Clay pot hospitality

In the days before convenience stores, strangers could help themselves to drinking water outside residents' homes

Thailand's hot weather can often make people feel thirsty, especially those who are travelling.

Kon tho earthenware has become a popular decorative garden item.

Today, thirsty commuters will pull in to a nearby 7-Eleven or other convenience stores to purchase a chilled bottle of water and quench their thirst.

But in the old days, drinking water was free and widely available almost everywhere in the country. People would place a large clay pot filled with clean water — usually rainwater — and a ladle made from coconut shell in front of their homes, and passersby could simply help themselves.

Thirsty travellers could take a break under the shade of a tree and drink water from the clay pot, known in Thai as kon tho.

This was a distinctive practice that reflected the hospitality and generosity of Thai culture. The free drinking water was offered to everyone — neighbours, postmen, passing vendors.

Some home owners would also put jasmine flowers in the drinking water to create a pleasant aroma.

In the past, when the air was still free of pollution, rain was the main source of drinking water for Thais, especially in rural area where there was no tap water or purifying devices.

Most of the containers used to store the water were made from earthenware pottery, which keeps water naturally cool.

Studies have revealed the pots keep water cool because the clay is porous and allows water to slowly evaporate. This evaporation reduces the water temperature.

This traditional wisdom to keep water cool was passed down through many generations, though it can no longer compete with the chilling powers of the modern refrigerator.

The practice of offering free drinking water faded out from Thai society many years ago, mainly because of hygiene concerns and lifestyle change.

Rainwater is no longer safe for human consumption due to air pollutants and unclean water containers, while many people feel uncomfortable sharing ladles with others — particularly strangers.

When weary travellers stopped wanting to drink water from the clay pots, home owners no longer felt the need to leave them out.

Another reason that led to the disappearance of kon tho containers was the breakdown of trust in local communities. Many home owners now opt to erect high concrete walls around their houses for fear of thieves. They feel unsafe whenever strangers come close to their properties.

Some houses in rural areas still use kon tho to keep rainwater for household consumption, while many others have turned the earthenwares into decorative garden items.

The practice of offering free drinking water has now largely disappeared from society, but let's hope that Thai people's hospitality and generosity will remain unchanged.

In the old days, Thais put a drinking water container in front of their houses to serve passersby.

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