When the Worst Drink Is the Best Drink
SangSom in Chiang Mai
Summer in Chiang Mai, Thailand is hot and drunk and fueled on SangSom. Sold as “thai whiskey” in most bars, it is actually rum, made from molasses, and tastes like someone spit in a moldy shoe, and, needing a profit, bottled it and called it whiskey. It’s Thailand’s most popular and least palatable liquor, consistently dominating the “worst whiskey you ever tasted” category. The highest compliment I’ve heard in its favor is that it’s “good enough to drink.”
Outside the bars at Tha Pae gate, SangSom lined the tables, in bottles and buckets, with Coke and Red Bull and soda. I was living there and had steeled myself for a summer of “when in Rome.” I made Thai friends and drank Thai whiskey, even when that whiskey came in a brightly covered aluminum bucket with six straws and a layer of backwash.
I drank SangSom on a date with a tattooed British punk, who was not my type, nor was I his. I was hungover on SangSom the day said Brit dumped a dead baby bird out of his shoe and realized that it wasn’t his laces that had been stuffed in the front his Vans as he walked down Nimmanhaemin Street.
SangSom got me through the day my car broke down twice, the night the power went out in my apartment when I needed to do a job interview on Skype, and the unrelenting gecko chirps that kept me awake most nights. It washed down the meals when, regardless of how many times I asked about the ingredients in a curry, it was served with piles of blood tofu. It accompanied Huay Tung Tao Rocket Fest, where villagers launched over a hundred bamboo rockets to ask for rain and Pue Sae Ya Sae festival, where I watched a man (who was hopefully also drunk on SangSom) eat rotten, raw buffalo flesh as an offering to two cannibalistic spirits.
At times, I’d trade it for gin and tonic, but I always went back. I drank it in good times too, on trips to waterfalls, and while celebrating birthdays, holidays, and Fridays. There was no wrong time for SangSom, and it always seemed to appear, the collective group anticipating a need. I drank SangSom my last night in Thailand, and when I got on a plane for New York, took a bottle for the road.