Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The sounds of Siam

Monks chant at Wat Chana Songkhram, near Khao San Road.

It’s my last day in Bangkok and I’m not ready to leave Thailand. If I had another two weeks, I would have opted to stop at Ko Phi Phi and then cut north to trek through Chiang Mai, but my time is up. In my preparation to leave, I get the feeling that I’ll be back soon enough – there’s too much that I love about this place to not come back.

A couple memories stand out above the others.The utter serenity of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, right after a mid-afternoon rain shower. The polite, genuine smiles of school children and street vendors. The new friends from the Khao San, and Diow. The breeze through the open window on the train to Surat Thani. The feeling of freedom at the Full Moon Party. The dangerous scooter maneuvers. The flavors of the food. The upbeat greeting from Thai women “Sawadee kaaaaa”.

One of my favorite ways to remember a place when I’m traveling is to record audio. Then, thousands of miles away from the point of capture, to sit with headphones on and let my mind recreate in the rest. So, to end this series, I though that I’d share that experience with you. Below you’ll find pictures and their accompanying ambient sounds, with a brief description for context. If you have headphones, please use them to get the full experience.

For those that have been, I hope it brings back the same good memories. For those that have yet to go, I hope the open road is calling your name…

Visitors drop 1-satang coins in 108 bronze bowls that represent the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha. Doing so brings good fortune and helps the monks maintain the wat.

A gong is hit at Wat Pho. Nearby, two young monks check for mobile phone service.

A Secondary School band performs in the courtyard of the school. Typical noisy Bangkok traffic passes in the background.

Chimes at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha blow in the wind.

A riverboat operator signals to the driver with a whistle, indicating when to reverse and when to stop the boat on approach to the riverside docks.

A tuk tuk rumbles through the streets of Bangkok.

The lounge car on the train to Surat Thani enjoys an impromptu DJ performance. Techno blares over the rhythm of the train tracks.

The train to Surat Thani pulls out of a station at midnight.

The night of the full moon party, competing soundtracks of electronic music are observed from a hillside bar.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Full Moon Party

The big night has finally arrived – a fact made tangible by the surreal moon strung up in the sky by wispy clouds.

Legend has it that the first party was held in 1985 for a crowd of 25-30 backpackers. Word of mouth spread and caused the gathering to escalate with every new month and every new full moon.

Tonight, anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people of the world will converge on sands of Haad Rin in a few hours. For the second night in a row, the streets are teeming with young backpackers.
The buzz in the air that I felt yesterday is even more feverish. Vendors are setting up their stalls on the beach, neatly laying out rows of colorful plastic buckets that contain playful displays of drink combinations. They have crude signs that cash in on phrases that have become popular with tourists, such as “I love you long time”. There are sodas, liquor, and the infamous energy drinks that are probably illegal in most western countries; Shark, M150, and the infamous Krating Daeng.

The latter, which is marked with two red bulls charging each other, inspired the development of worldwide energy drink Red Bull when Austrian entrepreneur (and now billionaire) Dietrich Mateschitz found that it cured his jet lag on a trip to Thailand in 1982. Mateschitz partnered with Krating Daeng’s owner and in 1987 launched a reformulated, carbonated, and more sexy version of the Thai drink…but don’t be fooled – the original is still the most potent, and the better option if you plan on seeing the sun rise over Haad Rin.

Nearer to the water, more vendors assemble canvases lit by black-lights that promote colorful body art. The available paintings range from the magnificent and inspirational logo of 7-11 to more logical images like dragons, stars, and butterflies. I pass on the paintings – I’ve only brought out a few hundred baht that’s wadded in a secure pocket, because pickpockets are notorious for getting close to dancers and running off with whatever camera / passport / wallet is in reach.

Further down the beach is a section of sand that is fenced off. Signs hung on the plastic fence indicate it to be a designated “sleep area” and medical tent. A few eager partygoers have already managed to fall asleep fully clothed, with plastic buckets just out of reach and heads resting on plush pillows of sand. A necessary power-nap before the main festivities begin.

I drift closer to the music that’s slowly and steadily increasing in volume. It’s a thumping, bass-rich beat that causes my head to involuntary start bobbing. Maybe it’s the M150, maybe it’s the friendly vibe, or maybe it’s the colorful light and decorations of the various “dance stages” on the beach – either way, I have an increasing desire to dance – and in my 23 years on Earth I’ve rarely ever been known for wanting to dance. I’m momentarily distracted a bright flash of light, and I keep drifting.

I find my way to a circle of people that are gathered around a giant jump-rope. When I arrive, a few Thai men are dousing the rope with some liquid, and it’s not until I see a spark that I realize what’s about to happen. The rope ignites, and immediately the men start rotating the rope.

As it gains momentum, there are dozens of young men just steps away, eager to show their courage by jumping into the center and hopping over the now blazing obstacle. Some make it unscathed until the rope fizzles out. Others trip up, a result of one too many buckets – and are grazed by the rope, but remarkably make it out without combusting.

But these scars will only later become supporting evidence to familiar backpacker war-stories that will be told again and again to new friends in hostels around the world.

The most shocking occurrence is a naked man that dashes into the center and enjoys a few successful revolutions of the rope that are echoed by gasps and laughter from the crowd. The laughter quickly stops when the rope is accidentally caught between his legs, and he is brought to the ground, yet again (mostly) unharmed.

There are several more fire dancers close by that twirl lit poi, staff, or nunchakus. Their talent is amazing, and it occurs to me that this skill is the result of a daily dedication – it is their sole existence – spinning fire for the entertainment of wandering nomads.

A few European amateurs get into the fire spinner’s circles and perform slow, clumsy moves that make me fully appreciate the Thai performer’s talent. The Europeans assume that the clapping is for them, and so they continue to gracelessly defame the delicate practice.

Finally, the crowds have all found their way to the beach. I weave between a mass of bodies that throb in unison, connected by music and perhaps also by the journey that it took to make it to this exact moment. I dig my toes into the sand and let my limbs move freely. I’m suddenly not a bad dancer – but possibly now even a mediocre dancer. Everyone is moving together. Everyone is having a good time. The energy flows to the steady, thick beat for hours.

Finally, a husky glow begins to appear over the water. The sun rises, and the crowd dissipates. Newly united couples run down the beach hand in hand. People sleep peacefully on the sand.

The rest retreat to their bungalows, and another Full Moon Party comes to an end.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Pha Ngan

After what feels like hours, the ferry disembarks on a small dock that ends where a group of Thai people in hats and sunglasses are standing. They’re holding signs for connecting rides to hotels or offering cheap bus fares to various beaches on the island.

I suppose one of the pitfalls of not booking anything ahead of time is suddenly realizing that you have no idea what your next move should be. Haad Rin? Haad Yao? Haad Khuat? Haad Salat? Names of beaches barraged my eyes and ears.

With one full day before the full moon party, all hostels were rumored to be fully booked, so it didn’t matter where I started the search. I only knew that it would be better to stay close to Haad Rin since it’s the center of activity, and staying there would mean avoiding late night taxis or buses when it was time to go home. A couple of tourists waiting to leave the island point to a woman that they recommend for a taxi bus, and I take their suggestion.
I jump in the back of a covered truck and am heartily greeted by a loud American with a southern accent and a t-shirt tied around his head. He uses a slew of expletives to describe just “how [ridiculously] crazy Thailand is” and asks the group of passengers if we can believe how “cheap [stuff] is here”. He says he might not want to leave and mentions that there’s nothing to go back to at the moment anyway. Eventually, he’s drowned out by the sound of the struggling engine as the truck strains to make it over a series of steep, twisting roads that lead to Haad Rin.

The island’s area is roughly 168 km², with an estimated 50 km perimeter, so it really doesn’t take long to get to get anywhere on the island. From the ferry to the beach where the once-a-month festivities are held, it’s about a fifteen minute drive.

We arrive in Haad Rin, and I make a dash for the first cheap hostel in my guidebook – Mellow Mountain Bungalows. The view is gorgeous. Bright sunshine, sparkling water, green hills and white sand. Luckily, there’s one bungalow available and the price isn’t bad – 350 baht per night ($10 USD). I force myself to overlook the fact that the toilet and shower are both out of commission – the likely explanation for the room’s late vacancy – and decide that the communal shower will do just fine. If that fails, there’s always the ocean, right?

Once I’m settled, my initial instinct is to rent a scooter and explore the rest of the island. In retrospect, this should have been my first decision after arriving on the island – and would be my recommendation for anyone traveling without bags that require a taxi. It’s cheaper and more fun to explore the island by yourself. Just remember to wear a helmet and drive cautiously – I think calling the roads of Thailand “unpredictable” would be an affectionate understatement.


Regardless, Ko Pha Ngan is probably one of the best places in Thailand to rent a scooter for the day. All of the roads on the island are quiet, two lane strips of asphalt that snake through beautiful forests and picturesque hills. There’s a few waterfalls that are easy to access, and enough beaches to sample to keep you busy for a few days. On my way around the island, I stop at a small restaurant owned by a Thai woman and her British expat husband. A crowd of British men are huddled around the bar, halfway through a “proper Sunday lunch” of roast lamb and mushy peas.

My favorite beach of the day is a spot on the Northern end called Haad Salad. There are giant rope swings, quaint guest houses and warm, shallow water. If it wasn’t on the opposite side of the island from Haad Rin, I’d opt to stay here for hours, but I’m short on time and decide to head back on the road while the sun sets in the west, and a full moon rises in the east.

I gun the scooter over the final few hills that descend into the beach. I’m relishing every moment of riding the curved pavement, the moon high in the sky, cutting through a paper thin layer of clouds. When I pull into the town, I can feel the buzz of energy in the air. By now, most of the tourists that are staying in Haad Rin for the party have arrived, and the tiny streets of the towns are packed with people.

A group of dutch tourists get neon paint patterned on their arms and legs. Four youngsters huddle around a friend in a tattoo shop. A pair of girls get their hair done at a salon. Hordes of people have already started dancing on the beaches to deep, resonant music.

Internet cafés are filled to capacity. I stop at one and count the number of screens that are logged into Facebook – 19 out of 20…and it’s the same at almost every cafe that I pass. Truly the mark of our generation. Maybe they’re making those last minute rendezvous from the Khao San?

I have no idea what to expect for the next 24 hours, but by the excitement that I feel in the streets, I have a good suspicion that I’ve come to the right place.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.