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On Drugs in Bangkok

Our story thus far: my three friends and I spent a few glorious days on the island of Langkawi in Malaysia. When I crashed a motorbike and everyone in town was laughing at me (even the woman who rented us the bikes, who did not believe our lies for a second because word travels quickly on a small tropical island), we decided it was time to cross the border into Thailand.

We had train tickets, and I was excited to spend my first night ever in a sleeping car. We took a ferry to the mainland and a cab to Alor Satar, a supposed transport hub and home to a very conservative Muslim population that was unaccustomed to seeing white Americans venturing outside the train station. Unfortunately, the train wasn’t running. Why? No one knew. It just wasn’t. And yes, that was the only train of the day. Will it run tomorrow? Maybe. Come back at 9am tomorrow.

So, our driver took us to a (the only) hotel, where our rooms had scary unlit closets without doorknobs and roaches using the squat toilet in the bathroom. We dropped off our things and explored town, where we found a mall straight out of 1989 complete with Sega games in the arcade and a one-screen cinema playing two movies, one Malaysian and one a Bollywood movie called Blue. Are either in English, we asked. No. We chose Bollywood. It was fantastic.

We were the stars of Alor Satar. Everyone wanted to know where we came from, why we had landed there, and what on earth happened to me. Eventually I got tired of the motorbike story and told them it was a bar fight. You should see the other guy, I said.

The following morning we dropped by the train station. No trains today either, they told us. Transit strike. We asked for our money back for the tickets, but the register didn’t open until 10am. We went out to talk to our cab driver to see if he’d wait until then, and then take us to the Thailand border, but he refused. Panang, he said, wanting us to go back south to try to take a train from there. We found another driver who wasn’t so weirdly frightened of the Thailand border guards.

Once in Hat Yai, a Thai town just over the border, we booked an overnight bus to Bangkok. Thanks to the stress from the travels, or maybe just my injuries, I developed a head cold. Thanks, body! Nothing aids survival quite like a river of snot pouring out of your head and a cough that makes 40 already-suspicious Thai travelers think you have H1N1.

All of that brings me to today, as I sit in a Bangkok Internet cafe with a thunderstorm raging outside, staring at a bottle of Leopard Medical Brand “Brown Mixture”. These are the only words I can understand on an otherwise Thai-covered glass bottle. I have no idea what the dosage is, and no idea if it will kill me or cure me or otherwise abate my symptoms. I asked the exceedingly sweet man behind the counter, but the barriers of language proved too much so I payed for it and left.

“Brown Mixture” pretty much describes it. It’s brown, watery, sweet, minty, and kind of gross the way medicine should be. I’ve had a few swigs and I can’t tell if I’m feeling better. I haven’t been coughing, but that comes and goes anyway, so who knows? I tried Googling for ingredients but found nothing except this very nice photo of the bottle and box.

So, does anyone out there know their brown Asian pharmaceuticals? Let me know how close I am to death.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. “Camphorated opium tincure.”

    Opium. Includes morphine and codeine. Yeah, I think that’s probably the anti-coughing/pain relieving/put you to sleep in record time ingredient.

  2. glycyrrhiza is what liquorice is made from and antimony potassium tartrate is just another flavour, it gives a sour taste and is found in wine. That’s probably what’s producing the taste, these substances have no medicinal value.

    Camphorated opium tincture also known as Paregoric has a very small amount of opium in it, opium will help with a cold. However 0.6 ml of Paregoric will do nothing, the dosage is generally 5-10 ml. They could be confusing it with opium tincture which is 25 times stronger, but even the recommended dose of that is 0.6 ml. I think the label may be wrong in which case good luck to you, you may need it.

  3. You can trust Leopard Medical Brand “Brown Mixture.” It’s got opium!

    I hope the rest of your trip is slightly less eventful, even though it makes for pretty good stories. :)

  4. I’m glad you’re having fun, Rebecca! If you get a minute, can you send along instructions for the care and feeding of Joshua? He’s been snapping at passerby :)

  5. My inner “mom voice” is shrieking in disbelief that you didn’t pack a suitcase full of meds to bring with you.

    The rest of me thinks that you’re a bad ass for swigging off a bottle of “brown mixture.”

  6. Those kinds of medicines are frequently just herbal mixes. Generally harmless, occasionally helpful,. The ones I had in Korea were supposed to be drunk all at once, rather than by spoonfuls. I’m not sure about that one though, it looks the same, but it’s safest to ask.

  7. Is ‘payed’ an Americanism? Because in my dialect (Queen’s English) the word is ‘paid’. Just asking.

  8. @NoAstronomer:

    Nope, we use “paid” too, but tells me “payed” is valid but obsolete.

    Mayhaps archaic spellings are one of thee syde-effeckts of this concoxxion. Prithee fore-give m’lady’s foyble.

  9. Rebecca, I lived in Thailand for 4 years… I am shocked that no one has covered you in Tiger Balm! Thai’s use it for everything from colds to mosquito bites to concussions. It smells like awful but it would clear out those nasal passages. You can also buy actual American style pharmaceuticals without a prescription, so enjoy!!

  10. Our first stop is in Bogota
    To check Columbian fields
    The natives smile and pass along
    A sample of their yield

    Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams
    Golden Acapulco nights
    Then Morocco, and the east,
    Fly by morning light

    Were on the train to Bangkok
    Aboard the Thailand express
    Well hit the stops along the way
    We only stop for the best

    Wreathed in smoke in Lebanon
    We burn the midnight oil
    The fragrance of Afghanistan
    Rewards a long days toil

    Pulling into Katmandu
    Smoke rings fill the air
    Perfumed by a Nepal night
    The express gets you there

    Neil Peart is a god.

    I am a Hedge

  11. Bike wreck near Bangkok makes the locals chuckle
    Why do the damn brakes look just like the gas?
    Drink down the opium til your knees buckle
    And spend the weekend falling on your ass
    Clutching your bottle and your new bus pass

    (Apologies to Murray Head and the guys from ABBA.) (And to all of Southeast Asia.)

  12. @PeacheeKeen: I am shocked that no one has covered you in Tiger Balm! Thai’s use it for everything from colds to mosquito bites to concussions.

    Poor backward country hasn’t even discovered Windex yet.

  13. @Im a Hedge: Holy crap. I was just humming that song as I was reading this. Good call. I, too, worship at the alter of Pratt.

    Rebecca, I think the “brown mixture” is like a drink mix. Just add vodka, or whatever potent potable you have handy, shake vigorously and drink. Don’t worry if you begin to halucinate.

    Soon you’ll be on the train to Bangkok!

  14. We love our “brown juice” here in Southeast Asia :)

    It could be a mis-translation of codeine (the main ingredient of most cough syrups here) or it could indeed be opium. Lucky Rebecca.

    Brownjuice may be necessary to make the train trip bearable. The 1m guage makes the ride as rough as hell… good luck Rebecca!

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