Jam Bar Reopens - An Interview with Phangan's Live Music Provocateur Robert Van Dam

7 Jul 2022

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Koh Phangan’s Jam Bar has reopened, bringing with it a return of regular evening jams featuring accomplished and aspiring local musicians. Billed as “The Original Open Stage / Open Mic Venue of Koh Phangan since 2007,” the bar offers equipment and instruments available for play every Sunday and Thursday from 20:00 - 01:00.


Jam Bar founder Robert Van Dam is interviewed in Brian Gruber’s new book, “Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island.” As part of an exclusive Phanganist series of interview excerpts, this week we feature a conversation with Robert about his musical past, his path to Phangan, and his earlier life as proprietor of the legendary Mellow Mountain Bar in Haad Rin. 

The ebook is available for 150 baht ($4.95) at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. An expanded version with chapters on each island village and favorite local spots will be released later this year.

From Full Moon over Koh Phangan:


There are very few lifestyle gaps on Koh Phangan. There’s not much of an organized intellectual life if your thing is public talks, conferences, or bookstore events. And only a nascent live music scene. But the island has long been a breeding ground for new ventures, from new arrivals who go on to create healing centers, resorts, restaurants, spas, event venues, parties, and, in the case of Robert Van Dam, live music experiences.


If you’re jonesing to find the watering holes of the island’s best musicians, you’ll likely find Van Dam at the end of that trail. And like most entrepreneurs, he keeps re-emerging with something newer, better, or funkier. There are many destinations for serendipitous moments of musical bliss. A weekend night at L’Alcove, Open Mic at the Sanctuary, Friday nights at Rasta Home, intimate concerts at Hemmingway’s. But the musical heart of the island is Jam Bar, and that’s due to two decades of Robert’s work and play.

Robert Van Dam  

In 1997, I started the Mellow Mountain Bar with my wife at the time and ran it for about eight years. Turned out to become quite famous worldwide for the best views, drinks, and music.


Brian Gruber  

When you first arrived on Koh Phangan, what was your impression? 


Robert Van Dam  

That I found paradise with the coolest people from all over the globe. Kind of blown away right from arrival. The freedom, the like-minded travelers, the gorgeous nature.  That's what I think is the magic. I'm Dutch. I don't go many crystals deep. 


I first came in '91 for a month of holiday, and in '94 I was planning to stay two weeks. But during check-in at reception at Serenity Bungalows, I met my "at-the-time-future” wife. She’s from Phangan and her parents were running the resort. I didn’t have plans to stay in Thailand, but love took over, and after a couple years we built the Mellow Mountain, plus some extra bungalows on the rocks. Then our first baby daughter and, three years later, another gorgeous daughter. My hobby in Holland was singing and performing in a band and I tried setting one up in Haad Rin, but that never took off as people were coming and going. 


Brian Gruber  

Did you perform in Europe?


Robert Van Dam  

I had a cool rock band with four friends in Holland. It was awesome and we rocked for about three years, mostly in our local pub and some other venues in the city of Haarlem. And then in ’94, I decided to go for a holiday that kinda never ended. 


In 1999, we started one more place in Haad Rin, a club called Jaya’s; the idea was to do DJ and live music. We had some nice guest bands. The whole place was a bit ahead of its time - too modern – and after two years we revamped it into a rather cool guesthouse with restaurant and bar. 


Then we moved to Hin Kong, and I thought maybe I should make some music in the garden with friends. One day I jammed a little bit with two good friends. More people came to listen and join in, and we did it again the next day. More people came to play and so somebody got another microphone. Everything got sandy, so we made a little wooden floor over the beach. Then the idea kind of grew into a real bar because people who came wanted a beer. When it started raining, I made a little roof above the bar. 


After a while, there were quite a lot of people coming. 


Many other people tried live music and didn't succeed. It only works if you really love music. And I'm quite good with musicians. Most musicians have egos. To put eight or 10 musicians together on one stage, ending up as good friends, having drinks afterwards, that is kind of the secret.


It took a bit more than a year to get all the papers, running it as a real business. In the meantime, it became a kinda institution for live music on Koh Phangan. It’s a good atmosphere. It's kind of needed. Started in 2007 and is still going strong today (damn COVID!).


Brian Gruber  

When you talk to your guests, to expats or tourists who have been here a while, what draws them? 


Robert Van Dam  

A certain freedom distant from western rules, nature. There's a certain kind of people that stay here. People who don't take life that seriously. You could do whatever you want as long as you don't upset people. And that energy infects people who want to stay. Not everybody can do it. 


Brian Gruber  

What was Haad Rin, the Full Moon Party, like in the years when you first lived here?


Robert Van Dam  

When I came first time to the Full Moon, I would sit along the beach. I was a bit shy, sitting in front of Cactus Bar, the new tourist, right? Then a group of people at the other table would say, “Oh, come sit here with us.” Everybody was really nice, really interacting with each other. It was a pretty mad party, but people would take care of each other if they saw someone in need. Not too much emphasis on alcohol I should add. I believe that since the introduction of Red Bull, the whole vibe changed into binge drinking and wasted-looking people in the mornings. I prefer the "old" days to be honest. Most probably coz I'm old now (laughs).


“Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island” is available for $4.95 at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. Watch the Phanganist for new interview excerpts in the coming weeks.