When in Rome, do as Romans do. And in Myanmar, the Romans be drinking htan ye, or palm toddy.
Palm toddy is a tangy, mindly-alcoholic beverage traditionally consumed throughout many Southeast Asian and African countries. It’s all natural, and is produced by fermentation of the sap collected from cut flowers of female palm trees. The flowers are tapped in the evening by men who scale the trees using small bamboo ladders. The trees are cut and buckets are hung to collect the sap overnight, to be harvested in the morning.
After the buckets brimming with sweet sap are retrieved in the morning, the pale amber liquid is poured into clay pots and left to ferment throughout the day at wonderful establishments we came to call “htan ye pubs”. Similar to a pub in the UK, it is here where the locals gather during the hot hours of the day to take a break from work, or later in the day to socialise with a tipple while watching reruns of English football games.
Htan ye, colloquially and cleverly known as “sky beer”, isn’t exactly a sexy beverage that all the kids are drinking. It tends to be the domain of day labourers and older men who hail from the countryside. And, in the name of ethnography, that’s exactly why you should be drinking it too.
How to find a htan ye pub
Palm toddy is, at the end of the day, a rural pursuit. While Yangon and Mandalay may be full of enough Dagan Beer Stations to make your head spin, you’ll need to head to the countryside to enjoy bubbly sky beer.
In Myanmar’s conservative south, htan ye is harvested and consumed primarily outside of town borders, as not to offend Buddhist sensibilities. In the north it’s possible to find htan ye huts hidden away inside towns, but they’re still most likely to be found along the smaller highways that wind between villages.
One popular spot for tourists to check out htan ye is on the road between Bagan and Mt Popa, but with a little pronunciation effort (the H is silent) and some simple gesturing, it’s easy to find and enjoy toddy almost anywhere without being surrounded by a steady stream of tourists. Finding the pub is, of course, part of the fun. Ask around, as many times as necessary. If you’ve found a bamboo hut near a grove of palm trees with ladders at the top, you’re there.
Enjoying a Myanmar ‘sky beer’
People are going to be surprised to see you. Reassure them by saying something about htan ye or ‘sky beer’, take a seat at a table or a bamboo mat and wait for your beverage to be served.
Don’t get squeamish while watching the “publican” pour the toddy through a sieve, filtering out all the bees and ants and nature crap that somehow got into the fermentation pots.
Don’t wonder about the cleanliness of the glasses, bamboo cups, coconut bowls, or whatever that cloudy, slightly foamy liquid is served in.
Ignore the interested stares from the other patrons and just take a big ol’ swig of booze that is miraculously produced with just the passage of time.
Because that is the beauty of palm toddy: The taste and alcohol content changes as it ages, and it ages very quickly. The harvest begins in the morning, and the palm nectar is sweet, mildly refreshing, and completely non-alcoholic. But by lunchtime fermentation has transformed the nectar into a slightly fizzy brew with a sweet-and-sour taste, and enough alcohol to make you feel cloudy after a few glasses. By late afternoon, after fermenting in the heat all day, the htan ye is decidedly sour—almost vinegary—but if you can stomach the taste it packs a beer-like alcoholic punch.
Our favourite time for htan ye is just after lunch, when the taste is still manageable and you’re not likely to wilt and suffer from drinking fizzy, sour booze in 40ºC heat on an empty stomach. To accompany the toddy you’re likely to receive some kind of nuts and, if you’re lucky, some deep-fried snacks or jaggery. But we really recommend drinking this stuff with some food in your belly.
Mingle with the locals
If you’ve found a good pub, chances are the locals have never seen a foreigner in there before. They’ll be polite and demure and continue watching the football or scrolling on their mobile—but the eyes in the backs of their heads will be staring at you. You’re on their turf and they’re suspicious… but curious.
After a while the vibe will relax and the booze will take over, and you’ll be making friends in no time while ordering a free flow of peanuts and cigarettes from the “bar”. They’ll show you their pictures on Facebook and tell you the best places to go sightseeing, and if you’re really, really lucky, they’ll take off their shirts, flex their muscles, and invite you to brawl. Or something like that.