Mai Mao: Staying Sober in Thailand

Steve Suphan’s recent blog on Buddhism in Thailand inspired me to interrupt my rather predictable chronological blog sequence to have a bit of a rant about the state of drinking in Thailand. Or, to be more precise, to comment on what happens in Thailand if you don’t drink alcohol. My conclusion is that unless you are a monk, you are somewhat of a curiosity if you don’t drink.

Ever since I started planning my first visit to Thailand I spent a lot of time hanging out at my local Thai Wat, in the vain hope of improving my Thai language skills. The unanticipated side-effect was to turn me into a Buddhist. And when the Wat imported a monk with good enough English skills to teach me meditation and Dhamma it was all downhill (or is that uphill?) from that point. A meditation retreat convinced me that I actually feel much better when I don’t drink alcohol.

So on my trip to Thailand last month I had to not only ward off excessive quantities of food with the admonition “im laew” (full already), but also offers of beer and whiskey with “mai mao”. I don’t believe that is very good Thai, since the meaning is more like “I am not drunk” than “I don’t drink”, but, as I said, hanging out at the Wat never did do as much for my Thai as I hoped.

As anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Buddhism knows, lay people usually undertake to follow five precepts. No killing, stealing, cheating on your spouse, or “false or harmful speech”. Most Buddhists (or even non-Buddhists!) don’t argue with those first four, even if they don’t always follow them to the letter. But what about number five? According to my chanting manual it reads: “I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.”

OK, so if 95% of Thai are Buddhist why do more than 5% of them drink alcohol? Well, of course, you make the vow in Pali: “Surameraya majja pamadattana….” so you can always plead ignorance (“Is that really what I said?”). And there’s a bit of an out with that “carelessness” thing (an out that I used to use): “I’m not careless when I drink so it’s OK…” Furthermore, I’ve heard that some Thai do the western equivalent of crossing their fingers when they make a promise: only putting four, not five, fingers together while reciting.

I should emphasise here that I’m not on some sort of moral crusade. Buddhism is about making your own choices, and taking responsibility for your own actions. In my view it’s not about preaching to, or criticising, others. I don’t really care whether other people drink, I just choose not to right now.

Anyway, back to the trip. I have no problem enjoying myself without drinking. In fact, being sober didn’t stop me making a complete fool of myself in a Nong Khai disco. Of course, the fact that everyone else was too drunk to notice how silly I looked helped… But I digress…

Out in Issan, in particular, drinking alcohol seemed to be almost a requirement. Get up, have a drink to alleviate the hangover, take some food to the Wat for the monks, have breakfast… My first morning in Nong Khai I staggered out of bed to find a table of of super-spicy food accompanied by some sort of Mekhong Whiskey cocktail. And during Songkran I was met with incredulity when I attempted to refuse the numerous offers of beer and other drinks. Not only was I a Farang, but I was an odd Farang who didn’t drink.

Occasionally I managed to get the point across that I wasn’t drinking because I was a Buddhist. This impressed one or two people. All women, as I recall, My impression is that Thai women take Buddhism more seriously than their men, despite the fact that most of the men have spent at least a few weeks as a monk at some point in their lives. Perhaps some of the comments on Steve’s blog about Buddhism being a good pickup line in Thailand are valid…

After a while I started to feel like the only grown person in the province outside the monkhood who didn’t drink alcohol. But during a break in the Songkran celebrations I found one or two others when I stumbled across a guesthouse run by an American and his Thai wife.

The American was very friendly. I was only really interested in photographing the sign, but he insisted that I sit down and offered me some water. He then proceeded to lecture me on how the Thai needed to find Jesus in order to give up drinking. I did have a momentary urge to argue. To tell him that as far as I could recall the Ten Commandments didn’t say anything about drinking. Perhaps if he wanted Thai to stop drinking then assisting them to take their own religion more seriously might be a better strategy than trying to impose Christianity on them. But I’ve learned from bitter experience not to bother arguing with people who believe in God, so I sipped my water politely and strolled, soberly, but happily, back to the celebrations.

17 responses to “Mai Mao: Staying Sober in Thailand

  1. **************************************
    But I’ve learned from bitter experience not to bother arguing with people who believe in God,
    I believe Tao is working its way, and
    has great wisdom showered onto you.

  2. “OK, so if 95% of Thai are Buddhist why do more than 5% of them drink alcohol?”

    many of the remaining 5% happen to be Muslims, who mostly take the alcohol ban seriously to the extent they wouldn’t even touch an empty beer bottle. Thailand should in theory be almost 100% abstinent 🙂

  3. I have by chance being invited to stay with a friend in a small village in Mae Chan. There was a Buddhist temple nearby that was having some religious ceremony. I was politely asked to buy some beers for the villager to celebrate in the occasions. Although I dont drink, I parted with 500 baths. It is common in the village for all to drink – teenager to old people, female and male alike.

    I believe drinking has in a way responsible for the poverty in rural area.

  4. sheeeesh, u managed to find an american trying to convert Thais to christianity….I refrain from making further comment

  5. tirnonag: Not sure how to comment. I have little knowledge of the Tao…

    Betti: Thank you for pointing out that there are a number of Muslims in Thailand who presumably don’t drink. I did have the Muslims in there in one draft but the paragraph started getting a little unwieldy and I have not personally met a Thai Muslim, so I didn’t want to comment.

    KhunChin: As I said, I did not want to be too judgemental. But certainly alcohol can easily become a large part of the budget, for Thai or Western people in Thailand.

    scooby: I wasn’t TRYING to find Christians, they seem to have a way of finding me…

  6. Hi Mike, great post as always!

    I’ve found much the same as you. I’m also a non-drinker (after years of drinking too much and seeing just how unskillful an action that is!!!) and the Thais can be amazed by that.

    But despite many Thais drinking, it has to be said that the way they drink is different to back in the UK.

    In all my years in Thailand I’ve NEVER seen a drunken Thai being sick in the street. I’ve never seen drunken Thais fighting or smashing windows or swaggering in gangs through town centres.

    But you’ll see all of this and much much worse on any Friday night in every British town.

    So, whilst many Thais do drink, they might have a point about it not leading to carelessness.

    However, I think that for converts to Buddhism things are different and that the not-drinking precept ought to be fully taken on.

    I’ve also seen falangs sitting in bars drinking beer expounding on their ‘Buddhism’ and I’m sorry but I don’t believe that’s right.

  7. Mao maak maak

    I have three words for you Marcus: Ratchada Soi 4, or three letters, RCA. Go to either of those two places and your illusions of the graceful Thai drunk will be shattered, and your shoes splattered upon by a 90-pound Thai girl who has just polished off a sailor’s ration of whiskey on the dance floor.

    Ugly drunks are to be found everywhere, but I agree the drinking culture here is, in general, nicer than in western countries. Friendlier and they surruond themselves with food too… Seems like a communal thing.

    As for the blog here itself, that’s great for you if you don’t drink. What gets me — and I can even see a hint of it here — is when things start getting Buddhist preachy. When someone who is enjoying the positive effects of meditation take on a patronizing tone when addressing those who drink, as if they are simply on the wrong path — like children who will eventually learn to stop walking into walls.

    That gets annoying, but if someone doesn’t drink it doesn’t bother me, nor does it stop me from filling up my next glass and saluting the moon!

  8. Mao maak maak, that’s just the point, to find stupid drunks in LOS you have to go look for them. Totally different to the UK where the struggle is to avoid them.

    BTW, I think that people who drink ARE on the wrong path. Am I not allowed to say that? I think people who take drugs are on the wrong path, is it wrong for me to express that opinion?

    I agree that preachiness is horrible, but, hey, no one is preaching here. Just saying that really Buddhists oughtn’t drink.

    As for your saluting the moon, all I can say is ‘Chock Dee!’

  9. Good blog:
    It has always astonished me the predujiced that it is embedded within the mind of the non-drinker against the drinker.
    It strikes me that non-drinkers always enjoy informing the world how many years they have gone without having a beer like they were some enlightened Yogi.

    Let’s have a look at some of the greatest scientists/doctors/philosophers that have walked this earth under the influence of alcohol. Who inventented Penicilin?
    Mahayana Buddhism teaches that Hinayana is a selfish religion which only believes in bettering oneself.

    “If tomorrow, everyone of us sought refuge in a cave to seek enlightment to reach Nirvana, then just what would be the consequences of that?”

    And who would be the sinners around to give alms to the enlightened ones?

  10. Chawp Kee Mao

    Well said Steve. Indeed, selfishness is pervasive in such circles. I find conversations with such people absolutely boring as the two topics of conversation they are fluent in are usually 1) themselves, where they are in their practice, their heroic story from lush, or other wordly-things concerned person to ascetic 2) How the rest of the world would be better if only everybody woke up and saw things the way they now do with their “newly opened eyes”.

    How condescending can you get?

    Those on the meditative, inward path to me are denying the basic fact that we live in a society, composed of people who want and need to interact with one another. One million people sitting in caves and focusing on their breathing might mean that they all end up going up in a puff of smoke straight to nirvana, but what about the rest of the world, where disease, natural disasters and all of the rest of it demand that we don’t live solely within our own heads.

    In sum, congrats on your newfound path, however, I think you’d get along with people much better if you didn’t make your not drinking a bragging point (as it less than subtly is here), and Marcus, saying that those who drink on the wrong path IS nothing but lecturing. Accept that different people are on different “paths” and leave it at that.

  11. Khengsiong Chew

    At least it is better than here (Malaysia), where no-drinking rule for Muslims is zealously enforced.

    Still, I came across a Malaysian Muslim in Nanjing, China, who was a heavy drinker. I guess he must be happy to escape from his country.

    URL: 2point8 dot blogspot dot com

  12. Thank you to all for the interesting comments.

    The difference between groups of people in different countries who’ve been drinking had slipped my mind, but, like Marcus, I’ve felt much more intimidated in the UK or New Zealand than in Thailand. On the other hand, I’ve had one or two experiences in Thailand (as an observer) with somewhat tense encounters (nothing to do with drinking) where it was not immediately apparent to me quite how serious the situation actually was, so I try to remind myself to be careful in all situations…

    I’m sorry if my blog sounds like it’s preaching. Must be some residue from Bible Class when I was a kid, or maybe that American I met… I was mostly trying to give a (somewhat deliberately one-sided, like some of Steve’s blogs…) perspective on this aspect of Thailand. In fact, some of you may be pleased to know that I generally find it pointless and boring (for me) to discuss religion, and I’m certainly not planning to become an ascetic any time soon.

    But I do detect a sub-text in some of these comments that implies: “How can you have any fun if you don’t drink?” Perhaps I can buy you a drink next time I’m in Thailand and we can discuss it…

    Party on…

  13. maybe the 5% muslim minority should start drinking too and chill out a little

  14. As a Thai, and a Buddhist, I can say that most Buddhists, know the five percepts from their heart. But since following them all is a serious business, they shift that business to the monks, because not everyone want to go to nirvana. They enjoy rebirth on erath. So they do good equally to do bad. There’s an old saying say ‘make 7 merit and commit 7 wickeds’. As for people who believe in Christ, they cannot come back on earth again, correct me if I wrong. So, about street gangster, Thai youths commit crime in a stealth way. They will not let that matter make their way to their home, if they could. I used to drink when I was a teen, but my family never know that I drink, though I live with them for 25 years. And I drank a last drop of beer five years ago. I still want to drink but I don’t.

  15. with regard to Thai Buddhists and Christians and drinking…some Thais see Buddha as their God…so try arguing with them…there are many Thai Christians…AA is the world wide network of recovered alcoholics that also exists in Thailand…no other organization has done more to save the lives of millions of people who suffered from alcohol…their 12 step program depends on a “higher power”…and though it is free from dogmatic concepts of a narrow or sectarian view of “God” their origin and beginings was from Christians…as a recovering alcoholic I have to thank those people…so if one really is a Buddhist the Buddha teaches “stop finding fault with others and look to your own shortcomings”

  16. You write:

    “OK, so if 95% of Thai are Buddhist why do more than 5% of them drink alcohol?”

    Because Thais aren’t totally Buddhist. They’re animists who have added Buddhism to their cultural stew. It’s also a defilement to sell women into prostitution or to benefit from the sale of women’s bodies, but I guess you hadn’t thought about that one either, eh?

  17. ps: thought I’d qualify that statement a bit – I’m sober in Thailand, and it’s not hard to stay sober here if you go to meetings. Most of the Thais I meet seem rather …impressed? not quite the right word, but perfectly pleased that I don’t want to drink alcohol with them or anyone else. No one has yet pressed me as to why I don’t drink – Thais are too polite for that, at least the ones I’ve met.