Traditional drugs abroad: Chewing Betel nut in Sulawesi, Indonesia

One shocking thing you will notice in the rural areas of Sulawesi is everyone smiling proudly, showing off their purple-stained slivers of teeth and a thick, bloody liquid oozing from their mouths.  I was immediately curious what is driving the popularity of chewing this degenerative substance that makes them spit blood on the sidewalk.  In the name of research (of course) I had to try it.


Widespread Abuse

Betel nut is an increasingly popular drug cocktail using a combination of locally-grown narcotic plants common to Southeast Asia.  It is the 4th most used drug in the world behind caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.  It is sold on the street corners of most small towns.  In Sulawesi, these gifts are presented in sacred silver boxes at funerals as a symbol of friendship as ancient as their bizarre customs.  Betel is the perfect gift for any local homestay in Tana Toraja.

What is Betel Nut?

Betel nut goes by various names in each country but typically consists of and areca nut is wrapped in betel pepper leaves with mineral lime and sometimes includes spices to mask the bitter flavor of the areca nut.  Tobacco leaves are often added, increasing addictiveness substantially.  In Sulawesi, betel is also prepared with a mustard stick dipped in lime.  Copius amounts of these ingredients can be bought for around US40 cents.

20131110-223123.jpg These piles of innocent areca nuts adorning the sidewalk stands pack a punch

A Hillbilly Drug Cocktail

This homegrown concoction of medicinal plants contains a variety of drugs that creates a melody of effects on the body.  Betel leaf is a mild stimulant, creates a warming sensation and creates a sense of alertness.  Areca nut, which grows on a palm tree, contains arecoline, a powerful muscarinic that can rapidly cross the blood-brain barrier and increase alertness, stamina, and euphoria.  Mustard stick is a stimulant used to suppress hunger, reduce stress and increase focus.

20131110-223107.jpg For the newbies, pre-made clods of betel nut are available

A Cure for Everything

Betel nut is prescribed by local witch doctors to kill worms, remove phlegm, improve breath, aid in digestion, incite passion, reduce stress and even to control schizophrenia.

20131110-221331.jpg Believe it or not, this deformative substance was once marketed as a high-end toothpaste in the iconic Harrod’s Department Store in London.

20131110-221348.jpg What could be so compelling about a debilitating drug that someone would proudly display their betel teeth in public?

My notes from a night chewing betel nut with locals in Sulawesi, Indonesia

Step 1: Cut open the areca nut to reveal the spotted center.  I wrap it in leaves from the betel pepper plant.   I chew it for a few minutes into a mushy consistency and form the contents into plug and place it between my gums and cheek.


“The nut is soft with a strong, sour and bitter flavor and the spicy betel leaf mellows out the taste.  It has a gritty consistency.  After a few seconds my whole head and face is burning and flushed red.   My heart starts beating wildly.”

20131110-223147.jpg The bitter meat of the areca nut creates intense feelings of euphoria


Step 2: Dip the bean-shaped mustard fruit into a bag of white powder that made from crushed snail shells.  The lime in this powder activates the chemicals in the areca nut.  Bite the mustard seed directly into the wad.

20131110-223051.jpg Caustic mineral lime made from snail shells activates powerful narcotics within these natural ingredients


“The mustard fruit has an intense, face-warping bitter flavor that immediately makes me cringe.  Despite creating a drying feeling in my mouth, I’m salivating like crazy, and it is a very gritty consistency.  As I spit into a cup, my saliva is a deep orange red color like blood.  I feel euphoric, dizzy and my legs are wobbly.  I’m a bit high, but focused and energized.”


Step 3: Add some raw tobacco to the mix and begin chewing…


20131110-223200.jpg Spittling blood into a glass at dinner would cause an uproar anywhere else inthe world. Here, it is normal.

“Within two minutes I have a deep mellow buzz.  There is a tingling in my mouth where the wad is touching my cheek.  The concoction slowly turns a darker red color, the taste develops into a deep nutty smoky flavor that is quite refreshing.”


Would you try chewing betel nut?  Have you tried any traditional drugs abroad?



About the author: Brad Bernard


Brad Bernard has traveled through 92 countries to find off-the-map experiences and authentic adventure travel. He pushes his own personal boundaries by travelling experimentally. Brad’s personal quest to find the most extreme and unique in travel has bred misadventures and moments of enlightenment alike. You can read his craziest stories on his adventure travel blog