Relax folks! Old Sawadee isn’t about to take out his little red book and start quoting political aphorisms and exhorting you to display more comradely zeal. This has nothing to do with any Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. If a Thai takes one look at you and suddenly proclaims you to be “mao”, it’s not that that you’ve suddenly taken on the appearance of Chairman Mao, it’s just that you’ve probably has waaaay too much to drink. In Thai mao simply means drunk.
I’ve seen more than a few drunks in my time, but not nearly as many…or so it seems, as I have since moving to Thailand. Is there something in the air that makes people here imbibe more than a drink or two? Well, it is pretty damned hot most of the year! At the end of a long hot day, a few cold ones sound like a fine idea I admit. In fact I’ve been known occasionally to enjoy a cold alcoholic beverage in the evening.
Mao however doesn’t mean having had a mere drink or two. It means, and you should feel free to choose the descriptive words of your choice: shit-faced, pie-eyed, stoned, blitzed, pissed, intoxicated, inebriated, wasted, falling down drunk, etc. However you want to phrase it, anyone in such a condition is well advised to avoid doing anything which requires more than a barely functioning brain stem.
Being mao is a truly democratic condition. Men and women are equally welcome to join the club. There are no restrictions due to economic circumstances, social class, political affiliation, nationality, sexual orientation, age, or any other criteria you might think of. All that’s required is the desire to have a blood alcohol level high enough to make coming near an open flame problematic. Part timers are welcome to join the ranks, although it seems that the majority of this less than distinguished group considers part timers rank amateurs.
I have only walked down, or “stumbled down” to be more accurate, the halls of this dubious “social club” once in my entire life, and it was more than enough for me. Ah, I remember the night in question as if it was only yesterday, although Young Sawadee was a mere babe, relatively speaking, being only twenty one years old.
The drinking age in Massachusetts was twenty one, just as it is today. I grew up however a short half hour’s drive from the New York state line, where the drinking age then was eighteen. It was a right of passage back then to head over to New Lebanon and go drinking at a club called the Showboat. Yes, the damned place was actually shaped like an old paddle-wheeler. I recall that I had quite a fair amount of “luck” with some pretty girls there. Another option was simply to stop at the first liquor store, send in someone who could actually produce a valid ID proving that he or she was of “legal age”, and head off into the night.
As girls didn’t really care for beer, what we often wound up drinking was something called Tango, which was basically a screwdriver mix of vodka and orange juice. Other times our tipple of choice was Boones Farm, a supposed “apple wine” which I doubt ever came anywhere near an orchard. It was simply “apple flavored” rot-gut. It only goes to show that teenagers can and in fact will drink almost anything if they can get a buzz!
Anyway, on one fateful Friday night back in 1971 I was visiting some friends in Boston who had a large rambling house on Tremont Street. Quite a few of my good friends were either going to Boston College or B.U. so I often found myself on the Mass. Turnpike headed east, ready to party. Although we were mostly a bunch of dedicated pot heads, it wasn’t unusual for there to be a bottle or two floating around. On this night it was Mr. Jose Cuervro making the rounds.
This was my first experience with Tequila. Looking back on it now, I wish I had never touched the stuff. The problem was that it was soooo good….at least while I was helping to polish off the first bottle…….and the second….and even the third. I have no idea how many hits I chugged down. The whole ritual with the limes and the salt was soooo cool……..until my body told me in no uncertain terms what it thought of being abused so recklessly. The expression “waves of nausea” do not begin to describe the intensity of the gastric distress beginning to rise. A tsunami of nausea would be a more accurate description of what was about to engulf me……again and again and again!
Now I may not be Einstein, but I got the message loud and clear that night. Drinking to excess is not anything I ever wanted to do again….ever! It’s been forty years since that horrid night, but I have never once even been tempted to binge drink again. It was almost thirty years before I could bring myself to say hello to Mr. Cuervo again, and that was not much more than a quick nod so to speak.
My wife and I were visiting her family in Burriram every year, and I had gotten in the habit of bringing a bottle or two of liquor for them. Thet were always as excited as a five year old on Christmas morning to unwrap what exotic libation the family Farang had brought. One New Year’s Eve I brought a bottle of moderately priced Champagne. That failed to make much of an impression. Perhaps it was a bit too subtle for their tastes. No one thought much of the Kailua either. Too sweet they said. I found this odd coming from people who routine swill that evil Thai “whiskey” infused with God knows what and tasted like Vick’s cough syrup. Ah, but the Tequila, now that was a winner! They got quite the kick out of the whole salt and lime routine. For me, the memory of the gastric tsunami of 71 was still firmly etched in my cortex. One hit…..just to show the family I wasn’t a complete wimp, was more than enough…especially since it wasn’t even 8:00 AM yet!
My in-laws, like many Thais can casually drink me under the table without any problem, and I’m willing to bet could do the same to many of you as well. They certainly get enough practice at it. I suppose if I were a dirt poor farmer and spent most of my life with my “back to the sky and face to the earth”, I might want to hit the bottle every evening.
Only one member of my wife’s family never touches so much as a drop. I’ve mentioned Brother-in Law # 1 in a few submissions. He is the only one of my wife’s siblings to make something of himself, despite not going beyond the 5th grade. Starting with a single small plot of land, he and his wife worked with dedication for many years. Today he owns enormous tracks of productive farmland. His small home is spotlessly clean. His two children excel in school. When I hear some people say that girls from rural Issaan who choose to work in bar trade didn’t have any other alternatives to escape poverty, I think of this exemplary fellow who would rather have a glass of cool lemonade at the end of a hard day’s work, rather than a few tall Changs.
My dearest wife rarely touches anything alcoholic. The last drink I saw her have was three or four years ago, and that was a teeny tiny glass of sweet plum wine.
I don’t have enough data to make a sweeping statement based on statistical evidence, but the Thai women I know who do drink, can really pack it away. If the woman in question is petite, it doesn’t take many drinks to send them over to mao-land. Even a few bottles of Spy can be enough. During my annual bicycle tour through Lampang during Songkran, I see scores of women of all ages bobbing and weaving with a bottle or glass of good cheer in hand. No one, let alone the police seems to care that there are young girls, some barely teenagers, staggering around completely blitzed on whatever booze they can get their hands on. You certainly won’t hear any complaints from the legions of drunken teenage boys, who will be scoring later in the day with some of these tipsy girls. Even in Thailand, “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker”!
Songkran is the one time of the year that I drink more than I would care to. Everyone is always pressing drinks into your hands and it seems churlish to refuse someone who is smiling at you, even if they are cross eyed So…once again Sawadee winds up tossing down one cold beer after another, while discretely tossing away one “whisky soda” after another. If I started actually drinking those, I would be mao in very short order, and it’s already hard enough maneuvering safely through the crowded streets on my bike.
While I am hardly on the temperance wagon, I rarely drink very much during the rest of the year. It’s not because of my health either. It’s simply because there aren’t that many alcoholic beverages that that I enjoy. No, it’s not that I am a snob. I am one of the least brand conscious consumers you’ll ever meet. I can state categorically that I can’t tell the difference between brands of vodka or whisky. Okay, I can distinguish between say Johnny Walker and Thai “whiskey”. If I like something, it’s not because I’m trying to impress anyone. Well there was one occasion when I did buy a $100 bottle of champagne to impress a beautiful woman I met in a museum in Boston. I can’t say if that made an impression on her or not, but that evening ended very well….and the bubbly wasn’t bad either. Generally speaking price is not an issue. Since I’m not guzzling gallons, I could care less if something is relatively expensive. If I want it, I buy it.
That’s not to say that if I suddenly was in the mood for a bit of bubbly I would just go out and buy a bottle of vintage champagne…….as if there was actually any to be found in Lampang. The first question my frugal wife would have would ask is,”How much did that cost?” The first question the doctor at the ER would ask is “…..and how precisely sir did that bottle come to be up your bottom?”
I have never been a serious wine connoisseur, even though I did study about wine when I was in culinary school. Maybe it’s because the only wine that was ever in my parents’ house when I was growing up had a screw top on it and whose label usually read Mogen David or Manachevitz !If that doesn’t have you rolling on the floor with tears streaming down your face, its because you weren’t raised in middle class Jewish family.
Actually I do enjoy a nice glass or two of wine, and when I lived in the U.S. I would often have wine when dining out. In Thailand though, I rarely go out to any restaurants, and in Lampang you won’t fine any wine at the local noodle shop! Note: Spy does not count as wine!
Your choices for anything alcoholic to drink here at a typical Thai restaurant are usually limited to, Chang, Leo, and Singha. Sometimes you may find Heineken available. Sometimes if I’m out with friends I might order a bottle of any of those, but not that often. The truth is I’m simply not much of a lager fan. On a hot summer’s day, and let’s face it, there are a lot of hot summer days here, lager can be refreshing. I just don’t enjoy the taste of lager.
“Taste? Are you some kind of pansy Sawadee? Men don’t drink beer for any stinking taste! Men…..manly men drink beer because they want to get sloshed! Only effete, artsy, girly-men drink alcohol because they like the taste! You’re not supposed to like the taste! Be a man Sawadee! Eat a bowl of these here Death’s Head chilies and chug down a few liters of Chang! Maybe then you’ll grow some hair on your chest mister!”
Okay, maybe I was laying it on a bit thick, but seriously though, how many of you actually liked the taste of your first lager? I didn’t. Over time I grew to appreciate the bitterness to some degree, but must admit that I never loved lager. I prefer the taste of dark beers. I’m not talking about stouts like Guinness, although I do enjoy those as well. I’m also a fan of ales. For many years I had a business which took me to the UK frequently. It was there I had the good fortune to sample a wide variety of ales. My taste buds recall those days with pleasure. During this time, The Campaign For Real Ale was going strong, and many pubs offered a whole lot more than the typical fizzy commercial brews.
For me, it was like suddenly discovering that real bread wasn’t the spongy, factory extruded pap that you found on the supermarket shelf. How can you even compare a fresh loaf of crusty farmhouse bread, still warm from the oven to the cellophane wrapped “foam insulation” that most of us grew up with?
Before I start getting angry letters, let me say first that everyone’s taste preference is difference. If given a choice, I prefer rye bread or pumpernickel to white bread, even if the white bread is a delicious baguette. I actually make first rate sourdough white bread twice a week. If I could find decent rye and whole wheat flour around here, I would be using that as well. Secondly, I don’t mean to put well brewed lager in the same category as that which is frankly inferior….and let’s face it, there is some truly skunky tasting piss masquerading as beer out there! So if lager is your drink of choice, raise a glass or two and enjoy. Chai Yo!
Hmmm, now that I think about it, there is another reason to raise a glass of lager….a very good reason in fact to swill lager all night long. If your beer is being served by a very young and attractive “beer girl”, everything seems to taste much better. Full marks to Thais for coming up with this delightful institution. I have a couple of Farang friends who often indulge in a few beers at the local Tesco Lotus, not I suspect because the décor. I mean, how special are some old formica tables and plastic chairs. No, I think the cute girls with whom they carry on some good natured flirting with, are what keep them coming back.
I don’t get down to Bangkok very often, but when I do I enjoy drinking something I can’t have at home. I think the homebrewed ale at The Londoner is first rate. On several occasions I had the good fortune to be there on a night where you buy one drink and receive another for free. Two pints are just enough for me to feel a warm glow without getting tipsy. The German wheat beer on tap at Bei Otto is a nice accompaniment to the excellent, if very rich food they prepare.
Does anyone else out there enjoy cider? I’m not referring to sweet fresh pressed apple juice, although I always drank gallons of it when I lived in the Berkshires. I’m referring the sparkling alcoholic variety. I used to enjoy cider in pubs, especially when I was traveling through Dorset. Some good friends there had me sample a few glasses of farmhouse cider. Wow, does that stuff pack a punch! Back in the U.S. some folks up at Otter Creek in Vermont make some nice cider but alas I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to ever drink it again. I’ve heard tell that cider is available in Bangkok, although it’s expensive. Perhaps I’ll track some down the next time I’m there.
As I write this the sun is going down and a lot of people, both Thais and Farangs will be heading out to enjoy a Saturday night out on the town. I won’t be one of them. It’s not that I’m an old fuddy duddy. It‘s more that I’m simply old…..or at least I feel old! If it’s Saturday night, you’ll most likely find me enjoying dinner down the street with some of my farang friends and their Thai wives…..and children. My friends like to have a glass or two or five. There’s always plenty of cold beer on hand, and usually a bottle of whisky. Occasionally I will have a beer, but more and more it’s soda water and lime juice for Sawadee.
Now for me, it’s a one minute to my home, and that’s on foot. My friends though will be getting behind the wheel. To be honest I often worry that they’ll make it home alive. To be frank, they are often undoubtedly mao…..although they would be indignant if you accused them of being inebriated. “Mao!!! I’m not mao!” It might seem obvious that drinking and operating a motor vehicle is not a good idea, but people do it all the time. When we lived in the U.S, I would always ask my wife to drive home if I had more than a single drink. I may not be Einstein, but I knew that my reaction time would be slower. As you know having to correctly make a split second decision is difficult enough if you are stone sober. An alcohol soaked brain ain’t likely to help your driving ability…..and if you are riding a motorcycle the danger increases even more.
Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a serious problem here in Thailand. Although during Songkran and at New Years, the police do set up some checkpoints, during the rest of the year they don’t seem to be overly concerned with drunk driving. I have no statistics on how many motor vehicle fatalities are alcohol related, but I would I would bet its pretty damned high. You see many signs around town warning young people about drug abuse, but nothing about alcohol abuse. Although places like 7-11 and Big C are very strict about alcohol sales, underage teens can usually find a neighborhood shop to sell them booze.
If you are inclined to be a heavy drinker, being retired here, may not help you become more moderate in your habits. If you aren’t working and don’t have any outside activities, you may find time weighing heavy on your hands. One way to fill the hours is to drink.
I feel fortunate that I have never been addicted to anything. I was never a cigarette smoker. I did smoke pot when I was young, but not beyond my early twenties. Although as I say I enjoy a drink once in a while, if all the alcohol on earth disappeared overnight, I wouldn’t be wailing uncontrollably.
Still....recently on the Discovery Channel I saw a program which showed the Beervana festival down in Wellington, which had me thinking that maybe I show start planning my much thought about visit to New Zealand. Perhaps I should stop by the Mao Deep cafe on the way home and give the idea the serious consideration it deserves!
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