Drinking Rice Whisky with Rural Folk
These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field: ‘Lao Khao’, or ‘White Spirit’, as it translates in English, is a popular and potent rice whisky synonymous with Isaan as well as alcoholism in the rural parts of Thailand. And it is an alcohol that is widely available throughout all of Thailand, where it is sold by the bottle from pretty much every store and 7-11 in the country (around 60 Baht plus per bottle). But, for those who just want a taster of Lao Khao, it is often found sold by the shot glass (15 Baht) in smaller independent stores, as well as poured into reused energy drink bottles (30 Baht). There is also a popular concoction called Yaa Dong, which I will share down below, but first I will go more into the traditions and significance of this potent rice whisky in Thai culture.
Even for those that don’t even drink Lao Khao, which goes for almost everyone on our compound, it does still play a role in daily life and celebration. And through the year, this potent rice whisky was used in various ceremonies, from engagements and weddings. to the more sombre occasions like funeral ceremonies. And while there is a rather negative stigma attached to Lao Khao, it remains an important part of culture and tradition in Isaan and Thailand.
A Ceremonial Alcohol
A simple example of ceremonies would be during our house warming, when, in the first weeks of the year, a feast was served on the floor of the front room of the house. This feast included Lao Khao and a spread of typical Thai ceremonial foods such as a boiled pig’s head, a boiled full chicken, and just various jelly desserts made from coconut and sticky rice extract. And this feast would be shared with the ancestral spirits of the house (ghosts), to show to them how we live well, and feast well. It’s a sign of prosperity I guess.
So, during the ceremony, grains of uncooked rice is thrown into the air and the Lao Khao Rice Whisky is splashed over the pig’s head and chicken. The Lao Khao bottle is then put aside before Meh throws it out (she’s doesn’t like when I offer visitors an ‘authentic local drinking experience’). But I did manage to steal it on this occasion and would share shots with great aunt Yai Thip.
“Mod Kaew” Down in One
One of the more accessible celebrations involving Lao Khao, at least when it comes to drinking Lao Khao, is the monk ordination. And while alcohol is prohibited within temple grounds, many revellers wait for the village parade, where they join at the front with bottles of beers and various spirits, including Lao Khao. And I am often offered shots of rice wine with encouragement to “mod kaew, mod kaew”, which literally means “finish glass”. Before making me dance at the front of the parade. So there’s always a downside.
Other I find myself drinking a fair share of Lao Khao through the year, at various events, and celebrations, and ceremony and just my own occasional escapes to the rice fields. Where I can easily just pick up a 30 Baht Red Bull bottle from any store in the village. But it is always more exciting with others, and there have just been so many random stops with local boozers that I pass along the way. I won’t pretend it tastes nice, or even close to it, but I rarely drink for the taste, and Lao Khao does get you drunk fast.
Yaa Dong Street Liquor
I am not new to Lao Khao Rice Whisky either, as I would drink it the odd occasion when living in Bangkok. Although there I would go more for the infused Lao Khao concoction known as “Yaa Dong” aka “street liquor”. And there was always a small stall opposite my condo, where the local ladyboy would set up in the evening to serve the after-work crowds, which, worrying, was mostly the local motorbike taxis.
So Yaa Dong is Lao Khao Rice Whisky infused with a handful of “libido” enhancing herbs, roots and spices to create a supposed medicinal remedy although I can’t say it ever benefited me healthwise. It was more the opposite. So my local ladyboy would serve me a small bottle of Yaa Dong with a squeeze of honey to sweeten the taste. On the side would then be a small plate with slices of sour unripe mango, a dip of (prik gleua) salt sugar and chilli, and together this created an intense, sweet, sour, salty and hot combination with the alcohol. And it’s a bit like a Thai interpretation of the tequila shooter.
Anyway, Yaa Dong would be one of the nicer fusions of Lao Khao, where I‘ve found many much less palatable mixtures, including infused “Took Kae” house lizards, and there’s always the tourist trinkets found at local markets with all sorts of concocted weirdness like lizards, scorpions and of course cobra whisky.
Lao Khao Distillation
One of my main failures in my time in Isaan is failing to track down an illicit moonshine still. And it is something I talked about long before arriving in Isaan, and I even had a visit in place, where a friend lived next door to a family who makes Lao Khao in their back yards. But this idea fell through when her neighbour suddenly died of alcohol-related illness, and my enthusiasm to find another was put down. And it seems these moonshine stills are becoming less common partly due to the fact that branded rice whisky is so ridiculously cheap anyway.
So I failed in my search in Thailand, but I did find something similar next door in Myanmar (Burma) when travelling through the rural countryside between Bagan and Mount Popa. Where, on the way, we sstumbled on a toddy distillery for palm whisky, which does follow a similar distillation process as Lao Khao rice whisky. So Lao Khao uses a similar steamed distillation process, only with a mix of sticky rice hulls and yeast balls, which are left to ferment in the liquid.
The distillation then takes place over a fire-heated, earthen still, with the condensed vapours dripped and collected in bottles which span from each side. And the process is relatively simple, but apparently it does have its dangers, so I would stick to the cheap store-bought brands.
A Potato in a Rice Field: In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief. Find it on Amazon here.
- ^ A Potato in a Rice Field (amzn.to)
- ^ every store and 7-11 in the country (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ the monk ordination (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ living in Bangkok (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ “Yaa Dong” aka “street liquor” (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ stumbled on a toddy distillery for palm whisky (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
- ^ Find it on Amazon here (amzn.to)