Warm white sand beaches, tropical sun beating down, waves rolling in gently from an endless blue sea. Thailand is Paradise. Once you’ve waded through the garish ladyboys, offers of Thai massages, and testosterone-fueled fire shows, there is an incredible amount of good music. I had the chance to spend some time with a few of the local bar bands and DJs in Phuket and Krabi, the folks who provide the soundtrack to millions of vacations.
Starting in Phuket, my buddy Pete and I were wandering down the beach when we came upon a green, yellow, red and black reggae bar. My first night out after a day sizzling on the sand, all I wanted was a tropical drink and some relaxing music, and this place had plenty of both. After a few caipirinhas, some Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, and of course Bob Marley, the conversation turned to music. Both Pete and the DJ (who turned out to be English) were excited when someone requested 10cc’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’. The DJ had been on Kata Beach for over a decade, and had made this bar his home. As cliche as the dreadlocked dude at the reggae bar may be, he often serves as a beacon for the most relaxed place around.
Once we made for the coastal mainland town of Ao Nang, the music changed dramatically. There were dozens of bars with musical acts there, but they could basically be boiled down to three typesâa DJ, a guy with a guitar, and a cover band. The DJs typically work with a laptop and had small crowds during the evenings, while a few kept things going until late. Many are tourists themselves, including one I talked to who had played at bars throughout Europe and Asia during an around-the-world trip. The sorriest of the lot was always the guy with the guitar. Unless he was right near the beach, the bars would be deserted from the time he started until he finally packed it in a few hours later. The real money makers are the cover bands.
With the natural beauty, laid back lifestyle and constantly changing listeners, it’s like being on tour without ever moving.
Pete and I sat down one night at Coconut Bar, a couple hundred meters from the main beach. We saw a typical band set upâguitar, bass, drum, vocalsâplaying Paradise City by Guns n Roses. And they were killing it. The guitarist and drummer were incredible, song after song, playing some technically difficult music with an almost bored look on their faces. The rotation of three vocalists gave the band range, and they showed it by flowing seamlessly from ballad to hard rock to rap. Made up of four Thais and one Burmese, the band has no name, they simply play at the Coconut Bar every night.
Further into Ao Nang’s nightlife is an area called Center Point, basically a small square surrounded by three stories of bars and clubs. If you want to stay up all night dancing, drinking, and finding true love, this is the place to be. As touts pull you into one bar with promises of cheap beer and live music, ladyboys dressed as Disney princesses pull you toward another with promises of a totally different night. After about an hour at the Longhorn Saloon, I noticed a sign saying ‘live music, play with the band’. By the time Pete and I had talked each other into asking if we could play, the band (also nameless) had turned up the rock with a few staples of the cover band songbook, every one of them showing that he knew his way around his instrument. Slightly intimidated when they agreed to let us play, we took the stage for a couple songs. As soon as we started, the keyboard player and bassist were on top of what we were doing, playing along in five seconds what it took our band five months to learn together. We played two songs to polite applause and turned the stage back over to two much better musicians.
Lucky for us, those two songs gave us some sort of cache with the band. We spent a couple hours drinking and talking, and they were unbelievable. They had been playing together for about two years. They had also been playing their instruments for about two years. With gigs every night during the high season, it’s no wonder they’ve gotten so good. Three of the four were very capable singers, and they were, like the group from Coconut Bar, excellent musicians. According to these guys, talented local and foreign bands form in Thai tourist havens and stay together for years. It’s very tough to get the gig, but once you’re in, you’re in.
And can you blame them? With the natural beauty, laid back lifestyle and constantly changing listeners, it’s like being on tour without ever moving. There is so much to see and do in Thailand, the musicians often get overlooked. Next time you’re in Bangkok or Krabi or Chiang Mai, instead of just spending another day in paradise, do yourself a favor and find some live music.