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Southeast Asian Kratom Culture


Thailand kratom culture


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   Most people in Thailand compare kratom to everyday, harmless habits such as coffee. Seafaring and laborers on rubber plantations are some examples where kratom can be found to be a part of life. The leaves can be purchased for baht1 to baht3, making it cheaper than coffee and energy drinks, another reason it is ideal for poor workers. Kratom is used by southern Thailand residents not only as a stimulant for hard work, but also in local customs. Cultural performances, ceremonies, and even teashops are all traditions where kratom can be found to be a part of.   

        Thailand’s National Household Surveys found in 2007 that kratom is the most widely used drug in their country. It’s been part of Thai culture for at least thousands of years, but its popularity rose around the 1930's. Before this, it was only associated with the lower working class; one of the terms for kratom was “Poor man’s marijuana”. Peasants chewed the leaves all day while working in the fields, and still do to this day. In southern Thailand one can find some provinces with 70% of the males using kratom.

      A Kratom habit in Thailand is respectable compared to a cannabis habit, which Thai people look down upon. They believe marijuana makes people lazy, therefore they have much more respect for the kratom chewer, who is a hard worker. What else is interesting is that young people in Thailand are not drawn to kratom use (except for “4 by 100”). Most Thai kratom users say they started around the age of 25, and their reason is almost always the same, that they wanted to become a harder worker. In fact in Thai society there is a cultural stigma against marrying a marijuana smoker, and when it comes to the act of marriage, parents prefer their daughters marry kratom users over cannabis smokers. They feel that their daughter is in the hands of a hard worker who has an intense drive to make more money, and this associating of kratom with hard work is the opposite on how they feel about cannabis.   

   Men are the traditional users of kratom leaves, as the Thai National Household Surveys show that only around 10% of kratom users are female. Women traditional chew betel nut instead, which is considered a human carcinogen by the International Agency for the Research on Cancer( IARC). This practice, like that of chewing kratom, has been around for thousands of years.    

Muslims in the southern provinces, especially those of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani, use kratom as an alternative to alcohol, as the rules of their religion don’t allow drinking. 

Thailand’s kratom trees are disappearing

   Eradication efforts by law enforcement has been extremely successful. This has led to some southern provinces losing almost all of their wild kratom trees, most notably Pattani, Naratiwat, and Yala. Kratom does not grow very fast as it is a tree, therefore efforts to eradicate it can have a huge impact. In fact there is a black market for kratom in southern Thailand that didn’t exist in recent history, and it’s 100% due to the cutting down of kratom trees. Southern Thailander’s once had an abundance of leaves to supply their villages, and now much of it is smuggled in from Malaysia (Arrests for importing Malaysian kratom into Thailand increased by 39 times between 2008 and 2012! The price for a kilogram of kratom in Malaysia is 200 baht. It is imported into Southern Thailand where it is worth 600 to 1200 baht) or brought down from northern Thailand. Indeed Kratom is actually the most expensive at the southern most part of the Thailand, where it was once known for its native kratom trees, and it becomes cheaper as one moves north. Transnational Institute’s research tells us that people in these now almost kratom-free provinces still regularely take the leaves as they always have, but they chew noticeably less to account for having to pay for Malaysian kratom instead of harvesting their own. It is incredibly sad that the place where it is most known for being indigenous to and is an integral part of the local culture, southern Thailand, is no longer self sufficient in kratom leaves and gets almost all of its kratom from a foreign country.   

  Surat Thani, Trang, and Satun are examples of provinces where the authorities are not proactively cutting down kratom trees, and even tolerate it to a certain extent (up to one tree per household). In places such as these, one will usually find that people with a kratom tree on their property usually have barbed wire or some other form of protection for their tree.

Malaysian kratom culture

       In Malaysia kratom is known as ketum or biak-biak and is part of the local culture. It is sadly banned. Reportedly kratom mixtures are rolled up in wild pepper leaves and chewed, and the concoction can include in it ginger, dried coconut, nutmeg, onions, and lime. When sold as a tea it is called air ketum (kratom water).

        It is reported that Malaysian authorities are also cutting kratom trees down, and it’s possible that this is harming the biodiversity of the area. In 2003 Malaysia banned the alkaloid Mitragynine, and by August 2004 kratom leaves were also prohibited.   

       There aren't many reports of use outside of Thailand or Malaysia, but I have personally spoken to one person who is from Laos who remembers her grandmother telling her she would wrap betel nut in kratom leaves and chew it. Betel nut is the preferred psychoactive for females, especially when in their culture the males are consuming kratom.