Art & Music
Thailand is a musical and artistic nation. But don’t expect there to be the same kind of music or appreciation for art or sophistication of cultural activities as there are in the West.
However, there is a wealth of local folk music and jazz. The 50’s & 60’s music is still very popular here. And there are regular visits from top stars to Thailand – Lady Gaga, Sting, Sacred Love, Russel Peters, Eric Clapton, Eagles, Santana, JYJ, L’Arc-en-Ciel, Scorpions, Dream Theater, Maroon Five and Avenged Sevenfold.
In Chiang Mai, there are several music schools and colleges and classical music enthusiasts who put on concerts a few times every month.
In Bangkok, there are many performers from the universities, as well as the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (who tend to play more popular classical music), as well as regular concerts organized by various cultural groups.
The Asia International Guitar Festival and Competition is held every year in June, along with The Thailand Mozart International Piano Competition. And there’s usually a Jazz festival in Hua Hin about the same time (although last year it was cancelled and this year it was a bit of a damp squib). The German Goethe Institute in Bangkok puts on regular classical music recitals. There are a number of serious amateur classical music enthusiasts who arrange recitals by leading international performers, usually once a month, both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
The Bangkok Symphony Orchestra puts on free concerts in Lumpini Park. It’s usually fairly light, popular music of course.
Chamber music is quite popular also.
There are jazz clubs and guitar and rock groups playing live in pubs and restaurants hidden away in secret venues. At least it seems that way, because on the surface there doesn’t seem to be much on – we don’t have the equivalent of Time Out that lists every single event in the city. You have to be ‘in the know’ – either by subscribing to the various arts & music newsletters, or have some Thai friends introduce you to the hot spots. Most of the 5-star hotels will have a resident singer or jazz band that plays every night in the lobby.
Stand up comedy is very popular in Thailand – some English pubs put on acts at various times; but there are several Thai comedians who have become household names, such as Note Udom (but you have to understand Thai to quite an advance level to understand the humor).
As for theater, plays are put on several times a year by amateur theatrical groups such as Bangkok Community Theatre. They usually put on quite humorous performances, such as The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, or The Importance of Being Earnest, or Puss in Boots. I’m always suprised by how good they are, considering they’re all amateurs drawn from the expats who happen to be in town that year!
You will not find much in the way of serious, experimental theatre – or ballet or opera. There is only one opera company, and that’s in Bangkok and I’m not sure how often they have performances. There are a few ballet and dance schools, mostly for young children – I haven’t heard of any performances, other than those for the traditional ballet, known as Ram Thai. These are highly elaborate dance pieces with strange oriental music and incomprehensible plots (not unlike European ballet and opera libretti!) You can usually see Ram Thai performces just before the Muay Thai fights.
Muay Thai is a very popular spectator sport, elevated almost to an art form. The fighters train daily in local gyms and their only income is when they win in a fight and even then it isn’t usually much. The only way to win is to knock out your opponent. They certainly pull no punches! And it takes a lot to bring a fighter down. It’s a very entertaining blood sport.
Art is huge in Thailand. It’s just mostly hidden. There aren’t huge public galleries with famous collections. You have to know people in the art world to discover what’s happening and who’s doing what.
Every second Thai person is an artist it seems – and many of them are really good. You will find many, many (mostly private) art galleries, displaying the works of Thai, Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese artists. Less sophisticated yet highly attractive original art can also be found in the street markets, probably the only public outlet of secret or hard-to-find one-man art studios.
It’s not just paintings. You can find beautiful wooden carvings and bronze and stone sculptures. A good not-so-well-known center for art and sculpture is River City in Bangkok, several floors of store upon store selling antiques and modern works from throughout the region. There’s also a garden of statues on the roof.
Besides the blockbusters, which can be seen very cheaply, sometimes in 3D (and now in 4D with jiggling seats) in plush cozy, quite cold and loud movie theaters, there are indie movies also being shown regularly.
The European Film Festival visits Chiang Mai and Bangkok once a year, along with the French and Italian film festivals. The FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand) shows obscure – and sometimes not so well made – documentaries every Friday night.
So, although it’s not anything like London or Paris or New York or even many of the art-loving towns around Europe, there is still a wide choice of good art and music and theater to enjoy in Thailand.
Nevertheless, before you come settle in Thailand, it might be a good idea to cram in as many museums and art shows and ballet and opera and avant garde theater as you can manage. Take advantage of what’s on offer in your area because your next trip home might be like as a starving tourist who treks from museum to gallery to theater show…