DRINKING IN THAILAND: BEER, MEKHONG WHISKEY, SCORPION VODKA AND HERBAL DRINKS

ALCOHOLIC DRINKS IN THAILAND

By some measures Thailand is the world’s fifth biggest consumer of alcohol per capita in the world. Many Thais drink beer and strong local alcoholic drinks such as Mekhong Whiskey. Singha is the most popular brand of beer. Imported beer, wine and whiskey are available but expensive. Thais sometimes put ice in their beer.

Wine is become more popular in Thailand, which now has its own vineyards and wineries. Between 1994 and 1997, the importation of wine in Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia almost doubled. It is believed that the majority of buyers were Chinese who had been persuaded that red wine especially was good for one's health. A red wine boom began in Thailand after the royal doctors told the king he should drink a couple of glasses of red wine a day for heart trouble. A vineyard in northeast Thailand owned by construction tycoon Chaiyudh Karnasuta produces 500,000 bottles of wine of a year. A Time magazine wine critic described the wine as “light and undeniably fruit, yet able-bodied and not at all sweet. Not a great one but a good one.”

Thai Beverage

State-owned Thai Beverage is the largest Thai brewer. The producer of Chang beer and and Mekhong whiskey, it is run by Chanroen Sirivadhanabhakdi, at one time ranked by Forbes as Thailand’s richest man. In 2005 his wealth was estimated at $3 billion. Thai Beverage’s Chang Beverage is a sponsor of Everton, an English Premier League soccer team. In 2005, Thai Beverage annouced a plan to sell 7 billion new shares for around $700 million in an IPO to pay off debts and expand overseas. The announcement was greeted by a protest by thousands of Buddhists concerned about increased alcoholism. Monks and students joined the protest of about 10,000 people that marched to Bangkok’s stock exchange.

Thai Beverage built its base in Thailand making dirt cheap whisky and white liquor, popular among poor, rural Thais. Charoen then created the Chang beer brand and succeeded in wresting Thailand market dominance from the older and better established Singha Corporation. “Thai Beverage needs to expand abroad because its home market is saturated and maturing. There isn’t the volume potential in Laos and Cambodia with much smaller populations, while religious objections to alcohol stymie markets in Malaysia and Indonesia.” [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, March 7, 2013]

Thaksin’s Crackdown on Drinking and Nightlife

In an effort to cut down on underage drinking, the government under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a vice crackdown in the early 2000s that involved closing bars at 2:00am and giving on the spot urine tests to minors. People in the entertainment and sex industry complained that the effort hurt business. In 2006, the government proposed increasing the drinking age and banning alcohol advertising, This was one of the first issues the post-coup government took up rather than establishing democracy.

Jamie James wrote in Conde Nast Traveler: “Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party took power in 2001 on a promise to wage war against narcotics and prostitution, which were spiraling out of control. The new government didn't make any subtle distinctions between sleaze and sophistication for a scary moment, it looked as though all the bars in Bangkok, a city of night owls, would close at midnight. Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and even staid Singapore were poised to overtake Bangkok as the region's fun city. But after some serious thought was given to the inevitable economic impact of such action, the backpedaling began. The campaign dealt a blow to established red-light districts; once notorious Patpong is now a dinosaur, frequented only by old-timers. Sex tourism has become an Internet-driven business. [Source: Jamie James, Conde Nast Traveler, March 2006]

“The night before I went to dine at Bed Supperclub, a popular Bangkok pleasure dome, the place was raided. Bed is that rarity, a gimmicky superhip club that has built up a loyal clientele and survived. From the outside, it looks like the mother ship in a 1950s flying-saucer movie, with a long ramp entering the belly of the craft. The all-white interior delivers what it promises: lines of wide beds upon which diners recline, in the decadent spirit of imperial Rome. Across from the ramp is the bar, which is usually packed with stylish young professionals wiggling and jiggling to the latest music.

That's where the bust took place. The cops arrived at 11:30, according to the club's general manager, Roger Chi. An enthusiastic, bright-eyed Californian with an MBA from Wharton, Chi expressed no rancor about the raid. "There must have been forty or fifty cops," he told me. "I was really impressed by their organization. I told the bartender to give them sodas." Two vans, partitioned with stalls, were parked out front, where customers were issued cups and ordered to produce urine samples. "Some of the customers were getting off on it," said Chi. "I heard them saying things like 'Only in Thailand!' It was a war story they could take home with them."

The police did a quick-and-dirty test on-site that came up with a few positives, but in the lab they all proved to be false. Bad police work, perhaps, but great TV: The night Bed was raided, news cameras from Thaksin-owned TV stations arrived simultaneously with the police, to capture dramatic images of the crackdown on dissolute urban youth?for consumption in the suburbs and up-country. Much of Thaksin's power flows directly from his dominance of the nation's electronic media. On television, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between news stories about the election and Thai Rak Thai ads, with Thaksin's dumpling-bland face on-screen every other time I looked up at the TV in a roadside noodle shop.

Thai Whiskey

Whiskeys sold in Thailand tend to be rice whiskeys or drinks that are not whiskeys at all as they contain main ingredients usually found in other kinds of hard liquor. Thai whiskeys are often more affordable and have more bang for the buck than beer. A form of distilled liquor, they have an alcoholic content of around 35 percent and have a sharp, sweet taste, somewhat like rum, and are often rum rather than whiskey as they are made from sugar cane. A cheaper alternative is lao khao (“white liquor”) of which they are legal and moonshine versions. The former is made of sticky rice and has an alcohol content of around 35 percent and sells for about half the price of rice whiskeys like Mekong whiskey.

Moonshine versions can have an alcohol content as low as 10 percent or as high as 90 percent. They are made from things such as coconut milk, palm sap, sugar cane, cane, taro and rice, often regarded as agricultural waste. Sometimes called lao theuan (“jungle liquor”), they tend to be stronger in the North and Northeast than in the south and are popular among the poor, farmers and working people as they are considerably cheaper than legal varieties because they pay no tax. Sometimes roots and herbs are added to enhance the flavor. Thais often drink it straight with a water chaser.

Sang Som (Sangsom) though commonly called 'Thai Whiskey' is not a whiskey at all but a rum. It has been distilled from sugar cane like all rums. Most all of 7/11's stock it and it would likely be the first bottle handed to you if you asked for Thai Whiskey. Sangthip is yet another Rum but generally called a Whiskey. There are those who say it is just Sangsom with a different lable on the bottle. Rhuang Khao is sometimes known as white whiskey but, like its close cousin Sangsom it is a clear rum.

Yaa Dong Whiskey with a Grass Water Chaser

Peter Dickinson wrote in the Hub Pages: “Many Thai whiskeys (sometimes referred to as laew) are not whiskey at all but are rum as they have been produced from sugar cane or molasses. Yaa Dong. This is the REAL Thai Whiskey! It used to be very popular but sadly its popularity has waned and it can be quite difficult to find. This is a Thai Herbal Whiskey. Though many Thai Whiskeys have something added this one is not only a recreational drink but directed as a cure for specific ailments. The law is very hazy as to whether Yaa Dong is legal simply because it has mystery additives but usually a blind eye is turned to its public sale. Traditionally it has been a beverage brewed at and distilled and drank at home. [Source: Peter Dickinson, Hub Pages]

“Its base ingredient is Lao Khao to which various products are added. Although produced as a cure it is also a popular family drink with recipes being handed down through generations. Commonly held in clear glass jars the clear liquid is infused with a mix of leaves, tree bark and roots and so changes colour. There is always a mystery surrounding the contents with rumours of opium and dragons blood (some say Deer Antler, Rhino Horn and the like but I have never seen this to be true). In turn the various infusions are reputed to have various powers including aphrodisiac like properties. [Ibid]

“Yaa Dong is a cheap drink costing no more than 10 Baht for a small glass called a 'Thuay Talai'. Each glass is accompanied by a glass of specially produced 'grass' water. 'Grass Water is made is made from grass that is boiled for an hour then strained and cooled. Yaa Dong can be sipped or slung back as a shot but is never mixed with anything and is consumed at room temperature. The flavour will be determined by the time of day as each jar is topped up daily with the base liquor. As it infuses with the herbs and as the level drops the flavour becomes stronger. The drink itself is deceptively strong and usually after five glasses an unfamiliar drinker is on the slippery slope to being drunk. [Ibid]

“Yaa Dong is a popular drink with Thai's and many will have a quick shot glass or two to start or finish the evening. Others will seek it out if suffering from a specific ailment and choose the infusion likely to help. It is usually enjoyed with a snack of pickled Bilimbi. These are usually served in a saucer along with a mix of dried crushed Chillies and Sugar. A bit of an acquired taste...but many people acquire it. Many people believe they are snacking on grapes which they are similar too in colour and texture. [Ibid]

“Ya Dong is commonly found at palm thatched roadside stalls and is sold in large glass jars labeled in Thai. Some of the bars in Pattaya, Thailand have jars which are also labelled in English. These read: 1) Ma-ka Tuam Loang - Active Horse Power For treated cough chronic, treated beri-beri; 2) Chong Arang Pa-arde - King Cobra Stand up, For maintain muscle, maintain health, increase efficiency of sex, help to be healthy; 3) Suat soong chu kam-rang - Formula 2 Enthus, For have good appetite, help to be healthy, maintain brains, treated beri-beri; 4) Kary-sen - Tendon Release, For treated wasting disease; 5) Doar Mai Ra Roum - Stand up never die, For increase efficiency of sex, maintain health, help to be healthy. Customers who try the one will usually move on to try all the others. There is a distinct difference in the tastes but all will taste much the same after the third or fourth glass. Rarely you may find establishments selling as much as thirty different infusions.” [Ibid]

Lao Khao and Lao Hai

Peter Dickinson wrote in the Hub Pages: “Lao Khao has been distilled from rice beer (Sahtoe) and so is a true Thai Whiskey albeit clear and colourless and with a completely different taste to Scotch. It is sold like most alcohol in the local corner shop and usually in a brown bottle. You can be pretty sure that the Lao Khao bought there is reasonably safe. Not so with the home produced product which may have less than desirable effects. Lao Khao is important though because this is the base liquor from which Yaa Dong is built upon. White Whiskey becomes Red/Brown Whiskey...water into wine! And a complete set of taste changes along the way. [Source: Peter Dickinson, Hub Pages]

“It is not unusual today to see Lao Khao sold today with a snake or two or perhaps a scorpion pickled in the bottle along with a Ginseng root. Marketed with names like 'Cobra Whiskey' It is more of a product for the tourist market...something to take home. Bottles of Lao Khao are readily available from the 7/11. Definitely an aquired taste. [Ibid]

“One of the more familiar 'brands' is 'Lao Hai' or Thai Rice Whiskey. This is commonly seen for sale in tourist type shops or at roadside stalls in the north. It is sold in glazed clay jars of various sizes. These jars are, in turn, sealed with clay. The clay seal is broken to expose a bag of damp fermented rice. Water is poured in till it reaches the top of the jar and left for an hour before being sucked out with reed straws. It has quite a kick and like all spirits is an aquired taste. It is possible to refill the jar three or four times leaving the 'water' just a little longer each time before drinking it.” [Ibid]

Mekhong Whiskey Versus Sang Som

Mekhong whiskey is a local Thai whisky which was first created in 1985 by James Hanzatko, a Chinese entrepreneur. As it is made from a mollasses and rice source it could be considered something of a whiskey-rum hybrid. Thai Mekhong Whisky is 35 percent alcohol (70 proof) and thus lower alcohol content than most Western brands of whiskey. On the other hand it is relatively cheap and thus packs a good wallop for the money.

According to Wikipedia: “Mekhong is Thailand's first domestically produced branded golden spirit. Launched in 1941, it quickly became the most popular brand in Thailand. This was helped by a dispute with the French concerning the border with Laos along the Mekong River which gives the brand its name. It was first created by James Honzatko while living on the banks of the Mekong river. Honzatko was an avid brewer and eventually began producing his favourite whisky on a large scale. After Honzatko's death, his close friend Peter Sawer took over the brewing of Mekong and was ultimately responsible for its mass production. [Source: Wikipedia]

Mekhong Whiskey is distilled spirit is made from 95 percent sugar cane/molasses and 5 percent rice. This distilled spirit is then blended with a secret recipe of indigenous herbs and spices to produce its distinctive aroma and taste. Mekhong is distilled, blended and bottled at the Bangyikhan Distillery on the outskirts of Bangkok. Its slightly lower strength of 35 percent alcohol means that it mixes well including as an ingredient in cocktails, the most famous of which being the 'Sabai Sabai', known as the Thai Welcome Drink.

Mekhong is widely available across South East Asia and is also now available in the Europe and the USA. Mekhong Whisky is mentioned several times on the album Hell's Ditch by The Pogues, along with other common Thai drinks. Mekhong (Mekong) is also the name of a popular song recorded by The Refreshments (U.S. band) on the album Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy'. The company that makes Mekhong Whiskey was bought out by ThaiBev in 2010 and production was temporarily stopped. It was almost impossible to buy a bottle in early 2011. However it is now back in production with a new English language label. In mid 2011 it was for sale at Duty Free Bangkok.

In 2011, Intoxicated Abroad reported: “While Mekhong is branded as a whiskey, it is much closer to a rum, however unlike other Thai-whiskeys it does contain some rice. Its flavor and aroma are both spicy and sweet with hints of ginger, honey, toffee, vanilla, floral, herbs and citrus. The distinctive aroma and taste are created when the distilled molasses and rice spirit is blended with a secret recipe of indigenous herbs and spices. The final product is 35 percent ABV. [Source: Intoxicated Abroad, February 3, 2011]

“Sang Som was introduced in November 1977 and has since become the dominant brand in the Thai spirits market. Over 70 million litres are sold in Thailand each year, accounting for a market share of more than 70 percent in its category. The drink has won gold medals in liquor competitions in Spain and Germany and the medals are featured prominently on the product's packaging. The medals have led to it being referred to locally as "Sang Som Rianthong" (Sang Som Gold-Medal). The liquor is produced from molasses with newly produced rum being mixed with rum that has been aged in charred oak barrels for 3-5 years. After that, the spirit is blended with a special concentrate of finely selected herbs and spices to give SangSom its distinctive special taste and aroma. It is bottled at 40 percent ABV.

Both spirits have a unique and sweet flavour that is very enjoyable mixed with cola and maybe a splash or two of Red Bull. Both Sangsom and Mehkong are owned by the same parent company, ThaiBev, which pretty well has a monopoly over the Thai-whiskey industry. Sangsom has the slight advantage of 5 percent higher alcohol content but whichever spirit fills your bucket can result in a fun yet forgotten night-out. Mangkorn Thong and Hong Thong are other popular brands (also ThaiBev products).

Cobra Whiskey and Banana-Flavored Scorpion Vodka

Lao Khao—a “white liquor” made of sticky rice with an alcohol content of around 35 percent— is often sold snakes or other creatures pickled in the bottle along with a ginseng root. Marketed with names like 'Cobra Whiskey,' is marketed for tourists to take home and impress or freak out their friends.

“Real Cobra Snake and Vine Snake Whiskey” (74 proof) is infused with a real farm raised Cobra snake, Vine Snake, ginseng roots and herbal seed pods. The whiskey is steeped with the snake inside for several months, which then imparts a unique flavour into the whiskey. The flavor is medicine-like and reptilian—definitely an acquired taste but a good conversation starter if you display in your living room. The drink reputedly is a strong aphrodisiac. It is also said to have many medical uses, such as the treatment of back and muscle pain. [Source:Thailand Unique website]

“Real Cobra Snake Whiskey (74 proof, miniature bottle) is the same as above except there is no vine snake, the cobra is a baby and bottle is small. “Large Common Cobra & Herb Whiskey” (104 proof) is more potent and has a larger snake. Real Cobra Snake & Scorpion whiskey (74 proof) features cobra with a black scorpion rather than a vine snake in its mouth.

Giant Centipede Whiskey (80 proof) is a triple distilled Thai white whiskey infused with a highly venomous tropical giant centipede. The centipede infused inside the bottle has been detoxified to make safe for human consumption. It was bottled on a farm in the north-east of Thailand that specializes in herbal drinks. Centipede whiskey is consumed in Southeast Asia as an aphrodisiac and a treatment of back and muscle pain. According to the Thailand Unique website: “This unique giant centipede whiskey could be an excellent addition and a great conversation piece for your home, bar or office. Or it would also be a great, hard-to-find, gift for that special someone who already has everything except for a rare, fascinating bottle of 100 percent authentic centipede whiskey.

Gecko Lizard Whiskey (100 proof) is a strong rice whiskey infused with a farmed gecko lizard and herbs. Spider Whiskey (90 proof) is Thai rice whiskey infused with a large non-venomous spider. Spider whiskey is relatively rare.

Banana Flavoured Scorpion Vodka (76 proof) is special distilled Thai rice grain vodka is infused with a real farm raised Heterometrus Spinifer scorpion and flavoured with banana and sweetened with Thai sugar cane. The vodka is steeped for several months, which then imparts a unique flavour into the liquor, the vodka is then sweetened and flavoured to taste. “Real Scorpion Vodka” is a special triple distilled vodka also infused with a real farm-raised Heterometrus Spinifer scorpion. As is the case with the cobra whiskeys it is consumed as an aphrodisiac and a treatment of back and muscle pain. Every bottle is unique in its own way so therefore the item purchased may differ slightly in looks but not size.

Thai Beer: Singha Versus Chang

Thai beer has a high alcohol content. Singha (pronounced “Sing”) and Chang (which means elephant) are the two most popular brands. Thai beer is typically lager. Locally produced Thai beers face competition from major international brands, but have found ways hold their place in the Thai market and successfully create a niche for themselves abroad. Amarit is regarded as one of the better beers made in Thailand. It is a malty, sweet, pale-gold lager brewed by Thai Amarit Bangkok. Phuket Beer and Federbrau are the only Thai beers brewed according to the German purification laws or Reinheitsgebot. Phuket Beer won a Gold Medal Award in the Category of Best Lager from the Brussels-based Monde Selection organisation.

Singha is the oldest and most popular Thai beer in Thailand and abroad. Up until the early 2000s it held about two thirds of the beer market in Thailand. It is brewed with Thai-grown barley and hops imported from Germany. Singha has been described as a “bright-gold lager with a hoppy flavor.” Some say it’s the best beer produced in Asia, an accolade some Japanese brewers might take issue with. Named after the mythical half-lion creature shown on the label, Singha contains 6 percent alcohol and is produced by Boon Rawd Brewery, which opened in Bangkok in the 19th century using German technology. Singha also appears in Thailand in Light (3.5 percent alcohol) and draught versions. Pubs sometimes have it on tap.

Singha beer has been brewed in Thailand since 1934 although the Singha label says "SINCE 1933"). The original recipe for the beer was developed by the Thai nobleman Phya Bhirom Bhakdi and his son Prachuap, who was the first Thai to earn a brewmasters diploma from Munich’s Doemens Institute.

Recently, Singha has been challenged by Chang beer, made by Thai Beverages. Chang is noted globally for its sponsorship of Liverpool's Everton football club, as its name and logo have appeared on the team’s uniform since 2004. Thai Beverage (ThaiBev) is Thailand’s largest brewer. Owned by Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, one of Thailand’s richest people, it also produces and Mekong whiskey.

For a while Carlsberg held a 25 percent share of the Thai market. Although foreign beers are popular within the country, the Thai government seeks to shelter its domestic breweries through the imposition of import duties; in addition, all imported beers must bear an import sticker on their bottle caps. As a result, Western brewers have struck partnership deals with Thai brewers, such as Carlsberg's partnership with Thai Beverages.

Bending the Elbow in Bangkok’s Bars

Describing a night of pub crawling in Bangkok, Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “I boost myself onto a stool along the oval of the Sukhothai Hotel's classic Zuk Bar, out of breath, a few frustrating minutes past the end of happy hour. In front of me sits a stack of blue matchbox-sized packets called "Wakies" that my Thai drinking companion has brought along for the evening. Condoms, I guess. Can't a Western man come to Bangkok without everyone assuming he's a sex tourist? But no, they prevent hangovers, says D, a Bangkok law professor. "They're organic. You can buy them at 7-Eleven." [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2006]

I've placed my tomorrow morning in D's hands because I'm determined to uncover some of Bangkok's best drinking palaces. The plan is to hit places where people go strictly for the cocktails, bars where the main buzz is the one in your head. Bangkok has a canon of travel literature on the other stuff: the temples and temptations. There's no need for another referral to pole-dancing bars frequented by men who can't get a date. There will be no obligatory stop to commune with Graham Greene's ghost at the Bamboo Bar of the Oriental Hotel.

Thailand has a robust drinking culture, to the dismay of the moral guardians now trying to give the country's bad-boy image a scrubbing. Bangkok is a place where whiskey is served by the bottle. I swallow a Wakie. I've recruited D and Noy, a Thai American journalist, to be my guides. Like most Thais, they have shortened their names to something more manageable for Westerners to pronounce. I later learn they privately call me "It," a name Thais sometimes use to refer to foreigners. They mean "It" with affection.

My original plan called for a solo drink at the Dome, a restaurant-and-bar complex atop the 67-story State Tower in the Bangrak district. Never got there. Two of the Dome's three elevators were out of commission, and the mob for the only working elevator just kept getting bigger. I had only an hour until I was supposed to be at the Sukhothai across town, where D and Noy had suggested sampling the $25 all-the-wine-you-can-drink happy hour, so I jumped in a taxi. It hurtled into traffic on the expressway ramp and came to a dead stop...It was after 8 p.m. by the time I settled into the Zuk Bar, and the wines were back up to their usual $15 a glass. I order a beer. And another.

D and Noy are already in the spirit. D's drinking a strawberry \o7caipirinha\f7 made with \o7cachaca\f7, the sugar-cane liquor that is Brazil's hippest export after soccer star Ronaldinho. Noy has a vodka-base concoction called "Beautiful Kiwi" that has lime and honey. "We invented it," says the bartender, a beautiful woman nicknamed Tip (really: a bartender named Tip), though it turned out after more investigation that the drink's creator was a visiting mix master from Bali.

Stop on a Bangkok Pub Crawling Tour

D is trying to firm up the night's itinerary. He has about 10 places in mind: a few hotel bars, some old reliables and a smattering of new places. "AND then there is the bar at Koi," D says. "It's a restaurant. There's one in Los Angeles too. That would be good." Maybe, I think. I'm not really looking for L.A. connections. "And tonight is Models Night," he says. "Yeah, yeah. An L.A. connection would be good," I tell him. First, though, D wants to stop at an artsy neighborhood bar called the Phra Nakorn Bar & Gallery, near the Democracy Monument.

The Phra Nakorn is on the rooftop patio of a building that looks like a student hangout: no band tonight but reggae on the sound system, framed black-and-white photos on the walls and a pool table on the third floor. The vine-rimmed patio is wonderful. From the terrace, you can see the Golden Mount, the glittering gold spires of Wat Saket lighted up in the distance. We try to order Thai whiskey, but the bar doesn't carry it, so we settle for a bottle of Sang Som rum, a local brew.

"Chon!" says Noy, raising her glass. It's the Thai expression for "cheers," but D and Noy struggle for the correct literal meaning. "Clink?" suggests D. "No," Noy says, "more like 'collision.' Or 'crash.' " I'm relaxing at last. D phones a bartender he knows who says he'd be happy to shake us up some specialties later on. I'm enthused. No time to dawdle. There are places to go. "Models Night?" I ask D.

But he's a meticulous man with a plan. We are soon pushing through the crowds on the Khao San Road, the Champs Elysees of backpackers made iconic -- or ruined, depending on your point of view -- by Leonardo DiCaprio's movie "The Beach." It's a pedestrian mall now and has been upgraded from its scuzzier roots by the addition of corporate coffee joints. D leads us down an alley to Susie's Pub. Susie's looks like the kind of place where Thais go to rub up against foreigners. In every way. It isn't the kind of place I had in mind. People are drinking, but they don't look very discerning about what they swallow. I want D to focus. "Models!" I hiss at him.

Yet D has one more stop on the way: an old jazz club called Brown Sugar, amid a strip of bars on Soi Sarasin in Pathumwan. D remembers going there in the mid-'80s when he was about 13, with an uncle who somehow knew someone who was connected with the film "Good Morning, Vietnam." D ended up at Brown Sugar one weekend afternoon, listening to jazz with Robin Williams. Noy is impressed by the Hollywood connection. "Was he hairy?" she asks, over her gin and tonic. The band takes five, and we finish our drinks.

Koi time. It is, indeed, Models Night. Koi is one of those sleek, pretty bars with plenty of couches. Long-limbed Western women drape themselves over the seats, while young guys with scratchy facial hair and muscle shirts stand over them. Ah, the fashion business. D knows one of the bartenders here too. May is an enthusiastic young woman who shimmies when she takes your order. It's like being served by Charo.

D tells May we're researching a story about drinking in Bangkok, and, even though the restaurant is closing, she rises to the challenge. "Oh, I'll make you a great drink," she says. "It's got eight kinds of booze. No juice." May feeds various liquids into a mixer. The drink is poured, and I take a sip. It's radioactive. I lean on the bar and take another Wakie. I'm beginning to reel, but D seems energized. He wants us to visit his bartender friend at Syn Bar in the Nai Lert Park Hotel.

Syn has a retro feel, with white lights blinking through the carpets and bubble chairs suspended from the ceiling. I enter feeling like Austin Powers, aim for a bar stool. Just make it. Behind the bar, is Bennie, a pony-tailed Swede. He will be my assassin.Bennie starts me off with a Raspberry Tart Meringue, a cocktail that involves chunks of lime, passion-fruit vodka, vanilla syrup and much else I don't remember. I will, however, recall the blowtorch he pulls out and uses on the drink like a welder. "To give it a bit of a surface," he says. I have to concentrate hard to balance on the stool, and Syn's "Jetsons" motif has me feeling as if I'm bouncing through an asteroid belt. I excuse myself to go to the washroom and get lost on my way back. They find me down a hallway and steer me into a taxi. Hand me my notebook. Press my camera into my hands.

It's 1 a.m., and Bangkok is closing, at least officially. My original plan had been to find places that served till dawn, but my night is done. The next morning, I feel remarkably good. My body feels as if it took a few Gs on a fighter jet. But I have no headache. No dry mouth. The Wakies did the job, I tell Noy when she calls. And how's D feeling? I ask. Surely hurting a bit too. Noy laughs. "He's fine," she says. "But he thinks you're a bit of a lightweight."

Non-Alcoholic Drinks

Beverages in Thailand that are purchased on the streets are often consumed from plastic bags. Fresh drinks made from watermelon, guava, lychees and other fruits are plentiful and delicious. Sometimes they are mixed with salt. Fresh coconut water and squeezed sugar cane are also widely available and good. Fresh coconuts are refreshing and hygienic. Drink it with a straw straight from the coconut. Don't let the vendor pour it into a glass, which may be unclean.

Thais often make coffee flavored with ground tamarind seed. Iced coffee is very poplar and good; brewed coffee and tea tends to be strong, sweet, and served with milk. Ginger tea is very popular. The Thais often sprinkle ginger into pineapple and other fruit juices. Ice tea with tapioca balls are also popular. The Thais make also tea from rain water gathered from leaves in a lotus pond.

Soft drinks such as Coke, Pepsi, Orange Crush and Fanta are widely available and cheap. Try to drink bottled drinks where you buy them. Otherwise they will put in a plastic bag or you have to pay a bottle deposit. My favorite Thailand drink is sweet soy milk. The coastal areas serve toddy (palm sap) drinks. Milkshakes and yogurt drinks made with fruit are also good. While tap water is not generally recommended for consumption, ice is generally safe in Thailand. Bottled water is widely available.

According to the Tourist Authority of Thailand: Fruit smoothies and fruit juice are both very popular: smoothies made with fresh fruit and sugar syrup are blended with ice that is generally safe to consume. Coconut milk is another safe option as the coconut is simply cracked open from the top and served whole with a straw. Thai ice tea is served with condensed milk, which gives it a pinkish orange color and sweet flavor. Thai ice coffee (oliang) is a strong black pick me up far superior to the Nescafe that is so often served as “coffee” in many restaurants. Otherwise, there are many Starbucks throughout the Kingdom, particularly in Bangkok, if you really need a quick coffee fix. Finally, red bull energy drink was invented in Thailand and can be procured at 7-11 and mom and pop minimarts for 10 baht. There are other local brands, but taste and potency vary widely. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Inspired by a Japanese book entitled Dare you to Drink Urine , many Thais began drinking urine for its purported health benefits in the 1990s. One man who drank his urine told AFP, “Urine is amazing medicine. Now I drink my urine every morning., I also use to clean my nasal orifices and help with allergies.” The book claims urine helps clear the mind and can be used to treat and ward off illnesses ranging from a soar throat to AIDS.”

Herbal Drinks in Thailand

According to the book The Thai Kitchen: “A dictionary published by the Royal Institute in 1982 defines an herb as a natural product from plants that can be mixed with other substances and used as medicine for medical treatment and toning up the body. So herbal drinks are beverages made from herbs, vegetables, and fruits, as well as other parts of the plant such as the bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds, and roots, because with some kinds of plants, various parts can be cooked and used as medicine. Herbal drinks, processed from natural products, possess great nutritional value and medicinal properties. [Source: thailand.prd.go.th/ebook/kitchen ]

“Herbal drinks have in them the taste of nature, and they are very useful, thanks to all the vitamins and minerals in them, such as anti-oxidants to help prevent wrinkles, freckles, heart disease, blood clotting, arthritis, paralysis, cataracts, and a host of other health problems. What is more, the juice can improve your appetite, make your skin shine, and even make your hair look healthy. It also helps control fats in the system, so your body functions more efficiently, because nutrients in the herbal juice can help regulate the functions of the body and they help support the other nutrients that the body needs. Many of the drinks have fiber, too, which is good for the digestion.

When making herbal drinks, you should choose fresh ingredients, and with no bruises, because the freshness reflects the quality of the drink. As for fruits, they should be ripe and not pulpy. An important point to remember is that there is no need to peel the fruit or vegetables, because much of the valuable and highdensity nutrition is concentrated in the skin, especially in plants such as carrots, beetroot, and apples. These kinds of fruits are very appropriate for making juice. But of course, don't forget that all fruits and vegetables must be cleaned before you turn them into juice.

Making and Drinking Thai Herbal, Fruit and Vegetable Drinks

According to the book The Thai Kitchen: “There are several proven ways to get all the necessary goodness and flavor from different kinds of plants: 1) Squeezing: You can make a delicious drink by squeezing orange, lemon, and sugarcane or other plants containing lots of water. 2) Crushing: You can mix crushed fruits and vegetables with boiled water in order to reduce the concentration. Suitable fruits and vegetables for this method include Thai celery ( khuenchai), cucumbers, corn, Thai melon ( taeng thai), guava, carrots, and bitter cucumbers ( mara). 3) Boiling: When you boil certain plants and vegetables, you can extract their color, their smell, and their nutrients. Plants suited for boiling include lemongrass, bael fruit, water chestnut, and roselle.

The nutritional value of fresh natural products is highly sensitive to change and will gradually deteriorate as soon as they react with fresh air. So you should drink the juice as soon as you finish making it, and you should make only enough for drinking in one day. Besides being made for drinking in the home, herbal drinks are now becoming an industry in the form of the One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) campaign, and they are exported worldwide. Some popular products are made from lemongrass, carrots, tamarind, tiger herb ( bua bok), black wild ginger, roselle, the noni fruit ( luk yo), and chrysanthemum.

Some of the five-star products under OTOP include pasteurized sugarcane juice from Grab Yai village, Ban Pong district, in Ratchaburi province; aloe juice made by the Ban Kasetpatthana Women's Cooperative Group of Ban Phaeo district in Samut Sakhon province; Indian gooseberry and bael fruit juice from Chaopraya Apaipubet Hospital in Prachin Buri province; juice that combines luk yo and wild honey from Muang district in Phitsanulok province; guava from the Green Friend Housewives Group of Talad Yai district in Phuket province; black wild ginger juice made by the Black Wild Ginger Juice Group of Lom Kao district in Phetchabun province; and grape and sugarcane juice from the Grape Juice Production Group of Wang Nam Khiao district in Nakhon Ratchasima province.

Chaleo Yoovidhya and Red Bull

Red Bull energy drink was invented in Thailand. Its creator Chaleo Yoovidhya died in March 2012 . The family was ranked fourth richest in the country this year by Forbes magazine with a net worth of $5.4 billion. The Yoovidhya family own a wide range of businesses, including shares in the energy drink brand, hospitals, real estate and the sole authorized importer of Ferrari cars in Thailand.

In his obituary, David Segal wrote in the New York Times: Chaleo Yoovidhya earned billions by creating and marketing Red Bull, the energy drink that has added a caffeinated jolt to countless all-nighters and parties. With little formal education, Mr. Chaleo founded a small pharmaceutical company, TC Pharmaceutical Industries, in the early ’60s. He started producing antibiotics but later turned to concocting a beverage that was loaded with caffeine, as well as an amino acid called taurine and a carbohydrate called glucuronolactone. [Source: David Segal, New York Times, March 18, 2012]

Christened Krathing Daeng — “red bull” in Thai — it was marketed to laborers and truckers in need of a boost. The drink, along with its many imitators, became the unofficial beverage of the expansion that turned Thailand into one of Asia’s so-called tiger cub economies in the ’80s. Krathing Daeng’s path to international phenomenon began when Dietrich Mateschitz, a sales representative for the German household products company Blendax, found Asian pharmacies peddling a variety of syrups as potent pick-me-ups and discovered that they cured the jet lag he experienced on his frequent flights around the world. He got in touch with Mr. Chaleo, one of Blendax’s Asian licensees, and soon the two had a partnership that would bring Red Bull to the rest of the world. According to an article in Forbes, each man put up $500,000, and each took a 49 percent stake, with the last 2 percent going to Mr. Chaleo’s son Chalerm.

It was Mr. Mateschitz who came up with the slogan “Red Bull gives you wings,” and for a drink with more than double the amount of caffeine found in Coca-Cola, the name was apt. With its distinctive silver can, Red Bull was embraced by students who needed to stay alert into the wee hours, and by carousers who wanted to perk up while they imbibed. Mixologists, amateur and professional alike, dreamed up a slew of new cocktails, like the Vod-Bomb: Red Bull and vodka.

There were tales about the dangers of this combination, including a 2007 article in the British newspaper The Daily Mail with the headline “Mixing vodka and Red Bull can be deadly, warn experts.” Such articles, as well as the occasional ban in European countries, only added to Red Bull’s cachet with its fans, which tend to be young and male. An aura of danger was part of the brand. The company’s Web site contains videos of stunts like a man back-flipping off the Tower Bridge in London.

Red Bull long eschewed traditional media outlets, like television, and focused on sponsoring student parties, sporting events and athletes, with a special emphasis on the stars of extreme sports. The strategy worked. In January 2011, the privately held company reported that it had sold 4.2 billion cans of Red Bull, generating revenue of $5.1 billion. It claimed a 70 percent share of the energy drink market. Forbes estimated Mr. Chaleo’s wealth at $5 billion and ranked him the 205th-richest man in the world.

In terms of personality, Chaleo Yoovidhya was the opposite of the adrenalized fun his drink inspired. He was reclusive and, according to one of his sons, had not given an interview in 30 years. He was born in central Thailand, the son of a poor Chinese family. His parents reportedly sold fruit and ducks, and among his early jobs was a stint as a bus conductor. “I never heard words like ‘difficult’ or ‘impossible’ from my father,” his son Saravudh said in a video recorded for a series to be posted next month on the Web site of The Nation, the Thai newspaper. “He dedicated his life to his work and never complained that he was tired. He really enjoyed work and sometimes carried on until 1 or 2 a.m.”

His death was reported by the state broadcaster MCOT, which cited the Thai Beverage Industry Association. The Nation, a Thai newspaper, reported that he was 90, while several other news media outlets in Thailand said he was 88. Forbes recently put his age at 80. Information on survivors was incomplete. He was said to have been married twice and to have 11 children.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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