Our Myanmar Travel Tips: A visit to the Toddy Farm near Mount Popa
The dry zone of Myanmar, which includes the Bagan region, is so arid that very little vegetation can grow. Thankfully the arecaceae palm tree is perfectly suited to the dry, hot conditions and flourishes across middle Myanmar- I had seen thousands in my overland ventures between Pyay and Bagan. Also known as toddy palms, the trees are extremely useful to the local residents and I was interested to learn more about it. So on a recent visit to Bagan I hired a car and ventured out to a toddy palm farm for a half-day excursion.
We exited the main archeological park and drove on the road that leads to Mount Popa. After 30 minutes or so we pulled over at a small thatched house which was surrounded by rows of the tall, spindly trees. We were welcomed inside and offered to sit down and have a cup of tea. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I realised that almost everything in the house was made from the toddy palm tree. Our seats and table were cut stumps of the trunk, the tissue holder was woven from the fronds and even some of the cups were crafted from part of the tree.
Having finished our tea we walked out to where a man was deftly maneuvering up one tree using a thin, bamboo ladder. Around his waste hung a few small clay pots and as he approached the top of the tree he pulled out a machete and began to cut at the small fruits. He hung his pots underneath at which point my friend explained that he was capturing the juice of the fruits. The farmer climbed back down and moved on to the next tree. I was awestruck at his strength and balance.
My friend showed me two odd looking objects which turned out to be the fruits of the male and female trees. The male trees produce juice in the cooler months whilst the female trees are best harvested in the warm summer months. This juice is then processed in to alcohol and candies- a process which we were soon to see. But first we had a look at a mill operated by an oxen which ground peanuts and sesame seeds to an oil, a painstakingly slow process.
Having seen how the toddy liquid is harvested, we moved inside to see the processing of it. Still using ancient traditions, the liquid is poured into large clay pots and left to sit and ferment. After a few days it is then distilled over several barrels before finally being bottled. Varying levels of strength can be made depending on the fermentation time. We tried a few samples- it was smooth but had enough strength to create a mild burning sensation on the way down.
Amazingly, the same juice can also be used to make candies and we watched as it was heated over a low burning fire. The liquid was constantly stirred to ensure it did not burn and eventually reached a thicker consistency. After cooling, it is rolled in to small balls and left to dry. We sampled some of the ‘jaggery’ as it is called. It was sweet with a honey taste but also just the slightest bit tart. They also made varieties with plum and coconut, the former being tart and the latter very sweet.
We also learned about the many other uses of the toddy palm tree. The fronds can be used for making mats, baskets and as roofing for houses. The female tree produces a fruit that has edible seeds that can also be mashed in to a juice to make custard. As previously mentioned the trunks of the palm tree can be made in to tables or chairs and also used as pillars for construction. Another use is fermenting the juice in to a vinegar which is then mixed with fermented soya beans to make a paste called pone yeh gyi. This paste is cooked with meats to make a special curry found only in the Bagan region.
As we leaned back in our comfortable toddy palm chairs, sipping toddy palm wine and fanning ourselves with toddy palm fans, we had a chat (and a laugh) about the incredible uses for this one simple tree. We bought a few bags of the jaggery and headed back to Bagan with heaps of memories and a new appreciation of the ubiquitous dry-zone toddy palm tree.
A stop at the toddy farm is easily made on the way to or from Mount Popa. Or ask your sales consultant about adding a half-day excursion including lunch served at the farm.
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