thai tea 2The unrelenting heat of the sun in Thailand takes its toll during late mornings and afternoons. Sunlight casts its brilliant glare and heightens the crisp colors of busy Bangkok streets. Spotting an iced tea vendor’s booth offers sweet salvation among the throngs of shoppers and fragrant food stands lining the open-air markets.

Thai-style iced tea delivers a triple whammy to soothe the weary traveler – an infusion of black tea steeped for strong flavor, ice for simple refreshment, and cane sugar for a burst of quick energy. The vendor begins by filling a glass with two, maybe three, heaping scoops of coarse granulated cane sugar. Thais prefer their drinks sweet and tea is no exception. Then the vendor lifts a conical cloth sieve full of steeped black tea leaves from a metal teapot and pours a stream of deep amber liquid into the glass. He stirs the tea to dissolve the sugar crystals until the golden concoction is nearly ready.

He pauses to comment on the weather. “Lon?” he asks, knowing full well that it is hot outside.

Small talk is universal. Nodding and agreeing does not urge the vendor to move faster, the temperature to cool, or the anticipation to abate. Next he fills a clear plastic bag with ice. Jangling five or ten baht or Thai coins in the palm does not make a difference. Finally, he pours the sweetened tea into the plastic bag and adds a straw. If he asks about adding a shot of sweet condensed milk, the additional sweetness dilutes the concentrated flavor of tea and the delay is hardly necessary.

He ties the bag’s handles together, hands the tea over and reaches for the baht. The exchange is made. With the first drink, the world seems to slow and brighten as the rush of cold tea feeds the senses and refreshes. The sound of three-wheeled taxis known as tuk tuks, bartering shoppers, and street vendors clamoring over the market din resumes. Ah, sweet salvation does not last long so savor every sip.

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Originally published in Tea Experience Magazine, 2006.