THE PART-TIME TEETOTALLER
By Andrew Biggs
Buddhist Lent is upon us.
I’m going to refer to it by its Thai name, Khao Phansa, not to be a show-off but more because I’ve never felt comfortable with “Lent.”
It conjures up too many childhood memories of sanctimonious religious friends broadcasting their hunger pangs in the lead-up to Easter, not to mention that dreadful “Forty Days and Forty Nights” hymn we were forced to sing.
Khao Phansa on the other hand is light and breezy and free of religious connotations and neurological disorders. And it’s timely; it began just two days ago, when Thais all over the country lit candles and walked three times around their local temples to mark the start of this auspicious three-month period of the year.
(The only setback was it fell right next to Asarnha Bucha this year, a double whammy when it came to the ban on the sale of alcohol but that, dear reader, is why God invented pre-stocked liquor cabinets.)
For me, Khao Phansa is a time I take time out to drink an annual toast to my old friend Ongart.
I first met Ongart 20 years ago as he sat on a bamboo mat outside his Chantaburi home. Little did I know then that Ongart was the poster boy for rural men addicted to the local rice whiskey known as lao khao, or “white alcohol”.
He was surrounded by a few friends on the mat and I was invited to join them. In Thai this is known as “creating a circle”, or sitting down with your mates solving the problems of the world over a clear liquid that I foolishly thought was vodka.
Lao khao is not vodka. It is a foul, raw substance that must be responsible for 90 per cent of this country’s liver ailments. It could substitute for petrol in an empty gas tank on a lonely highway.
It gets a rural boy drunk in seconds, and he remains that way – drunk and raucous on a bamboo mat – for a good four hours until he finally gets on his motorbike and speeds off home.
Ongart’s face was ruddy and jowly. His skin was a map of creases and crevices, interspersed with blotchy burst blood vessels that would rival a septuagenarian’s.
Imagine my surprise when I found out he was my age and not of my father’s generation; 25 years of age going on 50, with grey unkempt hair that was spiky, not as a fashion statement, but from an absence of shampoo and water.
His clothes hadn’t ever seen an iron or washing machine. He was skinny as a rake with skin as dark as the Chantaburi night (see what happens when I go without a drink for 48 hours thanks to liquor bans? I get poetic).
The second time I saw him was at his wedding.
It was an attempt by village elders to get Ongart’s mind off alcohol and onto something more constructive. He arrived at his own wedding drunk, took one look at me and dragged me up to stand beside him as his best man.
I don’t remember much else about the wedding except it was the first time I tried sartor, a sweeter rice whiskey which, once I got past the awful taste of the first three glasses, didn’t taste so bad on the fourth, and rendered me unconscious on the fifth.
I saw less of him after that as he moved five kilometres away to live with his in-laws. Whenever I did see him we’d end the conversation with my handing over a hundred baht. He’d hug me, call me his brother, and stagger onto his motorbike. Within minutes he’d be at the local shack that sold rice whiskey.
Why am I tell you all this? Every year when Khao Phansa came around, something very weird happened to Ongarj.
This hopeless alcoholic quit alcohol.
He’s not the only one. All over Thailand, otherwise incurable drunks quit liquor for three whole months to mark Khao Phansa.
I tried it once, back in 1996, when I was a lot younger and naive and trying to blend in with the locals. I think I lasted about a month before my close friend, Common Sense, paid me a visit and bashed me about the head with a blunt object.
Every year, without fail, Ongart went from full-on inebriation to teetotality for 40 days and 40 nights, times two, plus ten.
I didn’t know this until way after he got married. One night I drove to my Chantaburi home to be greeted by the usual suspects “creating a circle” on my balcony. Only this time they brought along a total stranger.
He was a good-looking young man with jet black hair neatly parted on the side. It is difficult to tell the age of Thais at the best of times, since the country has clearly made a collective pact with the Devil on ageing, but this guy had to have been in his mid-twenties.
He sat quietly, cradling a Sprite in his hands. It wasn’t until I got much closer than I got the shock of my life. It was Ongart.
His face had lost ten years. His skin was clear, and god knows where his jowls had disappeared to.
He did it every year. He stopped singing hideous Thai folk songs late at night when we were all trying to get some sleep, and his hour-long rants about the government and corruption and poor people turned into welcome silence while his mates carried the gregarious baton.
How can one be a hardened alcoholic for nine months of the year, then completely stop for the remaining three?
Ongart’s transformation lasted all the way through to Ork Phansa, or the last day of the 90 days. That falls in early November as the rainy season dries up.
You can imagine the nationwide celebrations on that night. It’s a bit like those iconic pictures you see of World War Two servicemen returning home to their girlfriends on the docks, only these Thai guys are not sucking face. They’re sucking lao khao for the first time in three months, and boy it must feel good.
In a matter of weeks, the grey flecks returned to Ongart’s hair. Once back in his life, that white whiskey unwrapped its bag of tools and started etching those cracks and crevices back into Ongart’s face, while his jowls dusted themselves off and resumed their places around his jawline.
I once asked him why he didn’t just stop drinking altogether. His wife stopped whatever she was doing in the background and shot a helpless glance at me, then a resentful one at her other half, but Ongart just slapped my back and laughed and asked for a hundred baht.
I don’t see Ongart these days. One night, five years ago, after a day on the white whiskey he got on his motorbike and drove it into a ditch. He lay in a coma for four months before he passed away. Perhaps it was that extra month off the booze that did him in; too much for his soul to bear.
His two sons are now 15 and 13 and the spitting image of their father, except neither is remotely interested in alcohol or any other drug. They have memories. They have seen what white whiskey can render them, other than fatherless.
I dedicate this normally-sanook column to my old friend on the anniversary of his annual giving up of alcohol. At least he did it. For that feat, he was a greater man than I ever have been.