Citation: Pi Ouen. "Betel 'Maak' in Rural Thailand: An Experience with Betel Nut (exp20762)". Erowid.org. Feb 5, 2003. erowid.org/exp/20762
I'd always wanted to try the Betel nut - fresh and real, not the dried and powdered Indian kinds you can find at Indian grocery stores in the States in mylar/plastic packages.
As a Westerner staying with Thai family and friends in rural Thailand I was an oddity and my days were filled with unannounced visits from everyone in the village.
In typical rural Thai style guests are entertained in the open area under the front of the house raised on stilts.
In this particular village (and I'm sure repeated tens of thousands of times across Thailand in other similar villages) it is the old women who chew betel (called 'maak' in Thai.)
With my limited knowledge of Thai and by watching closely I could figure out more-or-less how it was made.
The 'maak eaters' carry a little kit around with them that has the ingredients they need to mix up a proper batch. They are often incomprehensible because their mouths are stuffed almost to the blowing point with the chewed substance. In many cases the fronts of their shirts are stained orange/red like rusty waster.
The ladies will sit and start with a leaf - a betel leaf, I believe.
Onto the leaf will be spread something that looks a bit like orange marmalade. I do not know what this is.
Next they will take a betel nut and carefully chop it up with a heavy knife into thin, easily breakable pieces. The nut itself is white/purplish-brown mottled in color and is quite hard - as hard as wood.
The ladies will add some of the chopped nut to the leaf and marmalade combo then take another betal leaf onto which they spread something that looks like pink cosmetics. This, I believe, is a heavy lime base that is the catalyst for the release of the drug.
Depending on who is mixing up the batch there may be one or two more items dropped in as well.
The second leaf is placed on the top of the pile and the whole thing is folded into a sort of pyramid shaped bundle which one is supposed to partially chew, hold in the cheek then repeat. When the chewed mash is in a person's cheek they are encouraged to grab a pinch of tobacco (the same tobacco you would buy to roll your own cigarettes - Bugles or whatever - not marijuana, real tobacco - and STRONG).
They take the clump of tobacco and rub it back and forth and up and down over the front teeth an gums, top and bottom. To a non-smoker this is definitely difficult.
All the while while a person is chewing their mouth salivates incredibly and literally ounces of blood-red saliva - which one is cautioned not to swallow - pool in their mouth that they then has to spit out. Of course without much experience with this one always end up swallowing some which in itself can be quite unpleasant.
Finally once they get the hang of it the tobacco has been rubbed away, the mash in the side of their mouth has turned totally to spittle and they've ruined their tee-shirt for the day as it is covered in blood-red stains that will dry to rust colored.
The person is feeling a buzz now - nothing out of control. I have often heard it described as being in the same class as alcohol or caffeine in terms of its severity as a drug. I think that the tobacco comparison is valid - I don't think its even as strong as alcohol.
Standing up they feel a wave of dizziness and a high. Repeating the experiences several times over the course of a lazy Thai afternoon will get one quite wired and high. Harmless fun, as far as I am concerned - as long as its not your life.
Interestingly enough, it's the women who are the betel eaters in Thailand. I have spent many, many years there and have not yet seen a single MALE betel addict. (Indeed, these women who chew betel daily are addicts, just as a group of older ladies in the US getting together for coffee and cigarettes are addicts as well.)
One unfortunate side effect of betel chewing is that it slowly turns your teeth black. From what I have observed it looks like these womens' teeth are perfectly healthy, however the chemicals involved with the betel prep make them jet black.
I have read in many guidebooks that at the turn of the 19th/20th century betel chewing was so 'in vogue' that a man with black teeth was a 'keeper' for a prospective bride. Betel paraphenalia from that age exists and are collectors items - they generally consisted of lacquer trays with different smaller matching lacquer containers with lids to hold each of the ingredients. These make fun gifts to bring home to favorite drug-buddies.
As for betel in the states, the best bet is an Indian grocery store. There are two basic options... A bag of thinly sliced, dry betel nut that contains more than one would ever want to even consider doing in a lifetime.
The second, possibly more practical choice is to buy 'Pan Paneer' or a similar product - usually kept behind the counter and only sold by request by the proprieter. These packets contain crushed betel nuts that resemble small petals and they are coated in s powder or cardemom, turmeric, other Indian spices, etc. They are somewhat sweet and are definitely an acquired taste. A pack costs well under $1 - a cheap novelty buzz that a person will likely try once or twice then abandon.
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