Weekly Travel Feature

Bangkok's Latest Hangout Khao San Road

Prepared by Harold Stephens

Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

There was a time, and that wasn’t too long ago, that the tourist industry shunned backpackers. They spelled trouble, spent little money and did nothing to advance theunderstanding between countries.

Well, that is no longer altogether true.

The tourist industry is discovering that backpackers do help the economy, more than people think. They may look for cheap ways to travel, are content to settle in less expensive hotels, and like to dine where the locals dine, but they can pull a credit card out of a hidden pocket in the backpack and pay their way. To prove a point, go visit Bangkok’s Khao San Road. It’s here that the backpackers stay and spend their money. Not only that, the volume of backpackers outnumber the stream of economy and business travellers. Khao San Road has suddenly appeared on the tourist map. It’s an interesting place to visit even if you are not an economy traveller.

Take a seat in any one of the coffee shops, sit back and watch the parade. Sooner or later you will learn what is the cheapest way to get to Phuket, or where there is an inexpensive place to stay in Chiengmai. You will learn what to do when your visa is up and how and where to renew it, cheaply. Here at Khao San the information flows.

The real fun, however, is to watch the parade of passing people. It’s not only the foreign backpakers who come to Khao San Road, it’s also the Thais themselves.

As often happens, we live in a city or a town and we are unaware of what is going on outside of our neighborhood. I found that the case with Khao San. I had been hearing so much about this place over the last year but had never bothered to check it out. Khao San actually got a lot of its clout from the movie “The Beach.” The Hollywood flick did put a lot of ideas into a whole generation of travellers, both bad and good ideas. Some of the scenes were shot here and young people come looking for the same action.

When I finally did go to Khao San Road and discovered what it has to offer, I put it on my list of things to do when friends and friends of friends come to Bangkok and are looking for this to do. The road does brim with cheap rooms for rent, and cheap places to eat, but that’s not the point for going there. It’s simply an interesting place to visit. It’s a globetrotter’s haven and only a stone’s throw from the Chao Phraya River right in the heart of Banglamphu.

But for those whp do want to spend a night, getting a room on Khao San Road is not as easy as one might think.  Due to the demand, reservations are rarely taken. I tell visitors who are arriving that it is best to go to Khan San around mid-morning and do some searching. But not all visitors might find the accommodations to their liking. The rooms are quite noisy and the buzz of the motorcycles and tuk-tuk’s can be heard at all hours of the night.  Khao San Palace, D&D Inn and Buddy’s Lodge are good, clean and usually full. For those who are light sleepers, they might want to check out the smaller guesthouses that are located on the side streets that surround Khao San Road.  Security can be a bit of a problem.  Inquire if there is a safety box for your passport and other valuables.

One open-air café is as good as another to spend an hour or two people watching. Sitting at the next table, you are likely to meet some very interesting people, all seasoned travellers, and most of them first-timers to Bangkok and Thailand. In the course of an evening on my last visit with Mike and Lisa, friends from California, we visited the Sidewalk Café, Gulliver’s Travelers Tavern and the Himalayan Café & Restaurant. We overheard conversations about tales of boat rides up the Mekong, mountain trekking in Nepal, and island moonlight parties.

I listened to a guy named Rolf from Dusseldorf, who had braided hair and a long beard, also braided, tell about his tales of adventures from twenty-five years of trekking in Asia.  I watched a young girl named Curly from Virginia, USA, as she winced in pain while having a tattoo engraved on her shoulder. “My Mother is going to kill me,” she giggled to the tattoo artist. This was done right out on the sidewalk.

And then I met Brad and Josh.  They were all smiles as they added up their money, just enough money pay passage for a cave party somewhere in the Similian Islands. They sold their Walkman, a wristwatch and a pair of running shoes at a Buy & Sale shop down the road.

At Khao San, whether you are sitting at an open-air café or lining up at a food stall, you are likely to hear secret  whispers of island hideaways that no one, yet, knows about. They are living for the moment, determined that one day they will be back, and hope their secret hideaway isn’t discovered. The fun part of Khao San is just sitting in one of those cafes and watching the passing parade. Where else can you get such entertainment?  
So what is Khao San Road?  It’s a street, or a road, that is true. But it’s more than that. Khao San is about people. It’s a place where not all dreams may come true but at least those people who go there dared to dream. For the young travellers, it’s a place they will remember all their lives. For the young Thais, it’s meeting these crazy foreigners and perhaps even imitating them, for one night at least. They can even buy paste-on tattoos that can be scrubbed off before their return home that night.

I must say the food is good and the variety is endless, from Thai to Western. And there are the trays of crisp deep-fried insects from grubs to grasshoppers. If you want to dine up-scale, there’s Starbucks and even McDonald’s.

The most interesting way to reach Khao San Road is by express boat on the Chao Phraya River. You don’t have to worry about directions. Just follow the stream of backpackers.

Next week I would like to take readers on a visit to Old Ayutthaya. What was this city—reputed to be the grandest city in the world”—like 400 years ago? I am basing it on some intensive research I did.

Public Company Limited.


Q. Dear Mr. Stephens. I would like to know more about what Royal Orchid Holidays has to offer. Do you have any infomation you can pass on. Thank you. Betty Allison, Sydney

A. Dear Ms Allison. When you open the THAI website, www.thaiairways.com, go to the the Home Page and you will find Royal Orchid Holidays. Here is some of the information you may want. Also check with THAI offices abroad and ask for the free booklets, Discover Thailand 2008-2009 and Discover the World 2008-2009. —HS

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (booking@inet.co.th)
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

Khao San Road at night

Anything you want to Khao San Road

Entertainment comes in many forms

It’s hard to resist some of the food displayed

A unique way to advertise

The road is without traffic, cars that is

Visitors have the choosy look

Please buy my hill tribe jewelry

A bar is right on the street, convenient

Khao San Road is a continuous street café

Back packers for the latest travel news

Insects on Khao San Road make tasty treats

So you want to have your hair fixed, man or woman

Only a few baht for a meal on the street

How many on a bike allowed? As many as can fit

Tough decisions, which street café

Lisa couldn’t resist, a hill tribe hat, 300 baht

ID cards and even passports at Khao San Road

The author (left) with wife and friends, Lisa and Mike

Next week we take a look at Old Ayutthaya