Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Street music

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and most of the rowdy backpackers have deserted Bangkok’s Khao San Road. A large rat scurries down the gutter of the street, stopping only to inspect trash and empty plastic buckets that have been strewn about the pavement. A few dispersed food vendors finish packing their stalls for the day and roll them towards wherever home may be.

Compared to the energy of the road during the daytime, it feels eerily silent and motionless. I begin the walk toward my $8 USD-per-night hostel when the reverberation of a guitar slowly starts to fill the void of the early morning. The sound grows louder and I see a small crowd of maybe ten people sitting and standing around a guitarist on the sidewalk.
The guitarist is outfitted with the flare of a seventies rock star. Skinny bellbottom jeans, a pocketed shirt with shoulder straps, and American sneakers. He has long, bushy black hair that bobs at his shoulders as he strums an acoustic guitar. He’s playing the chorus of Yesterday by the Beatles, and the handful of young tourists are fervently singing along. When he finishes, a young girl with a British accent shouts out “Let’s hear some Dylan… I know you know Dylan!”

I sense a little of reluctance from the guitarist – “I don’t know all the words, but maybe you can help me”. He obliges and strums the opening chords. “How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man…”

The British girl leans over to me and boastingly says, “See he knows it, he just needs a bit of prompting.”

I settle in to the small crowd and hang around for a couple more songs. Radiohead. Neil Young. Eagle Eye Cherry.

It’s my third night staying on the Khao San, and I’ve seen him out here both previous nights. Each time I passed him on the side of the road there was a group of travelers crowded around him, half listening, half engrossed in their own conversations with new acquaintances. I want to know why the guitarist is out here at this hour. For money? For fame? For friends?

As the crowd starts to break away and socialize amongst themselves I move closer and ask what his name is. In a thick Thai accent that was undetectable during the song, he gives a small smile and says “Diow. Did you like my songs?” I tell him that I did, and ask if he’s ever bothered by the few rambunctious stragglers that stagger up to him and try to compete for attention. He softly replies in broken English, “Well if they come and respect me, I would appreciate it. But I play here, I’m not ask someone to come to listen or play, if you don’t like – you go, if you don’t like then stay and that makes me happy.”

I ask what makes him happiest – why does he come out? “When I play and then have alot of people listen and sing along, it’s what makes me happy. For money it’s not really important – but the feeling is much more important for me.”

My inquiries keep coming. What’s your biggest dream? He stops to consider it, repeating the question to himself. “To buy a Ricken-backer.” He laughs. “For now, I don’t really have a long goal, I just a short goal everyday I want to finish. For this goal today I make short goal first – I guess long goal is maybe to buy a house. Even maybe big goal is to grow the tree all over the world…” he trails off, looking down at his guitar, and starts to pluck at the strings.

He looks up, ready to change the subject. “Do you want to hear my song?” he says. I feel honored that he’d share an original with me and I tell him that I’d love to hear it.

The strumming is edgy with a distinct, steady rock beat. I can tell that he’s far more into this tune than the previous covers he’s been playing all night. He closes his eyes, letting his voice break into high notes that are remnant of his influences from British rock. The lyrics are extremely simple, but it’s my favorite song of the evening.

He looks up for approval at the end of it and I tell him how much I enjoyed it. I mean it. I ask why he doesn’t play original songs more often. “Most people, they want to hear things they know. Things they can sing with too. Sometimes I play my songs, but most of the time they like things they know.”

How ironic. Wandering souls coming from across the world to have a solo performance from a talented local musician, and we’d rather hear something familiar, something from our side of the world that we can spout off to as well.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing – he’s intentionally crafted his image and style from the legends of the West…and it draws people in. It gives him the small crowds that he enjoys.

I’m struck by how soft-spoken and genuine he is. No real big goal. Just short goal. Maybe buy a house. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it’s way past my bedtime, so I thank him and say goodnight.

A pair of lively Italian twins from Naples come up to take pictures with him. The crowd is smaller now but has reformulated around Diow. They call out a few more requests, and he accommodates them, starting up on a well-known Doors song in a crisp western accent. I hear the opening lines as I walk down the deserted Khao San…

“People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly, when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted, streets are uneven when you’re down…”

Diow can be found playing on the sidewalks of Khao San Road most evenings during the week & weekend. You can check out a recording (audio only) from the performance below: