Live Long and Strong with Yaa Dong - by Jeff Petry (Udon Magazine Issue 18)
Instead of seeing a doctor and taking expensive medicine when you’re down, or tired, or just a bit weaker than usual in certain parts of the body, many Thais have long turned to the cheap and readily available yaa dong, or yaa dong lao, as it’s called here.
This “alcohol-pickled medicine” or “fermented natural herb” is a very special elixir indeed, and comes highly recommended by pretty many (Asian) doctors, including even a few medical ones, the author, and a couple of his savvy friends.
There are two main ways to extract the natural goodness of these kind of herbs: one is to boil them, which works I’m told, but is kind of boring and bitter; the other is to ferment the leaves, stalks, roots, bark, and wood chips in alcohol, this being the much-preferred method, for obvious reasons.
Every experienced practitioner has their own special, often secret, recipe for yaa dong. Roadside stall usually offer at least four main formulas. One is to ease aches and pains and increase energy. Another helps fight a gassy stomach and relieve constipation. Then there is one to regulate menstrual flow in women. The fourth, and favorite for some reason, has aphrodisiacal properties, and essentially transfers the wood from the herbs to the inert organ.
Yaa Dong is normally prepared by mixing lao khao, alcohol typically distilled from glutinous rice, with various herbs and allowing the mixture to infuse for 2-4 weeks before use, if possible. 2-4 days is not so bad, either, but the brew definitely improves and strengthens over time. Many folks add honey to take the edge off. I’ll often add some cinnamon, garlic, ginger, turmeric, lime, and maybe a splash of apple cider vinegar, always good for what ails you.
There used to be many more stalls around peddling this juice in the north and northeast of Thailand; tragically, they seem to be on the wane in these increasingly regulated times. The red cloth-stoppered jars were always a site for sore eyes, but the law seems to be intervening more these days on the sale of this herbal medicine, technically illegal to sell without a license, which rather goes against the entrepreneurial spirit – no pun intended – of Thailand.
In fact, there has long been a quasi-religious element to sipping the odd infusion. Most traditional knowledge, including healing, has long been the domain of the wat, or village temple. Obviously, alcohol is technically frowned upon in such sacred spaces; medicine…less so.
In the wise and insightful words of Dr. Parinya Uthitchalanon, a yaa dong expert, “Mendicant and shamanic herbalists were often former monks who were now free to imbue their potions with magic and alcohol. I think its origin had to do with the desire to drink whiskey… Since taking medicine is different to drinking alcohol for intoxication, no rules were broken. It caught on. Thais of every era have always loved to drink.”
He concludes with the colorful observation that “…it was said to produce unfailing long-lasting erections so potent it could make a monk leap over the temple wall in search of romance.” Or as my mate Lao Dude likes to put it, “A cat couldn’t scratch it.” (Time for a shot, I reckon.)
The effects of yaa dong are manifold: enhance appetite, enrich blood, salve aches, reduce fatigue, cure insomnia, restore digestion, nurture clear speech, balance “wind energy,” and prolong youth. Most yaa dong recipes have similar ingredients, but in different proportions. Women drink it to cure aches and pains, especially monthly ones; men for strength, stamina, and general sustenance.
Packages of the dried herbs can often be found being sold by vendors near temples, and they are also available in the Indochina Market along the Mekong River in Nong Khai. I prefer mixing the Thai and the Vietnamese varieties.
Sadly, it seems we’re witnessing now the final days of the yaa dong shops, and the tradition that they represent should be studied and evaluated. Otherwise, all that will be left is the memory, that there as once a time when Thais drank herbs pickled in whiskey. It would be recalled that in those olden days, people would walk up to a stall, order a small cup of whiskey mixed with naturally medicinal herbs, pop some tamarind into their mouths to chase the bitter taste away, and then continued on their merry way. Enjoy it while ye may.