Khao San Road (pronounced “Cow sarn”) is the main backpacker mecca for foreigners in Bangkok, Sukhumvit being another. The road itself is located in Banglamphu or Farang-Lam-Phu, as it’s jokingly referred to after the Thai word for foreigner.
The more cynical call it “Khao Shit Road” and it has been described as the perfect example of a backpackers’ ghetto. Khao San is sanitised, but more Bali than Ibiza. You can now eat at fast food chains and Thai restaurants sell pizza.If you want somewhere with grit and an edge, go to Cambodia. Khao San’s tourists are usually youngish, though not all, and invariably Western. They do what young tourists do, party, eat, drink and compare notes.
Here they are in Lonely Planet Ville, Bangkok, all thinking they’re doing something different, but usually aren’t. They merely emulate everyone who’s been before and doubtless will follow after, regardless of military coups and riots, and are just this week’s version of every other edition.
Khao San and its surrounding area is the arrival and dispersion point for some of the 20 million or so tourists who visit the Kingdom of Smiles every year. According to some statistics, Bangkok is the third most visited city on Earth. The area is a one-stop shop for tourists. Travel agents and hotels arrange tours and travel. Tourists leave the ghetto only for the Bangkok sights or onto somewhere else. A steady fleet of mini vans ensure they reach the airport and transport elsewhere in Thailand; from the hills of Chiang Mai to the island resorts of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
These days the tourist sprawl has expanded out to the adjoining streets. Being a tourist area, Khao San and Banglamphu, are full of the usual scams, most of them more irritating than threatening, though all are likely to leave you short in the pocket. Also beware the Thai lady-boys whose penchant for petty crime, largely pick pocketing, has earned them a degree of notoriety. Once riled they can turn nasty, a stiletto in the eye could ruin your holiday.
In many ways backpacker visitors to Thailand differ little from the mainstream tourists who travel and stay at upmarket hotels. Invariably, the only locals they meet are the ones serving the drinks, providing transport, and cleaning up after another load of tourists has spent their money and gone home.
Before the tourists came armed with their guide books, Khao San Road was a rice market. Its origins as a place to stay started with civil servants arriving in Bangkok from the provinces. When the westerners began arriving word spread.
Once upon a time accommodation here was pretty basic. Places sprang up one month and were gone the next. Few old time remnants remain but largely things have improved. Most rooms barely big enough to fit a bug-bitten bed have gone. The feeble partitions affording no sound proofing have been replaced by bricks and mortar.
Still, in the rush to make a buck, or a baht, no corner is left uncut. Some rooms come only with internal windows and a ceiling so low getting dressed is dangerous. The dirt and damp still paste some walls from the countless backpackers who’ve been before.
But these days, guesthouses – a generic term – can feature swimming pools, multi-stories and rooms with satellite television. Room rates vary from about 4-500 baht to over 1000 per night depending on the location and quality. Thai guests visiting for the night or by the hour are usually banned, so no local ladies, boys or lady boys allowed. Key deposits can be demanded and you always pay in advance.
Away from Khao San towards Phra Sumen Road or near the Demcoracy Monument cheaper accommodation can be had. Sometimes these are traditional shop houses or a converted traditional family-run Thai house, but you won’t be getting the kind of amenities now more commonly found in Banglamphu.
There’s unlikely to be air conditioning and the toilet will probably be the usual squat variety where odours compete with convenience for the paying guest. In some of these rooms the heat is overpowering as a ceiling fan merely moves hot air around. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, Bangkok is the world’s hottest city so getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult, until the temperature lowers slightly in the early morning and fatigue takes over.
Running parallel with Phra Sumen Road about 150 metres from Khao San is the Klong Bang Lamphoa, a canal that joins onto the river at high tide. Bangkok is built on a series of canals like Ayutthaya, the former royal capital which it replaced in 1782. The canal’s water is a coffee colour, completely opaque and threateningly immobile. The river, the city’s major arterial waterway is of a similar shade of brown, but seemed to have a strong current. Here is Bangkok’s fatal flaw, flooding, given the entire city is virtually below sea level.
In the maze of back streets and alley ways in the Phra Sumen Road area guest houses are scattered about, many ignored by the guide books. Here can be a quiet getaway from tourist hustle of Khao San. You can get a traditional Thai breakfast for a few baht before venturing forward into the noise and chaos of Bangkok. Some have gardens and share access with family-run businesses, schools and laundries, easier to forget you are in a megalopolis, one of Asia’s largest.
Near Khao San, running off Chakarapong Road, is Soi Rambutri which encircles the Wat Chai Chanasongkran, a site of tranquillity from the hectic Bangkok traffic and repetitive farang-Thai banter. There’s a large primary school and housing for monks who can often been seen wandering about in their distinctive robes. There’s a small pedestrian entranceway near food stalls and stand selling t-shirts, more artful than the usual tourist fare.
On the corner of a lane barely wide enough for a Toyota mini van is the Gecko Bar, a collection of tables partially covered from the elements, and known for its eclectic patrons. Everyone sits there sipping beer drunk from large bottles watching the tourist flotsam wander by in their beer brand regalia or “In the Tube” souvenir singlets, proof tourism destroys much that it covets.
Among the patrons and the evening beer girls I found Liam, an English teacher from Ireland living in Bangkok, and Richard from Rhodesia, so I surmised he probably wasn’t welcome back in Zimbabwe. Liam was talking work, taking comfort from the bottle and dreading work the next day. Richard appeared to be of independent means and I late spied him in Phnom Penh, where I suspect he goes for his visa runs.
Soi Rambutri is upmarket with many of the bars more “flash packer” than backpacker. The people who stay here are a broader demographic, though there’s a fair amalgam of generations, and you’re just as likely to see suitcases on wheels as backpacks. For me, one of the main attractions of travel has always been meeting people doing the same things as you; but today smart phones, tablets and social media has isolated (and insulated) travellers even more from their surroundings and is killing those often magical conversations.
The street has Thai massages available, stalls selling food, clothes, used packs and books, and converted VW Kombis plying cocktails. Dotted about are the ubiquitous tailor shops, usually named after distinguished European fashion houses. Vestiges of the old Khao San can still be found, the fake CDs and counterfeit IDs, including driver’s licences and press cards.
On Phra Athit Road, the last street before the river, is the wonderful Ricki’s Café, where the food is great and the coffee good. Here you can watch the road bedlam of Bangkok flash past. Customers stroll in from the UN offices across the road. The street is home to an increasing number of tasteful bars and restaurants, some of which feature a good selection of live music, mostly blues and jazz.
At the corner where Phra Athit meets Phra Sumen Road, is Santichaiprakan Park provides a welcome river breeze to distract you from the ever-present heat, and a sight of an engineering marvel. The magnificent 2.5 kilometre-long Rama VIII cable-stayed bridge over the Chao Phraya River, with its huge single column and golden suspension cables provide a backdrop to the river views. Alcohol and smoking is banned in the park, and the mornings bring out families and those practising the venerable art of Tai Chi.
Between the park and the klong is a turret of Phra Sumen Fort, a whitewashed gun emplacement with crenulated walls built in the reign of Rama I. Portions of Bangkok’s remaining fortifications are dotted around Banglamphu, lining roads often lost among the traffic maelstrom.
Khao San and Banglamphu are good bases for visiting some of Bangkok’s more cultural attractions. These include the National Theatre, National Art Gallery, Democracy Monument, the National Museum, Thammasat University and the Grand Palace complex on Ratanakosin Island.
The area is convenient however, a chill out zone including the breeze afforded by the river, which almost allows you to breathe in a city where it’s almost impossible to do so.
It appears some visitors never leave.
On the footpath along Chakarapong Road is a farang with a tiny stand for repairing shoes. I’ve been seeing him there for years. Business was slow he said and he was waiting for money to come from Tokyo, so he could pay his rent. Is asked where he was from “I’m not sure,” he replied, “it’s a long time ago and I can’t remember.”