The Travel Series: Thailand
We’ve spent the last 3 months on the road bouncing from place to place, and trying to cram as much culture and gin into our journey as physically possible. It’s been the best experience of our lives, but one that we didn’t expect to be so exhausting – living out of a backpack is HARD. Another thing that we certainly didn’t expect was that Thailand would prove to be the country where we stayed the longest, as we have found ourselves to be completely content within its’ borders.
Probably a little bit to do with exhaustion, and maybe even a bit to do with weather, but primarily, it has been down to the warmth that oozes from both the country and the people within it. Don’t get us wrong, there are still lots of hawkers lining the street ready to rip you off with fake designer wares or overpriced tuk tuk rides, but it’s all done with jest, and the famous Thai smile. Yes, people in Thailand are definitely still hustling to make ends meet (who can blame them?), but there is something about their manner that is so welcoming, so warm, and so endearing that we’ll be genuinely sad to leave.
We’ve travelled around Thailand for well over a month, visiting the North, West, South and of course, it’s sprawling Capital. Our time here has given us a chance to immerse ourselves in the Thai culture, traditions, and general way of life, and do you know what we have realised? Thai people want to laugh, be happy, and smile so much more than they want to be angry, argue or be bitter. Quite frankly, we could all take a leaf out of their book. Their attitude is to be kind always. Can anybody reading this hand on heart say the same? And, if the answer is yes, do you honestly always adhere to it…?
Back home, the rushed commuters that barge past us on the underground definitely can’t. The disgruntled newsagent that we avoid engaging with at all costs definitely can’t either. But actually, neither can we. If the girl at our local coffee shop gets our latte order wrong, we’d probably be inclined to go back and complain. But why? It wasn’t done on purpose, and hazelnut syrup is just as nice as caramel, but unfortunately, that is what has become of our society.
"Sanuk is a way of life..."
Thai people live their day to day lives, focusing heavily on sanuk. A rough translation of this word would be ‘to have fun’, but that doesn’t do it justice; it is so much more than an adjective. Sanuk is a way of life, and a way that we should be living our lives. That drudgurous commute to work should be sanuk: we should be able to smile at the fact that we have a job and a purpose to rise each morning. The interaction at the newsstand should be sanuk: we should exchange words that are filled only with jokes and laughter instead of avoiding conversation. That mistake hazelnut latte should sure as hell be sanuk: accept that sweet coffee in all its glory and just enjoy it. Relish the change, instead of refusing it.
The Thai practice of sanuk means that you instantly feel good around them; your guard drops because you know that all they offer is acceptance, warmth, and love. Should life really be any other way?! Throughout our adventure in the country and in every bar we’ve visited here, we’ve experienced sanuk, and it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Driving through Pai, North Thailand, we couldn’t help but notice the same little orange signs all over town and thoroughly intrigued, we headed down to Sundown Playground to see what all the fuss was about. Considering that we only visited because we were parched and wanted to catch the sunset, we nearly fell over ourselves with excitement when we saw those beloved balloon glasses standing proud on the bar!
This has been the only bar which we have visited on our travels so far that doesn’t promote itself as specialising in gin but who cares enough about the spirit to serve it properly. Although, this is thanks to a European influence as the owner admitted that it was his Spanish girlfriend that showed him ‘the light’, and the proper serve. It was refreshing to see a non-specialist bar taking pride in their serves, and executing them properly instead of in a tumbler, or even worse a bucket… Let’s hope that this is a positive sign that the gin revolution is catching here in Asia!
Away from the main cities, the gin options are very limited so it was no surprise that a bar in a remote mountainous town would use both standard gin and tonic brands. However, Sundown Playground incorporate locally grown pineapple, passionfruit, cucumber and mango to flavour their drinks, and thanks to the lush greenness that surrounds the bar, they taste anything but standard!
In the middle of a remote field, Sundown Playground has been lovingly constructed from palettes and congregated iron, and is adorned with quirky, embroidered cushions and textiles that the couple picked up during their travels in India. Overlooking the beautiful Pai mountains, it is the perfect place to relax at sunset with a G&T – it definitely does its’ name justice…
The majority of bars in tourist-orientated Chiangmai sell the alcohol that is going to make them the most money: draft beer and cheap spirits. However, there is a bar residing on its’ edge that is so beautifully ornate, it could almost be counted as another of the city’s 300 temples. DrinkSmith is the only bar of its’ kind in this cultural city – a specialised bar outside of the luxury hotels – but its’ trailblazing status doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a bar that is would certainly be able to hold its’ own in any large, cosmopolitan city.
The sophisticated interior of DrinkSmith is a result of half Thai and half American owner, Note’s, personal design expertise, and his goal to create a bar that focuses on delivering an experience rather than just a service was one that he certainly achieved. Every aspect of the bar is designed with the customer in mind: the jars of garnish clearly labelled on display, the selection of light foods on the menu to complement the drinks, even the height of the bar itself. It was designed specifically to ensure that customers have a completely unrestricted view of skilled bartenders mixing their drinks. The feature cabinet behind the bar is complete with dainty little drawers and gives the bar an almost apothecary feel, like a chemist dispensing delicious healing potions. Rather fitting for the spirit that we consider to be the best medicine, don’t you think?
Anthony Sutton has designed a bar and distillery so beautifully removed from the vendor strewn streets that surround it, it is almost impossible to believe that it is situated in the middle of Bangkok. It’s Thai origin, however, is certainly not something to doubt with the gin’s base spirit being made from a mix of their beloved fruits: the pineapple and the coconut. The profoundly distinct taste of this gin definitely sums up its’ slogan – ‘you always have options if you have balls’. Well, it wasn’t going to be subtle was it?!
As quirky as the brand itself, we had the pleasure of meeting ambassador, Carson Quinn, for a tour of the distillery and a chat of all things ballsy. Quinn explained that Iron Balls is a perfect example of tenacity and not stopping until you reach perfection; they risked both time and money by spending over two years developing and finalising the ‘perfect blend’. After over 120 attempts, they succeeded in creating a very special gin and an equally special brand.
Sutton, a man happier at sea than he is on dry land, has deeply woven his nautical passion throughout Iron Balls’ brand. The shape of bottle was designed specifically to prevent it from toppling over during rough seas; the brand name is beautifully embossed across the clear glass and the batch number is charmingly handwritten.
The attention to detail dedicated to finding the perfect recipe is further reflected in the bar and distillery themselves. Housed in a ornate wrought iron structure that was once a water fountain, the modest size and speakeasy nature gives it an air of charming intimacy whilst its’ meticulously chosen decor means that each and every corner is one of intrigue.
Despite being the only gin currently distilled in Thailand, a country that is yet to become passionate about the spirit, we can’t help but feel that there is no brand better to ignite a passion than Iron Balls itself. After all, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, ‘if you have got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow’!
This cafe/bar is an absolute gem that we happened to stumble across when wandering around the little ‘town’ of Nathon on the island of Koh Samui. Whilst the owner is a charismatic Scotsman, he definitely possesses those Thai values of warmth and love, and as soon as we stepped through the door into this air-conditioned haven, we felt like we were at home. The interior is an explosion of both colour and comfort; brightly painted window shutters hang on the walls above geometric patterned armchairs and beautiful marble tables. More than this though are the little touches that are found in each and every nook and cranny. Shelves constructed from upcycled pallets frame various quirky trinkets and an array of books, but of course our personal favourite are the sprigs of gypsophila which burst from recycled bottles of Hendricks gin.
After four days of succumbing to our hotel’s underwhelming G&T’s, The Road Less Travelled’s gin cocktail menu was enough to send us into an absolute tizz! It took a lot of deliberating but we finally settled on a ‘Floradora’ – a delightful mix of gin, chambord, fresh lime juice and ginger ale. Further adding to those charming little extra details was the ginger ale being served on the side, as it gave us the chance to tailor the cocktail to our own personal preference. However, The Road Less Travelled offered us gin in more ways than one as alongside our very, very moreish tipple, we were treated to a couple of gin flavoured truffles that had been made especially for our visit! Gin and chocolate?! Name a more iconic duo… after sampling one of each of the dark chocolate ‘Negroni’ and the white ‘Hendricks and Tonic’ truffles, we definitely can’t!
What would be more fitting as the parting words of this post than the life lessons that we have taken from our time spent in this inspiring country: always be kind, enjoy life and always serve gin as a double measure!
So, until next time - Bottoms up!
Written by A
27th June 2018
SHARING IS CARING:
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