indian man drinks chai

A Little History… Here’s Why Indians Drink So Much Chai Tea!

An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break.
An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break.

Landing in Udaipur and staying for a week was a needed treat in these weeks and months of rapid travel and newness every morning when I face the day. I landed in Mumbai and startled at the lessons I had to learn about this complex country. Social norms here are different, expectations, interactions, cultures, and smells—it’s all light-years from my home, and even different from Southeast Asia, where I just left. And so, Udaipur was a relaxing stop and I’m glad that I took the week to learn the town and get used to India’s many peculiarities and quirks. I also had solid wifi at a nearby restaurant and so I spent my days in Udaipur doing client work in the mornings, then taking it slow on the sightseeing. And I drank chai, I drank a lot of chai.

What is Chai Tea?

Chai is a delightful and tasty treat. It’s a spicy tea cooked slowly so the flavors seep out and spill into the hot water. Then it’s milked and sugared and served boiling hot in a tiny glass. Everywhere I look, people sip chai. Locals drink this tea at least three times a day, and likely many, many more times than that. And chai consumption extends to foreigners too. Shop owners are quick to offer up a cup of steaming-hot, so-sweet, burn-your-mouth chai as I browse their wares. If you agree to a cup, they send a chai wallah down the street to their preferred vendor, and in less than two minutes the chai wallah is back with a tea for everyone involved.

Because of this, I’ve had as many as seven cups of chai in a single day. It’s impossible to avoid and it’s a fun and social dynamic that laces every encounter.

If you head to a vendor to book train tickets, they are thrilled to help—but how about a chai before getting down to the basics?

Having breakfast? I think it needs a bit of chai.

Dinner on the docket—not without a bit of chai time.

Is it 95 degrees outside with a sweltering, humid heat? Yep, still chai appropriate.

Why Do Indians Drink Chai?

Chai tea in India is entrenched in the culture; it’s a legacy of the British. Only once the British arrive did India begin the cultivation of tea through tea plantations now covering massive swaths of Assam, Darjeeling, and other areas of India—this took off in the 1830s with the arrival of the British East India Company.

That doesn’t mean Indians weren’t drinking tea before the British arrived—herbal teas have long been a part of Ayurvedic medicine and spices and herbs have been used for centuries across India. It’s the commercial production of tea, however, that really changed the way Indians consumed tea. Tea is a massive export for India, and those two tea regions? Assam and Darjeeling are not only regions of India covered in tea plantations, they are two famous types of tea only grown in India.

Why Drink Tea When It’s Hot Outside?

I asked myself why Indians drink chai, not only why it’s a part of the culture, but why sip a hot drink in such sweltering heat? Even once the British left India, the tea-drinking culture of did not. Tea is the most popular drink across the subcontinent, not only because of the culture, but it’s affordable to even the poorest.

Tea is grown in India; it’s a major export from regions like Darjeeling, so locals don’t pay import fees. It’s a family business for many as well, and in the early days when the plantations began producing, the tea farmers offered samples to Indians to get them hooked.

Recipes vary between vendors and locals find a chai wallah with the perfect mix of spices, ginger, milk, and sugar, and they become lifelong customers. This is a fascinating series of vignettes on chai in India. And what’s more, Indians drink chai because of the heat, not in spite of it. Drinking a piping hot chai—or any hot drink—triggers cooling mechanisms inside of your body. Receptors in your mouth tell your body that you’re hot and your body responds by upping the number of cool mechanisms—sweat among them—and it exceeds the effect of adding a hot liquid into your system.

Plus, a billion people can’t be wrong, the Indians clearly are on to something here.

And so, drinking chai is a part of the Indian culture at every level.

There’s no escaping the fact that chai has a ubiquitous presence in their lives, and there’s no escaping its presence for travelers. Here’s the kicker about the thing—you can’t refuse a chai. It’s just not done. OK, sure, you could say now. But culturally, you simply have to accept each masala chai offered or risk offense. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. As I searched for a specific boutique recommended in my guidebook, I just couldn’t find it. And that’s when a friendly Indian man in his twenties helped out, he pointed the way and good-naturedly bid me a “good day.” The next day, as I wandered around I passed the same man again! He was pleased to cross paths again and he offered to take me across the road for a cup of chai and conversation. Still getting used to the pace of life in India, and I didn’t realize that a polite refusal is a bit of an insult. With a smile I offered him a lighthearted, “Let’s do it next time we cross paths.” His response was equally polite but a definitive, no. He said, “Oh, but I will not offer again.”

And with that he walked away.

So far the people are overwhelmingly kind and open. I’ve never felt unsafe in accepting these bids for conversation, and usually I do sit for a bit and try to slow down the pace of my life. But in this situation, I just had somewhere I thought I needed to be. The truth is, I could have stopped for the chai. It’s new, this idea of stopping every activity to take a moment for a chat. But it’s fun too, it’s a neat quirk of the very social culture here. And so, the next time I’m asked to chai, I’ll give the only acceptable answer: “Sounds perfect, where should we take our tea?”

relaxing at a pond in Laos

A Little Relaxing… My Favorite Things to Do in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city, it’s like the adored child who is the apple her parents’ eye. The city crawls along the Mekong River. The gilded tips of temples peek above the palm trees.

In 1995, UNESCO designated the entire city as a World Heritage site. Key aspects of the city are now protected from tourism, time, and development. Even in a decade, the views won’t include multi-story concrete buildings like in Vientiane. Instead, parts of this Laotian city are frozen in time.

A pretty temple in luang prabang, laos

Time-worn wooden buildings line the streets and historic temples (wats) climb the hills around the city. Throughout it all, Laotians quietly run this laid-back Buddhist city.

It’s a peaceful city with a perfect balance of culture, convenience, sights, and things to do. While other spots in Laos are gorgeous, like Nong Kiau and Vang Vieng, I stayed in Luang Prabang long enough for me to develop a routine. We centered our days around food, picking our favorite vendors, cafes, and restaurants. Within a few days, the local street vendors knew our names, remembered our orders, and always whispered a sweet sabaidee, the local of local greeting.

Relaxing at the lily pond on a lazy day in the city.

A Few of My Favorite Things About Luang Prabang

Affordable, Tasty Eats

Each day in Luang Prabang I kept to consistent daily routine. Once I found some tasty vegetarian eats, I decided to mostly just branch out for dinner. For breakfast and lunch, I opted for fresh fruit smoothies from the main tourist road in town. these cups line the stalls and for 5,000 Kip (that’s less than 70 cents!), I had a cold, tasty fruit smoothie to start my day.

By lunch, Laura and I stopped our temple visits and daytrips for a fresh baguette. Lunch was frequently a 10,000 Kip veggie sub. The vendors chop the ingredients to order, add cheese and condiments and serve it all on a soft baguette.

Dinner time tended to usually include a vegetarian dinner buffet from the night market. Several buffets line the streets at the night market, there’s a side-street with a treasure trove of options. Laura and I found one stall with a heaping selection of veggie eats accompanied by a delicious spicy chili sauce. We were hooked. Other nights we ventured into a few of the restaurants offering traditional Laotian fare — it was a tasty way to spend our lazy days in Luang Prabang.

Fruit Shakes!

vegetarian laotian food

Luang Prabang Night Market

The night handicraft market in the city is wonderful. The market runs for half of a mile and is a highlight no matter what budget you have for souvenirs. The stalls are lined with handmade crafts — everything from comforters to paintings to knickknacks. And a bonus are the friendly, low-key conversations with locals.

Around dusk the locals begin to carefully lay out scarves, purses, jewelry, and more. This was a treasure trove of neat handmade gifts so I bought a few items to send back home. One of my favorite moments came when I bargained with the lady over a small wooden toy. The general rule for the night market is that you half whatever they tell you and settle somewhere in between. This isn’t about being cheap, but instead, bargaining is a part of the culture. It’s completely acceptable to bargain so long as you take the local approach of respectful and calm.

In this case, I halved the amount from 20,000 to 10,000 Kip. The seller countered with 15,000. I’ve been in Asia for a while now, so I have some haggling under my belt. I countered with 12,000. Well, this poor lady must have had a really long day because she let out one of the loudest and most exasperated sighs I have ever heard — she even startled herself! We all looked at each other and burst out laughing, even the seller was wiping tears out of her eyes. At that point, I knew I had reached the lower end of what was acceptable to pay so I handed over the 15,000 Kip and considered the laugh worth the extra couple of thousand Kip.

Pretty close up of paper umbrellas in Luang Prabang's nightly street market, Laos.

guitar and stuffed animals we bought

The Soft Sell

Buying things in Laos is an entirely different experience than nearby Thailand. When I needed something in Thailand, I had to stand my ground and there was often a slight edge of aggression with the tuk tuk drivers, and even the vendors on occasion. Here in Laos, it’s very different. Everything is coated with a layer of calm. The people certainly try to sell me on things — I frequently hear “tuk-tuk miss?”— but the vibe of the interactions have a different tone. It’s all very chill.

It makes me more inclined to shop a bit, something I haven’t done much of until now. I bought some groovy bracelets from vendors along the Mekong River (Laura and I are slowly building the “backpacker arm” — you can tell how long a backpacker has been traveling by the number of bracelets adorning her wrist). The kids were cute and since it was a weekend, I hoped that they truly were attending school as they had promised.

And through it all, I learned that a smile goes a long way in Laos. That is true the world over, but here in Laos, friendliness shines from every interaction. It’s a warm and welcoming place to visit.

backpacker bracelets in southeast asia Rickety Bridge in Laos

The Panoramas of the Mekong River

Travel Guide to Luang Prabang LaosLaura and I found a spot just on the other side of the Nam Khan with a spectacular view of the Mekong River at sunset.

There was one catch though, we had to cross a rickety bridge to get to the other side. The river we crossed was a tributary of the Mekong, it’s smaller and we found a bar at the confluence of the two rivers. There’s a tiny bar at the corner and we grabbed a drink and waited for the sun to set. As we sipped our drinks, we had a perfect view of the traffic on the Mekong. A gentle breeze brought to me the sounds of river-workers taking their long-boats home and children splashing in the shallows.

We caught a pretty sunset and recharged our batteries to the quiet lapping of water and the murmur of conversation.

Sunset on the Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos.

The small town on the far side of the river was very low key. There were a few wholesale crafts vendors who were packing up their goods for the night market. Once the sun set, there wasn’t much left to do so we gathered ourselves, crossed the rickety bridge, and hightailed it to the night market.

Our lazy days in Laos were a joy. I like taking a slow pace to my travels. I still need to head to Cambodia, but that’s not a pressing concern. Instead, I am here with Laura and enjoying the culture, sights, and the fun of having a friend with whom I can travel.

I also traveled to Laos three years later — you can enjoy my photoessay and stories of the Laos people and culture here. And if you’re backpacking through Vang Vieng, I have information in things to do and how to enjoy rock climbing and the Lonely Planet is my favorite guide for backpacking anywhere in Southeast Asia.