Beaches, traditional Thai dancing, elephants and kickboxing are some things that often spring to mind when people think of Thailand. Khao San Road could very well be another. If you walk out the door of Don Muang International Airport, Bangkok carrying a backpack or even pulling a suitcase, every taxi driver will assume Khao San Road is your destination and for good reason: its main purpose is to feed and accommodate the thousands of people passing through the ‘City of Angels.’ It’s also one of the top destinations in Bangkok for the Thai celebration of ‘Songkran’ every April which involves throwing water at one another for three days.
Khao San Road is a backpacker paradise and the perfect spot to swap information with other travellers and plan the next leg of your journey while enjoying a cool beer and vast international menu selections. Khao San offers every convenience. Express laundry services, Western Union offices, travel agencies by the hundreds, pubs showing Western movies, translation services, low cost accommodation, international phone call opportunities, medical clinics, book stores with travel guides in dozens of languages, a plethora of Internet cafes, locals with near perfect English skills and loads of pool tables, dart boards, beer taps, and shopping options. With a minimum of social effort, one can quickly find him- or herself surrounded by a circle of temporary friends all sharing the same experience: the Khao San Road phenomenon.
Khao San Road is designed to collect and then distribute tourists and it does its job well. But it is an anomaly of sorts. You can be strolling along in the Banglampu area of Bangkok (near the river and relatively close to the Grand Palace), turn the corner and suddenly find yourself in a different world. Thailand has vanished and all kinds of strange things (and sometimes, people) have popped up to take its place.
Generic fashion accessories with 1960’s flair clog the streets. Thai food plays second fiddle to fish and chips, goulash, falafel, pizza, bratwurst and baguette. Shoes and clothing in large sizes are readily obtainable. Fake university degrees, press passes, driving and diving licenses are for sale. Body piercing, tattoo and hair beading stalls are a dime a dozen. Travel agencies can disappear overnight after having taken your deposit and a higher concentration of scam artists can be found working the streets in the Khao San Road area than elsewhere. Most passersby are just passing through and most Thai faces are busily trying to sell them something.
Now for the darker news: Khao San Road is as loathed as it is loved. Thais associate it with stingy, non-tipping, drug using, unwashed and impolite tourists. In fact, when British owned Boots Pharmacy first opened on Khao San Road, tuk-tuks advertising for the event sported signs that declared, “Hey Hippie, Get A Wash!” And hopefully I am not revealing any big secret when I say that most expatriates view Khao San Road down their noses and tend to think that the tourists there ‘make the rest of us look bad,’ sneer a bit armed with the secret knowledge that things can be found for much cheaper elsewhere, but are grateful for the existence of Khao San Road because it ‘keeps all of those people away from us.’
Most who choose to stay on Khao San Road are travelling between the Indian subcontinent and Australasia and use Bangkok as the convenient and cheap stopover point that it is. Some end up having too much of a good time, running out of money and finding themselves either selling most of their worldly possessions as a way to scrape up the fare home or ringing up one of the phone numbers listed on the hundreds of ‘Teach English in Thailand’ signs in an attempt to earn some much needed cash.
I have spent three or four nights hanging out on Khao San Road and found it bizarre but enjoyable. I also acquired a special kind of status while there for actually living in Thailand and had the chance to give out some ‘inside scoops’ to some very pleasant and interesting people. It was also on Khao San Road that I saw my very first Thai fire truck outside of the fire station. It was at least 55 years old and all the firemen were hard at work drinking whisky while sitting on the back of it. So yes, bits of Thailand do seep through the cracks and into the artificial bubble of Khao San Road.
If you have stopped over in Bangkok and only spent a few days on Khao San Road before flying to your next destination, in many ways you actually haven’t been in Thailand at all but rather experienced a country all of its own. It is definitely worth strolling through.