Disappearing in the Discos of Chiang Mai

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 15, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

"What man would not be a dancer if he could, said the judge. It's a great thing, the dance." -- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and it has come to this: hundreds of people squeezed into a dark space lit only by a pulsating white light, while from enormous speakers comes a sound that fundamentally resembles nothing so much as a tribal drum, and to which the people respond in a nigh Pavlovian fashion -- that is, by swaying and gyrating about. Biologists would probably say that the main reason why this ritual of dancing continues to occur is sexual, i.e. its purpose is for members of the opposite sex to demonstrate their sexual prowess to each other in an oblique way. But if this were the case, why do some people go to discotheques and just stand around trying to look cool? Perhaps Freud would say that it is the so-called death drive in operation, the desire for oblivion, the desire to disappear. Or maybe it is as simple as the kid in Blood Meridian thinks it is: "They come here to have a good time." It's a great thing, the dance.

Chiang Mai, where I live, boasts several places where one can experience this great and ancient thing in its modern form, and I have been fortunate enough to have tried to disappear in many of them. Obviously this has not been successful. But one night I made my best effort, by visiting every single disco or club in the city while cleverly disguised as a person wearing yellow-colored spectacles and tennis shoes. Well, not every single one: as many as my companion for the evening could tolerate, and generally not including those I know well enough already. Like Nice Illusion on Chaiyaphum Road. I have always liked this place simply for its name, with its very Buddhist implication that reality is an illusion and its very Thai implication that it can nevertheless be extremely pleasant at times. Nice Illusion recently underwent renovation so that the stage faces south, but it still provides a combination of live and pre-recorded music, both Thai and Western. If you stay there long enough you are also likely to hear "Happy Birthday" sung in the Thai way (which is much more upbeat than the dirge-like American version.) Like nearly all clubs in Chiang Mai, Nice Illusion has no cover charge but a small beer is expensive at 80 baht. Most Thais bring a bottle of whisky instead, and buy ice and soda or Coke, and in this way they very frequently become riotously drunk. Although it varies from day to day, the crowd is usually divided in equal portions between ordinary Thais, foreign men, and bar girls, who head there after work. Nice Illusion used to close at 2am sharp, but recently I have been there as late as 3. And just around the corner is a placed called Spicey (the Thais pronounce it "sa-picey"), where everybody goes to eat or mingle afterwards.

Next on the list is Bubbles ("Bubben" in Thaiglish), located off Charoen Prathet Road near the Night Market. Bubbles does have a cover charge of 100 baht, but this gets you one drink from a pretty well-stocked and well-tended bar at the back. Bubbles has several levels, no live music (but a centrally located DJ), and a somewhat creepy cave-like interior. There seem to be more tourists at Bubbles than anywhere else, probably because of the proximity of the Night Market, but they are still outnumbered and therefore conspicuous.

The last place I know fairly well is Update, on the Chang Puak Road. Kindly consult my article "Nine Indispensable Places in Chiang Mai" for details.

Before continuing, I would like to briefly mention a few ways in which the disco experience in Thailand may differ from that in, say, the United States (although I must confess I know extremely little about the latter.) The most obvious difference perhaps is that in Thailand many of the girls are prostitutes, many are in fact boys, and some are minors. Some clubs check ID cards at the door -- 20 being the minimum age -- and sometimes the police arrive to do the same; but as is commonly said, "this is Thailand", which can be taken to mean that there are nearly always ways around the law.

Another difference is that, due to the availability and low cost of multiple forms of transportation, it is very easy to get silly drunk and still make it home. The downside of course is that because drunk-driving laws are poorly enforced, people just hop on their motorbikes and far too often kill themselves or somebody else. For the demi-monde, motorcycle accidents are about as common as the common cold, but the low speed of traffic in the city means that they are seldom fatal. Drugs? Don't know anything about them, except that the usual culprits are amphetamines, and that it is extremely stupid to use illicit drugs in a country with such draconian drug laws. But, happily, you can still smoke cigarettes in the discos here. For what nicer illusion is there than that females are infinitely more attractive when they are smoking?

By the way, to say that some of the girls in the discos are prostitutes is to simplify the matter greatly. Some of the "prostitutes" are students working in bars at night to pay their way, and they are under no obligation to do anything. But if you are in need of an escort, you can pay what is called a "bar fine" of anywhere between 300 and 500 baht; this severs her obligation to the bar that night, but it's up to her after that. She gets a cut of the bar fine, and you will be expected to pay for her drinks and food. It's all rather innocent really, and should not be confused with the hard-core urban prostitution in America, with pimps and guns and all the rest, although that certainly exists in Thailand as well (but most visitors never see it.)

But back to the search for oblivion. My first stop was a place called Club G, directly across the Ping River from the Sridonchai Road (but to get there you have to cross the Nawarat Bridge and turn right.) Unfortunately my companion looks younger than her years and had forgotten her ID, and Club G was checking. And in any case I had been there before and knew that it had a bar and live music (an acquaintance of mine is a singer there). Rebuffed, I headed to a place called Forte, on the Mahidol Road near the airport. And though the resounding thump heard outside of the building suggested a disco, Forte turned out to be one of a growing number of places dedicated to what a friend of mine calls "fast lady dancing". The "fast ladies" are usually "proper" Thai girls (poo ying tum-ma-dah), university students mostly, who earn a little extra money by donning provocative clothing and then dancing, five or six at a time, on a bar: yet another example of the gray areas in Thai notions of respectability. (Often the phrases "hi-so" -- as in "high society" -- and "lo-so" are used to make an easy distinction; current slang is, for reasons unknown to me, "hi-card" and "lo-card"). Oddly, Forte's customers included women. If a customer approves of a particular fast lady, he or she can buy the lady a rose for 100 baht. The interior of Forte resembles a disco, but none of the customers were dancing. (I am told that there is another fast lady dancing joint near the President Hotel but I was unable to visit it.)

On the same road as Forte is a place called Redbug 2, but it was closed (Sunday) so I headed to the "original" Redbug, on Chang Lor Road. Redbug is a rather small and extremely crowded place catering mostly to average Thais and the odd foreigner or two. (This makes it hi-card; Update, according to a Thai friend, is lo-card; so I guess that makes me lo-so.) I have been to Redbug a few times, but never for more than a drink or two, largely because there is usually nowhere to sit and I suffer from both claustrophobia and embarrassingly public fainting spells. Anyway, I should note that, confusingly, Redbug used to be named Society, and some people continue to know it by that name.

There is a Thai phrase, dtit lom, literally meaning "stick with the wind": it is roughly the equivalent of the English "go with the flow". The wind that evening took me to Chiang Mai Land, which refers to a strip of entertainment complexes located due south of the Night Market. The complexes include Le Lion, Bossy, Legacy, and 69, the last of which for now seems to be the disco that stays open the latest. (This changes frequently: a bar girl is probably the best person to ask about prevailing conditions.) 69 was closed; Bossy and Le Lion were checking for IDs; so we ended up at Legacy, which was, in a word, nondescript. The evening concluded, as it so often does, at Nice Illusion, which is often thought to have the best live dance music in town (and whose female singers are invariably na-ruk dee, or "wicked cute".) It was 3am; I had again failed to disappear; and I knew that the following day I would only be haunted by images of people, in darkness and in constant motion, and the universe would seem larger and somehow more incomprehensible, but also more beautiful.

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