The War for Authenticity 

The older expats of Chiang Mai do not seem to like the young people who travel here. A healthy number of the young people who visit are here to party, which is perhaps not the best reason to travel, but so what? The expats were young once; they must remember what it’s like being young in a new city full of cheap places to get drunk and dance. 

Such was my reasoning when Billy and I were deciding on a place to get dinner. The restaurant we wanted to visit had a reputation of being popular with expats, and Billy mentioned that whenever he’s around expats he feels like he is being judged. The expats see all young people as just looking to get drunk and get laid, which, again, I thought was unfair of them to assume. Let them judge me, I said, this restaurant has five stars on Yelp. 

There were only two expats at the restaurant, an older British couple, who asked us if we wanted the only functional fan. What a selfless gesture, for despite the heat and humidity, this lovely couple would rather give us the relief of the fan. 

Who are the real assholes, I wondered then: the expats who scorn the young people? or the young people like me, who assume that the expats are going to be aloof? The expats chose to live here after all, so how much can they really complain about rowdy young people? And though the young people might be drunken and obnoxious, as long as they aren’t violent who can blame them for trying to have fun in their twenties? 

The old British couple broke the stereotype of judgmental expats for me, anyway. Still, maybe they were nice to us because they could see that we aren’t the party-going type, because there is definitely an identifiable party-going type here. They look much the same here as they do back home: Nikes, either jean or khaki shorts, a sleeveless t-shirt with some sort of geometric design on it, an absurd number of wrist bands, an ear piercing, the backwards fitted hat, and of course, tribal tattoos. 

Billy and I wear earth tones. Earth tone pants and earth tone shirts. We don’t wear hats, and neither of us have any piercings or tattoos. We look so normal that people must assume we’re incredibly boring. 

People might be right in that assumption, for after our dinner we decided to end our evening at the jazz bar, which is always full of old expats. In fact, an online review of the jazz bar says something along the lines of: “Great place to listen to music and have a drink if you’re over thirty. Teenagers should stay away and go to Zoey’s or Spicy.” I can practically smell the Rogaine and Viagra wafting off of that review. Calling anyone under thirty teenagers is a sure sign of at least a few grey hairs, and telling those teenagers to stay at the two popular night clubs in Chiang Mai is the Yelp review equivalent of shouting “Get off my lawn!”

That reviewer would be proud of us teenagers, however, for we arrived at the geezerly hour of eight, a full two hours before the band started playing and crowds arrived. We didn’t care. We bought beers and nursed them, and we managed to get superb seats in the loft looking down onto the stage. It was wonderful to sit there chatting and sipping, taking time to absorb the atmosphere of this rickety jazz bar on the edge of the city. Cobwebs enveloped the stage lights, and the mixing board would sparkle with bright red lights as the band played a few cautionary notes, making sure the mix was just right. Enshrined above the stage, higher than anything else in the club, is a picture of the late Rama IX, King of Thailand, playing his trumpet, bell facing directory towards the camera. King Rama IX loved jazz, and played the saxophone and trumpet throughout his life, and here in Thailand, his picture must be set higher above all other photos. He is right at home in the jazz bar, blaring out a note beyond the grave, higher even than the cobwebs and the cocktail of music and chatter that rises to the ceiling. 

We ordered another round ($2.00 a beer!) and the band started playing, opening with a cover of Chuck Mangione’s “Feels so Good.” The immediate energy of live music began drawing people in off the street. They would stand in the open arches that face out to the street, listen for a few minutes, and come inside for a beer. They might stay for only one tune, but they would buy a drink nevertheless. They understand that that’s how this works: you go to a live music club and get a drink; it’s essentially your way of paying for a seat and paying the band. To just dive in for a few minutes and leave without getting a drink is rude beyond the point of comprehension. 

Enter a pack of young, drunk twenty-somethings. They all stop in the arches of the club to listen to the music. Some of them are holding open beer cans. Clearly these guys aren’t planning on buying a drink here. One of them, the literal embodiment of the trustafarian, makes a beeline for the stairs to the loft. Carrying his open beer can, it’s obvious he’s not going to pay for squat, he just wants to hear some music, man. 

Swift justice is brought down upon this insufferable twat. The door man, an inconspicuous looking guy wearing a blue Hard Rock Café shirt, grabs the guy by the arm and drags him out of the bar. He rejoins his group, who continue to mill around outside for a while before finally being shooed away by the bartender.

That group was an eclectic mix of party-goers and trustafarians, just the sort of people the expats dislike. From their behavior that night it would be easy to make a sweeping generalization about all young people visiting Chiang Mai. But by making that generalization, the expats become the assholes. 

So there’s a pissing contest between westerners going on here in Chiang Mai: who can prove that they’re the most authentic by questioning the authenticity of the other. Like all pissing contests you win by not getting involved. Hey, man, I’m just passing through. 

4 thoughts on “The War for Authenticity 

  1. So first – I am having to look up what some words mean – I can guess but am interested in understanding exactly what you are seeing and thinking. Had no idea that there was such a music culture there to explore. And a King? Playing the trumpet and saxophone? Very neat. Too bad you couldn’t fit your trumpet or drums in your back pack. Of course Billy could always sing? And with $2 beers maybe he does.


    1. Hello Advisory! I believe the drinking age is 18, and no, weed is not legal here. There are many places to see in life, but the inside of a Thai jail cell is not one of them. Stay in school and do your homework! No one likes the idiot American abroad.


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