Living in SE Asia one encounters a truly extraordinary breadth of occupations. Urban garbage collectors along Bangkok’s labyrinthine maze of canals, collecting trash buckets on narrow waterways and taking them to city dumps. Mail delivery services along the same canals, using a combination of paddle boats and bicycles to deliver mail village by village. There are countless others.

As a curious explorer of the region I’ve been fortunate to witness – and participate in – some amazing occupations. Two of the most impressive that come to mind are the agricultural ninjas who climb Toddy Palm Trees, as well as their counterparts climbing Cluster Bean Trees, to fetch some of the more common Thai produce we see on our plates and as ingredients in our food.

First, the Toddy Palm heroes

Palms come in various shapes and sizes, but the Toddy Palm is a monster – a 5 metre high cluster of coconut-sized spheres common in central and eastern Thailand. The toddy palms rest inconveniently atop a crow’s nest of spiky leaves, some 30 metres high. No amount of shaking brings them down. You’ve gotta go up and get ’em!

To that, I’ve witnessed elderly men, without shoes or climbing gear, scamper up a 30 metre trunk to fetch the massive (and heavy) clusters of toddy palms. The rope is for sending the palms down to the ground, where a waiting relative (or eager Canadian) catches them so they can be chopped up to sell.

This is a death-defying act we simply don’t see in the west anymore (or ever). The word bravado doesn’t come close. These guys (and so far I’ve only see older men do this, but I assume women do as well – or perhaps they’re smarter than that) scamper up as if fetching a gift from the top of a small Christmas tree, and amazingly, swing from palm to palm, without the aid of any gear. Climbing back down and walking the 20 feet to the next tree only to climb back up again would be “inefficient” as one nearly 80-year old man explained to me while lunging like a gibbon from one treetop to the next.

The toddy palms are used in various Thai dishes such as sweet and tender pork, and are a key ingredient of course in palm sugar, which features in nearly every traditional Thai dessert and half of the most famous dishes in Thai cuisine. Who knew it was such an act of heroism to collect them?

Here’s a photo of palm sugar from Wikipedia:

The Cluster Bean miracle men

Another shocker for me was the real-life spidermen sacrificing life and limb to collect the prized cluster beans of Thailand, known in the Thai language as staw. This is a bitter-sweet-spicy bean that resembles a lima bean on the outside, but definitely not on the inside. The pungent taste blends well in curries such as stir-fried staw with shrimp and shrimp paste, or grilled staw enjoyed with Thai-style chilli paste.

Having heard about a group of miracle men in the forests of southern Thailand, we ventured down to shoot our documentary TV series at Kirirom National Park, in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. From here I motorcycled into the woods where the staw trees grow, and again bared witness to the most admirable display of dexterity and skill required of any profession.

Once again, no gear, only a cloth tied to each foot to form a belt to aid in the climb (that alone was impressive). I asked why no ropes to secure his position and he replied that it “slows them down.” Huh.

Growing up in Canada, I tried to think of an equivalent high-wire profession, and am reminded of the window washers 60 stories up in the big cities, with climbing gear, hydraulic lifts, cable suspension, and climbing harnesses. It’s a close second, but lacks the same level of danger and joyful disregard for safety. That being said – full respect to the window washers..not sure I could stomach that.

Here’s the quick facts on staw trees:

They grow mainly in southern Thailand, and grow 5 years or more before producing the pungent little beans. The trees can grow up to 30 metres high and live up to 20 years. The staw grow out in cluster pods with upwards of 20 pods in each cluster, and each pod in turn has between 10-20 beans.

The price for these high-wire prizes is approximately 300THB/kg ($10USD/kg). By comparison, common dishes such as tua fak yao or pak boong (morning glory) sell for approximately 50 THB/kg ($1.60USD/kg). You can see why staw harvesting is serious business which likely justifies the high-wire daredevil acts required to get them.

These are more the amazing lifestyles that are commonplace to those living in Southeast Asia, but seem like daredevil acts of heroism for most westerners, which we can barely believe. I’d love to lead our western guests from Smiling Albino and our partners around the world on a motorcycle trip into the woods and see this.

The daily harvest would, of course, be followed by a grand feast of local delicacies with all of these brave, limber men. It would be a fun way to cherish their culture, marvel at their livelihood, and feast on this amazing cuisine.

To the right you’ll see a few photos and a video of the fascinating lifestyles of the people of rural Thailand.