Full of sweet, cold, caffeinated deliciousness, I inhaled them. Often afterwards I felt my teeth rotting in protest. When downed too quickly, I’d get jittery and crazy, like a toddler on a sugar high. Sometimes the beloved coffees would play games with my intestines when consumed this quickly. Only once was it really detrimental, curiously from the local 7/11 and not one of the many makeshift coffee stands along the road. Go figure.
Later in the semester, the other foreign English teacher, H, and I started ordering coffees after lunch with the other Thai teachers. They called someone who ran one of the little coffee stalls, and less than twenty minutes later someone on a motorbike showed up with a plastic bag filled with to go cups brimming with ice and little baggies of premade coffee tied up with rubber bands. Everything, including and frequently, liquids were transported and served this way: in little baggies. Everyone would take a plastic cup with lid and straw, and one of the baggies filled with the light, creamy brown coffee. My first time serving myself in this style I was afraid, convinced, I would dump the precious coffee all over the table. Luckily, I managed to only spill a little drip of it, and felt quite triumphant at my success. Inwardly, of course, didn’t want to look any more like a wacky foreigner.
The hot liquid would melt a tiny bit of the ice on contact, then immediately cool. I believe it had to be the sweetened condensed milk that made the Thai Iced Coffee so delightful and diabetes inducing. I was convinced that when I came home the dentist would tell me I had sprouted three new cavities (I didn’t – thank goodness for brushing and flossing!).
It became a habit, especially with H, to get iced coffees before school in the morning. We (mostly H) became friends with the couple who ran the little stand, Lem and Lek. They lived around the corner from our apartment and had several children ranging from 4-5 to University aged. They ran the coffee stand a little farther away, but well within our walking distance, along one of the busier roads where the locals also sold breakfast food. There were grills and carts with stick rice wrapped in banana leaves, carts of fruits and nuts. I started to buy peanuts to take to school as well, though I was often the one who ended up eating most of them. The first time I ever went with H all of the Thais selling along the road already knew who I was. The coffee hut owner was friends with my Muay Thai teacher, and when they saw me they’d say: C—- Muay Thai! Muay Thai! Yes, yes.
They served little fried doughnut things with the coffee, with no charge. They were like little pieces of fair-style funnel cakes without the unnecessary powered sugar, and delectably sweet, just like the coffee. Sometimes we’d give a piece to the dog. One of the men who also stopped by their cart got this deep blue colored tea made from a flower. I loved the bright color of the tea. It wasn’t bad to drink either. If we arrived early enough, the monks would come by for morning offerings, and Lem and Lek would give us a few things to give to put in the monks’ baskets. We would kneel down on the sidewalk before them, and they would chant or recite a blessing over us. Then we would stand up and place our little bundles in their bowls, making sure we didn’t make any physical contact with the monks themselves. They’re not allowed to touch women, and have to do some kind of cleanse (maybe?) if they do.
These morning coffee times were also where H learned a lot of her Thai. Lem spoke a very little bit of English that he remembered from his school days, and still had an English learning picture book. They would exchange words by pointing and saying. H also had another Thai language book, and would ask Lem to say the words in Thai for her, or read the Thai from the book. This was how she often practiced her speaking, and probably why she was so much better than I was, as I didn’t do this sort of practice nearly as often. My Muay Thai teacher preferred to speak Isaan or Lao.
Lem’s and H’s birthdays fell on almost the same day, so we were invited over to their house for a little celebration. H had bought Lem a cake in American tradition. We sang the happy birthday song, which they also knew, and shared the cake with their children. The grandmother (I think) welcomed us by tying an orange string around our wrists. The tying of strings around the wrists is a Thai tradition, welcoming, and connectedness. I wore mine until it got caught on something and broke off only a few weeks ago (so a total of 6 and half months I wore my string. I was quite sad when it broke, and I kept it to place in my photo album). For our birthday celebration we sat outside on a little stone bench at a round stone table, with a horde of chickens pecking around in the yard. Lem and Lek kept encouraging us to eat more of the Thai sweets they had supplied as well. We encourage their smallest little boy to eat as much cake as he wanted. I think we drank some of the Thai orange juice with the little orange jellies in it. I tried to stick to just water. Their house was a small, square structure made of cinderblocks. No stilts, shady lighting. Not a lot of resources for their house, and yet they always gave us our coffee for free. It only cost 20 baht (less than a dollar), yet they always just wanted to give us our coffees. H and I would try to leave a 20 baht note on the table somewhere before we left anyway, but they almost always caught us. We weren’t sure if that was considered rude to them, but we Americans thought it was not fair to NOT pay…so this little dance went on the entire semester.
To thank Lem and Lek at the end of the semester we offered to buy them whatever they wanted to eat from the market that night. We got tons of stuff. And then they gave half to us. Thai hospitality. It was never the same going back to any of the bigger cities where the locals had learned to take as much money from foreigners as they could get away with (so it goes).
There was also a more formal coffee house in our town, called Chao Doi. I loved this place. It was all dark, shiny wood, and they had fans and WiFi. They had stairs up to a second level like a little elevated gazebo. The bottoms of some of the tables had a sewing pedal like contraption that reminded me of the old sewing table my mom had from her grandmother. Chao Doi was like the Starbucks of Thailand. They were a chain all over Thailand and served a mix of coffee and tea related beverages. They had some rather tasty smoothies as well. Strawberry and Chocolate frappes were both yummy. I liked to go here and do some of my teacher work. They’d automatically bring you water as well, and didn’t seem to care at all how long you stayed, regardless of how empty or busy they were. They often weren’t concerned with payment, either. I was afraid I’d leave and forget to sometimes. They didn’t harass you to pay a bill at any certain time. Perhaps they did in the bigger cities, but in our sleepy little town it was all mai bpen rai. This was where I had originally planned to sit and write in all my free time. Woops. Turns out the air conditioned apartment and travel on weekends won out on that one.
I haven’t shaken my coffee love since I’ve been home. I’ve just switched from iced to hot, with considerably less sweeteners. Iced coffees, however, will never be the same. At least an amateur coffee drinker, I’d say to taste at least one Thai Iced Coffee if ever you venture out there.