Friday, October 5, 2012

Maaking or Marking Time In Isaan

An "Old Mama" Prepares to Chew Some Betel Nut In Isaan
In response to a recent post on Facebook, an old fraternity brother of mine, not that he is old, it is just that we last saw each other in 1971) asked me about betel nut chewing.  I was prepared to admonish him for either not reading all my blog posts or for not remembering the one that I wrote regarding the specifics of betel nut chewing.  I have written and posted over 380 blog entries over the past four years, and I was fairly certain that I had written one about the prevalence of betel nut chewing amongst the older generation women here in northeast Thailand.  I even remembered researching the practice and getting the Latin names for the components of betel nut chewing.  Since it was late here in Udonthani, I performed a quick search of my files and could not located either the blog entry or the research documents.  The next day I did a more extensive search both electronically and hard copy.  Well, as my late grandmother used to say about herself until she was 92 years old, "I am not crazy, yet".  Later the ravages of Alzheimer's made a mockery of that belief but mercifully, for her, she did not realize it.  I did not find the blog entry but I did find the hard copy of my research.

Betel nut chewing is popular in Southeast Asia and Pacific. The practise has been going on for thousands of years.  In Thailand there is evidence of it going back four thousand years. It is very complicated in that it is not what it would seem to be.  Most of the confusion stems from improper translation from native languages to western languages during the colonial era.

First of all the practise referred to in English as "betelnut chewing" or "betel nut chewing" does not even involve a nut.  There is no such thing as a "betelnut"  The "nut" used in the practise is actually a drupe of the Areca palm (Areca catechu).  A drupe is a fruit, often referred to as "stone fruit" that has a fleshy outside with a pit containing a seed.  Mango, plum, nectarines, peach, and cherry are examples of drupes.

An Elderly Lao Loum Grandmother Enjoying A Chew
Betelnut chewing referred to in Lao language as "Mark" or "Maak" involves chewing slices of the Areca palm "nut" wrapped up in Betel (Piper betle) vine leaves with some caustic lime added.  Sometimes shredded tobacco is added to the mix inside of the leaves.  Unlike the ads for Skoal which espouse "A pinch between the cheek and gum", betelnut chewing involves packing your mouth rather full.

A Lao Women In the Luang Namtha Area of LPDR Chewing Betel Nut
Sliced or shredded Areca "nuts" are readily available in the local markets throughout Isaan,  Situated next to the burlap bags of the "nuts" are trays filled with bunches of fresh Betel vine leaves.  Not all of the Betel leaves are chewed, some are used as offerings in religious rituals.

An "Old Mama" Holding Some Betel Vine Leaves
Why?  Why would people chew betelnut?  Apparently the practice provides mild stimulation to the user.  To me it sounds akin to chewing coca leaves in the high Andes.  The effects are said to be similar to drinking a cup of coffee.  I am not a coffee drinker but there is no doubt in my mind that if I were looking for stimulation, I would have a cup of coffee or more rather than to chew betelnut.

Elderly Lao Loum Women In Isaan Chewing Betel Nut
I also believe that the practise is also a social and cultural practice.  My mother-in-law who is 72 years old regularly chews betelnut.  I have seen some men and I have seen some people around 35 years old chew but the vast majority of the practitioners have been elderly rural women over 50 years old.  Just as some cultures have worry beads, chew tobacco, smoke to occupy their thoughts and to mark time, it seems to me that betelnut chewing serves a similar function.  The "Old Mamas" seem to like nothing more than to haul out their woven baskets containing the accouterments for betelnut chewing and while away the afternoon gossiping and chewing with their friends

Betel Nut Chewers At a Lao Loum Funeral in Isaan
Chewing betel nut produces copious amounts of red saliva that can either be spit out or swallowed.  Typically the women spit it into a small plastic pail that they have lined with a plastic bag.  You can tell a betel nut chewer by the stains on their gums and teeth.

A Betelnut Chewer Flashing the Ubiquitous Red Smile

Passing An Afternoon and Entertaining Visitors In Isaan
  The European colonial powers were neither appreciative or supportive of the practise.  People who chewed betel nut were looked down upon and were considered to be members of the lowest class.  Today there are not many young people who chew.  The practise is mostly limited to people in rural areas over 50 years old.

What Goes In, Eventually Comes Out - Elderly Woman Spits out Betlejuice


  1. I remember staying in a house where the floorboards were half an inch apart, handy when you sweep the floor, but also when Meh want to spit out her red juice. She was very good at aiming at those gaps...

  2. I wonder if the red juice helps keep the termites at bay. I have photographed and written about the village shaman spraying my grandson's infected foot with betelnut juicein a healing ritual at the hospital. Seems that is always a use for everything here.