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.