Khao San road; freak show or festive place?

Khao San Road; backpacker central

Khao San Road; backpacker central

By Mark Bentley

Once a quiet residential zone just outside of the Grand Palace area, Khao San road in Bangkok’s Banglampu district, is now an exceedingly well established tourist mecca that attracts backpacking travellers from across the globe.

Those who have not visited invariably know where it is and at least one person who has been there. The global infamy of Khao San road Bangkok perpetuates its appeal as a place to find budget accommodation, cheap local souvenirs, counterfeit merchandise, dreadlocks and like–minded travellers.

It wasn’t until 1982, when Bangkok’s bicentennial anniversary celebrations brought large numbers of international visitors to the area, that Bangkok’s Khao San’s potential as a haven for cheap accommodation was realised. Visitors unable to get rooms in the over’saturated hotel infrastructure were forced to seek refuge at a small price in the homes of local residents. Realising the fiscal benefits of such arrangements, locals set about offering room space on a permanent basis and hence the age of cheap guesthouse accommodation was born. When Lonely Planet decided to include the area as a ‘budget accomodation’ street in its Thailand guide, it’s popularity took off.

The rest is pretty much history, with entrepreneur after entrepreneur moving into the area, and its reputation as a backpacker-friendly zone escalating rapidly. Today it bares little resemblance to the real Bangkok or Thailand for that matter, with all its western conveniences and foreign-owned businesses. These amenities however are its greatest appeals for many visitors.

Khao San road Bangkok has become a monster as far as others are concerned, and an ugly looking one at that. The distinct lack of Thai culture, flagrant capitalist attitudes of local business owners (tourists are often viewed as ‘walking dollars’) and tendency to attract what might be deemed by many as unsavoury characters has certainly given the road and some of its surrounding area an environment akin to a cheap carnival.

Get ready for some eye-popping scenes!

Get ready for some eye-popping scenes!

It is easy to be critical of Bangkok’s Khao San road and overlook the fact that it serves a variety of important purposes. Primarily, it benefits those seeking accommodation and travel on a shoestring and in doing so it successfully unites them in their common goal. Secondly, it offers a gentle introduction to the diversity of Thai culture, permitting visitors to sample local food and drink alongside familiar culinary creations in either typically Thai or western–furnished establishments.

An individual’s tolerance for Khao San road Bangkok comes very much from his or her own subcultural leanings. Those favouring vests, beads, Birkenstock sandals and dreadlocked hair are likely to feel right at home, while those of the shirt and tie brigade may well find it all a little bit too bohemian for their liking. However, the area’s reputation is sufficient in that most visitors have a fair idea of what to expect long before they arrive here.

In fact, it has a become an attraction in itself, excellent for people watching. Lately upmarket and trendy bars and restaurants have opened and it tends to attract a certain crowd of local Bangkokians wanting to feel cosmopolitan. Certainly it is one of the city’s most lively areas by night and the main road is closed to traffic, making it a crowded pedestrian thoroughfare.

Love it or hate it, the atmosphere of the place is electric. Shops, restaurants, bars and guesthouses, and the street on which they sit, buzz with activity day and night. Things get livelier still when popular Thai holidays such as April’s Songkran festival are taking place. This is the time when guesthouse rooms are scarce, things get a tad crowded and when a little of the famous Thai patience can be useful to ensure peaceful associations with fellow travellers.

Night–times here are busiest, as the daytime heat is often just a touch too intense to make the street a comfortable place to be unless you venture into an air–conditioned environment. After sunset, the bars and restaurants fill up. An initial evaluation of the scene might have you thinking itrsquo;s all faux hippies tapping their flip–flopped feet to Bob Marley however it’s plenty more varied than that, with venues playing dance music, rock classics and contemporary pop.

Bohemian clothes and accessories might seem to form the bulk of consumer goods for sale on the street however you will also find pretty much everything you need for hitting the backpacker trail. Travel accessories, handy size electronic products, swimwear, cheap t–shirts, shorts and footwear can all be found. As long as you don’t expect the majority of them to last much longer than the duration of your trip, you’ll be able to kit yourself out for less than half of what a similar array might cost back home.

At the end of the day, if you are 18 to 35 years old and are looking for a cheap place to lay your head at night, somewhere to meet other travellers, travel agents at which you can organise your ongoing Southeast Asian travel plans, purchase ethnic souvenirs and cheap holiday clothes, then Bangkok’s Khao San road can indeed offer you all this and a whole lot more.

Forget the absence of Thai culture (that’s waiting for you at your next destination) and enjoy the amiable, lively and inviting atmosphere that the street offers. If you’ve an adversity to backpackers and all the clichés that accompany them, then you’re definitely in the wrong part of town and should probably take the first available bus to Sukhumvit road.

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