PAUL VAN DYK and EDDIE HALLIWELL
Khao San Road is renowned as one of the best places for nightlife both in the Bangkok capital and elsewhere in the Kingdom of Thailand. Sitting alongside excellent restaurants and pubs, KSR’s clubs now rank parallel with Sukhumvit 11 haunts as some of THE places to visit when in town. Given the importance of the strip’s role in catering to global club officiados, the fact that Cafe Democ is seldom included in any foreign clubber’s itinerary remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
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!
The city of Miri is a good place to spend a few days. Surrounded by a number of large national parks and beaches, this is a good place to use as a base while you explore the surrounding area, while the city itself offers vibrant nightlife and a whole host of good places to stay, shop and eat. Miri is a very multicultural city, with Chinese, Malay, Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Kelabit, Lun Bawang and a number of other ethnic groups living side by side. Most people speak English and are friendly, making this a great place to spend some time and discover Malaysia’s diversity.
A good way to get a feel for Miri is to hire a bicycle and explore. Climbing to the top of Canada Hill offers stunning views of Miri and the surrounding area, and this is the perfect place from which to watch the sunset. Malaysia’s first oil well was established on this very spot several decades ago, and those who are interested in the history and culture of the area can also take the time to check out the Petroleum Museum, which can be found near the summit of the hill.
Not to be missed is the City Fan, which consists of a number of themed gardens located around the biggest open-air theatre in the whole of Malaysia. Other amenities that can be found here include an indoor stadium, a public swimming pool and the impressive San Ching Tian Temple, which has the distinction of being is the biggest Taoist temple in the whole of Southeast Asia
One of the best times to travel to Miri is in the third week of May, as this is when the city’s annual festival is held. Featuring vibrant street parades as well as plenty of singing, drinking and dancing, this is a great time to see the people of Miri at their best.
A large number of interesting attractions can also be found just outside the city, and sun worshippers will want to spend time soaking up the sun on the beautiful Hawaii Beach. Also nearby is Taman Selera Beach, which is the perfect place to relax and unwind for a while.
Malaysia is a real melting pot, where a large number of cultures live side by side. This means that the country celebrates a large number of festivals, with the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious festivals all being observed.
Malaysian festivals tend to be loud and colourful, marked with plenty of singing, dancing and parades through the streets. Malaysian people tend to be tolerant of people from other faiths and welcome them into their homes to celebrate with them. These festivals are a good opportunity for foreigners to learn more about Malaysian culture and hospitality.
Here are some major Malaysian festivals to look out for. Many festivals revolve around the lunar calendar, so dates vary slightly from year to year.
New Year’s Day
January 1st is a public holiday and New Year’s Eve is marked in most cities with sporting events, competitions, exhibitions and cultural performances by Malaysian multi-ethnic groups.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days and is very colourful, filled with feasting and firework displays. Gather to watch the traditional dragon and lion dances, which take place to the beat of gongs and drums. Penang is the best place to experience Chinese New Year in Malaysia.
This festival is celebrated by Hindus on the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. Thaipusam is a day for penance and atonement and during this time devotees to fulfill a vow they have made to Lord Muruga, who is also known as Lord Subramaniam. Devotion is demonstrated by fasting and piercing their bodies with elaborately decorated metal structures decorated with colored paper, fresh fruit and flowers and parading through the streets. To get the most out of this festival, head to Kuala Lumpur to watch Lord Muruga’s jeweled chariot carried through the streets to the Batu Caves in Selangor.
Buddhists celebrate this festival in May to remember the birth, enlightenment and ascension of Lord Buddha. The daytime is filled with visits to the temple and merit making, while there are processions of floats and candles in the streets after dark.
On the 1st of June the people of Sarawak celebrate the good annual with parties, games, processions and feasting. People gather to sing traditional songs, dance and drink the locally produced rice wine. Children bring their parents plates of food and cattle is sacrificed to ensure that there is a good harvest the following season.
Hari Raya Aidil Fitri
Also known as Hari Raya Puasa, this Muslim festival marks the end of fasting throughout the month of Ramadhan, which is the tenth month of the Muslim calendar. The celebrations last for one month and feature bright decorations, feasting and parties
Lantern and Moon Cake Festival
This festival is celebrated by all Malaysians, who hang colourful lanterns on their houses and eat moon cakes in this celebration of peace and unity.
Hungry Ghost Festival
According to Chinese tradition the gates of hell are opened during the 15th day of the seventh lunar month to allow the hungry ghosts to wander the Earth in search of food and possibly seek revenge. The Chinese hold a festival at this time to remember their dead ancestors and pay tribute to them, setting aside food for them and burning money so that their relatives can use it in the afterlife.
The Festival of Lights, also known as Deepavali, is celebrated as the triumph of good over evil, marking the legendary time that Lord Krishna is said to have defeated Narkansura. Mainly celebrated by Hindus, people visit the temple during the day and lit candles and oil lamps in the evening. There are colourful parades through the street and much merrymaking.
Unlike most Asian countries, Malaysia celebrates Christmas much like people do in western countries. Houses are decorated with lights and a large Christmas tree, carols are sung and the traditional roast turkey dinner is often eaten to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Also known as Sainyabuli, this pretty province is situated in the northwest of Laos, to the west of the Mekong River. Surrounded by limestone mountains, rice fields and forests, this is a great place to explore the countryside and experience the traditional Lao way of life.
Most travellers overlook Sayabouri on their way to nearby Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but peaceful Sayabouri is a great place to relax and discover the natural beauty of the areas such and waterfalls, caves and forests.
As you wander around Sayabouri you will discover a large number of pretty temples to explore, and Wat Ban Thin, Wat Ban Phapoun and Wat Ban Natonoy are probably the largest and most popular.
A great day trip destination is the Nam Phoun National Biodiversity Conservation Area. This enormous forest contains a large number of high peaks and climbing to the top provides excellent views of the region. The conservation area is also home to a large number of animals such as the Asiatic black bear, elephant, gibbon, Malayan sun bear and Sumatran rhino.
The people of Laos have been using elephants in the forestry industry for centuries and Sayabouri is one of the few places where you can still see this practice in action, which makes a refreshing change from viewing the mighty beast from behind bars.
A good time to visit Sayabouri is during the annual elephant festival, which is held over two or three days in the middle of February by the Lao PDR National Tourism Authority to encourage the use of elephants in tourism-related activities. There are around 200 elephants in Sayabouri and during the festival more than fifty of them take part in a procession through the town. The festival is a vibrant affair with much drinking, dancing, fireworks and boat races.
More than 10,000 people travel from all over Laos to take part in the elephant festival and this is a great time to see Laos people at their best as they dress in traditional costumes, share food and drink.
Although Sayabouri is much quieter the rest of the year you will find a warm welcome whenever you arrive and there are some interesting places to sleep and eat.
Also known as Thibaw, this tranquil town in the Northern Shan State is a great place to relax and unwind for awhile. Surrounded by natural beauty, many people travel to Hsipaw for trekking, and there are a number of well trodden trails leading through Shan villages to picturesque spots such as hot springs, water caves, waterfalls and forests.
There are a number of interesting places to visit in and around Hsipaw. Top of the list should be the Shan Palace, which is located to the north of town and was the former residence of the Sawbwas of Hsipaw, who lived here for many generations until the last one was forced to flee during the military coup of 1962.
Another interesting place to visit is the Bawgyo Paya, a large Shan Pagoda about 5 miles out of town. Here you will find not only Buddha statues but also Hindu statues outside the temple and the journey to and from the town is very scenic.
Just before sunset climb to the top of Sunset watching at Five Buddha Hill or Nine Buddha Hill, both of which are located just over a mile outside Hsipaw. Hire a bicycle and reach the top of the hill for spectacular views over the town and surrounding countryside.
A massage is a great way to soothe aching muscles after a day of hiking and there are a number of massage parlours and basic spas scattered around Hsipaw. The city is located near the banks of the Dokhtawaddi River, and it is possible to take a short boat trip here to see the countryside.
The morning riverside market is a great place to get a bite to eat and sample some of the region’s delicious fruit and handmade sweets. A large percentage of the population here are Chinese and there are a good variety of Chinese dishes to try. You can also shop for souvenirs here and exchange friendly banter with the stall holders.
The Bawgyo Paya Pwe festival is held in Hsipaw in late February or early March and the somewhat sleepy town really comes alive during this time, celebrating with traditional songs, dancing and storytelling.
Surat Thani is the largest province in the south of Thailand and is located 685 kilometres from Bangkok. The name literally means “City of the Good People” in the Thai language and features high plateaus and richly forested mountains, low river basins and numerous pretty little islands. This is the perfect place for losing yourself for a week or two and simply drifting away for a while.
Surat Thani Province is home to several great tourist destinations, including Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan, Ko Tao and the stunningly beautiful Ang Thong Marine National Park.
Although to many people the town of Surat Thani is simply a stop off point on the way to one of the area’s beautiful tourist destinations, the town and surrounding area actually has a lot to offer and is worth looking at more closely.
Worth exploring is the tiny village known as Chaiya. In the village you will find Wat Suan Mokkhaphalaram, which is a tranquil forest temple founded by Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikku, who is perhaps Thailand’s most famous monk. The temple holds monthly meditation retreats, and this is a perfect place to get in touch with your spiritual side and discover a sense of inner peace and harmony.
Also situated in the village is the Chaiya National Museum, which is a good place to discover the area’s interesting history. Another interesting place is the Folklore Museum, which is located around 300 meters from Chaiya, whilst Ban Phumriang is a small handicraft village, which can be found 6 kilometres east of Chaiya.
The stunning Khao Sok National Park features 646 square kilometres of thick rainforest and mountains. With its sparkling waterfalls, mysterious caves and cool lakes, this area has an ancient feel about it. Elephant trekking is a great way to explore, and you can spend the night on a floating lodge if you find yourself reluctant to leave and return to the ‘real’ world straight away.
When it comes to eating, just about anything is possible in this province of plenty. If you love oysters, pay a visit to the Oyster Farms, where you can buy large fresh oysters for a bargain price.
The Chak Phra Festival is an interesting event which takes place each year immediately after the end of the three month rain retreat in October. Although widely celebrated, Surat Thani’s festivals are particularly vibrant and long anticipated. The festival features elaborately decorated floats, which are pulled across the town by the eager participants. At the same time, a float decorated
with colorful Thai design carries an auspicious Buddha image across the water. The festival also features an exciting boat race and traditional songs, dancing and games.
Koh Samet is an extremely pretty island situated in Rayong Province, which is within easy reach of Bangkok. The island features 14 beautiful white sand beaches. Although a popular tourist destination and a major destination for Thai families on weekends, Koh Samet somehow manages to maintain the feel of a quiet remote tropical hideaway, especially during the week.
Although seemingly sleepy, there is still plenty to do on Koh Samet, especially in the evening when the beach bars come alive and there is loud music, drinking and dancing on the beach, especially on weekends or around the full moon.
Located in Rayong Province, the island is reached by a short ferry ride from the pretty port town of Bang Phe. Bang Phe itself can be reached in 2-3 hours from Bangkok’s Ekkamai bus terminal.
A good way to see all of the island’s pristine beaches is to hire a motorbike, whilst songthaews will take you just about anywhere you want to go. Another great option is to take a boat tour around the island. Boat tours can usually be combined with snorkelling or scuba diving trips.
The island largely consists of jungle in the center, and another great way to explore is to go hiking, while you can watch the sunset from dramatic cliff side locations along the south-west coastline.
There are evening fire shows at a few of the islands beach bars. They are usually held after 8 pm and act as a showcase for some of the talented locals. While on Koh Samet you can learn a new skill and show off to people back home by taking fire juggling lessons from one of the experienced fire jugglers.
Yoga classes are held daily at Ao Pay beach and the yoga teacher has been practicing yoga for more than thirty years. You can also ease aching muscles with one of many types of massages on offer.
Food wise, the island is famous for seafood, and some of the best barbeques are found along Ao Phai and Haat Sai Kaew beaches. However, you can also find just about any style of food that takes your fancy, from curries to pizza.
Many of the bars show movies and football in the evening and a good way to escape the heat in the middle of the day and chill out is to order a coconut shake and tune in to a cheesy western movie.
Nestled in the heart of Isan, Khon Kaen is the centre of Northeast. The capital of Khon Kaen Province is the city of Khon Kaen, which is a rich source of culture.
The Khon Kaen National Museum, Khon Kaen City Museum and the Art and Culture Museum are all great places to spend a couple of hours and learn about the area and its people.
To the centre of the city, the beautiful 100-hectare lake known as Beung Kaen Nakhon (Kaen Nakhon Lake) is a great spot for a picnic, whilst the nearby temples of Wat That and Wat Nong Wang Muang and definitely worth exploring.
Khon Kaen is the centre of the north-eastern silk industry, and the Sala Mai Thai silk village 55 kilometres to the west makes a great day trip. Here you will see top quality silk dyed in a wide range of colours and made into a multitude of different products, and in the traditional weaving households you can actually see the silk being skilfully woven.
Khon Kaen is a province with stunning natural beauty and it features a couple of great national parks. Phu Wiang National Park was recently made famous when dinosaur remains were unearthed there, whilst the Nam Nao National Park contains the region’s highest mountain
peak – Phu Pha Jit, which measures a colossal 1271 metres. It is possible to camp in the grounds of both national parks for just 30 baht, which makes a very cheap and picturesque option, although not so much so during the monsoon season!
Next door to the park the Phu Kiaw Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to leopards, tigers, elephants and many other beasties.
Also not to be missed is the unusual Ban Khok Sa-Nga Cobra Village, where the local snakes are highly revered. Here you can witness the love and trust shown by the villagers to the mighty snakes as well as daily cobra shows.
Another great day trip is Prasat Peuay Noi (also know as Ku Peauy Noi), where you will see the region’s largest Khmer temple.
Khon Kaen celebrates its local skills and traditions with the Silk Fair and Phuk Siaw Festival, which last for 12 days in late November. The Phuk Siaw Festival is specially intended to preserve the unique Phuuk Siaw (friend bonding) tradition and is marked with much merry making and folk dancing.
Part of Nakhon Ratchasima Province to the north of Thailand, Phimai is a great place to visit for those with a keen interest in history and culture, and the small town also has some beautiful nature spots in which to enjoy a picnic and relax for a while away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Most visitors are draw to Phimai by the Phimai Historical Park, which contains a large number of temples and ruins to explore including the beautiful Khmer temple of Prasat Phimai. Don’t forget to check out to informative Phimai National Museum in order to learn more about the temples and to discover some rare temple artefacts.
Nearby, the brick chedi of Meru Boromathat and the Pratu Chai – victory gate – are just waiting to be discovered, whilst on an island in the middle of a large reservoir the Sai Ngam (Beautiful Banyan) draws Buddhists from all over the world. You can take a rowing boat out onto the reservoir for a closer look at the sacred tree. Whilst there, don’t forget to pay a visit to the interesting Tha Nang Sa Phom – which is an ancient and intricately decorated landing platform.
Nakhon Ratchasima Province is famous for its unique and beautiful pottery, and a good place to see it is at the Dan Kwian pottery village, where you can still see craftsmen creating the Thai ceramics.
Another famous skill from the north of Thailand is silk weaving, and visitors can go to the Pak Thong Chai silk weaving village, which is very close to Phimai. Here, the weaving looms are still being put to good use today, creating beautifully shimmering Thai silk, which is then dyed in a dazzling array of colours and made into a wide range of products for people to buy as souvenirs.
In November, Phimai celebrates with the Phimai Festival. This is a good opportunity to experience the traditional folk songs, dancing and theatre of the region as well as sample the many delicious dishes and sweets.