clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

On the Hunt for Myanmar's Elusive Toddy Palm Wine

Palm trees make booze. Find it in Myanmar.

"Toddy bar?" he asked, craning around from the front seat of the car to look me in the eyes. His face fell into a slack jawed blankness. "What you mean?"

"Toddy," I said, nodding and hardening my tone to sound assertive. Everyone told me I could find it out here, closer to the country and the farmers. "You know, palm wine?" My confidence stumbled. "Alcohol from the palm tree?" I tried to use my hands to explain, splaying my right hand’s fingers out like palm fronds and my left hand acting as a machete. Dear god, I thought, this guy must think I’m an idiot.

He ogled me a moment longer, but then it clicked. Aye-Kay, my Myanmar guide’s mouth opened wider into some kind of cross between a smile and a yawn. "Ah, toddy. Toddy wine. Palm juice." He laughed. "Sky beer!"

I sheathed my palm tree hand. "Sky beer?" I said. "Great name. Can you take me to get some?" We hit a large bump, and he turned forward as we all flew a few inches into the air. "Yes, yes," he said, tightening his longyi, the shin-length, patterned skirt worn by most men throughout the country. "We will go."

All photos by Phil McCausland

A few days prior I’d flown to Yangon, Myanmar, and now I traveled north around the central hot-as-hell and arid portion of the country (the temperature constantly hovering around a solid 110 degrees and also somehow humid) in search of a beverage that couldn’t be found in any of the major cities—toddy, a boozy libation brewed from palm tree sap. Aye-Kay, a tall, broomstick-thin man in his late 30’s, met me at the airport outside of Mandalay. As soon as we hit the road to the former capital, I made my intentions known. He said we could stop by his typical toddy bar outside of town after his planned tourist stops at various temples, monasteries, gold leaf-making enterprises, and a Burmese restaurant.

The morning moved mechanically, possibly due to the 4 a.m. flight and the heap of jet lag that still haunted me, and the building anticipation didn’t help. Tourists and visitors on a short time budget are selfish people wanting only what piques their internet-searching interests at home rather than what the locals think they ought to find noteworthy. This egotism infected me now. I began to grow impatient and resented the fact I had to walk barefoot on the various temples’ sunbaked stone flooring.

Later, once Aye-Kay finished explaining the incredibly difficult process of making gold leaf by hand, he dropped me off at a restaurant, and I sat drinking Myanmar beer over some coconut-milk chicken curry and used the restaurant’s wifi to look into toddy.

"We will go to toddy after lunch," Aye-Kay said, smiling.

There are no Yelp reviews for toddy bars (though, at best, they most closely resemble what we know as beer gardens). No websites or addresses, either. Myanmar farmers grow up knowing where the bars are located because for many, especially the young, that is how the day ends. After daily backbreaking labor, the alcohol of the toddy relaxes and lulls them to sleep. But what outsiders have to appreciate is the immense effort the folks slinging toddy juice have to put in. This line of work calls for five parts farming, three parts crafting, two parts climbing and harvesting, and one part bartending.

And that’s just for the beverage. Toddy palm trees are some of the most versatile plants in Myanmar. Also called the sugar palm or the Asian palmyra palm, the tree grows across Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, where many brew their own version of toddy wine. The leaves, sap, and trunks are all used to make various items, including candy, toys, furniture, paper, folk art, sieves, twine, fencing, roofing, entire homes, brown sugar, vinegar, and finally, to concoct the juice and booze I wanted.

A freshly planted palm must lie dormant for 15 years before it can produce useable sap, and it's the male trees that farmers prefer since they drip more.

For the beverage, it’s the sap that matters, though the brown sugar—also called palm sugar or "jaggery"—tends to be most profitable. A freshly planted palm must lie dormant for 15 years before it can produce useable sap, and it's the male trees that farmers prefer since they drip more. One local saying states a tree starts earning for its parents at the same age as an obedient, decent child, carrying an implication that ought to make some folks squeamish.

Many in Myanmar consider toddy to be the national beverage. One expat I met suggested that if Myanmar wasn’t so uptight, his idea of "Toddy and Titties" would really take off. A place, he imagined, that could combine the simple craft of the sweet, or oftentimes sour, beverage with a strip club atmosphere. But, perhaps like the aforementioned expat, many don’t appreciate the incredible amount of work required to harvest sap from a palm tree because the explanation sounds so straightforward.

Cut 10-15 centimeters from the top of a pam tree's trunk, attach a pot to collect the sap during the night, grab it in the morning, and then wait until it naturally ferments. Filtration? That’s optional.

Many forget is that these trees are massive, often growing to almost 100 feet in height, and they don’t offer any low hanging branches for climbing. With a long knife and a gaggle of clanging clay pots, farmers have to scale an intricate system of loose bamboo ladders to the top. Once there, they must use an alarmingly sharp knife to slice deep cuts into the tree’s branches and one by one hang the pots to catch the sap. What might be a game for the latest season of Survivor is a viable livelihood in Myanmar. The pots usually go up around 6 p.m. and are retrieved at 6 a.m. every day.

The drive out to the toddy bar took half an hour. The smooth city streets turned to cracked rubble, then dirt. As we left the familiarity of Mandalay behind and drove through various tolls packed by locals and a bustle of activity, I saw aspects of Myanmar hidden to the leisure tourist—namely its abject poverty. A few naked children ran alongside the road, their feet kicking up dust, before quitting to return to their mothers and fathers who sat on the ground outside one room huts held in the air by spindly wooden legs, in case the monsoon season caused flooding. A thick layer of trash and broken wicker baskets littered the land. Soon brightly colored cemeteries replaced the villages, a few monks sat on their knees beside graves praying, and then nothing. The outside world flitted between patches of mango and palm trees, the trash dissipated, and the road grew bumpier. A section of the world left untouched.

We came to a stop at the foot of Thakhinma Hill, where a village lives in the shadows of their occupation—hundreds of toddy trees.

"This we call the Crown Prince Palm Forest," Aye-Kay said, gracefully smoothing his longyi as he stood waiting for me to get out of the car.

"Why’s it called that?" I asked, scrambling after him with a handful of pens and a notebook. "And can I buy you a drink?"

Aye-Kay smiled, walking forward with his hands folded behind him. "Prince Kanaung, from the 19th century, used to come and drink palm here," he said. "The village we call Eain Shae Min Htan Taw." Or, as I later learned, the Crown Prince’s toddy palm village.

Still considered "the people’s idol," Crown Prince Kanaung’s nephews assassinated him during an unsuccessful coup. Throughout his reign, he worked to modernize his country via new tax laws, a reorganized economy, and a westernized military and arms, earning the nickname "War Prince" and his people’s respect. He died alongside three of his sons fighting off the rebels, allowing the king to escape and eventually squashing the uprising. Then, 19 years after his death, the British won the Third Anglo-Burmese War, exiled the royal family to India, and ruled the country until 1948. Today, citizens of Myanmar still believe that piece of history might be different had Prince Kanaung lived.

"Shall we sit?" Aye-Kay asked, stretching his hand out to show off the massive complex of three-sided thatch huts that protected palm-made tables and chairs from the sun. We took a seat underneath the nearest one and waited. Nearby, a few people bustled in and around the largest hut. Clay pots with white numbers painted on their sides rested in an disorganized stack. Excitable chickens and ambivalent white cows grazed their way through the area. Packs of motorbikes pulled in while others departed. A group of young men smoked green, crayon-sized cigars and laughed in the hut next door.

A young woman walked up and spoke with Aye-Kay in rapid Burmese. They stopped suddenly, she looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and then they got back to talking. She left and returned with a pot large enough to grow a tomato plant, a painted 1300 on its side, a few children’s translucent plastic cups in an assortment of colors, a small silver dish of anchovies and onions, and a plastic tub filled with napkins.

"That is the price," Aye-Kay said, pointing to the number—1300 kyat, the Burmese currency, which is about the equivalent of a $1.20.

"But that’s got to be a gallon of booze," I said.

"Yes," Aye-Kay said, nodding. "Very cheap."

We used an extra purple cup to ladle the yellow and grey, cloudy wine from the pot. I took a deep gulp of it. Light carbonation, a sweet then sour tang, and a powerful yeast flavor punched me in the mouth. It held the same temperature as the outdoors, like warm bath water. I gasped, slightly surprised. Aye-Kay laughed.

"Good?" he asked.

"Yeah, yeah," I said, going back for another taste. "Not bad."

Light carbonation, a sweet then sour tang, and a powerful yeast flavor punched me in the mouth.

I wanted to speak with this farm’s brewer and harvester, but I kept getting the "raised eyebrow" reaction. Perhaps my enthusiasm and incessant picture taking put them off. Aye-Kay acted as an intermediary, but I had to remain at a distance. They kept at their work and offered short, irritated responses.

They told Aye-Kay who then told me that the toddy tree is used in almost every aspect of wine production. Toddy farmers even burn dry palm leaves inside pots to sterilize them, causing an attractive black soot to cover their clay lips. To ferment, only the palm sap is necessary, as it naturally ferments from its own yeasts once collected. After two hours in the hot sun, it becomes a sweet and mildly alcoholic (maybe four percent ABV) wine. Lime salt or a squeeze of lime juice can help slow or stop its fermentation. But if nothing is added, the drink will grow increasingly alcoholic and acidic throughout the day. By nightfall the drink becomes a useful vinegar.

The bamboo ladders used to harvest the sap, I learned, are attached at the top and loose at the bottom. At night, the base ladders are removed as the farmers fear thieves will climb the trees and drink up the pots that hang in the branches. But it’s not so much a problem here, as most people know each other.

Economically, toddy farmers do pretty well. Typical days earn a family of six between $20 to $80. During holidays and festivals they can make double. Either way, they collect enough that they don’t have to bottle the juice. Locals are generally willing to drive out to the toddy conclave and sit with friends while trying to find relief from the intense heat.

The next day I was off to Bagan, north of Mandalay, and Aye-Kay mentioned that there was another beverage I should try. "Ask for white liquor," he said. It’s a distilled version of toddy, something closer to rum than the wine or beer we had in the Crown Prince Palm Forest. I used the same tactic when my next guide picked me up. Zaw was shorter, rounder and slightly more enthusiastic about toddy. "I know a good place," he said. "We will go tomorrow."

Bagan is a breathtaking town. Very small—only 50,000 people call it home rather than the two million in Mandalay—but it carries a terrific visual blow with more than 2,000 temples and pagodas from between the 11th and 13th centuries. Some can only fit a single person, but the largest soars 200 feet in to the air and fills a horizon.

We took a much shorter trip to this toddy bar, hundreds of temples catching my eye. We came to a stop next to four weary-looking cows. Not far sat a singular hut, a shallow dirt field, and only a few short toddy palms. Two teens sat on a tarp in the shade, slicing up toddy fruit, which they would later turn into a candy. These, I quickly realized, were much poorer farmers.

But, as it turned out, they were also more gracious. Though they were out of the white liquor, they offered two pots that held two different types of toddy: the early morning sweet wine and the late-afternoon sour beer version. The land belonged to Qhle Win, a short, powerful looking man with a wispy, white goatee. He wore a muscle-shirt with a motor oil logo, its edges hanging past his shoulders, and a classic black and white longyi. He pulled some dried palm fronds from a nearby tree and showed me the fermenting pots. The milky liquid frothed, like a cappuccino gone wrong, and seemed to play host to a number of small dead insects.

"We’ve lived here for nine years," Qhle told Zaw. He pointed at himself and then each family member. "Me, my wife, and two children. We’ve done this all our lives. My son will do it. I do it. My father did it. My grandfather did it. We earn most from the brown sugar, but the toddy is good, too."

Zaw nodded and turned to me. "There is security in that," he said, "taking the job of your father. It is easier that way."

"I could see that," I said as I snapped some photos of an almost organized pile of empty beer bottles. "You don’t drive yourself crazy with options, and you get really good at something." I looked up at Zaw and his eyes seemed to turn hazy as they trailed from my camera to my face. "Do you think these people are dirty?" he asked as we walked back to the car.

"No, no," I said. "It’s different than the States here, but that doesn’t mean anything."

I wasn’t sure how best to continue. We both knew my Western home informed my perspective, and so to me this way of life was grubbier. But he thought my interest carried judgment, rather than the respect I intended to offer. I didn’t know if I could convince him otherwise.

"They live very clean lives," Zaw said, his voice growing quieter. "You should see …" His voice trailed.

"They work hard," I said, still struggling to find the right words. "What they do is so damn cool."

"It is," Zaw said. "Good." Then he turned to get back into the car, his eyes sparkling again. "I am glad you think so."

The Feasts We Remember


The Bitter Taste of ‘Not Too Sweet’


A Pea in My Pocket