There is a place near our house in Bangkok that is a hybrid street food stall and restaurant. All the cooking is done on the street but there is an indoor area that has the trappings of a Thai restaurant – simple tables and chairs, a cooler for beer, and a TV playing the requisite Thai soap operas.
Other than my wife and I, farang rarely eat there, so perhaps that is why the husband and wife co-owners, Pat and Krong, took a liking to us. We go about once a week and always order the same thing – blah pow (grilled fish coated in salt and stuffed with lemon grass), papaya salad with one chili, sticky rice, and a big Leo beer. They see us coming and don’t even bother to take our order – they nod in acknowledgment and start plating our usual. It is nice to have a place like this.
A few days after Thai New Year in April of 2017, Pat showed us a few videos of people in colorful clothes drunkenly dancing to loud music in the streets of her hometown. In one video Pat was dancing with childlike glee. “Mao mao,” she said – very drunk.
“Next year, you come,” Pat said. We immediately accepted though we were not sure if she was serious. But, every time we ate at the restaurant, she reiterated the invitation, and asked us if we’d been studying Thai. Our language skills were limited, and she had warned us that no one from her village spoke English.
A year later, we flew into the Roi Et airport and Pat and Krong picked us up. I didn’t really know what to expect, except that she said her house was in Yasothon in the vast region in the northeast called Isaan. Yasothon is the small capital city of the remote state of the same name, and a quick Google search showed a few cafes and restaurants in the city of 62,000 people. I was working remotely at the time, so I imagined going to a café in the morning, sipping a latte, and using the wifi to answer some emails. I thought if we needed a break from the family we could explore the town or walk to some markets or parks.
After an hours drive we arrived at Yasothon…and kept on going. When she said they lived in Yasothon, she evidently meant the state, not the city. About 30 miles past the city, we stopped in a busy town on the highway and bought supplies. I looked around and thought that this town wouldn’t be too bad. It had a lively market and a some places to eat on the main street. Then we got back in the car, turned town a very narrow road, and headed into the middle of nowhere.
We arrived at a sleepy village called Ban Du Laat. There were no cafes, no restaurants, no bars, and certainly no wifi for the 400 or so residents. For the first time in a year I wondered if maybe I’d made a huge mistake. We are going to be bored out of our minds, I thought.
Any concerns I had about this being a boring weekend were quickly laid to rest. After dropping our bags at Pat’s house we walked down the street to a housewarming party. The scene was totally surreal – in a large yard in front of the new, baby-blue house, was a stage with a rock band and backup dancers. They played to a crowd of mostly middle-aged people who were sheltering from the intense mid-day sun under several large tents. Under those tents were long rows of tables covered in plates of recently devoured food. The event looked more like a wedding reception for two prominent families and less like a housewarming party.
All the women had on beautiful dresses with their hair and make-up done. Most of the men had on nice pants and the Hawaiian style button-down shirts that most Thai people wear at New Year. Everyone looked like wholesome, kindly people with good jobs, some money, healthy kids, and new cars.
And they were all drunk as fuck.
Everyone was drinking with a reckless abandon usually associated with riots after sports championships. I thought to myself, damn, these people must have started early to be this drunk by noon. And maybe they did start early, but the true source of their inebriation was the intensity and fervor with which they drank and not so much the duration.
The partiers were constantly clinking glasses while shouting out emotional proclamations, then guzzling beer and hugging. About half the people from Baan Du Laat live and work in Bangkok so this was a homecoming and everyone had the carefree air of a person on vacation.
In addition to the general heavy drinking, there was always someone walking around the party with a glass and a bottle of whiskey. We will call this person the Booze-Pusher. The Booze-Pusher would walk up to an unsuspecting friend, dump a generous amount of liquor in a cup, then shove it in their face, forcing them to drink up, you know, like frat boys. I never saw anyone back down from a Booze-Pusher no matter how drunk and disoriented they seemed to be.
Luckily for the Bells, we established right away that we don’t do shots. “Mai dai,” – I cannot – I’d say when a Booze-Pusher would run up to me with a sloshing glass of whisky and an evil grin on his face. I told them it hurt my stomach. One Boozer-Pusher seemed to understand that I didn’t like straight whiskey and dumped it into my beer, thus ruining two drinks. I tried to drink it, but as you can imagine it was disgusting and had to be poured out surreptitiously. Pouring out booze was probably the one faux pas that would have gotten me banished from Isaan.
It was impossible to talk to anyone at the party because the music blaring from the speakers exceeded aircraft engine decibel levels, and that was a good thing. Although Kristi and I had been studying Thai, trying to communicate with these incredibly drunk people just wasn’t happening. So instead of coherent sentences we communicated in laughter, smiles, sweaty hugs, and clinking of glasses followed by gulps of beer.
I should take a minute to remind everyone that this was Thursday the 12th at noon. Thai New Year is a three-day event that starts on the 13th. As I watched our new friends drunkenly dance in the hot sun, I knew we were in for a long weekend.
By mid-afternoon the party faded – everyone was too drunk, dehydrated and full of food to continue, it seemed. Luckily, we went back to the house for naps. We slept on the floor atop mats, but most of the family just slept directly on the hard tile. This sleeping arrangement looked incredibly uncomfortable, and at first I thought this was due to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in the mid-day sun, but this is just how they slept. They seemed to be torturing themselves like monks in search of enlightenment.
For dinner, they spread out a rattan mat on the floor and placed assorted vegetable, pork, chicken, insect, and fish dishes upon it. Isaan food bursts with citrusy and sour flavors and is spicy as hell. Everyone sits on the floor around the assorted bowls of food and they use their hands to dip and scoop up bites of food with sticky rice. It is a fun social event. Isaan people, I learned, eat their body weight in sticky rice every meal.
Pat asked if I’d like some kai mot daeng and I said sure I’ll try some red pork egg. It was the strangest pork I’d ever had. It tasted and looked more like insect larvae than pork and was mixed with a citrusy, tangy medley of herbs and vegetables. The next day, while on a fishing expedition with the men, they showed me a giant red ant nest and I realized I mixed up the words “mot” and “moo” and instead of eating pork I was eating something a little more exotic.
Kristi was braver than me. When a bowl of bite-sized whole frogs was passed around, she popped one in her mouth. Everyone paused and watched with great anticipation as she chewed and chewed – and chewed some more – while trying to keep an expressionless face. You could see her jaws working overtime, trying to masticate something that evidently had the consistency of a giant, stale gummy bear.
“How was it?” I asked after she finally managed to choke it down.
“Chewy,” she said in a high-pitched voice.
After dinner, we went to the town park for a concert. The band from the housewarming party had acquired additional backup dancers and a female co-lead singer and was rocking out on a big stage. It seemed like most of the town had turned out for the concert. Well, those who were not passed out from the morning festivities, anyway.
Between songs the singers were talking to the crowd. We didn’t understand what they were saying, but we did hear them say “farang” and look our way. Since we were the only farang within 500 miles we were fairly certain they were talking about us.
We drank and hung out with our new friends until after midnight when, mercifully, we were allowed to stop drinking and return to the house to sleep.
For the curious, here is a Google Map of where we were.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story
Photo Essay – Colorful Thai New Year in Black and White