We have all heard of the criminal who breaks the law and then pleads that he did the deed because he was drunk. Alcohol is held up as the culprit, and that is wrong.
TO YOUR HEALTH: ‘Lao ya dong’—herbal remedies mixed with liquor—as it is sometimes seen today.
Alcohol never forced anyone to do anything illegal. It is the human being who acts irrationally or thoughtlessly and loses self-control. The causes of lawless acts lie elsewhere, while drinking alcohol can even be beneficial.
Thais have been drinking it since ancient times, for as long as there has been a Thai nation. There are many different kinds of alcoholic drinks here and innumerable occasions for consuming them.
When alcohol establishes itself deeply in a way of life over a long period of time it becomes associated with a system of beliefs. For example, the offerings presented in the traditional Thai wai khru cememony in which students express reverence for a deceased teacher of, say, classical dance, include liquor, because the students believe that he may have liked to drink it.
Even hunters, as they are about to enter the forest, will make an offering in the belief that the spirits that reside there will protect them if they do. The offerings will include liquor, even though the hunters do not know whether the resident spirits even know what it is.
When the New Year approaches, hill tribesmen brew up liquor and include it among the offerings that they make to their ancestors. And when the family gathers to eat a meal, they will pass the alcohol around. If someone walks by in front of the house, the family will invite him in to join in the drinking. Being invited in is considered a high honour, so that here alcohol has an additional role, as an expression of respect.
The home-made liquor brewed in the countryside is made by fermenting sticky rice to produce alcohol, then boiling the liquid and passing the steam through a cooler to condense into a spirit. In Thai the fermented brew is called saw raw thaw (the names of three letters in the Thai alphabet), short for surathuean (illegal liquor), and it can be found wherever rice is grown.
Another kind of liquor is made by taking the sap of the sugar or coconut palm and fermenting it in a jar for a short time, about two or three nights. Alcohol forms, and the fermented mixture is called krachae, or nam tanmao in Thai, the taste of which combines sweetness with alcoholic bite. This folk liquor is popular in areas where coconut and sugar palms are plentiful.
Most of the saw raw thaw is drunk by farmers who gather to help each other with the field work. When they finish in the late afternoon or evening they sit in a group to relax and talk.
Craftsmen and carpenters, too, like the ones who build Thai-style houses, also like to form drinking circles, with the owner of the house being built having the responsibility to provide kapklaem _ foods that go well with alcohol. The talk during these drinking sessions usually concerns the work completed during the day and the tasks that still have to be done. The liquor makes for a more relaxed mood in which the talk flows more freely, a much better way to talk shop than to discuss it while drinking water.
Drinking alcohol has its health-related side. In Thailand there used to be many old-fashioned herbal remedies that were taken with alcohol. The herbs were boiled in water or chopped fine, mixed with honey and then either formed into pellets or steeped in liquor. Mixing the chopped herbs with alcohol was a popular way of preparing them because it made them easy to take, especially in the city. In the past, 70 or 80 years ago, there were many shops in Bangkok that sold medicinal herbs in alcohol (usually a legal form of the rice whisky made as moonshine in the provinces), most of them in densely populated neighbourhoods that were on travel routes _ Bang Rak, Bang Lamphu and Tha Thien, for example.
These shops had powdered herbal medicines called khrueang ya that were given numbers to identify them. Each one was said to be able to cure a different condition. Some were supposed to strengthen the heart, reduce stomach acidity, have a relaxing effect on the muscles, or increase the appetite. Thais then believed that eating heavily strengthened the body and increased energy.
Customers would request the medicine that they wanted and the shopkeeper would pour a little whiskey into a glass, add the medicinal ingredients and mix them by stirring with a spoon. After drinking it, the customer would eat some sour fruit provided by the shop _ mayom (star gooseberry), tamarind or mango. After finishing it, they would head off on their way. In those days the customer might be at the shop for only 50 seconds in all. There was no reason to stay on unless he ran into a friend there and decided to sit and talk for a while.
Today all of those shops are gone. The herbal medicines they sold have not been certified by the government, and by adding liquor to them they made a type of medicine that is now illegal.
But now there is a new form of lao ya dong (herbal medicine in alcohol) on the scene. Stalls at temple fairs like to take medicinal herbs in the form of certain kinds of tree bark or chips of wood, put them into bottles and add liquor. The alleged medicinal properties are written on a label. Some are supposed to increase vitality or improve sexual performance. They come wrapped in a piece of red cloth that has become the symbol of this kind of product.
These alcoholic medicines were once a part of Thai society and its culture. The liquor people drank was different then, and the ways of drinking it were, too.
In today's society, when someone has some alcohol and then does something wrong, remember, the fault lies with the drinker, not the drink.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit