Back when I used to work and live in Bangkok, a fellow expat asked whereabouts I lived. When I replied I lived close to Khao San Road, “Urgh, I’m sorry” was his response, “personally, I just prefer more local places.” Thus followed a short exchange where I clarified that I didn’t actually live on Khao San Road as he expelled the benefits of his ‘local neighbourhood’.
It was only later (as it so often is), dwelling on this annoying conversation I came to the response that I wished I had given him (apart from the obviously telling him he’s a dick)!
Why I Love the Khao San Road Area (KSRA)
1. People Watching/Street Entertainment
Where else can you see a family sitting down to breakfast at 7.30am next to a table of beer drinkers who’ve been putting the world to rights since 3 am? Complete with monks from Wat Chana Songkhram passing by, collecting their morning alms and you’ve got a nicely surreal juxtaposition of people.
Take a seat on one of the Soi Rambuttri cafes or street stalls and watch a whole smorgasbord of different nationalities, ages and groups of people pass. Hippies with no shoes on, gals shamelessly strutting in bikini tops, Europeans with massive cameras, tall Koreans with their hair in topknots, groups of newbies still white from colder climates, the ‘Same Same’ vest wearers, and the obligatory old farang (foreigner) talking someone’s head off (who ever’s closest by, he doesn’t care).
When the crowds hit the bars, so do the exhibitionists and would-be money makers. A few weeks ago I was privy to a breakdancing session from a group of skinny Thai lads and amazed to see them repeat the energetic performance three times outside different bars down the soi (I gave up watching after that but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did it at least 10 times that night).
Stick around ’til 3ish and you’ll probably witness the amusing spectacle of a very drunk and confused young man being enticed away from the crowds by a ladyboy of the night. From sunrise to sunset and all those dubious hours in between, there’s always ‘visual stimulation’ around Khao San Road.
2. A Melting Pot of Entrepreneurs and Characters
On Khao San, yes you can find tourists from all over the world, but the vendors and characters who make the place tick are also international: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, India, Nepal.
Don’t assume they’re illegal immigrants, many have lived there for years, usually speaking at least three or four languages and are always ready to have a friendly chat (even if you don’t want to have a wedding dress made or buy their handmade leather sandals).
3. 24-Hour Convenience
Your plane’s leaving at 7am tomorrow and you still haven’t bought your mum any unusual chopsticks, your mates any ‘ethnic jewellery’, a fake student ID for back home, or a handbag full of luminous ‘Ray bans’. Don’t panic. Any time is peak shopping time around KSR.
For a post-shopping snack, grab a smoothie and a pad thai or chicken satay (or a cocktail out of the back of a minivan), or even a 45 baht fruit, muesli and yoghurt, on the way back to your room before packing your bags in time to catch the airport express.
4. Second-Hand Book Stalls:
With a plethora of second-hand bookshops to stumble upon, culture can be found in The KSRA! Browse through old backpacker favourites (Mr Nice Guy, The Beach), have a sneaky peak in guidebooks you can’t be bothered to buy, or get esoteric with a range of spiritual self-help books.
My favourite shop also has the latest English (and other European) language magazines for a snip of the original price. I don’t know how these guys get their mitts on such recent editions almost brand new, but whether I want Grazia for some lazy poolside browsing or The Economist to keep up with world affairs, they’ve got it covered. Best of all, books can usually be returned for 50% of what you paid.
5. Pop Up Bars:
Yes, Pop Up venues are the recent trend in London and New York, but Khao San’s been doing it for years! Can’t remember where that reggae bar (the one with the cheap Mojitos and where you met that Aussie who you’ve arranged to visit the temples with) is? That’s because it’s not here anymore.
With any luck, like a magical mystery store, it will pop back up tonight. Likewise, you don’t need to find a Cushman sports bar to watch the big football match. Out of nowhere a minivan with a TV sticking out of the back seems to have parked up on one of the sois (streets).
Just add a few folding tables and chairs and all you need now is a big cooler filled with ice and beers… what’s that, chilled Chang? Score!
6. Pampering at your Fingertips
It’s a sheer luxury to be able to walk into a Thai massage shop and be pummelled to a floppy sack of bones, within 10 minutes of deciding that your shoulders are a bit sore. But to have an hour session for less than 300 THB and then maybe followed up by a pedicure and facial (if you’re in the mood) seems far too indulgent to be real.
I would not, however, recommend having your hair cut in a place where they also offer to give you a wax/foot massage/manicure – it’s unlikely that the workers are that skilled in all manner of treatments. I risked having a fringe cut in one of these establishments and it took months to outgrow such a spontaneous mistake.
7. Authentically Thai
Backpackers looking to have a drink in a place where the only Thais aren’t just the bar staff, don’t have to get on a bus or ask the nearest tuk-tuk driver to ‘take us to the locals’ (in fact that’s a risky strategy as Buddha knows where you’ll end up, especially if it’s one of the drivers hanging around the Khao San Road Area).
Pra-Athit road, just behind Soi Rambuttri, is lined with bars where Bangkok locals come to chat and drink away their Friday night (and in fact any other night). You can feel smug as you sip on a Sangsom whisky, surrounded by proper Thai hipsters and nodding along to live acoustics.
8. The Wider Area
Every time I go back to KS I see the backpacker enclave has expanded just a little bit more. Rambuttri is heaving all the way down to Swenson’s End – where you can find more cheap and delicious street food stalls for dinner time. Samsen sois 1-8 are becoming less undiscovered and have their own slightly more chilled scene going on with small bars, cafes and guesthouses.
Just a 5-minute stroll from Khao San Road is Pra-Athit Park. Who’d have known that by day such serenity can exist in close proximity to KS? Sit and watch the boats cruise up the Chao Praya river. Chill out on a bench with a book, or pick up some grub from any of Pra-Athit’s food stalls or the Roti Mataba restaurant and have a picnic on the grass.
By evening there’s free street aerobics, kids practising their street dancing, performers practising their juggling and diablo skills, and couples enjoying the dusky beauty.
Just by this park, you may be lucky enough to spot one of the ‘canal beasts’. Legend has it these lizards have grown so fat and massive, just from feeding on the algae and waste. Stand on the bridge crossing from the park to Samsen Soi 1 and wait to be shocked and amazed!
9. The market and Thai supermarket:
Not local? Not local? Yes the KSRA has a Maccie D’s, Fish and Chip shop and a Burger King but there’s more authentic Thai grub than you can shake a Subway baguette at if you venture just footsteps away…
You can’t walk down the pavement on Chakrabongse Road for the stalls of noodles, meat, curries, vegetables, and a host of unidentifiable but undeniably sweet things. All ready to be scooped into a small plastic bag and sealed with an elastic band.
Look out for the small Thai store (not the supermarket) that sells some ready-made food and all kinds of healthy stuff – bee pollen, herbal shampoos, coconut oil, instant congee and nut mixes. You can even buy a colonic irrigation kit from behind the counter, and it’s cheaper than any fancy schmancy health store.
10. Repair or trade it in
Need your favourite combat shorts sewing together, your shoe resoling or your ukelele mending? Khao San Road is the perfect place for a backpacker to get stuff fixed for their onward journey. “Mend, don’t spend” has been the slogan of trendy lefties for years!
And if you’re heading back home to a place where you wouldn’t be seen dead in fisherman pants and cowboy boots carrying a pink guitar, sell them to the junk shop or trade it in for a leather waistcoat!
So, these are just some of the things I could have told that smug, silly boy when he dissed and scorned my beloved Khao San Road (area). Yes, it can be sleazy and tacky. Yes, there are some questionable characters around, and, of course, I would encourage all to break out of the Khao San bubble at some point and visit other places in Thailand. But also look beyond the blatant consumerism and hedonism and you may find yourself returning fondly to this interesting, bizarre piece of backpacker history.