They say (the proverbial they being, in this case as in all cases while traveling, Lonely Planet) that Chiang Mai doesn’t have much of a nightlife. And, to be fair, it might not have the shining neon, triple-story giant clubs of Bangkok or the endless dusk-to-dawn partying of the beaches in the southeast – but they have music here. And the music is wonderful. A good helping of classic rock (I hear “The Wall” at least once per bar any given night), enough reggae to keep the Caribbean happy, indie-alternative (with more bass) and the occasional hip-hop. A Norwegian music producer (ex-psychologist who decided to pursue a happier life) brings new cds to Bohemian’s every few days. Every third place has a live band or a dj, and from what I’ve heard, they’re all good. There seem to be a countless number of dread-locked Thai men who play a great guitar and – funnily enough – while the music might be western the musicians are Thai.
Admittedly, the bands have small sets (the two that play at Heaven Beach each play the same six songs every night) – but they have those songs down – down with a twist. Sometimes it’s a word here and there, sometimes it’s the entire chorus, but they’ve made the music their own – and if you don’t listen closely, it goes straight over your head.
A few yards from my first hostel was an odd bunch of what Lonely Planet referred to as “underground bars”. Roots ‘n Reggae, Bohemian’s, Utopia – they were working on a sand and volcano-candle theme. Even on the main strip (along the moat, a square which encloses the Old City) the odds of walking into a place to find a larger-than-life spray-painted portrait of Bob Marley above the door (and one of John Lennon above the bar) are unbelievable. One of the yuppiest bars in town is called the THC Rooftop Bar (”Tribal Heritage Conservation”, says the sign, “No drugs allowed”). You climb up four flights of narrow stairs, the walls garishly painted psychedelic patterns, to emerge onto a rooftop; the floor is covered in rich rugs and tapestries with scattered pillows, Chinese lanterns and Christmas lights, and two small dogs run around between the tables. There are plenty of pool-table and bar-stool bars, as well. Irish pubs and those trying to follow suit. Kafe is full of old men reading newspapers and smoking tobacco in pipes.
I’ve been walking around until the music draws me in. Early in the evening – before everyone has shown up – or late, as the owners pull down the shutters and begin to clean up, the regulars sucking down their last drink and the band packing up, seems to be the best time to meet people. If I stay anywhere longer than half an hour, sitting on my own, I’m approached and invited to join a group. Everyone’s friendly. You can tell immediately who’s been here a while (or is planning on staying) – and who’s flown in for the week. There’s a routine to introductions, a litany you ask: name (immediately followed with an apology for the fact that you won’t be able to remember it), country of origin, how long you’ve been in Chiang Mai, how long you’ve been in Thailand, how much longer you’ll be here, and your age. (I’ve developed my own routine for the last question which involves making them guess and then pointing downwards, scrunching up my face, apologizing, and then delivering a spiel on the relativity of age.)
I seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time to get swept along on other people’s adventures. I’ve gotten to know some of the owners of places, and their families; they take me with them out to eat after closing and, being present for all of the plan-making, I get to tag along on outings the following days. I’ve even been to “Chiang Mai’s most notorious nightclub” twice.
“You don’t go to Spicy to dance,” a 19 year old Swedish girl (who’d never been there) told me with a disapproving frown. “I went to dance,” I replied. “And I did.”
Well, dance and talk.
Maybe there’s a back room or an upstairs I keep missing, but Spicy just doesn’t seem that bad to me… Sure, there’s a good crowd of over-forty farang men looking for their evening’s company and under-thirty frat boy types looking for a party and, yes, I’m aware that most of the Thai women there are prostitutes – but I’ve seen far worse obscenity at high school Homecoming dances. The clothing is more discreet and even Thai prostitutes don’t take grinding to the same levels as suburban fourteen-year-olds. The dance floor is relatively small but the various levels (every few feet you walk, if you can walk, you find a step or a ledge) preserve the dancers’ anonymity despite the men on the sidelines. Dancing is only fun for the first twenty minutes (I kept running into the same groping Italian or dancing myself off the floor), but there’s a whole series of sports to take up when you sit down for a rest – chatting with the farang men on the sidelines (and watching their consciences wince) picking out the ladyboys, helping the swaying body trying to pass by you navigate that step, swatting away the prostitutes (if you’re male) or (and here’s where I’m glad I’m female) letting them talk to you.
I’d grabbed a bar stool by a pole. I could still see the people I’d come with – notorious as they say or not, I don’t enter Spicy alone and I don’t bring anything in with me, if I can help it – and I was catching my breath. “This is nothing,” said an overweight British man a few feet from me, whose direction I must have glanced in “just wait for the clubs when you go south.” A Thai woman in stilettos and a leopard-print coat broke between us – to talk to me.
“Sa-wat-dee ka,” I said with a wai “chaan chew Noelle,” and was rewarded with an incredible smile. We chatted for a few minutes and she brought her sisters – family terms are thrown around loosely in Thailand – to meet me. I was offered sips of their drinks since I didn’t have my own, even a whole drink by one. (I refused, don’t worry.) “This man – he buy for me – but I think I no more drink tonight,” said a girl in a halter top and short skirt. “Mau?” I asked. “Ka!”
Few of the girls came from Chiang Mai – most were born in Chiang Rai, a nearby smaller city, or Issan, and had arrived in Chiang Mai only recently. Most of the “girls” were well over thirty. When I told them my age – they asked – they would put one hand on each side of my face and look aghast. “You baby!” they would say and give me a hug. One woman tottled forward to tell me she was pregnant (in retrospect, it may have only been a plea to make me feel sorry for her, but I’ll never know) and put my hand on her stomach. “Four months,” she said. The confessions were flowing by that time. A particularly giddy woman with a beer held onto my shoulder for support and told me, between laughs, that her boyfriend hadn’t wanted her to come tonight. “He no like Spicy,” she said “he say no good for me – but then he say no more money – so I come!” Others became commiserating similar stories; most seemed to have boyfriends waiting at home. Some said simply that they came for the fun, that they liked dancing or the party, few were quite as frank as the first, but the subtext wasn’t hidden too deeply.
I wasn’t the only farang woman in the club. Dreadlocked hippy girls in tie-dye and loose pants swayed their hips and peroxide blondes in pink tank-tops held drinks in one hand, above their heads, and cigarettes in the other. A few more sat at the tables watching – with friends or with a man, clutching his arm with slight desperation or boredom. I was, it seemed, the only farang woman ready for a chat – but there was little left to discuss, shouting into each other’s ears over the music and football (soccer) game – and, regardless of motivations, we had all come to dance.
The British man gave me a strange look as I took one of the women’s hands and headed to the dance floor. I let them pull me up onto the raised platform at the front and, realizing with a start that it was nearly 4am, tried to mimic the rhythms of the other women and forget that I was being watched. Nearly an hour later, I found the friends I had come with – a grad student from Berkeley and her Thai friend, a Spaniard and his girlfriend, and a man from New York – and said goodnight, catching a tuk tuk on the street.