I first went to Bangkok in 1996 and, from my memories of the time, I seem to have perceived it as a dark, crowded, polluted, noisy, seedy and rather claustrophobic city. But perhaps that was because of bad luck and bad choices – I got those impressions from the district I ended up staying in and the places I happened to visit and explore. Also, that was before the opening of Bangkok’s Skytrain system in 1999 and Metro system in 2000. Both transport networks have made the city a lot easier to get around and allowed visitors to sample more of its varied attractions and neighbourhoods.
Last week, I was in Bangkok again – my fourth trip there – and now my perceptions have entirely changed. I think it’s a great city. Somehow, it manages to combine the corporate and the cosy, the trendy and the venerable, the sacred and the salacious. Yes, nowadays, there’s a danger that the first of those qualities, the corporate, will eventually buy everything up, take everything over and muscle everything else out. But judging from the seemingly endless ability of ordinary Thai people to colonise any free space, no matter how concrete, bare and soulless, and transform it – small spaces into stalls, kiosks and makeshift eateries and boutiques, large ones into full-scale markets and food-courts – that corporate takeover shouldn’t be complete for a long time yet. At street-level at least, Bangkok should remain intimate, decorous, bustling and colourful for a while longer.
Anyway, last week’s visit coincided with Halloween. On the night of October 31st, I thought I would take the opportunity to check out two Bangkok music-bars associated with a genre that’s the sonic equivalent of Halloween monsters, ghouls, demons and macabre japery – heavy metal.
Firstly, I went to the Immortal Bar, which is on the second floor of the building at 6 Soi Bun Choo Sri in Dindaeng, about ten minutes’ walk east from the Victory Monument. On the left as you go in is a lounge / terrace area with no front walls or windows, meaning that any air-conditioning system would be useless and for coolness you have to rely on some whirring ceiling-fans. But it’s comfortable enough with sofas and pleasantly subdued lighting. Needless to say, the inner walls are adorned with framed posters and T-shirts bearing angular, jagged logos for the likes of Sepultura, Soulfly, Naplam Death and Thai metallers Dezember. For some strange reason, though, an end wall has a pair of old black bicycles mounted on it.
In one corner stands a san phra phum or spirit house – i.e. a miniature house or temple that accommodates the venue’s spirits, appeases them and keeps them from causing mischief – although this one is bare and empty-looking. I’d expected the spirit house of the Immortal Bar to be populated by little effigies of long-haired, denim-and-black-leather-clad heavy-metal spirits, depicted in the act of playing air guitar.
On the right-hand side of the entrance, meanwhile, is a live-music area with a stage and, also, the bar’s serving counter. A Halloween show was in progress when I arrived and the band on stage at the time was one called Tantra, whom I thought sounded a bit like the American trash / groove-metal outfit Pantera. Due to my unfamiliarity with Thai-accented English (or to a distorted sound-system) I couldn’t decide if one song they performed was called Blow Up or Throw Up. Then Tantra gave way to a band called Rusty Bomb, who did covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Mӧtorhead, Metallica and Slayer. Their vocalist was a French guy and I scoffed when he announced that their next number would be a ‘French trash metal’ song. To me, the phrase ‘French trash metal’ sounds about as promising as ‘English haute cuisine’ or ‘Scottish sunbathing terrace’. But their French trash metal song was actually pretty good.
The pub’s clientele were mostly Thais, a few of whom were wearing corpse-paint make-up – although I’m not sure if that was because they were seriously into black metal or because it was Halloween. A couple of fareng – foreigners – were present, but not many.
From there I went to the Rock Pub at Radchatewee, in the Hollywood Street Building that faces the Asia Hotel below the Skytrain line. Supposedly founded in 1987, the Rock Pub is contained within one long room that resembles an austere, stone-walled chamber from a medieval castle. It’s definitely more mainstream and commercial than the Immortal Bar. For one thing, its beer that evening cost 30 baht more than the brew in the Immortal. Also, there were quite a few fareng among the Thai audience, including a couple of flea-ridden old sex-tourist tomcats who’d picked up their ‘Siamese kittens’ for the evening.
When I entered here, another live Halloween show was in progress and a band called Sugar Rocket was playing. Despite having one band-member in corpse-paint make-up, they were performing a cover of Song 2 by Blur (the one that goes ‘whoo-whoo!’ every other second). The next band up, Nine Monkey Nine, were similarly eclectic – they managed to do covers of the Foo Fighters and Franz Ferdinand. So the Rock Pub wasn’t really hosting a heavy-metal night at all, although the memorabilia on its stone walls did include mementoes of Iron Maiden and Napalm Death. (The legendary West Midlands grindcore band seems to be a favourite in Thailand. Indeed, they performed a show at the Rock Pub back in August 2010.)
In both pubs – and unlike most others I drank in during my sojourn in Bangkok – very few people were fiddling with their smart-phones. Clearly, they were there to savour the music and enjoy the sociability of being among fellow heavy-metal / rock fans. The only exceptions were those old fareng sex-tourist guys and their Thai girlie pick-ups. Actually, I’ve noticed that, thanks to recent developments in technology, Bangkok’s sex tourists and their Thai pick-ups no longer have to go through the awkward, preliminary ritual of sitting in a pub and exchanging stilted conversation with one another. No, now, both of them can bend forward over the pub-tables and spend the time quietly f**king around on their smart-phones.