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Khao San Road - Bangkok

THAILAND | Saturday, 10 October 2009 | Views [7464] | Comments [5]

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Many travelers have mixed feelings about Khao San Road, the travelers ‘district’ in Bangkok. Its not the real Bangkok, its tawdry and commercial and is pitched only at the Westerns who are just passing through. It’s fairly unique though, I can only think of Themal in Katmandu and maybe parts of Cusco that have such an enclave that is pitched only at travelers.

For myself I’ve always rather liked it, when I was traveling around Asia in the mid nineties I used it as a base, visiting Laos, Burma, the Philippines and other parts of Thailand from there. It was familiar, the Thais in my regular hotel and eating spots knew me, and after spending time in places like Manila, it felt very safe. Khao San Road isn’t a destination, it’s a base camp, somewhere you can get things done; stock up on books, catch up on the news and then head off. This is where trips and adventures being. A few years I was in a travel agency in Copenhagen where they had a live web cam to Khao San, it was evening, people were walking about. I couldn’t imagine a stronger inducement to hand over the cash and run to the airport, I wanted to be there right then.

I was last here in 1998 and arriving here again was quite a shock, I was totally unprepared for the amount of change that had occurred in the intervening years. I could barely walk down the road the evening I arrived, the place was heaving with people, the street is a good as predestinated now, and closed off to most traffic. Chelsea and Liverpool were playing, and every bar was showing the match, which was also displayed on giant screens so every passerby could watch. In the past I’d always stayed at the back of Wat Chana Songkhram, a quiet area with a few guest houses and eating places. The road to it, Soi Ram Bhuttri, was even quieter, which made my shock even greater. The Soi and the whole area has become an extension of Khao San Road, huge bars, blaring music, hawkers’ stands, new restaurants and hotels, buildings completely demolished and rebuilt. There is even a British café that specializes in Fish and Chips and pies. I was stunned.

What’s interesting is that the people have changed too. The Road is filled with young Thais in the evening, looking for bargains, a night out, cheap drinks and some fun. There are more Asians too, Chinese and Koreans and even a few Africans milling about. You can even spot the occasional grey haired hippy no doubt thinking the whole place has gone to the dogs.

One group that has really arrived are the Indians, who run the tailors shops on every street corner and like to hustle, ‘You look in my shop’ or ‘A suit for you today’. The will do a complete outfit, suit, shirt and tie for $100, which reminds of one classic line from a Hong Kong guidebook, that a suit made overnight is going to look like a suit made overnight. What is completely new is that they also run restaurants, which seem to be popular with the Thais but are a little overpriced for the backpacker market.

Most people go to Khao San for the cheap hotels, a chance to eat some Western food, in addition to the banana pancake places,Starbucks, Macdonalds and Burger King have all arrived, and to buy cheap goods. The counterfeit knock off culture is alive and well with phony branded clothes, DVDS, CDs and general tat. There are more hawkers, ladies dressed in Andean costumes prowl the streets with jewelry and carved frogs, which make a kind of croaking sound with the back is rubbed, which of course they do endlessly and men walk around flashing laser pens. It seems that many people don’t leave without having a least one tattoo.

At night it’s all very loud, a real assault on the senses. Music blares from bars, people thrust placards in your face, cheap drinks, strong cocktails. People walk about with beer bottles in their hands. Men in Fez’s try to persuade you to visit their Moroccan restaurant. One common placard is one for a fish massage, called icthyotherapy. This is where you put your feet in a trough full of small fish who then nibble your feet and eat all the dead skin, apparently it tickles. In the bars the girls all wear branded cocktail dresses, and each tries to outdo the others in selling more of the beer brand that’s on their dress. I’ve never stayed up long enough to see when it all stops, but many places boast of being open 24 hours a day. Because it is so hectic few bars and cafes show movies anymore, which used to be a mainstay attraction.

One oasis of peace still remains and that’s the Wat Chana Songkhram, a beautiful Wat and seminary, which is now completely surrounded by commercialism. A few noodle stalls and T shirt sellers have got a foothold at one end but otherwise it’s very quiet. In the past the Wat was a refuge for unwanted animals, including at one time an emaciated pony that could barely stand up and a pack of mangy dogs, some of whom were down to their bare skin and still scratching away. It would have been a mercy to put them all down and maybe someone did because apart for a couple of dogs, they’ve all gone. 

So love it or hate it, its worth seeing once, if only to buy some cheap clothes, buy a bus ticket or just to watch the people go by. It’s no longer purely for travelers, if anything the Thais and other foreigners are taking over, but as a traveler’s district – it’s still pretty unique.



Tags: cities, on the road




hi, thanks for this post. brings back memories of my visit there too. i was there about the same year as you were there last time, and reading your post, the area seems to have changed beyond recognition. when i was there i was able to get a dorm room near the khao san road for 20bahts a night. airconditioned too and free 1hr internet. and khao san road was quiet, so can sleep easy at night. how much are the dorm beds now? there ws a woman with a juicer on the shop walk near the backpacker hostel and i always buy my morning mango juice there. and there are so many travel agents so easy to get a bus overland to siem reap, in cambodia, which i did to visit angkor wat.

  anthony wong Oct 11, 2009 12:28 AM


icthyotherapy - I had no idea the fish nibbling had a proper technical name.

I was in Bangkok November 08 and I don't have the reference of being there 10 years prior, but I don't know how you didn't expect it to not change. Seems like it was inevitable to me.

I like Bangkok for the fun it can provide, but for general quiet and calm, not the place you want to go.

  brian from nodebtworldtravel.com Oct 12, 2009 2:23 AM


Hey will,

We liked your story and decided to feature it this week so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Oct 12, 2009 10:30 AM


Hey I was there in 2008 and loved it...and I am 62. It was not so noisy on the street I was in across the road from Khao San. I can recommend the place I stayed for minimal dollars per night...very clean and with a pool. Rambuttri Village Inn was really good at around 580 baht per night.

  coral Feb 19, 2010 10:50 PM


I lost my virginty in bangkok thanks to Khao san roads cheap drinks, loud music and a lonely dutch traveler who found me funny and charming, I had the best time of my life on that little strip or road, no where else in the world can you find so many like minded people looking to cure their vices, hang with other travelers and share stories of hellish train rides, over night buses or gem store scams. Khao san is the one place you can sit down for a drink with a stranger and have a best friend by the end of the night, some people leave their hart in San Francisco as the song says, but I left mine with the lonely dutch traveler on Khao san road.

  Olly Apr 21, 2010 1:28 PM

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