We arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok at 7am, and our Airbnb at 8:30. This was far too early to check-in, so needed to kill some hours. Our red eye flight had resulted in exactly that due to sleep eluding us, which meant staggering down the road under the humid sun and collapsing in the nearest café where we would sit, slack-jawed, for the next few hours until our room was ready. The silver lining? Plenty of icy Thai tea.
If you have never had Thai Tea, get thee to a Thai restaurant with that menu item as an essential. It is made from a majorly malted Assam, which is roasted and then mixed with spices, including cardamom, tamarind and star anise. Some Yellow Lake and Red Lake are added for good measure, so that when it is brewed it is a stunning orange. The tea has a tremendous caffeine punch, meaning that a mug of Thai tea will keep you jittering for a solid six hours. In Thailand, the iced tea is sweetened with a decent quantity of sugar, then served either with lemon or sweetened condensed milk. Does that sound sweet to you? Yes, yes it should. Imagine the sensation of creamy milk, sugar, more sugar and a wallop of caffeine. Absolutely unimprovable.
However, the day took a stark turn for the worse when we arrived in our room: two mugs, but no kettle. A week in Bangkok without tea?! I almost panicked, but Vien slapped me across the face (metaphorically) and told me to pull myself together: we’d weathered worse, this would all look better after a nap.
We were woken from our jetlagged snooze by the sound of drilling. Going by the consistency and quantity of the noise, it is likely one person was hired to remove an entire story of a concrete building, chiselling away with a hammer drill and ruptured eardrums. And they had started next to our room. The second day we were woken at 7am by this cacophony, which was difficult to bear as we’d only fallen asleep at 6am (not for lack of trying though – do you know how boring three hours of meditation is when the goal is to fall asleep?). On the third day, we decided this would have to change and, after some sign language gesturing up towards to the thrumming drill, we were upgraded to a larger room a few stories down and, more importantly, boasting a kettle.
Now that our tea crisis was sorted, we could focus on the task at hand: finding more tea. Surprisingly, the Thai people seem to only drink the one type even though there are enormous plantations in the north. In Bangkok, the only tea shops Google could find mention of were in Chinatown. So, off to Chinatown. What an exquisitely good decision that was!
Our first of two stops was at the Double Dogs Tea Room which was a high-end tea shop and café, with an expansive series of tasting menus. We slipped in off the crowded Yaowarat Road, escaping the muggy night air redolent of oil and curries and diesel exhaust, and were enveloped in air conditioning and peaceful music, designed for contemplating tea. We chose a light Taiwanese oolong (or wulong as tea purists correctly translate it) called A Li Shan Cha from the Alishan Mountains and a stronger wuyi wulong from Fujian, China called Shui Jin Gui (literally ‘Golden Marine Turtle’). We also chose four types of Chinese tea cake. And then the show began.
To make the tea properly, follow these precise steps (or watch this and subtract the hand motions and tea pet – not a typo):
For each tea, use a miniature clay teapot (a Yixing teapot) that will hold exactly enough water for one Chinese teacup. Fill the teapot halfway with tea leaves, pour over freshly boiled water, discard. This allows the dry leaves to wake up and get ready to make some serious tea, otherwise most of the first pot of water is simply soaked up by the leaves leaving little tea remaining. The typical British teapot-based method doesn’t suffer from this issue as one might fill it with a full litre and so the change is not noticeable. Here, though, skipping this step will result in your guest feeling a bit short-changed. Place the teapot (or, in our case, two teapots) onto a lacquered plate that has several holes in the surface. This is then set into a larger ceramic basin, so that any water not in the pot or cup can drain away. Place your cups on this plate as well. With each step, know that you are being watched by the tea expert who works there, and know that you are probably not doing it right.
Then bring your freshly boiled kettle and set to the side. Wait for the water to have cooled slightly, and then pour the water into each tea pot, ensuring that it overflows just slightly. Immediately press the lid onto each teapot. Then pour hot water over each teapot, I suppose to ensure an even temperature for brewing, and it also seemed to help reduce suction as otherwise we couldn’t get any water to come out of the spout.
Put the kettle down and immediately pour the entire teapot into one cup, and the second teapot into the other cup. Total brewing time should be 5-7 seconds, and the tea leaves can be re-steeped over a dozen times (we drank two kettles worth of water, and only stopped because the shop was closing, not due to finishing the leaves. We practically sloshed out of the shop.).
After repeating this ritual countless times, and realising that the teas we had tried would cost us £15 for 50g, we decided to try to find another tea shop whose leaves might be closer to our budget.
As luck would have it, there is a well-stocked tea shop a few streets down (Yaowarat Soi 6 Market), where we ended up purchasing a beautiful jasmine tea, a milky oolong and a white puerh. The milky oolong was almost certainly made with sweetened condensed milk instead of relying solely on the leaf’s own lactones, but still delicious. For the white puerh, it was new to us, and very light but still earthy; the leaves do not look at all like photos of white puerh so we likely were ‘had’, but it was still an interesting purchase. The highlight from the shop was looking in their mug section and seeing one devoted to the state of Maine.
Since leaving Bangkok, we have been ensconced in a resort that has so many other pros it can be forgiven (just) for its attitude towards tea. They have bags of Lipton and a water heater which holds the water at a steady 80 degrees C. Although they are charging almost £1 for a mug of tepid Lipton, they have given us hot water for free. We are now able to drink our white puerh and milky oolong while sitting on the beach, staring at the Andaman Sea and feeling quite smug. We are also filled with tendrils of anticipation: on our return to Bangkok, we will be in a hotel with a kettle, and then heading to one of the few lands of tea: Japan.