Defined as cheap kitsch by many, Khaosan Road provides one of the most eclectic environments in Bangkok, spicing up Mexican tacos with Indian curries. Swiss rosti is rumored to be the next hit amidst the food stalls. Labyrinthine and crowded, it offers more than dream-catchers to modern Marco Polos.
by SeenThat on May 27, 2009
It is difficult to find a better place to put in use the word "labyrinthine" than while writing about Khaosan Road. "Wait a minute," the readers that know the place are saying by now, "Khaosan Road is completely straight."Well, yes and no. By its geographical definition they are right; fewer streets are straighter in Bangkok. Yet its spirit spills out into a maze of alleys and surrounding streets. Learning them takes a while, though the joy of being there is immediate.The heart of the area known as Banglamphu, is Thanon Khaosan, a short street running parallel to and north of Thanon Ratchadamnoen, the avenue linking the Grand Palace with Dusit.Despite most of the buildings along the street being rather low – few rise more than three or four floors – it is hard to ignore the feeling that the street signs are piled up to the sky. A myriad of restaurants, guesthouses, convenience stores, travel agencies, Thai massage parlors, souvenirs and T-shirts stalls fiercely compete for every inch of advertising space. On each of these categories, Khaosan Road probably features the highest density of establishments per square meter in the whole world. Yet, just after dark, all the neon lights in the world won’t be enough to highlight the shops over the crowds cramming up the street. It seems that millions of travelers prefer to carry out all their businesses in Khaosan Road while in Bangkok, rather than travel around the city. Khaosan’s eclectic reality is a powerful magnet. Here, travelers can settle down and still live under the illusion they are moving fast across vast distances. A face from a different corner of the planet appears every few meters; sounds in different languages create destructive interferences among the sound waves and mimic a modern Babel Tower. Nobody completely understands his alien conversation partners and yet everything seems to function properly in a modern version of the Biblical "Speaking in Tongues." Such diversity is irresistible for a traveler; few other places provide the opportunity to imagine being everywhere and nowhere at once.Where else a Nepali restaurant flirting with Mexican food would feel comfortable? Where else a pumpkin flavored coffee would be the natural end to a meal of fried insects? Where else can Indian tailors provide an extra-elegant suit in ten minutes and for the price of a meal to a traveler about to visit semi-naked hill tribes?The more a traveler stays there, the better he realizes he had hardly scratched the surface of this complex place. Many cultures coexist there in perfect harmony showing thus that such a reality is a feasible future. Yet, there is more to Khaosan Road than Khaosan Road.The MazeThe best way of surviving the Khaosan’s complex maze is by understanding the basic layout of the area. Khaosan Road ends on the west on Thanon Chakkrapong and on the east on Thanon Thanao. The surrounding maze can be divided into four smaller ones. Each one of them is occupies a different side of Khaosan Road.The first avenue south of Khaosan Road – they are separated by less than a hundred meters – is Thanon Ratchadamnoen, one of the main avenues in Bangkok. Between the two runs an alley named Soi Damnoen Klang Nua. These three longitudinal streets are interconnected by several alleys.Eastwards, Khaosan ends at Thanon Thanao. East of it are several alleys surrounding Soi Damnoen Klang Nua, which is the direct continuation of the alley of the same name located just south of Khaosan.Northwards, Thanon Rambuttri runs almost parallel to Khaosan, though it features a curve on its east end. The two streets are connected by several alleys. In the same direction the next parallel road is Thanon Phra Sumen and right next to it a canal named Khlong Banglamphu that delimits the area. Note that on the east side of Thanon Chakkrapong the street is divided into three shorter blocks. Thanon Phra Sumen runs parallel to the canal and makes a curve on its junction with the Chao Phraya River, changing then its name to Thanon Phra Athit. This one runs parallel to the river until the Phra Pin Klao Bridge that links the area with the already mentioned Thanon Ratchadamnoen.Westwards, Khaosan ends at Thanon Chakkrapong and Wat Channasongkhram. However, Soi Rambuttri – the continuation of Thanon Rambuttri – surrounds the temple and several alleys spin off it, connecting it to Thanon Phra Athit.Four mazes, each with its own characteristics.First: On Asian Streets NamesDifferent models exist for the design of cities. Colonial and American cities stick to strict rectangular grids. My hometown uses radial avenues originating in various main plazas. Asian cities resemble trees; the main avenues are long branches with smaller streets and alleys splitting from them. Crossing from one main branch to another is difficult.In Thailand, the main streets are called "thanon;" this may be confusing since avenues like Sukhumvit and streets like Khaosan are both called thanon. Small streets and alleys beginning from a thanon are called "soi;" usually they are numbered. The first alley along Sukhumvit would be called Sukhumvit 1, sometimes a nickname would also be given to it. A soi beginning at another soi would still be defined by the main avenue; following the former example, it could be called Sukhumvit 1/1. That’s not all; a very narrow soi is called a "trok;" finally, some alleys are not named or numbered at all.Far from ChaoticKhaosan Road setup may look chaotic at first, but certain rules appear to function quite well during all my visits. The best travel agencies are on the alleys surrounding the main street. The best hotels and guesthouses are on Khaosan Road itself, but the quieter ones are behind the temple on its western side. The best Western food restaurants in the area are on the main street, but the best Thai ones are in the surrounding streets. All the souvenirs, clothes, CD’s, electrical adaptors and other knickknacks are vastly cheaper elsewhere in Bangkok.Sunset StreetFour mazes surround Khaosan, but at its very center is a short, dead end alley that leads to a Starbucks branch, which probably is the most beautiful one in Bangkok. Beyond that, Sunset Bar & Restaurant offers Thai and International cuisine with live music performances on Thursday to Sunday, and Scoozi Italian Pizza provides hotel delivery. HotelsStrangely, the most expensive hotels in the area are not those offering the best rooms. Those are in the new building of The D&D Inn. Moreover, being located at the very center of the street, it offers a superb spot from where to explore the area. From the pool at its roof there are great views of the Grand Palace, especially at night.Making reservations in this area is almost impossible. Moreover, during the high season (December to February) it is very difficult to find rooms; the best strategy is to approach the hotels around noon, when people check out.Western FoodDespite the wide variety available of restaurants serving this kind of food, Gulliver’s Travelers Tavern at the western end of Khaosan Road, has not only an irresistible name, but it also successfully mimics an English Pub and has an eclectic clientele, including Thais. The food is rather expensive, but it is worth it. Buddy Boutique Hotel’s restaurant – almost at the eastern end of the street - is also recommended for the same reasons.Coffee World and Starbucks have very attractive branches in Khaosan and both offer good coffee with a Thai twinge.The Maze IINow it is time to take a detailed look into the maze; a journal entry for each one of its parts.
North of Khaosan Road, Thanon Rambuttri, runs almost parallel to it, though it features a curve on its east end. The two streets are connected by several alleys. Following in the same direction, the next road is Thanon Phra Sumen (on the western side, the eastern side of the avenue is divided into three shorter blocks). Right next to Thanon Phra Sumen is a canal named Khlong Banglamphu that delimits the area. The area is home to the Banglamphu Market; fisherman pants are one of the best buys here. Thanon Phra Sumen runs parallel to the canal until its junction with the Chao Phraya River, changing then its name to Thanon Phra Athit. West of its junction with Thanon Chakkrapong, Thanon Phra Sumen houses many coffee shops restaurants and guesthouses.Thanon RambuttriThanon Rambuttri is just north of Khaosan Road; it features many dining options which are more Thai in nature than those on Khaosan Road.The simple restaurants occupying the western end of Rambuttri beat all the fancy restaurants in the area in their variety and authenticity of the Thai dishes served. Among them, Pen Thai Food is especially recommended. This is the perfect place to get acquainted with one of the most wonderful cuisines in the world. All the food is displayed at the establishment entrance; sometimes even with tiny English signs describing it. After choosing a dish, the customer sits in one of the tables placed on the sidewalk and the dish is then brought to the table. As always in Thailand, the customer can add any of several side dishes to the main one (like eggs) at an additional cost or ask for special spicing options.One of the most attractive establishments in the area is Tuptim Bed and Breakfast. In modern Bangkok it is not hard to find classical Thai teak wood structures; there are plenty of old neighborhoods that haven't been replaced yet by concrete monsters. However, very few of them are used for tourism purposes. Tuptim is one of these. The guesthouse is not recommended: the rooms are small and the bathrooms are shared. Yet, the restaurant by the entrance, on a wide teak balcony surrounded by lush vegetation, is gorgeous. The dark, rich wood enhances the effect of the cooling breeze and partially absorbs the obtrusive noise from the street.Nearby is the Viengtai Hotel, which was the first real hotel in the area. Even now, its massive building is one of the best choices for a good sleep in this inevitable area of Bangkok, featuring one of the few outdoors swimming pools in the area. Roughly in front of it, is the local branch of Beit Chabad. Based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest Hasidic movements in Pharisaic-Orthodox Judaism. The name is a Hebrew acronym for "chochmah, binah, da'at;" it means "wisdom, understanding, knowledge," making reference thus to the ultimately legalistic (Pharisaic) stream in Judaism; they rely on the talmud and kabbala for their interpretations of classical Judaism rather than on the Bible itself. In modern Israel they are known for their attempt to convert secular Jews into Hasidic, ultra-orthodox ones. As such, they operate big centers in all the places frequented by secular Israeli tourists, as Bangkok is. Finally, at the junction of Thanon Rambuttri with Thanon Thanao (that is possible because both streets draw a curve) there is a large branch of 7-Eleven.Connecting AlleysThanon Rambuttri is connected to Khaosan Road through three alleys. None of the three alleys have a name. The easternmost among them is barely wider than a person and is of little interest except as a shortcut to the intersection of Thanon Rambuttri with Thanon Thanao. This large area (two other roads reach it as well) is an excellent place for catching taxis.The second alley is just east of Sunset Street (a dead end alley in Khaosan Road that is home to a Starbucks branch). It hosts the Marco Polo Hostel, a large bar, several Thai massage parlors and second hand English bookstores.The third alley is by far the most picturesque and traditional one in the area. Its convoluted path is broken by a hidden plaza. Green House is on its corner with Rambuttri. Six basic guesthouses occupy the inner plaza: Cherry, AT, Mama’s, Suneepom, Friendly and Pro. Cherry offers a good laundry service.North of Thanon Rambuttri, Thanon Thanao (the one delimiting Khaosan Road to the east) appears again since it is a semicircular street. In this area the street has a definitely Thai look, with many clothes shops and food stalls. At its junction with Thanon Chakkrapong (west end of Khaosan) is a good supermarket offering plenty of Western products at the best prices in the area.Thanon Phra Sumen North-westwards of Thanon Rambuttri and partially parallel to Soi Rambuttri, is Thanon Phra Sumen, which offers relatively upscale restaurants and coffee shops, and guesthouses cheaper than those in Khaosan Road proper.A million tourists crowd themselves in Khaosan Road, while seeing any of them at the Santi Chai Prakan Park and Phra Sumen Fort is almost a miracle. The park and fort are one of the most beautiful sights in Bangkok, combining a classical Thai Pavilion with an old fort, the Chao Phraya River and a beautiful bridge over it.Fort Phra Sumen is one of the two remaining forts in Bangkok; it was constructed in 1783 to fortify the old city during the reign of King Rama I, who made Bangkok his capital. The fort is worth a special visit at night, when it is delightfully illuminated and provides amazing views of the Saphan Phra Ram VIII Bridge and the river. The fort has two levels of battlements where antiquated cannons are still deployed and an observation tower.The park is south of the fort. It lies between the old fort and the river making it a pleasant and breezy area to spend an afternoon. One can have a panoramic view of the riverfront and watch river life go by with the majestic Rama VIII suspension bridge in the distance; at night the last is beautifully illuminated. A traditional teakwood Thai Pavilion occupies much of the riverfront. It is one of the best such structures in Bangkok, offering awesome photographing angles with the fort, the river and the park. Many benches and a large green area allow enjoying the park, especially the mangrove tree located next to the water. In front of it are several attractive coffee shops; the last are more expensive than those on Khaosan Road and attract mainly local yuppies. After seeing the park and recovering the lost calories with an espresso and a piece of cake, it is recommended to continue along Thanon Phra Athit since it displays an eclectic mix of Thai nobility houses and typical Thai shop houses.
Eastwards, Khaosan ends at Thanon Thanao; Thanon Ratchadamnoen is a few meters southwards. East of Thanon Thanao are several alleys surrounding Soi Damnoen Klang Nua, which is the direct continuation of the alley of the same name, just south of Khaosan.Why Should I Visit Soi Damnoen Klang NuaSoi Damnoen Klang Nua is the narrow alley separating Khaosan Road from Thanon Ratchadamnoen. Towards the eastern end of Khaosan it turns somewhat dingy. Across Thanon Thanao, Khaosan ends, but Soi Damnoen Klang Nua continues and is home to the low end zone of the Khaosan area, here are a few of the cheapest guesthouses and restaurants. Running parallel to Ratchadamnoen, the soi goes all the way to the Democracy Monument.What makes the soi unique in the area is the Ratchadamnoen Post Office. During the weekdays, it is open between 8 AM and 5 PM, on Saturdays between 9 AM and noon. This post office specializes in sending packages abroad, their personnel speaks English and can provide accurate information about which items can be exported (for example, valuable Buddha figures can not be taken out of the country). I have found the Thai mail to be fast and reliable. Moreover, the establishment offers what probably is the fastest internet connection in the area.East of the post office are three guesthouses. CH II and Nat II are on the northern side of the soi, while almost in front of them is Sweety. None of them is recommended, unless in an emergency. The rooms are small, hot and many of them are little more than matchboxes. However, their location means that even during the high season there is a real chance of finding a room in one of them. Three short alleys connect the soi to Ratchadamnoen; food stalls in them sell basic Thai dishes and fruits during the day. At its end, the soi makes a curve and meets Thanon Ratchadamnoen. There, next to the Democracy Monument is also a large branch of McDonald’s which is open overnight. With views of the Black Metal Pagoda, the Golden Mount and Thanon Ratchadamnoen, the area is worth a visit. Nearby is the excellent Queen’s Gallery Cafe.More AlleysA narrow alley runs perpendicular to Soi Damnoen Klang Nua and parallel to Thanon Thanao. Despite being rather prominent, apparently it has no name. It houses four guesthouse/restaurants; all of them provide extremely basic accommodation and are not recommended. Roughly at the alley’s center, Srintip is the most remarkable among them, mainly due to its menu of tasty Thai dishes.Nearby, Aporia Books is on the main street (131 Tanao Road), facing Khaosan Road. This is one of the best book stores in the area with a good selection of new and second-hand English books. Next to it is a branch of Burger King which is open overnight, and behind it – in the alley – is Number One, one of the few vegetarian restaurants in the area.If in an adventurous mood, then at the northern end of this soi is a residential alley running perpendicular to it. Despite being a dead end and featuring a single guesthouse, it is worth of a special visit since it retains a traditional Thai ambience with plenty of teakwood houses.Walking northwards along Thanon Thanao and keeping on the street’s right side after the plaza (it changes its name after it to Thanon Bowo Niwet), the Wat Bowo Niwet is reached. This large and attractive temple is little visited by tourists; within it is a water canal featuring various ingenious devices for keeping the water flowing. Near it is a restored city-gate that in the past was connected to the now inexistent city-walls.
The first avenue south of Khaosan Road – they are separated by less than a hundred meters – is Thanon Ratchadamnoen, one of Bangkok main arteries. Between the two runs an alley called Soi Damnoen Klang Nua. These three streets are interconnected by several alleys.Thanon RatchadamnoenThanon Ratchadamnoen avenue is the centre of government administration in Bangkok, and hosts even the United Nations office in Thailand, on Ratchadamnoen Nok. Since its construction, many defining events in the Thai society took part along it.Despite the Western style of parts of it, Ratchadamnoen is intrinsically Thai; few Westerners would recognize it as a single conceptual unit since it is technically divided into three parts, namely Ratchadamnoen Nok (outer), Ratchadamnoen Klang (middle), and Ratchadamnoen Nai (inner). The part next to Khaosan Road is Ratchadamnoen Klang. This part is remarkable for being a travel hub, with many buses leading to the main areas of Bangkok serving it.Several structures can be enjoyed here: the Democracy Monument, the Black Metal Pagoda are the main ones. The Golden Mount can be seen nearby and is readily accessible. An excellent coffee shop - The Queen's Gallery Cafe - provides good views of the area.Soi Damnoen Klang NuaIt would be easy to ignore this soi since it is home mainly to the backside of several big guesthouses on Khaosan Road. The few guesthouses with their fronts along it, including two belonging to the Sawasdee chain, are of little interest. Yet, it houses "Travel in Style," a travel agency I found consistently to be the best in Khaosan and the Sawasdee chain laundry shop, probably the best such establishment in the area.Part of the soi had been paved to resemble a walking street where many jewelry designers practice their trade. Silverware is safe, though I recommend being careful with colored gems.At the west, the soi ends up making a sharp curve into the Lottery Building Esplanade. On the esplanade is an excellent Thai coffee stall operating in the early hours of the morning. At the joining point of the soi with the esplanade is a row of stalls selling Thai food and catering mainly to the lottery tickets buyers; yet travelers are very welcomed.Connecting AlleysFour alleys connect Khaosan with this soi; these are crammed with inexpensive guesthouses and stalls selling almost everything imaginable. Three others alleys connect the soi with Thanon Ratchadamnoen. The alley located roughly at Khaosan’s midpoint (almost exactly in front of the posh Sunset Street alley) is especially useful since it leads to an excellent, air open, Thai food plaza right next to Ratchadamnoen. This is an excellent place for trying Thai curries and the surprising Thai omelets.A short dead end alley leads to the back entry of D&D Inn, one of the main hotels along Khaosan. Within the hotel is a shopping mall located along several corridors between the lobby and Khaosan Road.Trok MayomFrom the sharp curve into the esplanade, a trok (an alley smaller than a soi) continues eastwards and meets Thanon Chakkrapong – where also Khaosan ends. Along Trok Mayom – as it is called – there are several remarkable establishments, which enjoy the relatively quiet environment of the trok. Among the hotels, two are remarkable. One for its structure, Barn Thai Guesthouse was built in a teak house dating back to the beginnings of the 20th century. The second, New Joe Guesthouse allows renting rooms for the day (8 AM to 8 PM), creating a very handy option while just crossing through Bangkok. It has also a large open air restaurant.Ranee's Guest House and Restaurant is recommended for its restaurant. A better definition would be "bakery," since the establishment specializes in the preparation of bread. It serves great hot sandwiches and good baguettes; these can be consumed in a beautiful inner yard.Beyond that, Trok Mayom is an excellent shortcut in the area if wishing to move from Khaosan to Rambuttri. After the trok ends and across Thanon Chakkrapong, is a nameless alley that leads to a Muay Thai kickboxing school. Entering the school and leaving it from the other side (it is allowed and encouraged by the owners, who are looking for new customers) leads to Soi Rambuttri. More on that in the western-maze section of this journal.
Westwards, Khaosan Road ends at Thanon Chakkrapong and Wat Channasongkhram. However, Soi Rambuttri – the continuation of Thanon Rambuttri – surrounds the temple and several alleys spin off it. Less crowded than Khaosan Road, this beautiful street features open restaurants, hotels and a myriad of stalls and shops selling everything a traveler thinks he needs, providing thus an attractive option for ending a busy day in Bangkok Index.Soi RambuttriIn a typical Thai reality, both Thanon Rambuttri and Soi Rambuttri coexist in the same area. The key for differentiating between them is to keep in mind that a "thanon" is more important than a "soi." Accordingly Thanon Rambuttri is wider, paved and features a significant amount of traffic. Soi Rambuttri is the thanon’s extension surrounding the Wat Channasongkhram Temple. It is narrow and functions mainly as a walking street, though taxis do enter it.From Khaosan, the soi can be reached by walking northwards around the temple. During the day, the temple is open; walking across it is possible and leads to the center of the soi. Next to the temple back door and inside it, is an open restaurant serving excellent Thai food.I find this soi one of the best places in the area for relaxing after a busy day in town or following a visit to noisy Khaosan. The street has been upgraded in 2006 by adding a beautiful red bricks pavement and Wat Channasongkhram provides an awesome skyline that can be enjoyed from the hotels’ upper rooms.Along the soi are several attractive restaurants. I have reviewed the Four Sons Village and Popiang House, but several other establishments exist there. Most of the cuisine served in them is of the Thai-International hybrid type, however other options exist. Several restaurants – Popiang House among them – serve fish grilled in front of the customers during the evenings, especially red snapper, mackerels, squids and shrimps. A few restaurants are open overnight.Among the hotels housed here are the Mango Lagoon Place and three branches (one on a soi connected to Soi Rambuttri) of the Sawasdee chain. In the past I did review also two simple guesthouses on this street: Merry V and Baan Sabai. However, the choice of hotels and guesthouses here is overwhelming; making a comprehensive review of them is a Herculean task. Surrounding Alleys and PiersInevitably, several alleys connect this soi with the adjacent streets. I wouldn’t mention them if they weren’t useful; they provide access to some of the main transport options in the area.Soi Rambuttri itself makes a turn at its southern end and is connected to Thanon Chao Fa. But just a few meters west of there, Trok Rong Mai accomplishes the same task while housing a few guesthouses, including two of the Sawasdee chain. Thanon Chao Fa is the street running below the Thanon Phra Pin Klao (the bridge over the river); it leads to Thanon Ratchadamnoen.On the central part of Soi Rambuttri – the part parallel to the river - are two alleys. One is on a curve of the soi and connects it with Thanon Phra Athit; a single guesthouse is along this narrow alley. The other alley is called Soi Channasongkhram and is roughly at the center of Soi Rambuttri. It connects it also to Thanon Phra Athit and is one of the liveliest venues in the area. This narrow alley poses a serious threat; the distracted traveler walking it would probably be busy trying to absorb all its sights and may miss an approaching tuk-tuk. The last are barely narrower than the alley.On Thanon Phra Athit is an important bus stop, from which Mo Chit and other central points in Bangkok can be reached and two piers on the river. The Banglamphu Pier offers ferries crossing the river to Thonburi, while south of it is the Phra Athit Pier, where many boat taxis traveling along the Chao Phraya River stop. If following this street southwards and crossing below the bridge then Tha (pier) Chang Wangna is reached. Near this pier is the main official tourism office in the area; bikes can be rented from the municipality in front of it. Further down the road the charming Thammasat University, which features 3’Or – a good coffee shop – at its main entrance and great views of the Chao Phraya River.Kickboxing to KhaosanSoi Rambuttri’s southern end resembles a "Y." One branch reaches Thanon Chao Fa, while the other looks like a dead end. Walking into the second, a Muay Thai kickboxing schools appears. During the day the last is open. If entering it and exiting through its other side (this is encouraged by the owners since they seek for students) the traveler stands on a very narrow alley. A Thai food stall occupies most of it. If advancing through it, Thanon Chakkrapong – on Khaosan Road western end – is reached. At night the school is closed, but in front of it is a staircase leading to the upper floors of HaKesher HaIsraeli ("The Israeli Liaison"). Sometimes, there is access to the building through the staircase and Khaosan can be reached.
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