Khao San Road

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in The National Post in Canada.

By Roy Hamric

The most famous road on the Asian backpacker’s tour is only a few blocks long, and it’s in the center of Bangkok. It’s called, Khao San Road,  and it’s been a required backpackers stop for nearly thirty years. The road’s image was jolted into destination status by the movie “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Denny Boyle of “Trainspotting” fame. Based on a 1996 first novel by Alex Garland, it’s a quirky, improbable story of a 20-something, idealistic American named Richard, who checks into a guesthouse on Khao San Road, where he meets an older, mentally rattled character called “Daffy Duck,” who babbles on mysteriously about a secret island. The next morning, there’s a map to the island pinned on Richard’s door. He goes to the stranger’s room only to find him dead––his wrist slit. Too make a long, and not too interesting story, short, Richard is lured to the mysterious island—where he’s caught up in an idyllic milieu of an exotic international crowd of dreamers, misfits, run-aways and crazies. Over zealous critics compared the book to the works  of Golding and Joseph Conrad, with touches (to set the record straight) of Looney Tunes, “Apocalypse Now” and Nintendo  psychology thrown in for the ride.

a Penguin paperback cover

As the book begins, Richard steps out of a taxi on Khao San Road. Garland wrote: “When you hit Bangkok, the Khao San Road is the first place you come. It’s a decompression chamber between East and West.”

When I stepped out of a taxi on Khao San Road on a sweltering mid-afternoon,  there was a sense of arrival––books and movies do that to you––and a sense of departure as well, to be fully accurate, for everyone, the foreigners at least, was in arriving or departing mode, just passing through. If this place were on the old Silk Road, it would be at an oasis, a spot where everyone on the road that day stopped at night to exchange the word of the day.  It felt like that type of place, a place that existed for its convenience, to share warnings, to offer advice, to meet friendly traveling companions.

For me, Khao San Road stands  for a single,  throw-away line in Garland’s  novel, when Richard, trying to explain what he’s looking for,  says only two words, “something different.” For more and more people something different is exactly what they’re looking for, but they don’t know where or what it is. Only a few months earlier, I had pulled up my roots to build a new life in Thailand. I had read about Khao  San Road. I was curious, but I expected it to be just more media hype.

The first day, it was sensory overload. A few feet away from the taxi, the sounds of Hank Williams’ “Hey, good lookin’, what’ cha got cookin” blared from a boom box. Across the street a boom box was blasting Bob Marley’s  “I Shot the Sheriff.” Music as the home you left behind… The shops along the road wedged old and new Bangkok side by side: trinket shops housed in one-story, weathered teak buildings with coruscated aluminum roofs jammed next to modern, air-conditioned Internet cafes, ATM machines, silver and gold exchanges, 7-Eleven stores, travel agencies, walk-up or walk-down back alley guest houses, tailor shops, pirated cassettes and CDs spread out on tables, street-bistro cafes, and a swirl of dozens of languages gave it all a world bazaar atmosphere, not to mention the smells wafting from restaurants with dishes from Thailand, America, China, Israel, Italy, India and Nepal.

Fresh-faced, Midwestern American farm girls were having their hair done in African braids by Thai women to the beat of pop songs coming from 5-foot TV screens. Fresh tattoos were being etched into the arms, ankles and shoulders of first-time teenage travelers. The in-tattoo for young women  was a black, “linked chain” design around an ankle, and for young men, a large Thai warrior “spirit” figure, with bulging eyes, a grimacing expression and a ready sword in hand.

At nightfall, the frenetic pace eases, and the police close off the street.  Shop owners move tables outside to catch a whiff of cool breeze. In the twilight, neon lights wrap a soft glow around the faces of people who you watched arrive during the day, and they’re now studying the new people struggling to pull their backpacks out of taxis, in search of a cheap room and some nightlife.  The Thais have a word for what’s going on here, “saduak,” convenient, easy––make it easy, take it easy. Come to Bangkok, come to Khao San Road, it’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s where you can learn the latest news.

My room for the night was 10X10-feet, just about large enough for a good size bed, but clean and quiet, and early the next morning I was back on the road––who were all these people streaming in and out, and what’s going on in their heads? I dropped into Buddies Beer Garden, which is really a restaurant & swimming pool, a blend of Southern California and Dali Lama decor, one of the hotter hangouts complete with lithe, young Thai women splashing in the swimming pool in back. I spotted a group of people sitting at a nearby table, backpacks leaning against their chairs.  Were they Americans?  You couldn’t be sure.  Everybody  dresses alike here––cheap Thai, Indonesian or Nepal baggy pants and T-shirts with catchy phrases (I’m a Yao), and lots of silver, stones and beads around ankles, wrists, and necks, plus various ornaments in ears, noses, lips and navels. With practice, you can gauge how long a traveler has been on the road in Asia by their tan: a two-week soft tan, a two-month soft brown, a six-month dark brown and a six-month-plus weathered leather look.

“Did you say you’ve been to Cambodia?” I asked a very attractive girl who had a dark brown tan. “We just came from Cambodia,” she said in an American accent. Her name was Hillary Glenn, and this was her fourth time passing through Khao San Road.  She was surprised she’d seen so few Americans here. “We normally try to meet up with  British or Dutch travelers,” she said. This reminded me of a Dutch man on holiday I had met earlier in Vientiane.  “The Dutch are the Chinese of Europe,” he said. “You will find us everywhere.”

Hillary was traveling with two Americans that she’d just met in Cambodia and they planned to leave the next day for Koi (island) Phi Phi near Krabi, where a lot of the filming was done for “The Beach.” It was a little known island on the western side of Thailand’s lower peninsula, but it has turned into an eco- controversy ever since the movie production crew uprooted trees and replanted various areas with more film-worthy foliage. The publicity was a magnet that has drawn backpackers to the semi-isolated islands that dot Thailand’s gulf. After that, Hillary said the place to be was Koi Pha Ngan, an island famous for its monthly “Full Moon Party” (disco in the sand). Some people believe Garland’s novel was modeled on the Koi Pha-Ngan scene, with its Dionysian nights of  dancing ravers, moonlight swimming and howling at the moon. At another table were three Swedish college girls on a two-week holiday. Carola Bragen, 29, a social work major,  said her  group came to the road not knowing what to expect. Garland’s novel had recently made the Swedish best-seller list. “You see it in a lot of peoples’ backpacks now,” she said. “We just knew this was a backpackers’ place.”

The road’s cultural mish-mash has a legitimate buzz on arrival, but to some long-timers here, the road’s best days are already long gone, and the novel and movie was the coup de grace.

“Khao San Road has changed,” said a man named Steve, who said he now lives near the road. He comes for coffee and to check out the scene, but he spent the past six years moving between Cambodia and Thailand.  A wizened, bone thin  expat, he dressed in the cool-is-uncool style. He wore checkered Bermuda shorts, high top black tennis shoes, and a T-shirt that said, “I’m Pol Pot.” He lived in a nearby $60-a-month room where he made miniature  metal sculptures that sold in some of the local shops. Sipping a cup of adrenalin-charged Thai coffee, he scanned the street. “Before, this place was a lot quieter with  mainly a few backers, trekkers passing through, and junkies,” he said. “The place had a seedy, low-end appeal. Very, very cheap.  People came, stayed a few days and left.  It’s a completely different crowd now.  Lots of partying, people on the make. You see a lot of beautiful foreign women. It’s right at the point of turning yuppie. The more neon, the more yuppies.  You don’t see that many Americans.  It’s mainly Germans, British, Japanese, the Scandinavian countries.

“The newest bar up the street is straight out of America. In some ways, Khao San Road is one of the worst places in Thailand now. There are so many stupid, rude foreigners concentrated here. In the places I go to regularly, I see how the Thai staff really feels about most foreigners who come here. The good side is that the guest houses are still cheap. Rooms for $5 or $10. The money is good for the Thais, of course, and the money is spreading. The next ‘in’ place is Phra Athit Road, where Khao San Road curves and changes its name.”

Anyone doubting that Khao San Road has changed need look no further than the 50-some e-mail shops that have mushroomed in the past few years. Internet N/B, one of the larger shops, was filled with people doing the Internet, or eating or heading upstairs for a quick three-dollar massage (Thai or Swedish).

The owner, Napporn Bhuttan, said business was always good and was clearing several thousand dollars a month, and the road is the most computer-concentrated area of Bangkok. “The market has been slowing for the past year, but now it’s getting better again,” he said.  Down the street at Gulliver’s Traveler’s Tavern, a Thai lady, Thanyatorn Srisit, who had the very casual glowing look of someone who knows she’s beautiful, was holding court with two young, tattoo-covered Americans. In a well-tailored dark blue blouse and a black ankle-length skirt with a slit discreetly rising up to mid-thigh, she fingered the cellular phone resting beside her glass of white wine. The owner of a antique fashion store on Rambutri Road, she said the road is what it is. It’s more for tourists than Thais, “but Thais are starting to come here now, to party with the foreigners and to practice their English.”

“Europeans come here to buy cheap clothes,” she said. “They ship them back and sell them to shops and make a good profit.” She said Khao San Road doesn’t have the wild night life one finds on the infamous Pat Pong Road. “Khao San isn’t for the ‘working woman,’” she said, using the polite term for ladies of the night. “There’s not too many working women here––a little bit.”  She’s was right. I’d seen none of the hard-core hookers of Bangkok’s sex industry, but you did notice another type of attractive Thai woman on the road when party-time started around 10 p.m.: they were more casually dressed, and, maybe, just liberated Thai women who had day jobs, but who also liked to have fun with fralongs (foreigners).

The road’s reputation as a heavy drug scene was myth, Srisit said.  “Drugs are not openly used or available,” she said. “But you see some people who have done drugs.” Earlier, on a restaurant bulletin board, I had seen a notice appealing for donations for foreigners in Bangkok prisons––mostly for drug offenses. There even a mini-tour offer  for backpackers to visit prisoners with gifts of food or books, in exchange for a chance to hear hair-raising tales of misadventure.

One of the young Americans sharing Srisit’s table, his forearm covered with Thai spirit tattoos, was sorry his vacation was ending when he’d just discovered the road. “We can’t stay longer,” he said.  “Yes, but you’ll be back,” said Thanyatorn.

As my time on the road was winding down, I guessed that most of the passers-through here, asked where they went in Asia, would mention Khao San Road.  It had claimed their imaginations and was now a social calling card: “I spent three days on Khao San, were you there?”

Kipling’s  overused line about “East is East and West is West” catches the “something different” search that’s going on with people around the world. But when he said “and never the twain shall meet,” he was wide of the mark, and he certainly knew better. It was a poem written for the popular magazines, for the armchair travelers back home. The East and West have been meeting, and blending, since history began. The fusion between East and West really has no beginning or end, but has been ever present and on- going. What’s happening on Khao San Road is a mini-version of the world to come, everyone bumping against everyone else, exactly like some bustling oasis city on the Silk Road 3,000 years ago, when a Greek, Chinese or Iranian traveler stopped over at a village bar and said, “East is East and West is West, here’s to us all…” or some such sentiment.

Garland’s young seeker had the right instinct. There is something different to be experienced by being at-large in the world, something not to be missed, and it’s  taking place in cities everywhere. I could only bathe in the mysterious mix of signs and cultures that swirled around Khao San Road. It was a good place to visit.

When I left Khao San Road it quickly became a few memories of a few blocks on a longer road signifying something much larger. Probably Garland’s young man was really just trying to say he was searching for a place where he could see himself clearly without all the cultural baggage that we carry along in our lives. Everyone’s coming together on Khao San Road is just one more step in searching for that place.

2 Comments on “Khao San Road”

  1. Terence says:

    Khao San is a bit of backpacker Disneyland. But it serves a need and gives the lads and ladies a chance to meet, sniff the air a bit and see if there’s any jango. However, a mere 10-minute walk away is the beautiful Banglamphu.

  2. simon says:

    Thanks Roy for your experience and thoughts. I don’t have your patience and open-mindedness and dismiss Khao San Road too quickly.

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