Thailand Diaries – Having been brought up on Real Ale[i], Scrumpy[ii], French and South African wines I may have something to offer or I may be severely prejudiced. Thailand has little to offer me in this area of booze as, although I am not an expert, I am also not a philistine as far as drinking is concerned. In my life I have had many drinking experiences, some of them have been quite cultured; others, I have to admit, have left a lot to be desired and I would be surprised if I can remember most of them. I derive no pleasure from ‘hard liquor’ (spirits) so my drinking in Thailand is limited to the local beer, actually lager, usually Chang which is quite acceptable as long as it is ice cold. Occasionally I buy a five-litre box of Mont Clair (South African red from the Brede Valley near my home in Cape Town). The unbelievably high tariffs Thailand puts on imported drink precludes appreciation of good quality wines but Mont Clair has sneaked in at, a high price for me, but not exorbitant. 950 baht for a 5-litre box is the going rate and available in Chiang Mai and Phuket. Elsewhere I suspect it will be available but I don’t know for sure. Mont Clair is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a quality wine but is just affordable and almost drinkable. Chang has, to its credit, promoted its beer well internationally and it is a little stronger than most at 6.4% alcohol so be careful. A very acceptable brew; buy the large bottles (640ml) by the dozen in boxes and you should pay around 450 baht in Chiang Mai 490 baht in Phuket. It’s good and at under 40 baht a bottle is good value.
Drinking in bars and restaurants is expensive. You will be hard-pressed to find a large bottle of beer as bars only sell small ones for a very good reason. Deception. They advertise, ‘Beer Chang’ only 60 baht. You think; OK that’s not bad but then find it’s a small one. Then 2 bottles later you’ve spent 120 baht for a beer you drink at home for 40 baht. But you’ve had a good time so what the hell. But wait a minute, that’s cheap at 60 baht. When I was last in Patong’s Bangla Road they charged me 80 baht for a small one! And so it goes. Sorry I nearly forgot the wine and maybe it’s best you forget it too. Unless you have plenty of money good quality wine is far too expensive. Whatever you do avoid ‘Whiskey Laos’, the cheap local workers rice wine or you will have to go back to the bar the next day to fetch your legs!
Environment & Hygiene
It has been said that Thailand is far cleaner than many other countries in the developing world which doesn’t say much for the others. I am afraid it is still far from clean as you will immediately notice from the stench which regularly wafts up from the sewers and toilets in the main towns and cities. Popular tourist areas appear generally clean on the surface but go behind the scenes and you will find overflowing garbage bins and drains that have never been cleaned. Hygiene in food preparation and storage at the basic food stalls is also a problem. Being a tropical country, with plenty of water-borne viruses about it is not surprising that the basic clinics, that are prevalent in rural towns, are always choc-a-bloc with patients seeking a quick fix for minor ailments. The Doc always obliges with a box of magic pills costing around 250 baht but would never consider telling you what is wrong or how you can assist with your own recovery. Natural remedies are definitely off the agenda because he will want to see you again soon so he can sell you another box of tabs.
The majority of villages do not have refuse collection services and even if they do the poorer villagers won’t use them, preferring instead to burn or dump their rubbish somewhere themselves. This in itself contributes to the hygiene problem as there are few designated dumps and people don’t care about the environmental issues. I often see household waste dumped at the roadside by the river. The government builds storm water drains at great expense and within a year they are blocked after being used as a refuse receptacle. To prevent a possible altercation I personally cleared rubbish from unused farmland belonging to a neighbour in our village in Isaan after my ex-girlfriend’s mother had dumped it there. Naïve as I was then I thought I may have earned a few Brownie points instead of many laughs and cries of ‘stupid ‘Farang’.
Burning is a major problem in the north and despite continual government warnings and fines, which are seldom imposed, people continue to burn anything and everything including plastic. You can smell the toxicity and the air quality in the dry season in the north, where there is often a murky haze, is poor. I am told by the more enlightened younger generation that their grandparents were brought up in an age where there was no plastic in most households, therefore, the problem of toxicity didn’t exist. Poverty spawned neglect; aesthetics was never cultivated in that environment which explains why most Thais cannot recognize the beauty that surrounds them. Disposing of rubbish by burning or dumping it under a tree is still considered normal; it doesn’t matter that it is unsightly or that snakes, scorpions and rats thrive in it because it will eventually be recycled to earth. Except of course the plastic which now in their ignorance they add to the organic matter and burn or dump. I was amazed at what I uncovered when clearing land to make a garden. Sometimes enough builders debris to build another house, enough old clothes to start an Oxfam shop, including an elephantine-sized pair of knickers big enough to make a king size mosquito net as long as two of the three entry points were sealed. You will seldom find a Thai house with a beautiful garden and it never occurs to most people that with a little regular water and maintenance their homes can be transformed. All their efforts are focused on the farm which they will lavish attention on. Seldom will anything be grown at home unless it can be eaten so more often than not the garden becomes an extension of the farm. How it looks is unimportant. ‘Ignorance is bliss’, they say and it’s hardly surprising we are suffering from so much irreversible environmental damage.
[i] Real Ale is a non-gaseous organic beer made in the traditional English way, as it has been for centuries, and kept at cellar temperature.
[ii] Scrumpy is a colloquial South- West of England term used to define ‘rough cider’ made from the different types of apples grown in the region and used specifically for the drink; the most famous being the Kingston Black. It is defined as rough due to its lack of clarity and potency. Famous old cider farms like Thatchers and others give names to their brands such as ‘Cripple Cock’ and ‘Hooligans Soup’ just for fun.