"Many of the Thais who drink ya dong on the street are full-blown alcoholics like myself," Lucas* told us as the ya dong vendor poured me a shot of the stuff. Ya dong is a potent, herbal Thai moonshine made by fermenting lao khao, or white liquor, with herbs and roots. It's believed to be medicinal, curing everything from sexual shortcomings to achy joints. It's wildly cheap and can easily be found for sale at street stalls throughout Bangkok.
I tossed back the shot that cost a mere 10 Thai baht (28 cents US) and felt its slightly cinnamon-flavored burn. After cleansing my palate with some guava and prik glua (a dip of salt, sugar, and chili), I sat down at a nearby table with Lucas and my friend Mike who lives in the neighborhood. Lucas, a Swedish expat fluent in Thai, educated us on the world of ya dong, often going off on tangents to discuss racism in Europe or show us his tattoos.
Atif*, a Muslim jewelry salesman from Pakistan and Lucas' drinking partner, mumbled a few slurred sentences as more men came and went from the vendor's stall. There was clearly a sense of community between the drinkers and the vendor. This was their nightly ritual.
Ya dong has been a part of Thai culture for years and is more often than not associated with surly street drinking. But its reputation could be changing.
Quenching the thirst of the city's hipsters, Bangkok hotspots are starting to serve high-end ya dong using quality ingredients. Studio Lam, Bo.lan, Bad Motel, and Tep Bar are just some of the places gentrifying the traditional alcohol.
Having sampled the street swill, I set off to check out the elevated ya dong myself. On my motorsai ride to Chinatown, I passed an old fortuneteller deep in conversation with a customer. I wondered if she'd predicted a day when ya dong would be sold at hip bars for 180 baht a shot. Probably not.
Deeper into the district, the hot air was rich with the aroma of Chinese herbs. I got off the bike taxi and walked down an alley to Tep Bar, a two-month-old spot housed in a hundred-year-old building that still boasts its original teak wood.
"We thought, What are the key cultures of Thailand that have been neglected?'" co-owner Asawin Rojmethatawee told me about the process of creating Tep Bar's concept. "We looked at drinks, food, culture, and music."
Asawin and co-founders Kong Kangwarnklai, Napatt Chindasanguan, and Rommaneeya Jayavasu decided the bar would celebrate the golden era of Thailand. Part of that celebration is serving ya dong in both shot form and elegant cocktails.
Asawin took me through the Three Musketeers (350 baht, or about $10), a trio of honeycomb-spiked shots. The lineup is served alongside pandan leaf-infused water and salted pickled grapes and mango.
I started with a small sip of Asawin's favorite, a Thai black ginger variety dubbed Seven-Eleven. It was complex, intense, and allegedly worked as an herbal Viagra.
"If you finish the whole thing, it gives you a different sensory experience," Asawin tells me after I put down the still-full shot glass.
"So do you feel like I'm missing out on the experience by not shooting it all?" I asked him.
"Yes, I'm saying that," he laughed.
Emboldened by the lighthearted goading, I tossed back the glasses of Lion King (wild Himalayan cherry ya dong used to cure impotence) and Pussy Whipped (sweet grass ya dong said to regenerate lady parts). My stomach warmed up as I fumbled some pickled mango into my mouth.
Taking shots at Tep felt much more glamorous than doing so on the street. Maybe that had something to do with the golden serving dish or the lack of rambling drunks.
I left Tep with a buzz and set out to enjoy the sights of the surrounding neighborhood. Not three minutes into the walk, I came across a ya dong shop on Charoen Krung Road. While obviously less swanky than Tep, the store sold glass bottles of ya dong far nicer than the plastic ones found at street carts. I spoke with Gai, the third-generation owner of the 80-year-old shop.
"It's made here but the material is from China," Gai told me of his ya dong, pointing to the various roots stored in cubbies on the wall. Depending on the particular ingredients he used, he said the elixirs could cure everything from poor kidney function to waning libidos. Gai explained that both men and women could take ya dong with every meal to improve health.
Back on the high-end ya dong trail, I made my way to Bangkok's trendiest neighborhood, Thonglor. Studio Lam opened on Sukhumvit Soi 51 just last year when Sorrawat "Ben" Suviporn and Nattapon Siangsukon, a.k.a. DJ Maft Sai, turned their popular event bartending service brick-and-mortar. Serving ya dong at parties always went over well, so the team continued offering the spirit at their music-focused space.
Like any hip bar that adds modern touches to classics, Studio Lam has experimented with the traditional ya dong recipes to create unique offerings. I sat down with a refreshing tamarind ya dong cocktail (180 baht, or about $5) and talked with the owners about their creations.
"We start coming up with more types of ya dong so we can join more flavors," DJ Maft said. "It's not just for the health benefit or the herbs."
The bar team, lead by head bartender Krit Jirajin, now creates an array of ya dong styles using seasonal produce and spirits like tequila and gin.
While foreigners have been quick to order the beverage, Thais have taken a little longer to come around to the concept.
"Because it's from the countryside, it's not so popular in Bangkok," DJ Maft said of ya dong's struggle.
"The problem is always with the Thai audience. Now there're a lot more people who are into it, but when we started it at first … [people thought] it sounds quite dodgy. It could be a bit dangerous."
Since Studio Lam opened, Bangkok imbibers have become more receptive to ya dong, although DJ Maft notes that people still more often choose trendier drinks like malt whiskey.
People may not be banging down the doors to get their hands on ya dong, but the spirit is certainly having a comeback. Whether the trend is here to stay or falls out of fashion—as most bar trends do—fans can always rest assured that ya dong will probably always be served cheaply on the streets, complete with the added perk of curious company.
*Names have been changed