Story by Marque A. Rome
Photos by Chaiwut Poungsuwan
To some, the beach club phenomenon on Phuket is at once queer and repellant: such places are typically noisy, gaudy, unnatural and preposterously expensive; why should any sane person spend time at one?
To others, beach clubs are an answer to the tedium of sun-bathing: why should any sane person of reasonable means bake in boredom, surrounded by unsightly middle-aged beach-turds when these clubs offer the allure of convivial bathing beauties, tropical cocktails in the submerged pool-bar, and gourmet — perhaps I should say ‘gastronomique‘ — edibles?
Put that way, there’s no real choice — all else being equal, beach clubs win hands down. But all else is not equal: it’s one thing to take a transistor radio to the beach for a little background buzz of mixed pop and news; quite another to lie silently in the sun while loudspeaker stacks pumping out 2,000 watts a side overwhelm the environment with the steady pulse of electronic dance music.
For some, indeed many, and I suppose most, of the beach clubs’ customers, that is the deciding factor. They think a visit to the strand vastly improved by addition of the Big Beat. As beach clubs vary in other ways, but not in that, I conclude that loud music is the principal draw. So I was intrigued upon learning that celebrated British disc jockey Pete Tong would perform in the new Dream Beach Club (ex-Nikki’s Beach Club) at Layan beach on Phuket’s northwest coast and went for a visit.
It was sunny when we arrived that Saturday at 2.00 PM — really sunny. In passing through Cherng Talay, by Laguna, we noticed Dream Beach ‘pool party’ banners with a picture of the star deejay draped from poles along the roadside, and the motto “all gone Pete Tong” superscribed.
Upon arrival at the club, however, some two kilometres distant, we saw no
banners, and observed none along the immediate route there — only those outside the Laguna hotel complex (which neither Dream Beach Club, nor the affiliated Dream Hotel and Spa, are part of). On a table at the entrance to the club were a few flyers, each about the size of a woman’s hand, announcing Pete Tong would perform at 2.00 PM and admission was free. Nothing else — and I should emphasize ‘nothing’ — indicated that Tong, who is a major star and one of Britain’s most influential forces on the music scene, was performing.
In a quarter-century of covering entertainment on Phuket, I never saw a venue ignore its own event in this way. Amazing. I can only suppose this was planned, and that the cause célèbre himself elected to maintain a low profile, as he is currently embarked on an American tour (at venues where, perhaps, admission is not advertised as ‘free’).
Tong, a remarkably youthful 55, got his ‘all gone Pete Tong’ moniker in 1987 from fellow British deejay legend Paul Oakenfold (who performed at rival Phuket beach club XANA 12th December): it is rhyming slang and means ‘a bit wrong’ — an allusion I don’t understand as Tong seems to do nothing wrong.
He began his career in 1982, setting up a mobile disco in his transit van, became famous for acid house music, triumphed in Ibiza, where he is a staple, and has hosted since 1992 the two BBC Radio1 programmes Essential Mix and Essential Selection — which have influenced literally millions throughout the world to take up the deejay’s (to my mind rather dubious) art.
Tong is of such importance to Britain he was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 2014, as were the Beatles in 1965 (an honour about which John Lennon famously commented, “Lots of people who complained about us receiving the MBE received theirs for heroism in war – for killing people…. We received ours for entertaining people”).
As it happened, Tong did not take the stage till 5.30 PM. When we arrived resident deejay Bradley Hart was at the mixer spinning tunes. Dream was thick (but not filled) with sun worshippers — how else to describe them? — it was clear and blisteringly hot. Sound levels, initially, precluded conversation but were reduced somewhat when saxophonist Vladimir Sharamyev took the stage, which is outside and unshaded.
The crowd was youngish, largely foreign, substantially female and good-looking (especially the babes). Many children were present. Everyone seemed friendly. People were obviously having a good time. My colleague, veteran print, radio and TV news reporter Chaiwut Poungsuwan, and I stepped onto the beach to escape the noise and interview a few onlookers. None, as it turned out, were customers at Dream. “Did you come here, though, to see today’s show?” we asked a pair of Thai men seated under a tree. Nope, they knew nothing of any show.
A German couple in their 50s, Harry and Heike, who stood gazing for some time, were likewise unaware: “We’ve been coming here the last few days because Karon Beach has no sunbeds,” Harry explained, “and everyday this place is so noisy. Today it’s twice as loud, and we came to see what was happening.” But they knew nothing of Pete Tong and allowed that electronic dance was not their kind of music.
A young Kossovar, who remained on the beach till sunset, told us he is manager of a private London Japanese club — and expressed similar surprise at hearing of Pete Tong’s performance. Having struck out on the beach, we went to the other side, the front entrance, where was seated an Anglo-Spanish couple. “Are you here today for the show?” they were asked. “No. What show?” came the reply. They noted that club staff are quite friendly but said they were not informed of any show. I told them Pete Tong would be on stage shortly: “Pete Tong!” ejaculated the woman, a cultured Londoner (who still looked great in a bikini despite passage of 52 summers), “We’ve seen him in Ibiza. He’s huge!” Just preparing to leave, they decided to stay instead and catch Tong’s gig.
Dream is large, covering perhaps two rai, now operated by the Singapore-based Castlewood Group. About half the area is covered by a single two-story building. The downstairs, with large open kitchen and ten-metre bar, is clearly designed for heavy turnover. I was informed that current seating for dinner accommodates a hundred, but there is plenty of room for more. For shows the number is 3,000. Castlewood’s similarly named Dream Hotel and Spa is a luxury property roughly one kilometre distant, and the hotel provides free shuttle service to and from the club.
The Group plainly intends to make a splash: “Culinary adventures await guests with tempting menus that include Asia’s most expensive burger experience,” read a press release about the beach club published on finance.yahoo.com 8th December. “For THB$30,000 (an estimated SGD$1,185), diners can treat themselves to an exquisite Wagyu beef burger topped with foie gras and a gold leaf bun, accompanied by a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne.”
I can’t attest to the burger, billed as the most expensive in Asia (and which, were it ranked, would place 4th on Esquire Magazine‘s list of the world’s most expensive), but the coconuts were fine.
Upstairs at Dream, which opened 12th December, a nightclub was still under construction when we visited. Downstairs furnishings feature large, comfortable chairs of rattan and hardwood, and long hardwood tables. Outside, a walkway-divided pool occupies most of one rai, with semi-submerged bar, flanked by umbrellas and king-sized sunbeds, another kitchen and another bar. Masseuses and other staff ran to and fro. Guests were tapping out rhythms on their thighs, dancing, chatting and, yes, most everyone ‘cept the kids was drinking cocktails.
The club stage dominates the area, and on it, after getting the sound right, DJ Brad handed over to saxophonist Vlad, who blew impressively fluent melodies on his alto over the steady EDM soundtrack. Asked whether he likes jazz, the Russian-Ukrainian said: “That’s music for people in the clouds — normally, people don’t understand it. I like this kind of music. It’s easy for me. I play how I feel. I don’t have to know what the deejay is playing; often I don’t know what the song is.”
He’s a brilliant soloist and, I must say, an intrepid player: “Don’t you find it rather hot playing in the sun like that?” I asked.
“Oh, this is not the worst,” he said. “In Greece once, it was 50 degrees Celsius — too hot to touch the saxophone and so hot the sound system shut down.” Based on Koh Samui, Vlad’s another sun-worshipper. Asked whether he lives in Thailand, he replied, “It’s winter isn’t it?” Vlad travels round the world with his sax, playing exotic venues and following the good weather. He’s been coming to Thailand for five years.
As the sun arced downwards to the Andaman, Pete Tong quietly took the stage — no announcements, no speech from him, no introduction in any way, not even a spotlight on him. But he quickly got everyone on their feet. His is an insinuating style, not noisy or abrupt. He uses mixer effects, creates his own loops and has a sixth sense about what people like to hear.
But nobody at Dream except a few staff seemed to know it was him.
I paused to interview a lone imbiber, a male mesomorph, 30ish, reclining on one of the big pool beds with a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a cigar. “What do you think of the show?” I asked. “Do you know who is up there playing deejay?”
He instantly sprang to his feet and put a heavy arm round my shoulders: “Listen, I don’t care about the f–king show. I just came here to relax, because the last week at work has been….”
“Difficult?” I interjected.
“Hell,” he rejoined. “I’m an executive chef and I spent the last three days with no sleep because I had to monitor the sauce for New Year’s dinner.”
“That shows admirable resolve.” I opined.
“So this morning when I awoke all I could think of was my wife — where the hell is she, anyway? You gotta see my wife; you’ll be drooling like a dog.” Then he turned conspiratorial and leaned close to my ear: “She likes it up the arse, y’know; how’s that? Ha! Ha! Up the arse! Where is she? Anyway, you’ll be drooling — what a body! So I don’t care about the show or the deejay, I just wanna relax and make my wife happy….”
“I’m sure it’s hard not to love a woman so accomplished. But you see, I’m a reporter, and I’ve come to do a story on today’s show, so I was wondering how many people in the crowd — who obviously love what they’re hearing — know who’s on stage right now. Did you know this club would have a special show today?”
He shook his head vigorously: “No. We just came to relax.”
The mini-bikini-clad object of his affections then arrived on the scene: she was young, a little drunk, uncommonly direct in language, and, from what I could tell, quite as advertised. Her expression was somewhat sour. She looked askance at her husband hugging me. The latter excused himself to find some more wine.
“You’re very beautiful,” I said to her. “Are you a movie star?”
“Who are you?” she said. “We’ve never met. How do you know my husband?”
“We just met.”
“Here. Now. I’m a reporter. I’m doing a story on the show.”
“Oh,” she said, and became at once visibly circumspect. “My husband, you know, he’s a really great guy, really great. But when he’s drunk like this….”
“Kinda let’s his hair down, doesn’t he? That’s okay,” I said. I noticed her eyes scanning the place, looking for him.
“When he’s in this condition he’ll f–k anything,” she said. “It’s our anniversary.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well, men are like that. Be thankful he’s normal — and don’t worry: you’re all he can talk about. He loves you madly.”
She perked up then and grew more friendly. “D’you think so?”
“Yessss. It’s obvious.” He returned shortly and we talked briefly on the relative merits of white and black pepper. But after six hours at Dream, it was time to go. I bid them adieu and made my way through the leaping, swaying crowd, through the now empty dining room, and across the street to Dream’s spacious car park.
In retrospect, I must admit, going to the beach club has merit. I should otherwise have missed the anniversary couple and much interesting conversation. Moreover, it is convivial — I had a great time. I find now even my hitherto unyielding animadversion to electronic dance is somewhat abated.