For living in Southeast Asia it has never been a problem eating for a dollar – the real challenge here is getting drunk for a dollar and it can be done. My preferred method is Yaa Dong Street Liquor an alcohol so strong the bravest of booze hounds will take a hammering. A potent concoction of Thai moonshine rice whisky called ‘Lao Khao’ and a mix of medicinal herbs. Yaa Dong is found lit up at night on Bangkok’s backstreets and can easily be identified by large glass jars and bright red labelling. Yaa Dong stands are generally surrounded by colour bibbed, motorbike taxi drivers, taking the edge off after the evening’s rush hour traffic. It is also the preferred tipple for local labourers but is mostly overlooked by visitors to the city.
Lao Khao Liquor
The liquor in Yaa Dong is ‘Lao Khao’ or ‘White Spirit’ a fermented rice whisky not so different to the more famous ‘Lao-Lao’ from across the border in Laos. In Laos it is dubbed ‘the Cheapest Alcohol in the World’. In Thailand Lao Khao is a popular moonshine liquor often produced in illicit distilleries throughout the vast Isaan plains of Northeastern Thailand. A favourite with rural folk Lao Khao accounts for two thirds of Thailand’s alcohol consumption (and quite a few road deaths).The 40% proof alcohol is created by a steamed, distillation process using hulls of sticky rice (khao niew) and crumbles of yeast balls. The result a clear and potent liquor tasting a little like old bread. Only a small percentage of this alcohol will be mixed with medicinal herbs, bottled and transported to Bangkok Yaa Dong stands. If travelling in the Isaan area of Thailand you can easily find Lao Khao sold in reused bottles at most roadside stores. There are also legitimate, branded Lao Khao alternatives found at most stores in Thailand.
The Yaa Dong Mix
Yaa Dong herbs (samunphrai) are a bit of a mystery with each Yaa Dong distiller boasting their own formula. Every mix is said to have pharmaceutical benefits and even some with aphrodisiac properties. The herb mix can range from tens to hundreds of local herbs, roots and spices however some blends do include the less palatable additions of lizards, snakes and scorpions. While these concoctions are better found bottled as tourist trinkets in Southeast Asian markets the practice of dissolving insects and reptiles in alcohol still exists. Just last month I found a jar of alcohol stuffed with ‘Doo Kae’ lizards sitting next to another jar filled with blood. Theory is that the strengths and energy of the dissolved lizard is absorbed by the alcohol and passed to whoever drinks it. While I can’t say I have tasted lizard whiskey before I am likely to have swallowed a mouthful or two in passing. With so many variations of Yaa Dong it is hard to pinpoint exact ingredients or flavour and I have tasted my fair share – some delicious and some vile. The more familiar mix tastes a little like tree bark. To make the experience easier on the palate I always accept an addition of honey to sweeten the taste.
The Yaa Dong Stand
For the brave few who visit the Yaa Dong stand; walk to the ‘counter’ and ask for a small bottle. This will likely be a reused energy drink bottle of Red Bull or similar. The small bottle of 150ml is the equivalent of 4 shots and costs 30 Baht ($1) and if 4 shots fail to get you steaming it costs 10 Baht for single shots. Yaa Dong comes with the added option of honey to sweeten which, if accepted, is squeezed to the bottle before adding the liquor, the Yaa Dong then poured into the bottle using a funnel. The bottle is served to a small roadside table with a shot glass, a dip of salt, chilli and sugar (prik glua) and cuts of a sour, unripe mango (mamuang priew). Jab the mango in the dip, take a bite then fire back the shot of Yaa Dong. Experience the unique Thai signature tastes; sweet of honey / Ya Dong mix, Sour of unripe mango, Salty and Hot of the chilli dip. Like a Thai tequila shooter. Bottoms up.