Meet up with backpackers in Machu Picchu or in the depths of Calcutta or roaming the clubs in Hamburg, and you will find that everyone has something to say about this short street in Bangkok, the famous (or infamous) “backpacker’s ghetto” of Khao San Road. For backpackers exploring Southeast Asia, it is usually the first stop on their trek and often their last before heading home.
You will often hear that Khao San Road is not like it used to be before all the tourists discovered it. Well since backpackers and “budget” (cheap) travelers have taken it over, and other travelers have made the area a “destination”, no one can say this is the “real” Thailand, but it can be quite an adventure to visit. It can be a lot of fun.
Since the early 1980’s, this street has been where backpackers congregate, lured initially by very cheap accommodations. The cheap flop houses (sometimes the cheapest referred to as a “bed in a box”) are still there; along with better guest houses and hotels, and with the subsequent young laid back artsy people pouring into the area, shops catering to them have multiplied and flourished. Now there are massage parlors, open air bars, street food, coffee houses, restaurants, convenience stores, currency exchange shops, Indian tailor shops offering fake Armani suits, 7-11’s, pharmacies selling things over the counter that are difficult to buy back home, travel & tour agencies, laundry shops, Muay Thai boxing gyms, optometrists, book shops, tattoo parlors, street stands selling Masters Degrees from well known Western Universities or drivers licenses from anywhere, expensive Swiss watches made in China, gem shops, and endless racks of designer label cloths made from bogus Chinese sweatshops.
Wandering the streets is a multitude of new arrival backpackers and a smattering of prostitutes many of which are lady boys, and lots of Westerners soaking in the scene, all forming a strange chaotic mixture. In the late afternoon, the road is cut off to automobiles, but motor bikes and tuk-tuks can still drive on it. It becomes a walking street, and people are walking around holding a beer without any problem, with loud music pouring out of the clubs and sometimes people dancing in the street.
Some of that chaos has now spilled on to adjoining small streets, forming a tourist destination area around Khao San. It is probably not one of the safer areas of Bangkok, with the occasional mugging and pickpocketing (often perpetrated by foreigners, not Thais) and not the place for children, especially at night. Despite that, it is still a very interesting place to spend one evening experiencing this amazing circus. If you are actually going there to find a room for the night, I strongly advise going to one of the side streets, like Soi Rambuttri (which is actually parallel to Khao San Road), where it won’t be quite as noisy all night long.
For the visitor that just wants to take a look at this crazy area, understand that all the Thai merchants there are prepared to extract as much money from tourists as possible. Like fish in a barrel (and you are the fish). Practice the phrase, ”Mae aow khrup” (which translates to “No, I don’t have a need for your stuff, or tuk-tuk, or sex, or whatever you are offering. Women should substitute the word “Ka” for “Khrup”).
You will be propositioned, shown fake designer clothing, shown picture post cards of a tour leaving tomorrow, maybe even offered some ganja (aka pot, but never accept…there’s a good chance they are working with some cops eager to extort money from remorseful criminals), and hear sales pitches every couple of minutes. Even if you are sitting in a restaurant, the sellers will be walking around the table to show you their plastic bracelets with off-color declarations of your virility or a lot more. But this is also the place where you can find tall blond Swedish girls with fake dreadlocks, meet up with a lot of chatty travelers, and pick up the extra college degree you have been meaning to get since you dropped out of college. Anything you can imagine could be a knocked off is available from street vendors here. And it is also the best place to pick up a banana chocolate pancake or a coconut ice cream or freshly roasted bugs. For those desperate for good ole’ American food, you also will find the familiar signs of MacDonald’s (a couple of them), KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and hundreds of 7-11 stores.
Going to Khao San Road in the evening is like dropping in on some wild street party. Expect it to be noisy with loud music and too crowded, and just relax and enjoy the show.
The person that might consider actually booking a hotel room around here would be a young person that perhaps has not traveled very much and would feel comfortable being around lots of other Western young people that are in the same boat. Maybe they are a little hesitant about jumping into a real Thai environment where there may be few familiar things. For anyone else, I would say don’t stay around Khao San Road, but it is fun to go out one evening for a few hours to check this place out.
Understand clearly that if you buy anything on Khao San, you are likely paying more for it than if you bought it elsewhere. It may look like a bargain, but believe me when I say it is not. But there are few things here that you cannot find in many other places. How about getting that fake press pass that would come in handy back home? Naturally, there are those kids picking up a fake drivers license so they can get drunk back home. And this is the place to get a tank top or T-shirt that has something a little wild and off color written on it that you can use for effect with the in-laws back home.
I guess if the nations of the world settled on an Anarchy form of non-governance, it would all look like Khao San Road.
And the most important warning: don’t take a tuk-tuk out of here unless you are prepared to pay extra. This is where the most vicious scamming tuk-tuk drivers wait for their prey. You will be hustled and badgered by them, with promises to take you to some amazing places. When you are ready to leave the area and return to Thailand, just walk a couple of blocks out of this vicinity and find a regular metered taxi.