I never thought I’d find myself drinking homemade wine from a bucket on the side of the road, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made since arriving in Thailand. The wine I was drinking is called “Sato,” which is made from fermented sticky rice and yeast, and it was delicious.
I fell in love with Sato on the third night of the Songkran holiday on the Thai island of Koh Panghan. Songkran, the Buddhist New Year celebration, is a time when Thais celebrate family, honor tradition, and welcome in the new. However, unlike any family holiday I’d ever been part of in the US, this was a holiday time when people seem to feel free to be their full selves. As I explored in my last blog, I’d already spent my first few days of Songkran enjoying Songkran’s infamous water fights with my transgender Thai friends, along with copious dancing. But this night was a time to chill, sit back, and have fun (sanuk) the Thai way — over a big meal.
A few hours earlier my transgender friend Plamy had invited me to her friend’s house for a family dinner, and I happily accepted – we had been partying in the sun all day and I was exhausted and hungry. She then offered to give me a ride on the back of her motorbike. What I thought would be a quick ride soon turned into a long trek down winding mountain roads, which she took at full speed. I should’ve been scared for my safety, but instead, I was too exhausted from all the partying to care, and nodded off at least twice only to be woken by the sudden jolt of us hitting a bump in the road. When we finally did arrive, she pulled over to the side of the main road into a collection of humble buildings cobbled together with corrugated tin, wood, and Thai ingenuity. In the middle of it all was a giant sheet of plywood raised up on a platform, which served as a combination table and seating area. As I was handed a pillow and encouraged to lay back and relax, I watched a young man fan hot coconut shell charcoal in a barbecue pit fashioned out of an old steel sink.
I had no idea what kind of an evening I had just signed up for, but my Thai dinner hosts were so excited to have me there that I overcame my trepidation, and introduced myself in my best Thai, explaining that I was a transgender writer. I was introduced to the entire family, including a father, daughter, son, and several friends, including one rather flamboyantly gay guest who Plamy seemed to be close to. When the father introduced himself as “Lek,” the Thai word for “little,” I couldn’t help but laugh in recognition at his nickname, repeating it and it’s English meaning to the amusement and laughter of everyone around me (to be fair, it’s a common childhood nickname for a younger sibling). Soon everyone was having fun testing out my Thai, and asking me questions about what it was like to be a farang (foreigner/non-Thai) from the USA. Lek’s son even voice-chatted his friend then handed me the phone so his friend could meet the odd Thai-speaking farang who’d shown up for dinner.
The meal began with thin-sliced grilled pork served with steamed sticky rice. The family, like Plamy’s family, had Northeastern Thai (Isaan) roots, and this was a typical regional dish. In Isaan style, everyone hand-dipped the pork and sticky rice in the provided hot chili sauce (naam prik). The pork was perfectly juicy and crisp, reminiscent of Korean barbecue pork belly, except with that distinctly Thai hint of fish sauce. As I scooped up another ball of rice with my fingers, I explained in Thai that sticky rice was one of my favorite foods. This was met with approval from everyone around me and a mischievous grin from Lek, who momentarily disappeared. He reappeared wielding a bucket and wearing an even bigger grin. Tipping the bucket towards me, he showed me that it was full of fermenting sticky rice. This was my first introduction to Sato, and as he poured me a cup, he explained that the alcoholic drink was an Isaan specialty.
To the apparent surprise of everyone around me, I instantly fell in love with the thick, milky, honey-sweet beverage. I was met with cheers when I finished my cup and asked for more. While much of the night’s conversation I couldn’t understand, I did notice that very little of it veered towards the serious or solemn. It seemed tonight was a night for everyone to focus on having fun (sanuk): sharing stories, jokes, and music seemed to be the focus of the night. A few times I could tell my hosts were poking fun at the increasingly-inebriated foreigner in their midst, and I laughed with them whenever I heard the word farang. To their credit though, my new friends did warn me that if I overdid the Sato, I would be “very sleepy” the next day, and I appreciated the warning. I also wanted to save some room for more of the delicious barbecue that was being prepared. I had just watched two of my hosts gingerly cut open an octopus, remove its organs and beak, and slice it into strips for the grill, and I love fresh seafood.
Plamy had by now been joined by a friend who seemed to be a young gay Thai man, and the two of them switched the music over to what you might expect to hear in an LGBTQ club. As I snacked on the lightly charred octopus, first dipping it into the chili sauce, I watched the two of them dance to the music without a care in the world. Lek left once again to fetch a different bucket. This bucket, however, was not filled with Sato – instead, it contained a freshly caught fish swimming inside, which seemed to be the main course for the evening. I took an intense interest in watching Lek prepare it, asking him questions about each step as he regaled me with stories.
As he gutted the fish and sliced it in thirds, I learned about a fishing trip when he’d caught a similar seven-kilogram fish. Then, as he pounded together garlic, lime, onions, peppers, cilantro, and lemongrass in a mortar and pestle to make a chili sauce, I learned how he had only completed school through age 12, but he had educated himself in English on his own. Grabbing a machete, he chopped down a stalk of bamboo and began slicing it into strips. As he placed the fish between the bamboo strips, he told me how he was proud he was able to provide a better future for his daughter and son, who he knew would have more opportunities than him because they were doing so well in school. Finally, he showed me where to harvest lemongrass growing on the side of the road, and how to use it to tie the pieces of bamboo together to make an A-shaped frame to hold the fish over the fire.
The fish roasted over the barbecue pit for what seemed like forever as I hungrily watched and sipped my Sato. It was worth the wait — the fish was delicate, tender, flaky, and had nice hints of charred wood, but wasn’t too smoky (coconut charcoal burns very clean). The fish was perfect when dipped in the remaining garlic/lime/lemongrass chili sauce. I ate more than my fill, yet was constantly offered more food no matter how much I protested.
Songkran, for my Thai friends, still had two more days to go, but for me, the barbecue was the perfect ending. The next couple days I spent mostly alone reflecting, writing, and enjoying the beach. This was a family holiday I’d never forget. During the dancing and water fights I’d joined on the first two days of Songkran, I’d witnessed Thai people truly letting go and enjoying themselves together, no matter their background or identity. And at our barbecue dinner, it didn’t seem like anyone held back from having fun. I’d been surrounded by LGBTQ people throughout Songkran, which felt like Pride, New Year’s Eve, and Thanksgiving all thrown together. From my research on Thai history I had a basic understanding of how Buddhism influences a tolerant attitude towards LGBTQ people in Thailand, but witnessing this amount of openness at a Buddhist holiday was still a pleasant surprise to me. I also was struck by how overwhelmingly generous the families I celebrated with were towards me, and none of them treated me any different even though I was very open about being transgender. I just hope that one day I’ll be able to learn to barbecue a fish as well as Lek can, although I think I’ll need a few more lessons first.
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