Myanmar’s Grandfather of the Toddy
By NYO ME The Myanmar Times 25 JANUARY 2019
The 73-year-old toddy climber in Eain Shae Min Toddy Land on January 22, 2019. Nyo Me/The Myanmar Times
73-year-old toddy climber U Kan Sein ties his special knife, which he has worn daily, to his waist with an old longyi. He folds the sleeves of his shirt, wears his longyi short so his knees show and leaves home to his toddy trees. “When I was middle aged, I climb 30 toddy trees twice a day but, now, only five”, he grumbled.
He currently lives with his middle son’s family. Though family members told him not to climb since he is too old, as a person who has climbed toddy since he was a teenager, he never stops and normally response by telling them that he is ‘healthy by only doing this’ and ‘he just climbs for relief of boredom.’ But is that the only reason?
U Kan Sein is the oldest climbers in the village Eain Shae Min, a Toddy area that boasts about 20,000 toddy trees, 6,000 of which are over 160 years old. When U Kan Sein was younger, the toddy lands were full with climbers. But now, only about 35 climbers remain.
The current generation have no interest in climbing toddy, but prefer to peruse non-dangerous and fixed income jobs. U Kan Sein is also the only one toddy climber among his family and relations. So, if he stops climbing, the art will be abandoned and the trees worse off.
“If the sap from toddy-palm spathe don’t get collected regularly at the top of the tree, there will be reduced production”, U Kan Sein said with concern.
Still, it is a dangerous job. Accidentally falling from a toddy tree can easily result in broken bones or even death. That’s the reason U Kan Sein doesn’t pressure his sons to be climbers.
“I pay respect three times to the toddy tree spirits,” – U Kan Sein. Nyo Me/The Myanmar Times
He himself always pays respect with his hands clasped palm to palm and raised to touch his forehead at the base of toddy tree every day before he starts climbing. “I pay respect three times to the toddy tree spirits,” he said.
U Kan Sein’s left eye cannot see clearly since he suffered a cornea issue after he was hit with a branch when he was 13. Though he lost sight in one eye, he maintains that he is still healthy. U Kan Sein does not touch alcohol, he is a teetotaller. He only drinks hot tea.
His nephew said that he once tried climbing the toddy tree when he was a teenager but he only got a little way up before vertigo and fear kicked in. He’s had no strong desire to be a toddy climber since that time.
The income to risk ratio is also pretty bad. A small clay pot size haul is worth only K500. During the season when juicy toddy are plentiful, like in June, U Kan Sein can collect 4 or 5 pots per day. But the day the Weekend met with him, he left with no clay pots in the evening. Evidently, it is a highly labour intensive crop.
With his meagre income, U Kan Sein buys his accessories and sometimes pays pocket money to his 5 year old granddaughter who lives together with him. Other grandchildren from his first son are wealthy enough to support themselves, he said with a smile.
His hands are covered with cuticles and cracking with dryness, which is also obvious on his leg. U Kan Sein intends to keep climbing, which is his only skill. After him, there will be no one left who cares about the sap of his toddy trees. “There is nothing I can do, I have to let them go when I pass away.”