Thais don’t drink water straight from the tap, and nor should you; plastic bottles of drinking water (nam plao) are sold countrywide, in even the smallest villages, for around B10 and should be used even when brushing your teeth. Cheap restaurants and hotels generally serve free jugs of boiled water, which should be fine to drink, though they are not as foolproof as the bottles. In some large towns, notably Chiang Mai, you’ll come across blue-and-white roadside machines that dispense purified water for B1 for 1–2 litres (bring your own bottle).
Night markets, guesthouses and restaurants do a good line in freshly squeezed fruit juices such as lime (nam manao) and orange (nam som), which often come with salt and sugar already added, particularly upcountry. The same places will usually do fruit shakes as well, blending bananas (nam kluay), papayas (nam malakaw), pineapples (nam sapparot) and others with liquid sugar or condensed milk (or yoghurt, to make lassi). Fresh coconut water (nam maprao) is another great thirst-quencher – you buy the whole fruit dehusked, decapitated and chilled – as is pandanus-leaf juice (bai toey); Thais are also very partial to freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice (nam awy), which is sickeningly sweet.
Bottled and canned brand-name soft drinks are sold all over the place, with a particularly wide range in the ubiquitous 7-Eleven chain stores. Glass soft-drink bottles are returnable, so some shops and drink stalls have a system of pouring the contents into a small plastic bag (fastened with an elastic band and with a straw inserted) rather than charging you the extra for taking away the bottle. The larger restaurants keep their soft drinks refrigerated, but smaller cafés and shops add ice (nam khaeng) to glasses and bags. Most ice is produced commercially under hygienic conditions, but it might become less pure in transit so be wary (ice cubes are generally a better bet than shaved ice) – and don’t take ice if you have diarrhoea. For those travelling with children, or just partial themselves to dairy products, UHT-preserved milk and chilled yoghurt drinks are widely available (especially at 7-Eleven stores), as are a variety of soya drinks.
Weak Chinese tea (nam chaa) makes a refreshing alternative to water and often gets served in Chinese restaurants and roadside cafés, while posher restaurants keep stronger Chinese and Western-style teas. Instant Nescafé is usually the coffee (kaafae) offered to farangs, even if freshly ground Thai-grown coffee – notably several excellent kinds of coffee from the mountains of the north – is available. If you would like to try traditional Thai coffee, most commonly found at Chinese-style cafés in the south of the country or at outdoor markets, and prepared through filtering the grounds through a cloth, ask for kaafae thung (literally, “bag coffee”; sometimes known as kaafae boran – “traditional coffee” – or kopii), normally served very bitter with sugar as well as sweetened condensed milk alongside a glass of black or Chinese tea to wash it down with. Fresh Western-style coffee (kaafae sot) in the form of Italian espresso, cappuccino and other derivatives has recently become popular among Thais, so you’ll now come across espresso machines in large towns all over the country (though some of these new coffee bars, frustratingly, don’t open for breakfast, as locals tend to get their fix later in the day).
The two most famous local beers (bia) are Singha (ask for “bia sing”) and Chang, though many travellers find Singha’s weaker brew, Leo, more palatable than either. In shops you can expect to pay around B30 for a 330ml bottle of these beers, B50 for a 660ml bottle. All manner of slightly pricier foreign beers are now brewed in Thailand, including Heineken and Asahi, and in the most touristy areas you’ll find expensive imported bottles from all over the world.
Wine is now found on plenty of upmarket and tourist-oriented restaurant menus, but expect to be disappointed by both quality and price, which is jacked up by heavy taxation. Thai wine is now produced at several vineyards, including at Château de Loei near Phu Reua National Park in the northeast, which produces quite tasty reds, whites including a dessert wine, a rosé and brandy (see Nam Nao National Park).
At about B80 for a hip-flask-sized 375ml bottle, the local whisky is a lot better value, and Thais think nothing of consuming a bottle a night, heavily diluted with ice and soda or Coke. The most palatable and widely available of these is Mekong, which is very pleasant once you’ve stopped expecting it to taste like Scotch; distilled from rice, Mekong is 35 percent proof, deep gold in colour and tastes slightly sweet. If that’s not to your taste, a pricier Thai rum is also available, Sang Som, made from sugar cane, and even stronger than the whisky at forty percent proof. Check the menu carefully when ordering a bottle of Mekong from a bar in a tourist area, as they often ask up to five times more than you’d pay in a guesthouse or shop. A hugely popular way to enjoy whisky or rum at beach resorts is to pick up a bucket, containing a quarter-bottle of spirit, a mixer, Red Bull, ice and several straws, for around B200: that way you get to share with your friends and build a sandcastle afterwards.
You can buy beer and whisky in food stores, guesthouses and most restaurants; bars aren’t strictly an indigenous feature as Thais traditionally don’t drink out without eating, but you’ll find plenty of Western-style drinking holes in Bangkok and larger centres elsewhere in the country, ranging from ultra-hip haunts in the capital to basic, open-to-the-elements “bar-beers”.