I recently took a giant leap of faith and quit my job to volunteer as an English teacher in Thailand. Up until that point, I had never been out of the country. I don’t know if I was trying to “find myself,” or “figure out the meaning of life;” I really just wanted to travel somewhere outside of the Midwest. Luckily, I found a great program (shameless plug for Global Teaching Adventures) that allowed me to use my useless English degree toward a great experience that will bolster my resume (even though it still hasn’t helped me get paid).
So I said goodbye to my coworkers, spent some time off with my friends and family, and then set out to the other land of the free. I landed very early one Saturday morning and my counselor met me at the airport. We took a cab to the hostel in Silom, Bangkok and after I checked in he turned to me and said, “Alright, the other volunteers will be arriving throughout the next few days. We have nothing planned until Monday morning, so I’ll just meet you here then.”
I wanted to turn to him and say, “Uhh what… I have no idea what to do. I’ve never been here. I don’t know the language. Please help me…” but instead, I just smiled and said, “Sounds good see you then.” Later, I jokingly posted a screenshot of me Googling “DIY Punk Scene Bangkok” on Facebook to show my cynicism of finding something to do so far away from home. After I got some sleep, my only goal for the week was to not sit on Reddit in the hostel lobby the entire time.
After all, I was, for the first time, in a completely different world. In Chicago, I’m never surprised to walk a block away from my apartment and run into someone I know. In Bangkok, I didn’t even speak the same language as most everyone around me. When I have no plans at home, I can just go to whatever show going on and know I will run into someone I can hang out with. That is what makes Chicago so great: there is always something going on. I couldn’t have found myself farther away from its comforting scene. Bangkok has almost three times as many people as Chicago; surely I had to find a similar community.
After being less ironic with my searches, I found out The Radio Dept. was playing a show just a few subway stops from where I was staying. Since they were a band that I have at least heard of before, I mustered the courage to go off on my own to see them. They were playing at the headquarters of The Voice, a local TV station. Here, they have monthly showcases of larger touring bands play with local Thai acts.
The first band definitely left much to be desired, but the second band, Hariguem Zaboy, absolutely blew me away. They sounded like a Dream-Pop infused Slint. Their entire set had incredible energy. It was comforting to see a band play in their home city, opening for an international act, and looking like they genuinely enjoyed being on stage. Unfortunately, I was not able to talk to them after the show. I met someone visiting from Indonesia that new how to use Uber there and he happened to be going to the same district as me. Since I had already missed the last train, I prioritized making it home safely over trying to mingle with the bands.
Hariguem Zaboy is set to come out with their second full-length this October via Panda Records. In the meantime, here is a track from their first full length, which you can stream in its entirety on Bandcamp
The next day, however, I messaged them on Facebook. I told them how much I enjoyed their set and thought they were better than The Radio Dept. They replied to me almost immediately. Jar, the lead singer and guitarist, responded with a humble thank you. I mentioned I was from Chicago and he immediately brought up Steve Albini, his biggest musical influence. I told him that an original pressing of Slint’s Spiderland has been my white whale and is the first thing I look for whenever I walk into a record store.
“Just bought this album last week while I’m in Japan. Super cool album. Finally bring it to my bedroom,” he said. He even told me that his friend was selling a copy if I wanted to buy it.
“I wish I could,” I told him, “I’m leaving Bangkok tomorrow and don’t have room in my luggage for any records.”
I went on to tell him where else in Thailand I was going and he told me how the city of Ayutthaya was a very cool place and I should try the grilled shrimp there.
After we talked for a while, I decided that I would stick to my goal of leaving the hostel at least once per day. The sun was already starting to set and I thought I should try to find somewhere to go before it got dark. I decided to check out a record store called 1979 Vinyl and Unknown Pleasures. How can you pass up going to a place with that name?
Unfortunately, Bangkok’s address system is not as simple as Chicago’s grid system, and I could not find it on my own. It was at the point where I was standing in a dark alley surrounded by a pack of stray dogs that I decided to give up. Slightly dejected, I walked around to find a place to eat. Eventually, I found a place with an English menu and sat at a table after ordering my food.
A Thai girl who was sitting alone at the table next to me started talking to me after she heard me order. Eventually, I showed her the address of the record store and she was kind enough to help me look for it. The place was so tucked away that even she, living just a few blocks away, had trouble finding it. After walking up and down the street it was supposed to be on, we eventually saw a sign for it, pointing into one of the dark allies I previously ventured into. I felt stupid for not seeing it earlier.
After walking into what seemed like an apartment complex, we finally got to the fourth floor where it was located. To our disappointment, it had just closed. But there was still a guy in there, about our age, cleaning up the store. She knocked on the door and asked if we could take a quick look at what they had.
“Absolutely,” he said in English before I even had to explain what I went through to find the place and that it was my last night in town, “take as long as you want, no hurry.”
As I looked through their impressive collection of rare releases of mostly 80s Brit-pop, I started talking to him about the place. It was small, with an outdoor patio about twice the size of the actual store. The patio was set up with a bunch of chairs and tables where people can relax and hang out.
“We have shows here once a month,” he explained. “We open up the doors, the bands play inside the store, and we serve beer to everyone sitting on the patio.”
“Sounds real cozy,” my new friend commented.
At that moment I realized I had found Southeast Asia’s equivalent of Bric-a-Brac Records and Collectibles: a small-scale record store where you can enjoy the occasional beer and local show. I asked him if he had ever heard of Hariguem Zaboy.
“They are my good friends,” he said, not to my surprise, “they come in here a lot. We have their vinyl for sale.” He pointed to their record hanging up on the wall in the corner.
“Feel free to pick something out to play,” he continued, even though it was well past closing. Shortly thereafter, while flipping through a stack called “90s Britpop/Indie/New Wave/Electronica,” I finally found it: an original press of Spiderland. Without saying anything I pulled the record from its sleeve and handed it to him.
“Very good choice,” he said, “Steve Albini is my favorite producer.” And at that moment I felt everything I had done in the previous 24 hours was all somehow connected.
It was hard to not splurge in that record store. There were so many things I wanted: rare Japanese releases from the 80s, an “Everything in Its Right Place” single, original presses from a bunch of artists, etc. But, I didn’t have enough Baht on me and they didn’t accept my American debit card. Moreover, I was about to travel to at least 5 different cities and my bags were already bursting at the seams.
“No worries,” the record store worker said.
He then recommended a nearby bar that happened to be hosting their monthly improv jazz night that night. My friend from the restaurant accompanied me and we were surprised to find that the musicians were mostly teenagers. They played like seasoned musicians. They were all from a local high school that specializes in music. While they were all taking turns on the instruments, the occasional expat, including a saxophone player named Joe, would be welcomed into the jam session throughout the night. It was the perfect metaphor for everything I had experienced.
I woke up the next morning sad to leave Bangkok, but ready to move to the next city. However, after talking with everyone else in my group, we all came to the conclusion that we should stay another night. There was no rush in getting to Ayutthaya; we could afford the time. I immediately went to the bank next to the hostel and withdrew some cash to go back to the store and buy a backpack and some records.
Like the night before, I arrived at the store a little too close to closing time. Luckily, the same guy was there to greet me with a smile and welcome me into the store. I picked out the records I wanted (including a copy of Hariguem Zaboy’s Thick Mink) and we continued to talk about vinyl.
“Reissues are not as good as original press,” he mused, “there are too many so they are not as valuable.” I nodded in agreement.
Once I was finished, I shook his hand and thanked him for staying open late two nights in a row for me, and told him how happy I was to be able to support a local record store so far away from my home. He then placed a free 7” into my bag.
“This is from the 70s,” he explained, ”a real good Thai band from the 70s. Listen to it when you get home you will like it.”
I thanked him again and finally left the store.
After weeks of traveling, taking slow trains to Ayutthaya and Lopburi, a 5-hour bus to an hour boat ride to Koh Samet, a 7-hour bus to and from Korat, and finally a 22-hour flight stopping through Shanghai, I finally landed back in Chicago. At each and every stop I examined the records making sure they didn’t warp or crack. Each time I moved on to the next city I packed my bags with the precision of a surgeon to ensure their safety.
I got on the Blue Line at O’Hare, relieved to finally be on the last line of transportation home. I got off at the Logan Square stop and walked back to my apartment, passing Bric-a-Brac Records and Collectibles on the way home. I started walking faster, eager to finally listen to that 7”. When I got home, I examined all of them one last time and was thankful they all survived the long journey. Before I unpacked anything else, I fired up my roommate’s turntable, sat back in the recliner in my living room, cracked open my first American beer in over a month, closed my eyes and listened.