Sometimes I drink beers, sometimes I don’t, but when walking around the streets in Southeast Asia, if I find myself on any of the many drinking streets, I’ll always have a drink with the locals. It’s not that I always want to drink when I’m there, but when the locals see me, a foreigner walking around, they’ll make eye contact and invite me to drink with them. Usually, they buy, it’s their custom for the host to buy, but whenever they allow, I buy. Drinking with the locals is fun, a great way to learn about the local culture and something I feel that every tourist should try once.
Being invited to drink with the locals is easy. Find any of the drinking streets, usually, there are tables lining the sidewalks, and street vendors selling food and beer just next to them. Walk the streets slowly, smiling and let your eyes roam over the eyes of the drinking locals. As soon as a pair of eyes catches yours the local will smile back, stand and invite you to join their table. Join them, enjoy your night enjoy their culture, and let them enjoy learning from you about your culture.
In all of the countries in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – beer and other alcohols flow freely, but there are still a few things you need to know if you are going to drink with the locals. First off every time you drink, whether that is to finish off the bottle or to sip at your glass, give cheers. All you have to say is cheers, hit your glasses with theirs, and drink. Here is an interesting cultural tidbit: in English we say Cheers to signify that we are happy to drink together, this idea didn’t exist in South East Asia but as the locals watched silly foreigners hitting glasses they started to do the same, and because of this in all of the local languages instead of saying “cheers” people say “hit glasses”.
In Thailand, cold bottles of beers are easy to come by, but because of a 100%+ tax on alcohol, sometimes the beers are just too pricey for the locals. Because of this, alongside their beers, you are going to see rum. The locals might call the rum whiskey, but don’t be fooled, even if the bottle says it, it tastes like rum, smells like rum, and just like rum comes from distilled sugarcane. The rum isn’t all that bad, but if you don’t want to drink it, just tell your new friends, they understand and don’t mind cheering their rum to your beer.
In Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon you can find amazingly cheap and delicious beer brewed locally and served to you on the street. The last time I drank there, if my memory isn’t too foggy, I was about to buy a few liters of beer for less than a dollar. Beer in Vietnam is more cultural than the other counties, because of this, brewing knowledge is widely spread and flavors and brands abound. Enjoy drinking with the locals in Vietnam, but don’t forget where your hotel is.
I’m going to tell you something really important that affects beer drinking in Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. In all of these countries you can buy a cold bottle of beer and drink it any way you like, but that’s not usually how the locals do it. Traditionally, the people of Southeast Asia didn’t have refrigerators, and even today many small shops and restaurants in these countries still don’t. Since hot beer is not fun the locals had to come up with a solution, and they did, just fill the hot beer with cold ice. Yes, it’s a little annoying to have ice in your beer, sometimes it gets in the way, and other times it melts and waters down your drink. If you’re drinking with the locals don’t say no thanks and avoided the ice, if you do, you will end up very drunk.
Once in Cambodia, I drank with my friends, and I was shocked with how many glasses of beer they were able to put back. Each drank 50 glasses that night. Fifty glasses! If that was a normal glass full of normal beer, they would all be dead. Instead, they were all able to walk home without too much of trouble, all because cubes and chunks of ice had set in their beer for hours, ever weakening the flavor and the alcohol content. This is why you must follow the local culture if you drink with the locals, This way when they cheer and cheer and you drink and drink and only get tipsy all while having a great time.