The Overstay, Bangkok’s most notorious hotel, may be in want of a few stars, but it’s a vital outlet for the city’s burgeoning underground scene.
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 violently, giving visitors the feeling of being inside the moving turbine of an airliner.
It isn’t 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 to plummet 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 apparent need of a wash – pogo, 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 – although the latter term, according to its 26-year-old owner Yuval Schwok, rather stretches the truth. It is possible to sleep at The Overstay, but 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 decrepit buildings in Bangkok, but none of them double as music venues.
This rambling edifice 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 and the no-name punk band clears the stage. The audience, half of them white-trash riff-raff – hippies and crusties, freeloaders and the confused – have rolled in from nearby Khao San Road, Bangkok’s increasingly corporate backpacker ghetto, and are mixing with an eclectic bunch of local 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 here is apocalyptic, starting with the toilets and including all other aspects of life and death at Bangkok’s skuzziest night spot.
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 storm of negative publicity on the internet, garnering shocked reviews of its $1 rooms on tripadvisor.com and many other travel websites. Reviewers have spewed forth hundreds of words warning fellow travellers 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 building played host to many different, mostly shady businesses: a Chinese restaurant-cum-casino and several incarnations as a brothel are among its former identities. It’s also said two murders were committed there during the building’s glory days. A resident ghost allegedly does the rounds, but I never did venture into the toilet and hence missed him.
As the last band, the Klong Riders, gets ready for their show (Klong is Thai for ‘canal’, waterways 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 the only underground music venues in Bangkok. It has no air-con, no cocktails and no ex-pats in ironed polo-shirts with dolled-up, disinterested secretaries in tow. What you might call more ‘regular’ tourists are unlikely to be attracted by the décor. Even the bar girls, ubiquitous in Southeast Asia, are tellingly absent.
Critics argue that The Overstay is completely horrible and there’s an ongoing campaign among the online travel community to get the place closed down. It’s unsafe, they say. It’s the scourge of Thai tourism. It would be an embarrassment in any city.
This, of course, is what makes it so vital in Thailand’s capital, an urban sprawl of 11 million people that boasts hardly any alternative music venues where young people can express themselves and begin an internal cultural dialogue, something the nation desperately needs.
That’s why there are thousands of disenfranchised kids on the streets every night, smoking amphetamines and racing their bikes into early graves. Most night spots are either karaoke hell meat markets, themed pubs done in the worst possible taste, or bright, pretentious spaces for the urban elite.Rebellion and counter-cultural thinking rarely fit into traditional Bangkok culture, but a city of this size that lacks a selection of alternative music venues is a city in serious trouble.
The Klong Riders hit what passes for a stage on the third floor. The crowd shakes and screams, secure in the knowledge they’re getting their money’s worth: admission is $1.50. The singer, a tall German brandishing his black semi-acoustic like a machine gun, vomits up his soul and launches into a surf guitar instrumental, dousing the local community in sonic napalm.
Welcome to The Overstay, where – to misquote The Eagles – you can check in any time you like, but you may want to leave.