Taste the Sky With a Juice Fit for a Prince
By Zarni Mann 27 March 2014
MANDALAY — As summer draws in, those wanting to cast off the dull mood brought on by the high temperatures will usually seek out a spectacular beach or a cool mountain.
But for those who love to get a bit wild, and want a touch of unspoiled tropical village life, an idyllic village awaits just 25 kilometers north of Mandalay.
Along a dusty and bumpy, narrow road, crossing a deserted cemetery and fields, travelers reach the foot of the mythical Thakhinma Hill, where hundreds of tall toddy palm trees provide shade and livelihoods for a village.
Under the shady Neem trees and toddy palms, many small huts invite visitors to take a rest. Some people are happy just to find a shady place right under a cluster of palm trees.
The village is famous simply for its name: Eain Shae Min Htan Taw or the crown prince’s toddy palm village. It was once owned by Prince Kanuang, the crown prince of Mandalay under the 19th century reign of King Mindon.
Toddy palm juice, a sweet and minty-smelling drink with a milky texture, is a natural and organic palm juice produced by cutting the spadix, or the flowering part of toddy palm. Once cut, the juice flows from the plant into earthenware pots tied to the tree.
It’s a traditional and centuries-old Burmese favorite, enjoyed by everyone from princes to farmers. Nowadays the beer-like drink, which is fermented slightly and has a touch of alcoholic content—its stronger the later in the day you drink it—has been nicknamed “sky beer” after its origins at the top of the tree.
While other toddy palm juice shops in Mandalay and other cities mix their juice with various kinds of alcohol or water to give larger quantities, the crown prince’s village is loyal to its customers, serving only the genuine article. The venders are rewarded by repeat visits, and customers can also enjoy jungle meats, including iguana, at the village.
The volume of chatting and laughter from the small huts rises as juice is drunk. Khaing Htoo, whose family owns about 150 palms, is preparing to climb and fetch juice from the earthen pots that he tied at the top of his trees in the morning.
“We earn about 20,000 to 80,000 kyat [US$20-$80] on a normal day. But during water festival and other holidays, our income doubles,” Khaing Htoo said as he carried his bamboo ladder to the next tree.
Khaing Htoo’s family of six is supported wholly by palm juice sales, but villagers here also grow chili, peanuts and corn.
Until about 2000, visitors rarely came to the village, so locals had to transport the juice to Mandalay to sell. But more recently, the village has become a tourist attraction in itself.
“Some other juice stalls in other areas of Mandalay or in Yangon do not provide genuine palm juice like here,” said Ko Min Min, one among a group of friends visiting the village recently.
“I frequently bring my friends here because we want to feel the real tropical village life and want to drink genuine palm juice right under the palm trees like our ancestors did.”
Many villages in central Burma used to rely on toddy palms as their main business, using the palm to make both juice and jaggery. But in recent years, many have stopped farming toddy palm—some say because many young people have gone abroad to work, leaving no one behind agile enough to scale the tall trees.
In the crown prince’s toddy palm village, however, villagers are happy to remain reliant on their trees.
“Since we earn more than enough for our living, why would we go abroad?” asked Myint Naing, helping as his brother, Fatty, quickly climbed up and down collecting juice.
“We believe that if we treat our customers with care and serve them well, and as long as these palm trees live, we will not need to worry about our living and our future.”