Ubiquitous in Thailand, 7-Eleven branches are one of the most distinctive memories I have from the kingdom. Maybe that’s because this was the first country where I met the chain; but it is not only that, Thai branches are highly distinctive and worth of a visit.
The unusual name of the chain refers to its working hours in the far past (7 AM to 11 PM), but more interesting is the fact that "7-Eleven" is a name that asks for troubles in Thai.
The Thai alphabet was derived from Khmer, the last from Sanskrit and the Sanskrit adapted its letters from Aramaic. The letter "v" poses certain problems in these languages, to the extent it simply does not exist in Thai.
South American Spanish confuses between "v" and "b," but this way of solving the problem is not useful in Thai: "seben" would be a close enough pronunciation but it lacks a solid base on the Thai alphabet. Instead, it is pronounced as an Aramaic "waw," leading to "sewen." The last is the way the chain’s name is pronounced, the "eleven" is usually dropped.
"Location is everything" is taught in Business Administration courses. That was implemented to the extreme in the Thai branches of 7-Eleven, where – at least in Bangkok – it is possible to find branches across the street from each other or even a few meters of the nearest branch on the same street, as it happens on Khaosan Road.
"Let’s cover the entire place and skip the location study," seems to be the adopted approach: 1500 branches exist in Bangkok and about another 3500 in the rest of Thailand. 7-Eleven is not only everywhere in space, but also in time: its branches are open 24/7 making them ideal for the traveller arriving and departing at odd hours.
Often, branches of Family Mart can be found nearby. The last is an almost identical – albeit local – chain. Both are very similar, though Family Mart stores are often more spacious than those of 7-Eleven.
Cold water is probably the single most important – and popular – product sold by 7-Eleven Thailand. Many brands are on display, most of them belong to international corporations and are a by-product of their main activity – as is the case with Coca-Cola and Singha.
However the conscious traveler – the eco-traveler to use a more en vogue term – should pay attention to the 1 liter bottles hiding at one of the refrigerator corners. Sold at five or six baht per bottle (roughly two dimes) they are much cheaper than the water sold by corporations. With a distinctive round top and blue Thai writing applied directly on the opaque white bottle they are anything but flashy. Yet, they are the recommended brand. They are produced as part of a nationwide project aimed at developing small villages; those filter the water, pack it and sell it in the nearest city (the label is different in every city). A much needed income source is created in such a way and the traveler can contribute to the local economy directly and effectively.
The Wide Path
Those acquainted with branches in the US may be surprised when seeing a Thai one for the first time. Most of them are tiny and crammed up to the extent that entering them with a bulky backpack is not possible.
If carrying such an item, it is useful to remember most shops share a common design. Some of the cold drinks are placed just after the counter along the widest path in the shop and thus accessible also to overloaded travelers. It may be in the form of a refrigerator packed with water and soft drinks or a Big Gulp fountain drink, which offers a better value, though the cups (up to 1 liter – 32 ounces) are difficult to carry around.
The Narrow Path
It is worth finding a guesthouse or hotel where to leave the bulky backpack in order to explore the narrow corridors of the nearest 7-Eleven branch. The choice of Thai snacks is overwhelmingly attractive and the Western ones are handy while feeling nostalgia for home.
On the Thai front things that are worth looking for include sugared tamarind, kalapao (or salapao - steamed dumplings filled with pork and/or eggs) and pickled mangoes packed in plastic bags. (I really love Thailand, but find it impossible to understand why a perfectly delicious fruit is treated in such a way.) Many items exist in this group, though many of them are advertised only in Thai and - to tell the truth – are rather difficult to describe but quite enjoyable and worth exploration.
On the Western side, the branches offer coffee and croissants; pastries and bread. The coffee is of the "3 in 1" type (a small bag with coffee, sugar and milk powder); plastic cups and hot water are placed nearby. The croissants are rather soft and heavy (packed as singles or threes) and the bread is too sweet; but at 3 AM after having arrived from a long trip by bus, they are perfect. 7-Eleven is also the handiest place for purchasing Western toiletries in small packages fit for travelling around.
The existence of these two cuisines invites the creation of tasty hybrids. Shredded pork sandwiches are distinctive in this category. The shredded pork is a popular ingredient in the Thai cuisine, while sandwiches are not. Probably this is an adaptation of the popular shredded pork buns sold at Bread Talk. Shredded pork is one of the most surprising foods I’ve ever tried; it looks like dried up bits of dirty-blond hair, but it tastes of juicy fresh meat.
7-Eleven and the Walks
I have written in the past about several delightful walks in Bangkok. However, the city is hot and humid at all times and I must admit that without the air-conditioned branches of 7-Eleven providing some relief from time to time, they would have been much harder.