Lao Kao

Lampang province, Thailand

Lampang province landscape

Forested hills and trees

Lampang, Thailand

“So, who makes rice whisky in your village?” E. asked.

G. looked at her as if she didn’t understand. “Everyone,” she said, in a tone that suggested that only a farang or a child could possibly have asked such a question.

G.’s village is a couple of hours by bus from Chiang Mai, in Lampang province. From the bus windows, as we labored up and down the steep hills, we looked out at slopes clad in dense jungle, tall trees thrusting up out of the green confusion of the underbrush, tightly shrouded in climbing vines. From time to time, we passed a roadside shrine - one, a cluster of spirit houses by the side of the road, looked as if it might have been a memorial to a particularly nasty accident – and the driver would blow the horn and all the passengers would steeple their fingertips and bow their heads.

From the side of the road where the bus dropped us off, it was a fifteen-minute walk to the village itself. It seemed more like a small town than a village – by G.’s count, there are nearly six hundred houses, many of them large, solidly-constructed teak homes. The two houses owned by G.’s family were located on the main street, a narrow concrete ribbon that wound its way up and down the low hills on which the village is built. A little distance up the hill behind her sister’s house, G.’s own house was taking shape. We climbed a rickety gangplank to the second floor and sat among the rough-cut teak planks racked up to dry, looking out over the fields below through the skeletal timbers of the unfinished house.

The house owned by G.’s sister was dark and spartan, with sacks of rice piled against the walls. In the kitchen, a metal mesh trap served as a cage for a small, sharp-nosed rodent with a bushy tail and a mouth full of tiny, needle-like teeth.

As we sat in the main room, a small man with a wispy beard and camouflage pants came in, and looked dubiously at the three foreigners. E. favored him with a big smile and asked him his name in Thai. He murmured something, and continued to look at each of us in turn, an air of blank incomprehension on his face. G. appeared at the door of the kitchen. “He was the handsomest man in the village,” she commented. “And the hardest worker. Then he drank too much.” She made a corkscrew motion with her finger by her head. “Crazy,” she concluded.

After lunch, we went for a walk around the outskirts of the village. Heading back towards the main street, we stopped in at a house where G. conferred briefly with a gray-haired woman with the distinguished air of a retired schoolteacher. A hundred-baht note changed hands, and the gray-haired woman began to fill a large plastic bag with the honey-colored contents of the ceramic demijohn at her feet.

Her companion, a younger woman in a red shirt, led us over to a table and started filling glasses from a bottle that she carried. More strictly speaking, she filled a single glass, a shot at a time, and pushed it across to each person in turn. I noticed that G., having taken the single hit required for politeness, would craftily pass the glass to her neighbor each time it stopped in front of her. I suspected at first that her reasons had more to do with caution than courtesy, but in fact the alcohol was surprisingly mild, tasting something like a very sweet sherry. Whatever this was, it was not yet the dreaded lao kao.

After a certain number of glasses, we bowed our thanks to the artisans and left, M. and G. carrying the bag – which was at least the size and weight of a bowling ball – between them. Back at G.’s house, E. and M. mused about the incentive to alcoholism posed by a rural lifestyle. “I suppose that once you’ve planted the rice, there’s not a lot to do for the first couple of months except watch it grow,” E. observed. “Right,” I said. “And under those circumstances, I think I’d probably hit the plastic bag as well.”

Later in the day, we went to the other house owned by G.’s family to wash up before supper. When I came out of the bathroom, E. was being held in a death grip by a small woman in white shorts who was apparently attempting to bend her spine in directions that nature never intended it to go. “Mai dai, mai dai,” (“Cannot, cannot”) pleaded E. I reached for my camera. The woman shook her head vigorously. “She says not to take her picture,” said E. “She says she’s already drunk.” I made up my mind then and there to decline a massage if one was offered to me. Thai massage is altogether too physical to take your chances with a drunken masseuse.

The drunken masseuse took herself off to continue her drinking elsewhere, and was replaced by G.’s brother and brother-in-law, two gaunt, grave-faced men. I was momentarily relieved to see that one of them was carrying an innocent-looking water bottle. Moments later, however, my worst fears were realized, when he started filling a shot glass from it. The glass was pushed towards me, and the serious drinking began.

The lao kao slipped down smoothly enough, but it had that nasty edge to it that says “You’ll pay for this later.” I had a sudden uncomfortable memory of a wake that we had once stumbled into in Laos, when I had been required to hold up the honor of the West by accepting hits from everyone’s personal bottle of moonshine, and finished the evening in a dangerously over-lubricated condition. I was glad when G. came to our rescue and summoned us back to her sister’s house for supper.

This time, I felt well enough the next morning, which was announced rather sooner than I would have liked by a large rooster perched approximately four feet from my head. Listening to him and his colleague across the lane, I realized that a rooster’s wake-up call is actually challenge and response: the first party bellows “I can shout louder than you-hoo-hoo!” at the top of his avian lungs, while the other responds with “The hell you-oo-oo can!” and they have at it jointly from about 4am until such time as the sun gets sufficiently high to make taking a nap seem like a good idea. In the rare intervals of silence, the chickens underneath the house, the birds in the eaves, and the motorcycles in the lane help to fill in the gaps. No wonder chicken is such a staple in many cuisines: revenge is a dish best served with garlic and ginger.

When we had recovered from rooster shock, G. walked us down to visit another of the local whisky makers. This one had her still running, a blackened oil-drum perched over a prodigious wood fire and connected to a tangle of tubing that plunged into an ominous-looking vat. Just looking at the thing made my head spin.

After breakfast, G. had more rounds to make, settling accounts with the workmen who were building her house and delivering her donations to the local monks. Behind the wat, a large section of the village seemed to have settled in for a picnic, listening to a local quartet – abbreviated guitar, one-string fiddle, drum and penny whistle – playing traditional music. As we were pushed forward, I saw again the now familiar Chang beer bottles stoppered with a twist of plastic. “Is this going to involve more drinking?” I asked myself fearfully. It did.

We left the village in the late afternoon, perched on a motorbike driven by G.’s brother-in-law. With one hand, I steadied my hat, while the other clutched a plastic bag filled with bottles. Behind me, M. sat demurely on the pillion, her knock-off Hong-Kong Birkin bag bulging with a litre and a half of rice whisky. It seemed as appropriate a departure as any.