The Asian swift is the bird whose nest, fashioned from mud and the bird’s saliva and reduced to soup, is the piece de resistance of many a Chinese banquet. These birds are ubiquitous throughout the Andaman Sea. Mostly they build their nests high in inaccessible cliffs, challenging the rapacious nest-collectors to risk life and limb on rickety bamboo scaffolding high above jagged rocks at water’s edge.
Not so the swifts of Myeik. They prefer the convenience and comfort of urban living, and the canny shophouse owners of the town are cashing in. As sunset approaches on the Myeik waterfront the sky darkens slightly as streams of these tiny birds pour in from the sea, each stream heading for its own shophouse. At the shop the business of the owners is being conducted as usual on the ground floor, but the upper floor has been closed off with all partitioning and furniture removed, and an open space left in the front wall of the building. Through this hole the swifts pour in.
This upper chamber of the house, set aside for their exclusive use, is home sweet dormitory for the swifts. They have decorated it according to their taste, with hundreds upon hundreds of muddy nests occupying every available space along the rafters, and the walls and floor tastefully splashed with guano. There is an aroma of the great outdoors. Every few days the householders simply walk upstairs and collect the nests, clean off the mud and other extraneous matter so that all remains is the precious saliva, and this is dried for export. When steamed, the result is the famous soup. The prices fetched by the dried saliva boggle the imagination.
Two hundred and fifty years ago the citizens of Myeik were also noted for having their eye out for the main chance. They owed their allegiance at that time to the King of Ayuddhya, latterly known as Thailand, within whose domain Myeik then fell. The town was Ayuddhya’s main port on the Andaman Sea, where goods from India and further abroad were unloaded for transport by elephant over the mountains to Ayuddhya. Customs formalities were conducted at Myeik, with copious scratching of backs. The sagacious King employed an Englishman named Samuel White as his harbour master, and Samuel’s house still stands in the town, as spacious as one would imagine and with a fine view out over the harbour. Harbour master at that time was an unsalaried position, but Mr. White contrived to retire as a wealthy man, as no doubt did many of his local staff.
Thai-affiliated entrepreneurship is not absent from present-day Myeik.. At the end of the sea-front promenade, in a compound the size of a football stadium, a reportedly Thai-owned resort and casino is under construction. It is another monument to local business ingenuity, in a country where gambling is illegal.
For visiting holidaymakers the principal allure of Myeik will be its islands, scattered over hundreds of square miles, which are numerous and pristine and where development is as yet in its infancy. Development is however occurring rapidly, with increasing boat transport options and guest houses already constructed on at least one of the islands. In some cases boat operators imbued with the entrepreneurial business spirit of their forebears appear to be going somewhat overboard on pricing, but in the fullness of time and with the arrival of additional operators it can be expected that things will settle down.