Approaching Bangkok’s outskirts’ and looking out the van window, the scene rapidly begins to changes from idyllic rice paddies to a haze of red brake lights and neon bar signs. Then as with every kilometre we gain the haze of colours grows thicker and brighter, until finally only the plastic sign swinging above our drivers head lets us know where we are heading – the sign reads Khao San Road.
Described by Alex Garland in his cult novel turned Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Beach’ as “the centre of the backpacking universe”. I had high expectations of what I would find and I was readying myself for everything and anything it had to offer.
The name ‘Khao San’ is literally translated from the Thai language to mean ‘milled rice’, a title dating back to 1892, when Bangkok was first established as the capital of Thailand. A name given because for centuries the road had served as the city’s main hub for trading and processing rice.
However as Bangkok grew so did the prevalence of the roads central location and hence so too land values. Through the 80’s and 90’s the street changed from hub of the rice trade to the hub of Bangkok’s backpacker trade. Then after the release of the 2000 film adaptation of the previously mentioned ‘The Beach’ Khao San Road became immortalised in backpacker culture forever.
Stepping into Khao San Road for the first time and with such expectations publicized, I can truly say I was still blown away by the impression this road had upon me. Everything from the huge neon lights hanging from the rafters, the deafening noise of both music and girls squealing with literally hundreds of backpackers dancing was almost overwhelming.
Walking amongst it all with my eyes wider than dinner plates, I stumbled upon the aptly named Happiness Hostel. A thin and vertical hostel with a small and shabby looking bar at the bottom, for some reason this caught my eye as the place to stay. After a quick check-in with minimal fuss, clearly indicating that the lady behind reception had completed a similar transaction thousands of times before. I proceeded with a shower, change of clothes and visit to the currency exchange. I was slightly taken aback by the low 33Baht to 1 US Dollar exchange rate, the glory days of 55Baht during the late 90’s Asian Financial Crisis had well passed.
After around two hours of exploring I had tried around 5 different bars, each with very reasonable happy hours consisting of either a large beer for $4 or cocktail bucket for $5. This continued until I found a side bar with a good atmosphere and a very generous 2-for-1 bucket deal. This is the sort of place Khao San Road is, if your not feeling it you can just get up and move to the next bar with literally over hundreds to choose from, your sure to find one that fits.
In conclusion Khao San Road is definitely not as exotic or far-flung as some may be expecting. With most bar staff having near fluent English, touts pushing ‘Khao San Road’ merchandise and Justin Bieber’s newest release humming in the background. There is no denying the street has been somewhat bastardised from what is once was depicted as in 1990’s. However, that said without doubt it should be on every travellers to do list. This street still has some of the best fun to be had and with the best people you can hope to have it with.
Next Stop: Bangkok – The Red Light