“Khao San Road was backpacker land… The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for all those about to leave Thailand; a halfway house between the East and the West” – Alex Garland, excerpt from The Beach
This description, though simple and accurate, gives barely a hint of the culture shock that awaits first-time visitors to one of Bangkok’s most celebrated streets. Khao San is a stretch of concrete unlike any other. This you’ll learn at first glance.
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Upon arriving, it might be the massive jumble of signboards and neon lights that first catches your attention. Or maybe the omnipresent crowd of farangs (foreigners), their oversized backpacks proclaiming their status as tourists. That or the ubiquitous hostels, food stalls and curio shops offering everything from a cheap space to lay your head for the night, phad thai noodles and dreadlock wigs to soccer jerseys, fake IDs, guided tours, tattered old books and bargain-basement internet access.
It might not look it but Khao San Road is very much a part of Thailand. In fact, it’s a long-time cornerstone of the kingdom’s booming tourism industry. To some, Khao San Road is a one-stop tourist service center, the go-to place for low-cost lodgings and supplies. To others, it’s little more than a ghetto for the bottom-class tourist. If Patpong stands for sex shows and Chatuchak is all about seemingly endless rows of market stalls, Khao San is synonymous with budget travel — and that oft-romanticized, frequently misunderstood lifestyle of the “independent traveler”.
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Not too long ago, writer Alex Garland brought this nomadic, somewhat escapist counterculture into the popular psyche with his novel The Beach. In it, he describes a pseudo-brotherhood of penniless, unkempt individuals on a search for enlightenment outside the beaten track. Though much of the story unfolds elsewhere, it is on Khao San Road, in the heart of Bangkok’s Banglamphu area, that he gives many of us our first glimpse inside the backpackers’ world.
How a simple street in a Third World country became a magnet for wanderers from across the globe is a familiar story of tourism-induced commercialization. Almost every major capital in Southeast Asia has its own version of this street but none are nearly as well-defined or prominent as Khao San.
Thanon Khao San (its Thai name) began treading this path in the early 70s, when farang travelers convinced local residents to open their homes to paying guests. True to the backpacker preference for “roughing it”, Khao San at that time was a seedy place. Save for a lone hotel on one end of the street, the rooms for rent were little more than single beds sandwiched between thin, poorly ventilated plywood walls. Meals were served in dank garages while the nightlife consisted largely of kicking back for nightly video screenings in guesthouse living rooms or gawking at the passing parade of buskers, hookers and transvestites outside.
To members of the backpacker community, it was apparently desirable — even fashionable — to live in such squalid conditions, the spartan surroundings reinforcing the notion of “going native”. News of these dingy guesthouses spread by word-of-mouth, eventually earning mention in the pages of the then nascent Lonely Planet guidebook series. And so the tourists came and conquered, their dollars feeding a fast-growing cottage industry. So popular was Khao San among farangs that the rest of Bangkok considered it alien territory. At the height of its hippie-backpacker heyday, many Thais would drive slowly along the street with their windows rolled down, gawking at the strange foreigners with their beads, dreadlocks and shabby clothes.
But as backpackers themselves often lament, the presence of tourists invariably alters the landscape. The ’80s saw a dramatic decrease in the cost of international flights. Suddenly, world travel became more affordable to the general public. A growing number of visitors poured into Southeast Asia, many of them choosing Khao San Road as the starting point for their journeys. Like bees to honey, enterprising Thais (and some ex-backpackers who settled in) opened a slew of new cafés, inns and hotels. The development boom extended to neighboring streets, where similar establishments quickly sprouted.
After the movie adaptation of The Beach hit theaters worldwide in 1999, the neighborhood was pushed into the mainstream. These days, travelers making return trips to Khao San Road are typically surprised at how much their old stomping ground has changed over the years.
“Amazing… I can barely recognize this place,” says Hans, a Dutch national whose last visit to Bangkok was back in the early ’90s. “Tourists are big business now… even the guesthouse I used to stay in has been taken over by a hotel!”
Indeed, the Khao San Road of today caters to more affluent travellers. Whereas Hans used to spend his days on the sidewalk swapping stories with fellow globetrotters, his new-millennium counterparts enjoy decidedly comfier surrounds, sending status updates via their mobile phones while sipping an espresso or a beer. Back in the day there was only one internet café here; now there are dozens to go with the area’s countless bars, restaurants and travel agencies (most hotels now boast in-house spas). Needless to say, the few guesthouses that remain are a dying breed.
Despite the upscale trend, Khao San still proudly brandishes its backpacker-ghetto “credentials”. Symbols of the golden age remain in the form of beads, native pants and bracelets — trophies that once stood for the experiences of the hippie wanderer — are now sold cheaply by the roadside. For just a few dozen baht, visitors can adopt the ever-popular braided-hair look. And though the second-hand bookshops still buy and sell dog-eared guidebooks, shelf space is now devoted to more up-to-the-minute offerings like Farang: The Intrepid Traveler’s Magazine.
Such changes highlight Khao San Road’s transformation from a budget hideout to a bona-fide tourist attraction — there are now even package tours offering a “Khao San Road experience”. “It’s a crossroads for Southeast Asian travelers,” says an American tourist on a much-belated return visit to Bangkok. “It was my old haunt back in my hippie days but it’s so commercialized now it’s almost like a theme park.”
That might be the case but the travelers keep on coming — via bus, taxi or tuk-tuk, their bags fully loaded, their minds filled with plans to tour the rest of the continent. Today’s clean-cut, credit-card-toting backpackers may bear little resemblance to their unkempt, virtually penniless forebears, yet they seem to be possessed by the same spirit of adventure and self-discovery. Maybe it isn’t the cheap lodgings that lure them to Khao San. Maybe it’s the desire to experience the freedom — from responsibility, convention, authority — and romance of that long, immersive, improvise-as-you-go, care-free approach to travel that their predecessors knew so well.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Smile magazine.