Having Fun the Thai way: Nighttime Entertainment Options (for the Newcomer)
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In English, there is no verb 'to fun'. Yes, you can 'have fun', but without the 'have' it is not good English. Here in Thailand, 'to fun' is widely used and perfectly correct grammatically. It is, in fact, one of the most common responses to the very common enquiry, 'Where are you going?'; answer: 'pai teo'. Having fun for the Thais does not have the slightly shaming connotations which it has for the guilt-ridden Westerner.
The Thai attitude comes from their Buddhist religion and hard farming history. All life is suffering sooner or later, said the Lord Buddha. The Thais extend this a little to say, 'so if today is good, enjoy it to the full - it may be your last chance'. As the English expression goes, 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.'
However, most of us seem to find it difficult or impossible to stop worrying about tomorrow, sometimes even when there is nothing much to really worry about. Most Thais have the enviable ability to live in the present and not even think of the future, especially if they are having fun. Not exactly what you’d call the Protestant Work Ethic, for better or worse; after living here for a few years, you’ll most likely come to view it as ‘for worse’, relax more easily, and have fun: ‘sanuk’ in Thai.
So what do Thais do to have fun - and can we share it with them? Very definitely yes. At any Thai establishment, Westerners will often be deluged with attention and interest. It is normal to have curious Thais offer you a drink, and perfectly fine to accept - although you should offer one in return later. If they say no, don't insist - they often do not want you to think they expect it. When Thais act generously 'from the heart', they genuinely do not think in terms of reward or recompense. They are simply having fun: ‘sanuk sanuk’.
What the locals do depends very much on how much money they have to spend, their social status and age. Let us start at the so-called 'top'. Well-off Thai businessmen often go for the luxury hotels - usually Thai-run hotels. These frequently have 'coffee shops', and many also have a massage parlor as well. For the Westerner, these places are a little strange. Coffee shops in the evening are so dark that one bumps into the furniture (and other people!) before the eyes adjust. There are usually several singers and a live band. Prices are high, and they are best enjoyed with a group of friends - although there is usually the chance to make friends once inside.
More fun and often cheaper are the ‘suan ahaans’, which literally means 'garden food'. The basic idea is similar to the coffee shops: food, drink and entertainment. However, they are outside, in a garden setting, large and informal. The food is usually excellent, a bit pricier than a normal restaurant, but well worth it for the ambience.
You will be entertained by a string of singers - some good, some frankly terrible. They wear costumes varying from the very overdressed with bows and frills everywhere to the slightly immodest - short skirts and tight tops. Some of the flashier ones have a 'cabaret', with well choreographed dancing. Service is always good, but if you are drinking, be careful: the staff have a strong tendency to keep on refilling your glass, often when you don't notice. It is very, very easy to end up drunk - and poor!
‘Suan ahaans’ open late and close in the early morning. They are the choice of youngish Thais with a bit of money in their pocket, and professional workers out for a good time. Most ‘suan ahaans’ are a few kilometers from the centre of the large Thai towns; the by-pass roads usually have many, always lit up with fairy lights and big signs.
One problem for some Westerners is that menus are rarely in English. However, you can always point at food on other tables that looks good, and have fun miming what you want. And unless you are used to fiery Thai food, remember to say 'my phet'(not spicy); even then it may well be quite spicy – for you, anyway.
Western music is now very popular with younger people, and many good restaurants have great bands that sing and play well and often quite professionally. There are restaurants specializing in folk music (‘songs for life’), country and western, and rock. Although generally a little more sedate than the 'suan ahaans', they are nevertheless very good places to hang out and relax with a few plates of snacky type food, some cold beers, or a bottle of Thai rum or whisky.
There are several discotheques in the larger cities, called 'teks' by the Thais, who prefer catchy, monosyllabic words. In the West, most discos are frequented by the distinctly young. Here there is a much larger cross-section of ages, and the best ones are excellently run, with good sound and light systems. The price of admission usually includes a drink - any type, so they are not all that expensive. Thais do not seem to be all that good at disco dancing - probably because their own dances are highly formalized – but everyone is prepared to 'have a go', especially later on in the evening.
Of course, all the big cities have cinemas, often with Western films with Thai subtitles and an English soundtrack. Prices are low, and they usually run very recent releases. Sound systems are often excellent, and seating comfortable and well-spaced. 3-D films are becoming increasingly available as well.
In any city with a large tourist trade, there are, of course, many bars catering to the requirements of Westerners. These are normally located in bunches in one or two parts of the city. Prices are very reasonable, and company plentiful. Of course one is well-advised to proceed with caution and common sense in any ‘strange’ environment, especially if new to Asia, and perhaps easily seduced by the seemingly carefree nature of it all.
For example, many lovely females abound, who all seem to be unusually interested in you. Some of these ‘girls’, however, are not actually girls, but boys, or kathoeys – known here as lady-boys. They can sometimes be very beautiful, and are frequently a surprise – or shock – for the unwary newcomer. Thailand possesses an embarrassment of riches indeed.
That, then, is entertainment in the cities. For the average Thai farmer, undreamed of luxury. However, every village has at least one little informal bar, sometimes with a sound system, where even the poorest Thais can enjoy a drink of rice whisky and while away a few hours in the company of friends. These small, informal hangouts can be a great deal of fun at night, though perhaps less fun the morning after. But best not think about what is to come, surrender yourself to the merriment, and immerse yourself in the sanuk of the moment.