Before its current life as a backpacker’s paradise, Khao San Road (also spelled Khao Sarn) was a major rice market in Bangkok. In 1982, after the Thai government decided something needed to be done to get more visitors to the country, it increased the number of cultural festivals in the area. But the current number of hotels couldn’t handle the influx of new tourists. Because Khao San Road is just one kilometre from Grand Palace, the location of many of these festivals, some backpackers started to pay locals living on and around Khao San to rent a room. These impromptu “hotels” suddenly found themselves making a lot of money and decided to take it on as a full-time thing. And with time, “backpacker’s ghetto” was created.
With the publishing of Alex Garland’s paradise-lost classic The Beach in the mid-nineties, more and more backpackers swarmed the country and the street—despite the book asserting an obvious negativity about backpackers who group together and don’t even attempt to indulge in Thai culture. In the book (which I read during my week on Khao San), Garland describes the street as “backpacker land [that operates] as a compression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.”
I arrived in Bangkok late in the evening and arrived on Khao San at midnight. I was unknowingly dropped off at the end of the street opposite from my hotel and, needless to say, I was overwhelmed walking through the swarm of tourists. I luckily only had a small backpack with me; I’m not sure there was room for a rucksack in the crowd. Feeling my heart begin to race and my mild claustrophobia begin to set in, I attempted to pick up my pace, and in doing so, I managed to elbow several other travellers who were already well into their Saturday night parties. Fortunately, the street is as short as it is crowded. I arrived at my secluded hotel in one of the alleys off Khao San and was able to breathe again. Garland certainly had it right; Khao San is a wonderland of tourists from all over the world. People with varying degrees of backpacker-ness, from hard-core hippies to families with small children, come here.
Everyone I met over the course of the week, not to mention my friends here in Korea, thought I was crazy for spending my entire vacation on a one-kilometre-long street—especially this one-kilometre-long street. Khao San apparently is supposed to be just what Garland described: an entry/exit “halfway house”. No one actually comes here for their Thai vacation, except me. It was already a cliché backpacker hotspot in the nineties, and it's reputation has only gotten worse since then. But with only a week, I thought racing to the beaches down south would be more stressful than relaxing, and I wanted to enjoy the company of two great friends who were also staying here—on their way out of and into Thailand, of course.
What I found is that Khao San Road has multiple personalities, different moods at different times of the day. And since I arrived at night, I’ll start with its night-time portrait
Khao San Road At Night
After dinner, hundreds of visitors spill onto the streets and as drinking-time starts, thirsty tourists start looking for their first drinking spot. Will it be in a restaurant-bar that overlooks the street, on a plastic stool on the road at an improvised bar, or on the dance floor of a club? Restaurant bars offer a relaxed and comfortable place for a few easy drinks and a good place to actually hear the conversation you're having with your friends. Plastic-stools-only sidewalk bars, with their cheap "bucket" drinks, are enjoyable, easy spots for meeting new party friends. They also have a fun game for patrons to play, one where the drunkies have to help stack stools every time the police drive by, everyone acting as if there isn’t alcohol being served on the street. Because, of course, the police aren't aware of the popular "sidewalk + stool + bucket" combo. No, not at all. Along the street, a mix of bars and clubs, ranging from taverns to dance clubs, tempt the increasingly drunk crowd.
Besides drinking, the darkness also brings out a desire to shop. Need a fake degree or press pass? Khao San’s got it. Shirts, skirts, dresses, T-shirts, bathing suits, CDs, DVDs, jewellery, shoes, bags, books—it’s all here. Thai ladies circle around party-goers with beading hats, offering tourists a chance to try them on. There’s a constant chorus of “ribbit” sounds in the air, not from a nearby pond, but from these Thai women demonstrating the fun of the little ribbed frog toys they’re also selling. Little girls loaded with charm sell flowers, or challenge boys to rock-paper-scissors games with cash as their prize. Ladyboys strut their stuff, looking for a new friend or two. Collections of colourful balloons for sale by a local man totter above the thick crowd of visitors, as if the multitude of neon signs lining the street weren’t colourful enough. A mix of hip hop, dance, and pop music from the bars and restaurants compete for listeners. A blend of smells floating from street-food stalls overwhelm the nostrils.
Very late at night—or rather, early in the morning, Khao San turns quiet, still. It’s eerie. The bars have (finally) closed and most partiers have headed back to a hotel room. The music has stopped, except for one quiet song somewhere in the distance. The street is mostly deserted, minus a group of stragglers who don’t realize it’s way past their bedtime. As claustrophobic as the crowds were the night before, the emptiness just doesn’t feel right.
khao san road at daylight
The energy arrives back on Khao San Road with the arrival of the sun. The Skittle-coloured taxis also arrive and line the street, ready to annoy everyone who’s lucky enough to pass by. “Taxi? Where are you going? You need taxi? Taxi?” As daylight comes, so do the people who are ready for a day of sightseeing and shopping. So-called backpackers flock to the many tour offices along the road, looking for a cheap deal and and comfortable air-con ride to various tourists spots around Bangkok and the rest of the country. Sidewalk shopkeepers set up their racks and tables for another day of business, making the street feel like a sidewalk sale at a suburban mall. During the day, a mix of pop, country, oldie, hip hop, and rock music floats around the street.
As I sit in a restaurant eating dinner, I watch the other tourists strolling along the street, trying to absorb the flavours of Khao San before they inevitably move on to other locations around Thailand. I look up again, and suddenly the streets are packed. The sky is darker, the music suddenly seems louder, the neon signs glow brighter. The night-time carnival is ready to begin again...
Minus a few semi-interesting day-trips out of the city (in one of those comfy air-con vans I mentioned) to see drowsy tigers, ride elephants for twenty minutes, and look at some train bridge over the River Kwai, I spent an entire week on and around Khao San Road. Its reputation for dirty backpackers and dirty parties hasn’t stopped backpackers and other travellers from coming to the area; in fact, that’s become its attraction. There’s some unwritten rule that says everyone must arrive with a cynical opinion, enjoy the parties, and then leave with the same pessimism. But at some point during my stay, my opinion changed. I have great memories of all the fun adventures and new friends I met in this chaotic one-kilometre-long world. I’ve never been in a place that was so open to everyone and anything; it was refreshing, candid, exciting.
As I walked down the street one final time on my last day, I saw the looks of amazement and disorientation on the newbies faces. I wondered what they think of this world-on-one-street, tourist maze, party paradise. I wondered if they would ever admit they enjoyed their time on Khao San Road.