Thailand is very well known in Western countries for its food. However, it is less known for it’s drinks. There are a number of alcoholic beverages that are consumed in Thailand, from beer to wine to liquor.
There are three main Thai beers available: Singha (pronounced as just “sing”), Chang (pronounced with an “ah” sound, does not rhyme with “hang”) and Leo. They are all pale lagers with little flavor and best served Thai style – on ice.
Singha is considered by Thais to be the best and is the best selling beer, though Chang is not far behind. The Boon Rawd brewery, which was bought by two German breweries in 1994, received a royal warrant in 1939 giving permission to display the royal garuda emblem and is the only beer to receive such permission. Since 2007, the formula has set it at 5% ABV and is brewed by the Pathmthani Brewery Co. Ltd. under the supervision of Singha Corporation Co. Ltd.
The favorite among backpackers is Chang, perhaps because it has a slightly higher ABV at 6%. It is also known for the “Changover” (this would be an appropriate time to rhyme with “hang”). There are two versions of Chang, the one made for the local market is made with rice and Chang Export is a 100% malt brew (though it has a lower ABV). It’s brewed by Thai Bev, which is Thailand’s largest beverage company.
The third most popular beer in Thailand is Leo. It’s made by the same company that brews Singha and can be seen as the less premium option. It’s generally cheaper than both Singha and Chang and out of these three, and in my opinion has the least flavor.
There are a couple other beers available in Thailand. Archa is the non-premium lager brewed by ThaiBev and is not worth the money. Cheers is a beer that I’ve only seen available in tall boys and should only be bought for drinking games like beer pong. Tiger is a decent option from Singapore. Both Heineken and San Miguel have local breweries.
Thai Wine Coolers
In Thailand, as a general rule, proper women do not drink, except for on special occasions, and even then they do not drink beer or liquor. So what do they drink? Thailand isn’t exactly known for its exemplary grape growing climate, so conventional wine isn’t exactly an option, but wine coolers sure are.
These syrupy-sweet and Crayola-colored beverages are poured into small glasses with lots of ice and sipped on daintily by Thai women at any kind of celebration you can imagine. By far, the most ubiquitous brand is Spy (pronounced by Thais as SUH-bpiiiiie). It’s manufactured by the Siam Winery Co., Ltd. and comes in a variety flavors, often named after colors, like Classic, Red, White, Black and Mojito.
Full Moon is another brand that is quite popular but nowhere near the level of commonality of Spy. Full Moon has three flavors: white, red and rose. However, when it was brought to a gathering I was at and mixed among some Spy bottles, one bottle was opened, tasted and then avoided in favor of the Spy because it was “not delicious.”
There is some traditional wine available, but generally only at grocery stores and I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a Thai person drink it.
And of course, there are the hard liquors. As a rule, one that is sometimes broken, liquor is only enjoyed by men in Thailand. It has been a great source of amusement when I accept offers of it.
If you ask a Thai man what kind of liquor they like the most, invariably they will respond that they like whiskey. I don’t know if it’s just lack of knowledge, a word that was poorly used and translated in the past or wanting to seem sophisticated, but the vast majority of the “Thai whiskeys” are in actuality rum, have been made from distilled sugar cane.
Hong Thong (which means “golden swan”) is by far the most ubiquitous of the colored alcohols that is consumed by Thais. Regency is a step up, and if you are really fancy then you’ll splurge for some real whiskey in the form of Johnnie Walker. Other brands that are common to see in bars include Blend 285, Sang Som, Mekhong and 100 Pipers.
I don’t recall any Thai person ever drinking these straight, they are always mixed with ice and soda water. In fact, the association of alcohol with soda water is so strong that my co-teacher was confused when I once bought a soda water just to drink on its own and was concerned that I was going to be drinking in the middle of the day.
There is one kind of alcohol that is not only sold in stores, bottled, but also made as the local hooch: เหล้าขาว (lao khao). Also often referred to by Thais as “40 Degree,” in reference to either the warming sensation it causes or the percentage of the alcohol, I’ve gotten both answers.
Lao khao, literally rice liquor, is just that: an alcohol distilled from rice. It’s pretty strong and certainly causes a burning sensation. Only the most hardened of alcoholics in Thailand drink it straight, and even mixed it’s generally consumed by the older men who have had years of experience of getting drunk. I’ve read in a couple places that lao khao makes up two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in Thailand. (Those old men really can put it away, and do on a regular basis, so maybe it’s not so unbelievable.)
Lao khao is also the base for the mixtures of superstition, yaa dong, which has snakes, scorpions, lizards or perhaps sometimes just herbs dissolved into the liquid for either flavor or superstitious beliefs. You can find this for sale at many tourist bars, but also at some small stalls in the back alleys of Bangkok. Each brew varies and no two are alike. Imbibe at your own risk.
Rates of Alcoholism in Thailand
I want to end this post with a bit of sobering information. Drinking is quite a problem in Thailand (according to WHO 2011 data, 1.7 of 100,000 deaths can be attributed to alcohol), particularly drinking and driving.
With the two cultural norms of only men drinking is combined with men being the driver, even if he is intoxicated, it has made for some extremely dangerous roads. Five years ago it was said that every hour, alcohol related deaths claim three Thais with one of those being a road death. I would be comfortable saying that from what I’ve seen that that number probably has not changed much.
Additionally, the culture around drinking is that one drinks to get extremely intoxicated. There is generally no such thing as, “I’ll just have one,” here. I decided early in my service that I was going to break stereotypes around women drinking and quickly evolved that to include drinking responsibly.
I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about it, but my community has noticed that I do enjoy a drink, but that I’m never quite as mao (drunk) as they seem to be. Also, consider that much of the media that is shown around the world of Westerners is that we binge drink and party and the vast majority of young tourists in Thailand do the same, I wanted to show a different side to how alcohol can be enjoyed.
If you come to Thailand, please drink responsibly and absolutely do not drive (car or motorbike).