Water! Cafelao and Tea
Water is what everybody drinks, cold or hot. Coffee and tea are relatively new to the country. The recreational and fortifying drink used to be, and still very often is to this day, hot water (nam hohn). A glass of cool water (nam yen) as refreshment and to make you feel welcome is immediately served to any guest or customer upon having been invited to sit down, at home or at the office. In ‘better’ Thai restaurants it’s no longer done for commercial reasons; why give something away for free. In Laos it is still a sign of gracious service.
Coffee (kafae) became known early last century with the establishment of French coffee plantations on the Boloven Plateau in southern Laos. By now these plantations produce world class coffee for export while cafelao has locally become the in-thing to drink. It is made with sweet, white condensed milk sitting on the bottom of the glass which is then topped up with solid black coffee. A truly black-and-white concoction, the Lao B-52!
Tea (nam xah) eventually descended from China. A fairly recent newcomer is indigenous green tea made from organically grown mulberry leaves as pioneered at the organic farm in Vangvieng. It has pretty much captured the local market and is in the process of seriously going international. My morning brew consists of mulberry tea for its acknowledged medicinal benefits blended with bergamot flavoured Earl Grey tea for the caffeine induced pick-me-up effect.
Hail, thou French occupiers; it is cheap, thanks. The choice of wine – red, white or rose – to go with your meal is entirely yours. In regards to which wine accompanies what food there are NO rules, that’s French wine industry hype. Feel free, as well, to chill your wine to your preference because it would be pretty silly to drink red wine in the tropics at ‘room temperature’ as lectured in Europe.
On the occasion of birthdays, weddings, funerals or anything else
To keep the mood lively anybody can, and quite a few eventually will, grab a bottle of whatever liquor (lao) is available or brought along for the purpose, take a small glass and start making the rounds offering a shot to everybody. It is difficult to refuse while she herself, it really seems to be more often a ‘she’ than a ‘he’, has quite a few in the process of doing the catering with the sole intention to get you, and everybody else, drunk. It’s all about comradeship though it predates communist days. Basically it is a democratic way to make sure that everyone gets royally drunk equally fast. While lifting the glass in greetings to the host and assembled crowd wishes for a winning lottery ticket and so on are very much in place and repeated often. It’s a drink-up ritual, finished by you ostentatiously turning the glass upside-down to prove that you have, indeed, emptied it to the last drop.
Any day – any time when friends are gathered together
A voice is raised demanding, suffering no objection: lift (yohk kuen) your glasses which you then knock (tam) against each other. In Europe, you toast an occasion or person; here, a glass simply raised towards those present at table is an invitation and challenge for all to join in and drink, every time. The frequency of yohk kuen increases literally by the minute and participation is obligatory. Mind you, it doesn’t take much persuasion!
If you do not drink alcohol make it clear to your host and companions and you will be respected for it; otherwise you cannot chicken-out, it’s a communal fun affair – clink along with your water!
Laolao and Laokao
Same; none other than the local alcohol (lao) version of a Vodka or Schnapps distilled from corn or rice. Carpenters can’t do without. I have observed them in mid-April, the hottest month of the year, at a noon temperature of well over forty degrees Celsius, straddle a house roof of considerable height and asking for a refill. I’ve tasted laokao (white liquor) over the decades starting in Thailand. It is getting better and better, that is cleaner and cleaner, not leaving behind the next morning that terrible aftertaste of yesterday’s schnapps. Laolao (Lao liquor) is about to attain the quality to be mixed with tonic water. Xayoh to the Carpenters!
That’s the stuff you see around sold as yaa or ‘medicine’ out of various glass jars with different herbs and roots inside. Each jar helpfully features a cardboard sign listing its various medicinal benefits. The more exotic varieties of Vietnamese origin feature such delicacies as cobras, scorpions and lizards. The bong stands for ‘preserving’ whatever is in there. It better!
Local wine is made of rice, water and, yes, yeast. It’s the yeast that makes this laohai potent for which reason its sale used to be forbidden in Thailand. This was meant to prevent people from making it easily at home and thus not paying taxes to the state for the privilege of getting drunk by their own inexpensive means. So as a foreigner you were sent into the supermarket to fetch the yeast from the farang women’s bakery section. In Laos it ferments in traditional clay pots (hai) from which it is drunk by means of long bamboo straws. The volume consumed today is refilled with water to get drunk, again, tomorrow; fermentation and partying going hand-in-hand.
Where there is tam mak-houng, laab and som mou, there is Beerlao, no translation needed. Together with these dishes, and the love for celebrating, it has become a national icon. The ladies know how to consume and keep their alcohol down well. Don’t talk about the older generation. When attending any Baci, village or temple fair, they drink you under the table. The women will lead you around in a ramwong-dance before you pass out. Gosh, they drink; yohk keun, lift your glasses!
Knowing what is bound to happen, an empty yellow Beerlao crate is helpfully placed underneath any table of three-plus imbibers which will fill up in no time with empty bottles, large ones. We are drinking here by-the-crate, mate!
It is praised by many as the region’s best beer with an ever growing reputation and fan club (read the Bangkok Post’s Letters to the Editor) turning it into a tourist attraction in its own right.
I remember when traveling around South America in the late sixties and ending up in some forlorn spot in the Andes or Amazon where they did NOT sell Cola, you knew you were really off the beaten track. The distribution of Beerlao to the farthest corners of the realm is a pillar of this society, a necessity for its functioning and a pride to the company employees. It won’t always be chilled to perfection but, nonetheless, admirable efforts are made to this effect. It certainly doesn’t need to be chilled in Samneua, it’s too cold up there all year round anyway. If you end up in a spot where there is no Beerlao available at all, not even at room temperature, you certainly are a long way away from this world as we know it… or you might happen to be jungle trekking or white water kayaking with our adventure tourism company Green Discovery, and you’ll be in good hands.