Tom Vater reports for the SEA Globe – The Overstay – Bangkok’s Underground Music Venue
The Trash Palace
The crowd surges forward. The singer, a skinny white guy, screams into the microphone, which has been taped to the top of a camera tripod. The room is so hot that water drips from the ceiling. Strips of linoleum are coming off the floor in long torn rolls of dirty plastic. The drums thud like painful bowel movements, the guitars sing like angle-grinders. The entire room feeds back and one has the feeling of being inside the moving turbine of an airliner. It’s not unpleasant. The only lights come from a projector and a bedside table lamp. The bar sells only beer. A man in front of me bumps into a fat woman who falls heavily. For a second it looks like she is going straight through the floor, but the building remains structurally intact, for now. A young muscular punk with a Mohican and a T-Shirt that reads ‘Teach your children to worship Satan.’ is trying to hang sheets across the broken windows – the cops have already been around once tonight, complaining about the noise. The skinny white guy starts screaming again. The crowd, unkempt crazies in need of a wash, pogo and dance, drink and scream, like there’s no tomorrow.
New York? London? Paris? Berlin?
No, this is Bangkok, Thailand. Welcome to the Overstay, the city’ s only underground music venue and hotel, though the latter term, according to its owner, 26 year old Yuval Schwok, rather stretches the truth. It’s possible to sleep at the Overstay, though not tonight.
The Overstay, located in Thonburi, on the west side of the Chao Praya River, has all the characteristics, both positive and negative, of an illegal squat in Barcelona, Leipzig or Zürich in the 1990s. There are plenty of skuzzy buildings in Bangkok, but none of them are music venues. The rambling building is a work in progress. Every available bit of wall space is covered in graffiti, and there’s a large mural of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s infamous communist revolutionary and mass murderer, on the first floor, apparently created to educate punters about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The mural compliments the ambience of decay and anarchy.
It’s 3am on a Saturday night and the no-name punk band clears the stage. The audience – hippies and crusties, freeloaders and the confused – have trolled in from near-by Khao San Road, Bangkok’s ever more corporate and ‘safe’ backpacker ghetto – and are mixing with an eclectic bunch of locals – rock chicks, young punks with impossible Mohicans, tattooed hard men and other lonely souls. The rest of the city, tied to a curfew the Overstay miraculously escapes, is already asleep. Waiting for that next band is like waiting for the end of the world – everything at the Overstay is apocalyptic, starting with the toilets and including all other aspects of life and death at Bangkok’s skuzziest night spot. In fact, the Overstay is so much more than a music venue – in its short existence, a mere two years, the establishment has managed to ignite a shit storm of negative publicity on the Internet, garnering shocked reviews for their one dollar rooms on Trip Advisor and many other hotel-booking web pages. Reviewers gush forth hundreds of words warning fellow travelers about the pitfalls of the Overstay – dirty, unsafe, noisy as hell. And yet, those very same reviewers stay on, night after night.
Prior to its current lease of life, the Overstay building played host to many different and mostly shady businesses: a Chinese restaurant cum casino, as well as several incarnations as a brothel are amongst former incarnations. It’s also said that two murders took place here during its glory days. A resident ghost allegedly does the rounds.
As the last band, the Klong Riders, get ready for their show (Klong is the word for a canal, not known for their hygiene in Bangkok), the audience, tanked on Leo and Chang, the cheapest beers available in Thailand and the only ones for sale at the Overstay, has a chance to contemplate this unique cultural gem – this, for better or worse, is one of Bangkok’s very few underground music venues. The Overstay has no air-con, no cocktails and no chattering ex-pats in ironed polo-shirts with dolled-up and disinterested secretaries in tow. There are no journalists here, and what you might call regular tourists, are unlikely to be attracted by the décor. Even the bar girls are absent.
In fact, the Overstay is completely horrible and many voices on the net demand the place to be closed down. It is not safe. It is a shame to Thailand. It would be an embarrassment in any city. This makes the Overstay vital in Thailand’s capital, an urban sprawl of eleven million people that boasts virtually no alternative music venues, where young people can express themselves and begin an internal cultural dialogue, which Thailand so badly needs. That’s why there are thousands of disenfranchised kids on the streets every night, smoking amphetamines and racing their bikes into early teenage graves. Most night spots are either karaoke-hell meat markets, internationally themed pubs in the worst possible taste, or bright, cool and pretentious spaces for the aforementioned chattering classes.
Rebellion and countercultural thinking rarely fit into traditional Bangkok (night life) culture. But a city of more than 10 million people that does not have alternative music venues is a city in trouble. There are virtually no other night clubs or venues
Just a few have found their way to the Overstay. The Klong Riders hit the stage. Though there is no stage. The band plugs in on the third floor, the crowd shakes and screams, they know they are getting their money’s worth – admission is only a dollar and a half. The singer, a tall skinny German guy playing his pitch-black semi-acoustic like a machine gun, vomits up his soul and launches into a surf guitar instrumental loud enough to douse the local community in sonic napalm.
Welcome to the Overstay. Check in and never leave. Just don’t use the toilets.
Q&A with Yuval Schwok, owner of the Overstay.
Yuval is 26 and from Israel. His Taiwanese partner Chen Yu, 27, is the Overstay’s art director.
What’s your impression of nightlife in Bangkok?
Many young Thais cannot afford to drink in the mainstream bars. Yet unlike in Europe and the US, where their counterparts have established a squat culture, you do not see a rave, or punk show, promoted simply for the sake of music, in this country. Only commercial events with set dates and times and sponsors can survive (because of the law). That changes the cultural situation in the city a lot – underground music has to use commercial ways to survive and that’s not its natural way.
What is the concept behind the Overstay?
We don’t really have a thought-out concept. We just do what feels right and keep on building the venue up. Sometimes we record music, at other times we organize a concert or paint the walls. The two things I like about the Overstay are the interesting people it attracts and the commune feeling to it. Half of the people who live here have jobs and would be better off if they rented an apartment, but they choose to live here for the atmosphere. The Overstay is something in between an artsy squat, an apartment building and your local pub.
Why is the Overstay so different from other night venues in Bkk?
We just want to put on underground events. This forces us to do a lot of different nights. Amongst our favorites are the kinky Kaos sort of fetish parties with techno, but we also put on punk concerts and drum & bass, jungle and dubstep events. We try to attract locals (Thai and Foreigners) because they are the ones most likely to sustain the project in the long run. But we have had very good experiences with travelers because they want to experiment and have time to paint the walls!
What do you think about the Overstay’s reputation as the city’s worst hotel?
I am very happy that the Overstay is known as the worst hotel: I f****** hate hotels with a passion – they are impersonal, they don’t have any culture (even when they exhibit art, it’s always very consensual). The staff don’t give a rat’s ass who you are and you probably won’t meet anyone interesting. I have never called my place a hotel – it is listed as a hostel online. I know that some people get upset coming to the Overstay. I don’t blame them. This place is not for everybody, but I also think a lot of people who criticize us are dishonest. We had one guy reviewing, complaining about the music. But he stayed four days and then didn’t pay. In short, are you a tourist or a traveler? And do you stay because it’s cheap or because you think it’s interesting?
Famous last words?
I’m not spreading the ghost stories anymore – some guests get really scared.
Published in the Southeast Asia Globe.