Coffee and Culture Shock in Bangkok

An August Smithsonian Magazine article asked the question “Why Don’t Other Countries Use Ice Cubes?” It’s a very basic question, one that many travelers don’t even contemplate because in the grand scheme of things, do ice cubes really matter? But if the comments to the article are any indication, they do. Apparently, people are passionate about ice cubes. And in my own travels, I’ve found that a decision to have a drink served warm instead of on ice in Bangkok was (excuse the pun) an icebreaker and a bit of culture shock in its own way.

When I settled in Bangkok in 2010, I lived in an area called Victory Monument, chosen (of course) for its full gamut of street food options and relative isolation from the expat scene. On one side of the monument is Ratchaprarop, a road with plenty of friendly bars frequented by the expat community, and lots of street stalls in between. On the other side, where I lived, was a highway over a tiny klong river and a sprawling series of night food markets that opened up after 4pm. On the narrow sois leading away from the highway were low-rise apartments, tiny shops and lots of Thai students. Pickup trucks with fruit and vegetables would wind up and down the streets, blasting their specials on a loudspeaker. I preferred this side of the tracks — it had so many more layers to discover.

Culture Shock over Coffee?

A new coffee stand had opened near the corner of Ratchawithi Soi 6, overseen by a smart, earnest woman with the brightest smile in the district. She spoke no English but it didn’t stop her from getting her point across, muttering under her breath as she prepared the drinks with flamboyance and a wink. Her iced coffee was built in tiers – sweetened condensed milk, espresso, chocolate and topped with sweet cream. By all accounts, it was incredible. But I am not an iced coffee person and instead ordered a simple hot coffee with milk.

Best coffee in all of Bangkok!
Best coffee in all of Bangkok!

It became apparent that this would not do.

The first time I stopped by, I asked for a hot coffee in Thai but she shook her head as though she misheard, and opened her vat of ice, pointing forcefully in its direction. “No,” I said, “hot coffee”. Shaking her head and muttering, she made me a hot coffee, strong and delicious. Off I went. The next day, I returned on the way to the subway, and asked for the same. She seemed more agitated than the day before, gesticulating and talking to me in Thai, which I could not understand. On the third day, she was prepared: she had asked a friend who spoke English to sit vigil until I showed up. The moment they saw my face the coffee lady exploded into rapid-fire Thai, punctuated by wild hand motions.

“She wants to know” the friend said slowly “what is wrong with you that you drink hot coffee on a hot day.”

Coffee, translation and culture shock in Bangkok
Coffee, translation and culture shock in Bangkok: me with my favourite coffee lady and her tailor-translator friend.

I grew up in Montreal with weekends spent in the Eastern Townships and many of them helping my dad’s friend Wes on his farm. He would drink hot tea from a thermos throughout, even on the hottest days of summer. Once, I asked him why and his response stuck with me since: drinking the hot liquid cooled your body on a warm day.

Old wives tale? Perhaps. It’s been tested, and there is a shred of truth to the assumption, but certainly not enough to make it absolute. That said, I do love my hot coffee, regardless of whether it merely adds to the rivulets of sweat pouring down my face in muggy Bangkok. At some point, I simply gave up on trying to cool down and stuck to the drink I love.

I explained as much to my favourite coffee lady and her tailor friend, but they remained skeptical, reminding me that it was, in fact, close to 40C outside. I was resolute; hot coffee or no coffee. For the remaining months in town, I’d wander by the stand in the morning and perch precariously on a stool near the side of the road, drinking my coffee and sweating. Each and every day, I’d be rewarded with a wry smile, as if to say “one day she will stop being so stupid and get an iced drink.”

Coffee never looked so good.
Coffee never looked so good.

Over a year after I left Bangkok, I returned with friends to take them to my favourite haunts. I was living up in Chiang Mai, and wanted to pay a visit to the great people I missed in Thailand’s capital. Of course, my coffee stand was on the list, but I wasn’t sure she would remember me. Instead, not only did she crack up when I walked into her field of vision, but she made me a hot coffee on the spot, without my even asking it.  She also whipped out her cell phone and called her friend to come by and say hello – “the crazy lady who drinks hot coffee is back!”

While hot coffee might not be the drink of choice in Victory Monument, at least it made me a new friend.


P.S. I had no idea September 29 was National Coffee day in the USA, but apparently this post was more timely than I realized!

28 thoughts on “Coffee and Culture Shock in Bangkok”

  1. I remember this visit to your favourite coffee stand to this day. I was so surprised to see how friendly and welcoming people were in that street! Not only did the coffee lady remember you but she had a present for you – a piece of clothing if I remember well. And then it seemed everybody in the street remembered you. From the mototaxi rider, to the food stalls staff! That was a good memory. And that was just one day in the life of Jodi. That was a lot of fun.

    Thanks for sharing!

    And huh, that coffee was awesome!!! I think I had it iced though… Hihi :)

  2. wandering educators

    too funny – i don’t like iced coffee much either – there’s something abt it hot, strong, and no pollution (cream or sugar).

  3. Most interesting. In contrast to your experience in Thailand, in my many years of travel in Central America, trying to get an iced coffee was like pulling teeth. There, they acted like I was “crazy” for wanting it iced. But I think the real reason was that it takes much more electricity for ice, than for hot coffee.

    1. It’s true! I ended up with Nescafe most of the time in South America. It also depends on how trustworthy the ice is – in Thailand, ice is made from distilled water and thus you won’t usually get sick, but in other places (Burma, places in South or Central America, etc) you don’t know necessarily where the ice is coming from. Hot drinks might be safer…

  4. LOL! Here you would likely get the same reaction if you asked for iced coffee!! Locals will tell you that coffee must be strong and hot! Asking for decaf is asking for sloppy service (no respect!).

  5. I live in Townsville Australia where it is hot and humid. My parents always drink hot tea and coffee as did my Grandparents. They use the same reason as you – it cools the body. The younger generations do as well but that is in air-conditioned comfort so it doesn’t count!

  6. I love this story, Jodi. It made me laugh. I’ve heard that old wives’ tale too, about drinking hot liquids on hot days, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. This is the opposite problem that I have when I go to Florida when it’s ungodly hot and humid and try to order iced coffee and they’re like “Well, I could poor some hot coffee over ice for you, I guess.” Great…then I’ll have watered down room temperature coffee. Not quite the same. :-)

  7. Lovely story that made me smile.

    Though I only spent three weeks in Bangkok, I often wonder if I went back if the old man that daily made me the same lunch (not entirely sure what it was) would still remember me. Given the heavily local feel of the neighborhood, I reckon he might.

  8. I am a coffee fiend and absolutely relate to this post. That said, I have been known to indulge in cold coffee out of a can from vending machines throughout Japan. I actually grew to miss those… :)

  9. Love this. Me and my mum always drink hot tea during the summer because we believe it cools you down too … no matter how (in)accurate that information could be. :)

    I’ve been forever warned by my traveller friends that whatever I do when I go abroad, don’t ask for ice in drinks because you’re not supposed to drink the water. I guess it depends where you are but if I want a nice thirst-quenching cool drink on a summer day, I’m having ice!

  10. I’m with you and James with the hot coffee on a hot day. However, I do like iced coffee as well and to make sure I am nevertheless the weird farang when in Thailand, I typically stop them from putting the condensed milk in and then add brown sugar myself. I can be difficult.

  11. Thank you for a wonderful article. I can just imagine the mini reunion at your favourite coffee stop. Makes me smile.

  12. Backpacking Southeast Asia

    One of my favourite things about Southeast Asia was the iced coffees! I can’t get enough of them! Had to cut down in the end, they are incredibly bad for your health :-)

  13. Hot coffee is great no matter how nice the weather! It is such a deep flavor that I don’t think you get in cold coffee that really is good any time of the year! I agree it doesn’t matter how hot it is, hot coffee is always amazing. I’d be interested in trying the best coffee in the world.

  14. Pingback: Pre-Trip Reading & Travel Plans for India | Legal Nomads

  15. Nice story!
    I’m Thai and I live in Bangkok. I also usually get an iced drink because of the weather. I drink hot coffee only when I’m in air conditioned buildings. Besides, I also love how Thai woman tried to communicate with you!

  16. Thomas Georgantzian

    Coffee made to drink hot and plain, no sugar no milk. Adding milk and sugar in the coffee it’s a matter of taste but there is where you killing the taste and flavor of the coffee.
    Drink iced coffee it’s also a matter of taste as well and in Thailand people learn to drink iced coffee only and they cannot imagine drinking hot coffee.
    I have had coffee shops in many parts of the world for 38 years and now I have coffee shops in Thailand.
    My experiences and knowledge with coffee is extensive.
    Why in Thailand now.? I have a Thai wife living in Thailand and that makes money for us.
    1. What most of people doesn’t know is when you drink something hot your body activates the temperature stabilizer and works to bring the temperature of the body down since it has dedect a temperature rising in the system which indicated with sweating temporarily but after that moment the temperature of the body goes down and you feel cooler.
    The opposite happens when you are drinking something cold and the body temperature goes lower but after a while you feel hot because your body has react to cold temperature in your system and works to raise the body temperature.
    So we should drink hot drinks when is hot and cold drinks when it’s cold.
    Think about it.
    2. Now, what is happening when you make an iced coffee.?
    Here is what people and especially Thai people do not know. To have an iced coffee you have to make a hot coffee first and then add sugar, milk and a lots of ice to make the hot coffee iced coffee.
    What happens is that the ice melts and the water mixed with the coffee, sugar and milk and there is not any flavor and coffee taste any longer but a liquid looks like a brown water more or less and here comes the question why the coffee is not that strong so they add more coffee shots at the process to make the coffee stronger but some coffee beans do not have that much caffeine and things going to use low quality of coffee beans with more caffeine like the Robusta coffee which has 50% more caffeine than other coffee beans.
    Allow me to say that you better drink a coca cola with milk, sugar and a lots of ice than an iced coffee like this.
    Iced coffee it is not a coffee.
    Coffee it’s only the hot version and that’s the originality of the coffee and if you go to the places they are producing the coffee beans and say that you are drinking iced coffee they will look at you like the craziest person in the world.
    If you dont believe me go to Google and punch the word “coffee” pictures and see the results.

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