In Kathmandu it's Thamel, in Delhi it is Paharganj, in Hong Kong it is Chungking Mansions, Singapore - Bencoolen Street, and in Bangkok it is the Khao San Road. Backpacker ghetto's! And the Khao San is the most famous and popular of them all.
One morning after arriving on the bus from Phuket I got to see it at 5.30am before the crowds arrive. It is almost eerie in it's silence. Abolutely no movement from end to end. As I watched the Khao San came slowly to life. Hoardings were raised, stalls were wheeled out and weary backpackers trudged along the road looking for lodging. After a while the first tuk-tuks took up their places, the first wok's were being lit and the first beers of a new day were being drunk.
You will either love the Khao San Road or hate it. This is usually the first port of call to young international backpackers as soon as they arrive at Bangkok airport. To some it is an easy introduction to the culture shock of Southeast Asia to others a westernised bubble that excludes the Thailand that they have travelled so far to see. There are now 110 guesthouses on the Khao San and the surrounding streets. It is now estaimated that over 500,000 backpackers trudge through each year and the entire street caters to their every whim. You can sleep in 80 baht a night hotels, get your hair braided, arrange for a visa to Laos, buy fake rolex watches and drink yourself into oblivion in the many bars. It is little wonder that for many people visiting Bangkok all they see is the Khao San Road.
It is situated in the northwest of the city, just north of the Grand Palace and Banglamphu. A few streets to the west is the Chao Phraya river and the nearest river stop is Phra Athit. It is also just south of the Royal Chitlada palaces and half a mile west of the shopping heaven of the Sukhamvit Road. In short, it is in the very centre of things. It is however, exceptionally difficult from there to get to other parts of Bangkok. Although the Grand Palace is within (polluted?) walking distance, Khao San is nowhere near the city bus terminal's and horribly distant from the bran-new skytrain. Even Huamlampong station is about a mile and a half away through horrendous traffic. Therefore you will have to rely on air-conditioned taxi's or tuk-tuk's to get around. These congregate at either end of the road and charge about 40 baht to whizz you around Bangkok. It is possible to get to Banglamphu from Don Muang airport taking the A2 bus which drops off opposite the Wat on the Tanao Road. This costs about 60 bahts.
But Khao San's primarily function is to provide cheap accomodation to the trillions of backpackers who pass through. The hotels have now exploded out of the Khao San and to the east and west. In fact the best cheap hotels such as the Apple, Apple 2, Merry V and New Siam are not on the Khao San but in some of the soi's to the west such as Songhran and Phra Athit. The guesthouses on the Khao San often double as restaurants/travel agents and cost about 100 baht a night for a room. Be warned the Khao San can get very noisy at night and you room for that price will not provide much relief from the noise. Most walls are paper thin and those facing the road itself have to contend with speeding tuk-tuks and the carousing which goes on there late at night. Incidently, take your own padlock as theft is common. And if things go wrong there is a tourist police station at the junction of Khao San and Changrabonse Road.
It was this police station, of course, which was featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio film 'The Beach' . As was the travel agent seen in the same film. There are about twenty travel agents along the Khao San - some reputable, some fly-by-night who may take your money and run. Most sell bus and train tickets as well as more exotic arrangements such as visas and tickets to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They are most useful for providing cheap private buses to the airport and other destintions. My bus to Katchanaburi was half the price of the public bus. The best ones such as Khiri Travel also provide luggage storage for 10 bahts a day which is useful if you have left the guesthouse and are waiting to catch your flight.
But the Khao San is there to serve the visiting backpacker. It is lined with currency changers, internet cafe's, used bookshops selling 'Lonely Planets', fake-ID shops, tatoo artists, hippy gear shops, BOOTS chemists, 7-11's and tour agencies. The best cyber-cafe is 'Hello Internet cafe' with 100 bahts per hour and once you have finished there you can admire the cheap sarong's on the roadside stalls or pick up a pair of 'thongs' while waiting to have your hair braided or your hands hennered. There are cars parked along the Khao San and the pavements get so busy that people are forced to walk in the road. They share the road with food-stalls and Thai's selling satay on skewers or corn-on-the cob. Rock music throbs from bars while people clutching beers spill out onto the street.
Due to the sheer volume of people passing through you will bump into that couple you met in Chiang Mai or the Israeli who was on the same diving course as you on Ko Samui. I bumped into a Swedish friend, Yuri, who I know here in London while eating breakfast at the Nat Guesthouse. In fact the cheap eating is Khao San's main-drawcard - streetfood is cheap and inexpensive. While restaurants like Prouberts and May Kiardee cater for those who don't want to spend more then 100 baht on food. Each restaurant sells exactly the same Thai food as well as western specialities such as German pastries, English breakfasts, American hamburgers, Israeli falafel and the travellers staples of museli and banana pancakes.
And of course the backpackers have to be entertained. Single travellers too shy to chat to their neighbours watch videos in the bars and restaurants. There are two bars which think they are in Santa Monica or Bondi Beach rather then Southeast Asia - 'Buddy' and 'Gullivers'. There is a club off Khao San called 'The Bangkok bar' where the backpackers have squeezed the Thai students who used to use it out. The bars are open almost 20 hours a day and will be filled with tipsy backpackers saying they have seen the real Thailand as they travel on the well-worn route of between Chiang Mai and Ko Samui/Phangan. Also, where there are westerners - there are also prostitutes. One morning as I was waiting for my pick-up for a bus a Thai girl approached an American backpacker in my restaurant. She had obviously had slim pickings that night and sat down next to him and slowly but surely seduced him. First she befriended him, then complimented him and then led him off after an hour of wearing him down to do the business.
The Khao San provokes different reactions from different people. Personally, I found it very unfriendly. There is alot of attitude and the sheer volume of people makes it a very impersonal place. One of my neighbours has just returned from a year in Thailand and I asked him what do the Thai's think of Khao San. He says they keep it at arms length and think it is full of smelly stingy foreigners.I think it is true, the only Thai's you will meet are travel agents or tuk-tuk drivers, but if you go five minutes to the north or east you will find an area solely inhabited by Thais. The battered pavement will be littered with vegetable stalls, mangy dogs, people selling iced water, cobblers, motorbikes and people stirring woks with the smell of cashews and chestnuts wafting in the hot air.
Lonely Planet, the travellers bible, looks down it's nose at package tourists but it has created a ghetto just as insular as those it denigrates. I've heard the Khao San is on the domestic tourist trail - Thai visitors to Bangkok are bused in to to gawp at and photograph the dreadlocked foreigners and 'smelly hippies'.
Isn't that the ultimate irony?