AWKWARD AND ALONE: Tourists, Transits, and Artists in Bangkok

LINK to my song written & recorded in Bangkok, my second city on this Travel Fellowship:

I’ve spent eight days in Bangkok, which has felt brief in a sense, but also seems to be longer than the average traveler/hostel-goer’s stay. I think a commonality I have found and am likely going to find across the rest of these Southeast Asian capitals is that most tourists, especially Western tourists, tend to limit their stay in the city to a few days unless they have come to find work, preferring to spend more time in the rural, ‘authentic’ cultural spaces or beaches. This is not really the topic of this post, but I wanted to give it a mention, since this trend usually has less to do with whether people actually prefer non-urban environments and more to do with problematic tourist-crafted (and power-dynamic-inducing) images of authenticity in non-Western spaces.

I split my week between lodging in two different places: a hostel by Khao San road, near to Wat Pho and accessible only by bus/ferry, and a solo room Airbnb nearer to the downtown, accessible by the MRT and BTS lines. I moved in order to be able to better record and move around the city faster, but I also really enjoyed the opportunity to experience different neighbourhoods and transit arrangements. I realised this will be the last city of my summer where public transit will play such a large role in my stay, which is definitely going to be an adjustment for me — not just in terms of ease and price, but also in terms of personal interest. Growing up in a city with very little public transit (a underfunded and not expansive bus system), I have always been fascinated by systems in other cities: when living in Bogotá, living in Singapore, or even visiting cities such as Denver, NYC, and Berlin. I think in KL and Bangkok, one thing I have noticed is the array of different companies involved in public transit: both the KLIA and MRT in KL and BTS and MRT in Bangkok run rail systems, but through different payment card systems, and in Bangkok I’ve also spent more time using the majority-cash bus and ferry systems. Although when transitioning from Singapore’s very centralised transit system, I was pretty confused by what to use and where and how, I do really appreciate how these systems are growing to fit public needs. I think, at least to a degree, it shows a commitment to making living in the city as accessible as possible, even when there may not be funding or organisation for a singular, overarching system.

Aside from collecting all of the aforementioned loose Urban Studies-esque thoughts, I have have also of course been here on a SOLO MUSICAL JOURNEY, and that’s what this is really all about. In my week, I was able to visit three very different small concert venues and various other art spaces — and in the end I’m extremely glad this is not my last time in Bangkok, because it has only been a very small fraction of what anyone arts-oriented can tell you is a large and vibrant scene. I’ve been focused on small, alternative venues both because it’s the type of music I am most interested in and because they often offer spaces where it is not too difficult to meet interesting people who are willing to share stories. Coming away from the production of my songs from KL and Singapore, I realised I was lacking conversations and artist voices in my work, so I made a goal to meet and see more musicians in the cities I’m going to.

That being said, this new directive has also made me feel very viscerally alone and awkward. The process includes several things which I am particularly uncomfortable/unskilled at doing

  1. Going to bars and concerts alone
  2. Talking to people
  3. Asking said people if I can record what they’re talking about
  4. Explaining why I’m there, where I’m from, and where I’m really from (I guess this is a separate rant just like my thoughts on authenticity, but let’s give it a shoutout nonetheless !!)

A couple of nights ago I was talking to a guitarist, and then when he went up to play his set his friends from various social circles — all a good 15 years older than me on average — came to the table and met each other and were like, “Oh you work with Ron?” And instead of giving a normal answer I responded, “Haha no I’m basically just a stranger. Hi. I’m alone.” This is a pretty accurate summary of my week. But, it allowed me to hear some really interesting stories, and I am very excited for what it’ll add to my newest song.

To an extent, we can expect more of the same situations in Vientiane. However, due to a combination of slightly misunderstanding a Facebook message and a general lack of international musicians frequenting Laos, I will actually be the musician in the scenario this time around. That’s right, your local summer CIPE-r has JUST BOOKED HER FIRST SOLO PAID MUSIC GIG! I’ll be playing a few nights at small bars/restaurants in Vientiane, which I’m hoping will also let me meet more people — since, as we have discussed, I am both awkward and alone.