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Koh Chang: Beach, Booze, and the Blues

Staying at Stonefree in Koh Chang was an absolute dream and I don’t mean to imply there was any sleeping involved. The guesthouse/bar/restaurant/live music venue became our home, which we soon dubbed “grandpa’s” in reference to the six alcoholic aging rockstar Thai “grandpas” who ran the place.

It was rustic and communal – softly lit, shabby chic/eclectic in its decor, with two walls covered in old rock and roll tape decks. Hammocks, used books, and booze were plentiful but the place was somehow kept immaculate. The grandpas dutifully rose at 7 a.m. to pour the first of many Sangsom whiskey-and-soda cocktails, then proceeded to spend the day quietly running the place, imparting their charms and quirks on us guests and endearing us to them immediately and indefinitely.

Soaked on Songkran, the Thai new year-gone-national-waterfight

Every time I left the guesthouse, Karate Grandpa, with his unyielding posture, stern expression, and long pony tail, demanded to know, “Bai nai??” Where are you going?

Like worried parents or perhaps creepy pervs, they always wanted to know where we were going and to be sure we weren’t indulging in any free vodka buckets. Tom, the manager and most rounded and buoyant of the bunch, insisted that he knew the secrets of the free vodka buckets and warned us to stay away from them.

By the third morning or so, Mark began to spike our coconut shakes with whiskey. Just like family.

Knowing the grandpas never left the guesthouse, we endeavored to bring them a small gift from our singular journey out of Lonely Beach. We went to Bang Ban Bao for a seafood lunch and picked up a bag of pork rinds at one of the shops. I speculate the grandpas never actually consumed the snack (they prefer whiskey to food on any occasion) but they seemed to appreciate the gesture nevertheless.

A little trip out of Lonely Beach in Koh Chang
A little trip out of Lonely Beach

Every night, with the approach of dusk and through a crystal clear amplification system, the music began.

There were two stages at Stonefree: one bigger and equipped for electric guitar and full drum set jam sessions, and one smaller for acoustic dinnertime sets. Every single night was steeped in the blues. A musical revelation. It was perfect.

Mark took the stage, grinning widely, head tilted back, singing nearly-incoherent English lyrics of old rock and roll while accompanying himself on the guitar. Some nights were more heated than others – we could feel even the slightest shifts in his mood; shifts incited by a festive day of drinking and water slinging during Songkran, or, alternatively, by the frustration of being rejected by Molly, whom he persistently and boldly continued to court even though she denied his advances.

Mark was the lead guitarist. He was the creative, confident frontman rockstar with five children of different mothers spread across the globe. But he knew sadness. He knew the blues.

Rockstar grandpa in Koh Chang

You could see it in his emotive eyes and the wailing of his voice on the less drunken nights when he could still feel the pain of his memories. He was sensitive and worn, but still a child in so many ways. He grinned at me playfully with that big smile of his as he pointed to the hole he tore in his shirt just over his left breast in a gesture of proud, glamorous heartbreak. His music was beautiful.

I must have heard the 12-bar blues in every key the 12-bar blues can be played in. Emily, our Norwegian friend, began accompanying Mark on vocals nightly. Her voice was soft, sweet, a bit raspy, and she performed with the grace and humility of a seasoned professional.

Our rendition of Wagon Wheel – me on melody, she on harmony – was decent at best, but her real talents showed when she took the mic solo and improvised her way through a song. I could have listened to her sing all night, but of course there were bars (okay – ONE bar) to frequent; there were bar counters lit on fire to dance on.

Dancing on bars in Koh Chang
Can you guess which one is me

I admittedly couldn’t keep up with Molly on the partying front, but I did have a few great nights at Himmel, Lonely Beach’s most popular bar. Our hangovers rendered us completely useless the following day, which wasn’t so bad considering we could lay around and rehydrate at Grandpa’s.

The sun graced us with her (his?) presence on very few occasions so my tan has much to be desired. And the rain kept us out of the jungly interior of the island (a bit of a shame)…so really I’m not sure what I did in Koh Chang besides relax, party, and make friends. There was a colorful group of Australians, the chilled out Norwegian ladies, the bar staff at Himmel, and of course the Grandpas. The place started to feel like some sort of home to us. We were so sad to leave it…

Nothing a little Cambodia won’t fix.

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