Ok, let me preface this by saying I don’t want this to sound elitist, not exactly. But this is something about which I’m genuinely confused. I started thinking about it when we were in Bangkok earlier this year, a city we know and love well. I was asked by a company to take some photos of the Khao San Road area for their publicity purposes and I readily agreed. I’d only been to Khao San Road once before and while I didn’t remember it fondly, I clearly didn’t hate it as much as I did this time. What surprised me most about the area was just how popular it was and for what reason I have no idea.
For centuries this street in central Bangkok was a quiet, residential community. Then, about twenty years ago the Thai government began a sustained effort to promote tourism to the country and the reaction around the world was staggering. In a short time span tourists descended on the Thai capital and the city’s hotels were overflowing. Needing someplace to stay, backpackers and budget travelers stayed in the homes of locals on Khao San Road. Residents soon realized how much money could be made operating guest houses and they multiplied along the road. Restaurants and bars soon followed and that is how Khao San Road turned into a backpacker ghetto.
From this basic description, one can guess the reasons behind the neighborhood’s success: everything is cheap. Frequented by backpackers and ultra budget travelers, this area must seem like a gold mine. Cheap food, cheap accommodations and cheap alcohol is a winning combination for a certain type of traveler. But you know what, that’s not uncommon for Bangkok and can be found in a thousand other roads around town. So why then is this trashy area so popular?
At this point you are probably beginning to form some opinions, about me and about Bangkok. But it’s not what you think. I have no problem with backpackers or super duper budget travelers. I applaud anyone who has the gumption to get out there and explore the world. But if you haven’t been to Khao San Road before, it’s hard to describe just how trashy it is, although I will try.
Be it day or night, the street is a pulsating mass of humanity. Tourists and travelers meander down the street watching vendors grill scorpions or looking for the cheapest, biggest bucket of booze they can find. Among them are the locals, some hawking their crappy wares and others preying on the unsuspecting. This is ground zero for pickpockets, scams and general thievery, the dishonest few knowing full well the value of an unprepared foreigner.
Add to this the worst crap for sale you could ever imagine, trash and filth lining the streets and about a million tuk tuk drivers incessantly asking you if you want a ride and you have the Khao San Road experience.
Now, knowing all this why would so many people willingly choose to spend any time whatsoever in this part of town? I can only guess it’s because many of the travelers haven’t fully researched the city and only know where friends have stayed or currently are staying and so they descend on the neighborhood in droves.
I quickly took my photos, walked the full length of the street and left as speedily as my long legs could take me. I looked back and saw a twenty-something girl throwing up in the gutter. This wasn’t the Bangkok I knew and loved and I made a promise to try to dissuade anyone from visiting this most trashy of areas.
What do you think? Am I a prudish snob or what? Do you have any insight as to why so many people spend so much time on Khao San Road?