There are two Khao Sans. Khao San Road, where you go if you want to know what several hundred backpackers getting drunk in third rate bars, endlessly retelling tales of daring-do on the backpacker trail before self consciously eating grasshoppers on a stick, looks like. It’s also the place to be if fun for you is being persistently offered a handmade suit, a tuk-tuk, a ping-pong sex show or a selfie stick.
Not for nothing is this part of Bangkok referred to as a backpacker ‘ghetto’ – not a word with happy associations. I wouldn’t want to appear po-faced about backpackers or Khao San. I’ve been the former, and the latter isn’t any worse than other hell holes I’ve visited (yes Cancun, with your Señor Frogs Foam Party, I do mean you). Still, it’s hard to understand the appeal, its not like the booze is that cheap.
Khao San Road is pretty seedy, and the seediness gained cult status when Alex Garland’s 1997 novel The Beach was published. The increasingly desperate story begins in Khao San Road, glamourising the unglamorous. At the end of the eponymous film, Leonardo de Caprio’s character receives an email saying, ‘Parallel Universe. Love, Françoise’. It refers to the beach of the title, but could equally refer to Khao San.
Strange then that Khao San Road should have once been known as a ‘religious road’ due to shops catering to Buddhist monks. You don’t see too many monks these days, and you’d probably want to double check their credentials if you did. Between the sex shows, the sex workers and the wasted Farang hoards it’s hard to imagine a time before massage parlours and knock-off sunglasses. Luckily there is more to this area…
The other Khao San exists in numerous side streets closer to the river. No one would claim this wasn’t touristy, but away from the maddening crowd you get a relaxed atmosphere, good food and a mix of people from across the globe who aren’t getting drunk before asking for a massage with a happy ending. I rather liked this other Khao San, it felt a bit like Shoreditch in London, just a lot warmer and with fewer beards.
Where the Khao San Road does bargain basement, the surrounding area has evolved into a vibrant and alternative scene that attracts almost as many young Thais as foreigners. There are hip bars, pop-up restaurants and trendy hotels. Even the massage parlours look half decent. The whole area has a very different feel to it, familiar and alien at the same time, which is presumably why it attracts so many people.
There are still plenty of food stalls and a constant stream of people trying to sell you stuff. None more constant than the Akha women selling wooden frogs that make a croaking sound when rubbed with stick. That sound will live with me for an eternity. The Akha are one of Thailand’s northern hill tribes drawn to the city by the chance to earn a living. They quickly become a familiar part of the background noise in Khao San…and by familiar, I mean you can easily be offered twenty or thirty frogs in an evening.
Am I being unfair to Khao San? I don’t know, I guess people will just have to go and see for themselves.