For those in the know, a trip to Cafe Democ is very much a trip to the source - to where it all began. Despite its unimposing architecture and presence (by Bangkok club standards anyway), Cafe Democ is the spiritual home of Bangkok's club scene. Opened in 1999 and located on a corner of Democracy Monument (hence its name), Cafe Democ is no more than a 10-minute walk from Khao San Road and is where the seed of local DJ talent was nurtured into the vibrant scene that exists today.
As I sit outside the club with owner Mr. Apichart - or Tui to his friends - we talk against a backdrop of some killer homegrown Drums and Bass. "This is not really a club to me," suggests Tui wistfully. "I also own club Culture, a big club in the center of town. That to me is a club - this (Cafe Democ) is my home! This is where I was brought up," he enthuses.
Now in his 40s, Tui started life as a DJ at Diana's in 1984, one of Bangkok's leading clubs back in the day. There he pumped out Madonna, Michael Jackson, and any other commercial sound his undiscerning audience fancied. At the time the local talent for even this was limited, and UK companies would send DJs out to Thai venues to entertain the masses.
The DJs brought a smattering of club sounds that although established in the west, represented something of a revolution in Thailand. Rubbing shoulders with these DJs, Tui's tastes changed, as did that of his audience. Slowly, seamlessly, pockets of resistance to commercial music emerged and along with it local DJs experimented. Thailand's first real underground music scene was born.
"15 years ago Bangkok was the leading place for club music in Southeast Asia," adds Tui. "DJs from places like Singapore and Hong Kong came over here to sample the scene. Unfortunately, as with other places in the world, in 90s the club scene became synonymous with drug culture. Drugs pretty much killed the underground. The police closed venues, and Bangkok became a bit of a wilderness. Hip Hop changed that."
"Local artists like Joey Boy made Hip Hop respectable and brought it into the mainstream," he continued. "Once there, the scene emerged again - it was a safe environment where people could experiment with sounds. Clubs and DJs started to flourish again, and Cafe Democ was there to help things along. Local DJs came here to play exactly what they wanted, with no commercial pressure. We brought over the occasional international act, but primarily, Cafe Democ was for local DJs".
The scene grew to the extent that Cafe Democ DJs turned professional and a number of venues emerged to cater for the increased demand for club music. RCA flourished and places like Astra (now Club 808) went from strength to strength. Many of those venues though stuck to a more traditional format, catering for Bangkok's party scene.
"Cafe Democ is no Route 66,"suggested Tui, talking about a famous RCA club where patrons dance around small tables to top 30 US tunes alongside more commercial local sounds. "There's a genuine sub-culture around these days. This sub-culture has had to be resilient. It's faced 'Social Order' issues that placed curfews on clubbers, political uncertainty, and of course bouts of economic downturn. Despite all of this, the scene remains healthy and you can experience it at Cafe Democ."
These days Cafe De Moc serves up an eclectic assortment of sounds - Electro, Mash Up, Drums and Bass, and despite its proximity to KSR, caters to a predominantly Thai crowd (often based out of Thammasat University) and a few expats who speak a smattering of Thai. Things warm up around 23:30, but before that people sit around and enjoy the great local food Cafe De Moc offers its punters.
"We don't have the marketing budget," suggested Tui when asked why Cafe De Moc doesn't compete with some of the brasher places on KSR. "Nowadays foreigners only stay on Khao San for a couple of days and then they are off. It's not like before when they used to stay up to a couple of months and really get to know the area, including this place (Cafe De Moc)."
Cafe De Moc does though have a small but loyal foreign clientele. DJ Curmi (?) from Brighton, UK was there the night we visited. He wasn't playing; he was just hanging out. "I love this place," he confided. "This is where it all started and it's still going strong. I come here every time I am in Thailand. It's not like one of the big Sukhimvit clubs - it's very intimate".
Cafe De Moc opens nightly until about 1:30 in the morning. If you are looking for a slice of the local scene, it's well worthy of a visit. It's usually free to get in and there's a solid line up of acts.
Check out the much less than pretentious Cafe De Moc website to see what's on offer.
Check out the toilets for excellent graffiti!