One Night in Bangkok - Thai Style

by Donald Gilliland, May 23, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Many first-time tourists to Thailand touch down at the airport with the famous lyrics to "One Night in Bangkok" bouncing around in their head. They may think that the world's their oyster, but what happens when they tangle with a couple of six-foot tall transvestites during their first euphoric bar hopping session? Yes, Bangkok nightlife can be wild and wooly, but it's not all about graphic ping-pong shows, seedy go-go bars and back alley brothels. Sure, the sex industry is visible - one certainly can't escape the neon proclamations in districts such as Patpong, Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Saphan Khwai - but it's actually only a small blip on the Bangkok entertainment radar screen. Scattered around the sprawling metropolis are plenty of places where you can enjoy a quiet drink, warble karaoke, raise hell in a pub, shoot snooker, dance the night away or listen to live music. As to the latter option, Bangkok clubs now offer everything from jazz and heavy metal to blues and Brazilian Bossa Nova.

For those that want to listen to native Thai music - something other than the touristy classical Thai performances commonly found at area restaurants - a trip to a local "Pleng Peua Cheewit" bar is in order. These bars are easily spotted: just look for a place with rustic wooden or bamboo exterior (the more weather-beaten the better) with a few cow skulls nailed to the wall. They resemble ranches more than they do conventional nightclubs. Besides the music constantly playing at these joints (if a band isn't performing, a DJ is spinning), good vibes pervade as drinks flow and tables full of people wolf down tasty dishes of Thai food. A far cry from your sterile hotel lounge experience.

Pleng Peua Cheewit means "Songs for Life" and it's an enormously popular style of Thai folk music. The music is unpretentious, energetic, thoughtful and fun, appealing to a wide cross-section of listeners, from city dwellers to farmers, students and businessmen. The genre surfaced in the early 1970s, sprouting from the seeds of student dissent over the Military-run Thai government at the time. While the lyrics of these songs usually have a decidedly political slant, current environmental and social issues are also common themes. Even if foreign listeners can't understand a word of Thai, the intensity and feeling the performers project into the songs will undoubtedly connect with them. Songs for Life musicians tend to project a renegade image: mix American cowboy with a Harley biker and you get the idea. Tattered jeans, leather vests and long hair are the rule of thumb.

The most popular Songs For Life bar in Bangkok is Tawandaeng, located east of downtown on Pattankarn Road. (Don't confuse it with a microbrewery called Tawandang on Rama 3 Road that features the splendid Fong Naam as house band). The cavernous building is host to live bands every night of the week and is usually packed with casually dressed customers. Anyone looking for a real 'one night in Bangkok' need look no further than here. With my friend Steve from North Caroline in town for his first visit to Thailand, I reckoned a trip to Tawandaeng would be a necessary outing.

Steve and I stopped by on a Wednesday night, shortly before nine o'clock and were surprised to find the bar almost deserted. Not quite Thai prime time just yet. Nevertheless a band was already up on stage playing, making it seem like we were at our own private concert. A few songs into their set the lead singer acknowledged our presence (it wasn't hard since we were the only two white faces in attendance) and dedicated a song to us. The tune? None other than that enormously popular Thai classic: "Hotel California." Actually, "Hotel California" does qualify as a Thai standard; virtually every band in the country includes it in their repertoire. We happily joined in singing the chorus but rejected the singer's plea to join him on stage. I wasn't that drunk yet.

Ten minutes later Steve came back from the restroom with an amused look on his face. "Why didn't you warn me?" he laughed. "Warn you about what?" I asked. Before he could explain, it suddenly dawned on me: the urinal massage! Yes, a bizarre but frequent feature of the Thai nightclub experience in Bangkok is the massage man found stationed in the men's room. Most of them sit there and hand you towels and combs and keep the place clean but they also double as masseurs, making sure your evening stays as stress free as possible. For foreigners, however, this unexpected service is an unsettling one. I don't know about you, but when I'm standing there at the urinal doing what you do at urinals, I don't expect someone to come up from behind and start massaging my neck and shoulders. "What does this guy want?" is your initial reaction. Of course, you stand there and act cool, like this happens back home all the time, but you're mainly hoping the guys gives up and goes back to handing out towels before he cracks your spine. The biggest mystery is why Thailand guidebooks never warn you about this phenomenon.

I laughed at Steve's description of his own urinal massage (his masseuse was so dedicated that got his legs worked on!) and then went back to drinking beer and listening to the band. Later in the evening the DJ announced that Carabao would be coming in concert to Tawandaeng the following week. This was big news. Carabao is the most popular band on the Songs for Life circuit - or should I say, was. They broke up a few years ago but their lead singer, a fellow that uses the stage name of Ad Carabao (and makes beer commercials in his spare time) carries on the tradition with occasional concert performances around the country. Even though I'd lived in Bangkok for over 5 years I had yet to experience a Carabao concert so I was determined not to miss this one. A week later I was there. By this time Steve had continued his Asian travels and was now in India so I invited the security guard from my apartment complex, a guy named Sak, to come along. Being a fellow Carabao fan, and also a concert virgin like myself, he eagerly accepted my invitation.

Ad Carabao is a skinny little fellow with long dark hair that looks like he could be Carlos Santana's Asian cousin. Music-wise, he's the equivalent of Bob Dylan crossed with something a bit funkier, like Prince. Butt-wiggling political tunes for the entire family. When he took the stage with his new band, there were deafening shouts of approval and glowing smiles on the faces throughout the room. Sitting at a table next to Sak and me were a dozen whiskey-swilling Thai dudes and the two girlfriends they apparently all shared. The biggest guy at the table was wearing a beret and military fatigues, making him look like a cross between Che Guevera and Lee Trevino. Another large fellow, sitting on the opposite side of the table, kept lifting up his shirt throughout the night to lovingly pat the bowling ball that appeared lodged in his stomach.

Hunger struck shortly into the set so I consulted the menu and ordered the ever-popular "pork having sunbath one time only." The combination of that and my draft beer was so heavenly that I ordered seconds for both Sak and myself. Meanwhile, the band played and the crowd swayed and sang along. When it came time for Carabao's latest hit, the theme song from the new Thai blockbuster film "Bangrajan," the energy level inside Tawandaeng had reached the rafters. Sak was dancing, I was pounding the table like it was a set of bongos and Che Guevera and Mr. Bowling Ball had their arms around one another and were bellowing out the words to the song. You couldn't help but love it. One night - one magical night - in Bangkok.