saliva. The saliva then hardens into cement-like noodles when exposed to the air. These nests also contain bird droppings and feathers; however they are very carefully cleaned before serving of course. Or… at least, let’s hope so. Once the nests are cleansed, they turn into white sponge-like strips.
These nests are then made into a traditional Chinese delicacy that is well known in China as an aphrodisiac. The soup is made by soaking the nest in water and served after it has softened into a gelatinous mixture. The soup itself is not eaten for its flavor, but rather for its supposed health benefits. This delicate spit soup is not only consumed by the Chinese, but also by Taiwanese and Indonesians as well and has been served for many hundreds of years.
Here at Viking Cave, the Thai Mafia has taken over the area as a result of the high values of this unique cuisine. These Thai collectors guard the cave all year round. The nest collectors climb steep limestone walls, through narrow spaces, usually on very unstable wooden ladders, which make their job very risky. Tourists and locals are not allowed to visit these cave as a result of the extreme financial worth of the nests. It is said that one can even be shot trying to access the shelter.