Learning something new


As you know I’m a prolific singer.  In my head and out loud I’m very rarely without a tune and my Kampot bike rides are no different, many of them featuring the quirky earworm – Birdhouse in your Soul by They Might be Giants.


An odd choice you may think, but read on and you’ll discover why it’s not such a strange thing to be singing after all.


Let me kick off by saying that Cambodia is a real joy to behold for the bird lover.  As the dry season progresses the variety and volume of birdsong increases making it an almost constant soundtrack to your day, even in the most urbanised areas of the towns and cities.  Birds range from your common and garden sparrows to more exotic parakeets and various birds of prey along with a fair few water loving birds such as storks and cranes, especially around the rivers, canals and rice fields.


But that’s not the reason for my earworm.  That, I’m afraid to say is slightly less salubrious but interesting none the less.


The first time I visited Kampot I stumbled upon a local expat publication – The Kampot Survival Guide, which, as well as providing really useful information about the practicalities of visiting or living in Kampot (all laced with a healthy dose of sarcasm) gives an insight into the town’s history and make up.  It talks about the Chinese influence on the town and makes mention of the fact that:


“We have many bird houses that produce a truly Chinese delicacy, birds nest soup. Some of these are makeshift and some of them are specially built for the job.”


At the time, I thought very little of this and went about my day enjoying all that this sleepy little river town has to offer.


However, returning as I have to make Kampot my home for a while I’ve become intrigued.  As I have been cycling around exploring and also wandering on foot I have regularly seen large flocks of what look like swallows looping and swooping around strange looking windowless buildings dotted around the area.


My interest piqued, I returned once more to the Kampot Survival Guide and discovered that these buildings were in fact the birdhouses they refer to.  They describe them thus:


“They are easy to spot, just look for a big house with no windows. They simulate cave conditions inside and tempt the birds in by playing looped bird calls, playing loudest at sunrise and sunset. “


Fascinated, I consulted the great God Google for more info and was amazed to learn that the birds are in fact swiftlets (there are 3 different kinds and they are only present in South East Asia, despite birds nest soup being a Chinese delicacy) and 1kg of their solidified saliva nest will net the Cambodian farmer around $600 per kilo, with cleaned and processed nest commanding 3-5 times that price.  That’s not bad going for harvesting congealed bird spit!


Now I’m no fan of bird’s nest soup.  Like most weird and wonderful food offerings I have tried it (5 years in China will do that to you) and to be honest would much rather have a dollop of rice noodles in my soup thank you very much.  But that said, as long as the farming is being carried out ethically – i.e. the nests aren’t being harvested before the eggs are laid and hatched – I am not averse to the birdhouses in and around Kampot, especially as they have encouraged me to learn more and also invoked the repeated singing of the lovely Birdhouse in your Soul on an almost daily basis.



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