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?
96 thoughts on “Trashy Tourism: Why I Hate Khao San Road in Bangkok”
Khao San Rd is as much part of Bangkok as Soi Arab, Little India, Yaowarat, Soi Cowboy, Pat Pong, Sukhumvit, etc. All of those areas are very special and not representative of anything but themselves. That’s the allure of the microcosm called Bangkok and you better see all of it.
If you are on a budget though, you should steer clear of Khao San Rd. The road has definately turned into Flashpacker-territory over the past years, nothing’s cheap there. Cheap rooms, food etc. are in Sam Sen or The Wet or even that other little backpacker ghetto near the former Lumphini park night market.
Point well made
I still found a number of cheapish accommodations on Khao San Rd when I was in Bangkok last year. But yes, there has been an influx of dearer hotels, and the atmosphere is bad.
None the less, KSR is limited to four or five city blocks, and the great thing I discovered is that it’s terribly easy to walk for just ten minutes and find yourself in a completely different atmosphere. I went to Wat Chanasongkram nice and early to see the monks’ breakfast being prepared, wandered through the back alleys of the markets, and found an old (well, for Bangkok) house where lessons in traditional Thai music are given. Quite remarkable really how quickly the KSR neon dissipates.
Well, i am going for the first time to bangkok in 2days and will gonna stay there 4days.
So…wich area you suggest?
I won’t go to bangkok looking for the cheapest bucket of alc, that’s for sure.
Thanks for the article. Due it, i am looking for other area to stay.
Watch out for the Indian Yogis on Soi Rambuttri (one street over) they can be quite aggressive, they are best to avoid and not fall for their street magic, they will try get as much money off you as fast as possible.Also I got into a tuktuk at night from khaosan road, it wasn’t the smartest move, it’s lucky I didn’t end up belonging to Bangkok.
I’ve been to Bangkok a couple dozen times and Khaosan holds a dear place in my heart. It was the first place I visited on my first visit to Bangkok and I was mesmerized by the humanity and the carnage that reside in that small part of the city. I’ve been in consulting, traveling the world for 13 years now, so I’m accustomed to Starwood hospitality and tend to stay at any of their properties in the city. That being said, I always make a point of spending a day marauding Khaosan, watching the craziness that is that area. The draw? I feel like there’s no place on earth like Khaosan, where essentially every single traveler in S.E. Asia crosses paths, whether as a newbie backpacker, someone that has been traveling for 9 months, or just a random European tourist family that has heard of the area and is interested in seeing what is there. A trip to Bangkok wouldn’t be complete without people watching there. And sure, there may be a cheap beer here and there and a couple of young kids that partied too hard the night before – but isn’t that just you, 15 years ago? ;-)
Every single *western* traveller. Let’s not forget that the rest of Asia travels and visits Bangkok and Thailand often too. Perhaps actually even more frequently. But – differently.
Thing is, let the people go there. Let them get caught by the tourist trap that is Khaosan Road. Let them tell their friends that this is the place to go. This will prevent the beautiful places in Thailand being ruined just like the islands were. I’m sure Ibiza was beautiful before the idiot herds descended on it and told their mates.
Oh dear oh dear.
I remember the first time i came to KSR in 1985.
We were backpacking Asia,for 6 months,and although we had Southeastasia on a shoestring,in the bag,we used fellow travellers recommandations,of where to go/stay.
And KSR was the place to go in Bangkok,we were told,in a bamboo bungalow,on a unknown beach called Railey.
We arrived in KSR,31/12 very early in the morning.
People were waiting for the monks to give them food,and after they passed,the old people ,startet cleaning the curb,tables were put out,and we had breakfast and later lunch,before getting a room at Bonnies Guesthouse,an old wooden house,with fan and cold water.
At every restaurant,there were old people,sitting there the whole day,peoplewatching,and i think they had a great time.
In the evening,tables were set out,from one end to the other of KSR,and we had fantastic thai food,and at midnight there were lot of firecrackers around,and we were singin Auld Long Syne together with people from all around the world.
We instantly fell in love with KSR,and have been back,many times, since then.
We brought our children with us,and they brought friends ,later when they grew up.
We brought friends with us,and some of them liked the road,some did not.
We still travel,now as flashpackers,with a trolley instead of the bagpack,and we still go back to KSR,but now we stay in one of the streets around KSR.
KSR has changed,Thailand and the world has changed,and so have we.
I always take a stroll down the road and try to find the old places,but many of them have gone,and new places have come.The music is terrible loud,and there are tv bars,with huge tvscreens showing Premier Leauge soccer.
The toots are everywhere,as they have always been,and sometimes they still get me,even if i should know better.
But i still like KSR.
It is the young peoples street,and it fits the young people of today.
And i especially enjoy the present of the young thai people,enjoying themselves on a night out,
a no go,when we were young.
And now i am the “old” women who sits for hours,peoplewatching.
The location is unbeatable,close to the temples,riverboats,and the klongs still remaining.
If you stroll along the roads,in the area, you can still se the old shophouses,with old wooden shelves and cabinets,packed with strange things,some of them are restaurants,with plastic chairs and fabolous thaifood,and some of them barely stands.
The thing is:
When you travel,travel with young peoples eyes,or better,bring young people with you,if it is possible.
Of course,you will sometimes end up in a hotel,with no windows in the room,or a bar on 1 floor,and you will for sure end up,paying to much for a lot of things,but these are the things you remember,later on,and makes you laugh. And beeing a traveller,hey,you can always leave and find a better place,just ask around.
So,maybe a stay in the area,with some young people will give you inspiration for a review?
Or you could just ask some of the travellers on KSR:Why are you here?
PS. I have a hotelreservation in Tani Road for Jan.2016 :) :)
KSR is a culture more than a tourist spot, if people expenience staying here during the 1980’s will keeping coming back . I came here the first time on 1982, staying in a guest house for 30bht a night when i was 19yrs old
Start travelling around the world with a little budget, it started from here!
After having travelling through Asia, Europe Afria & America, i went back to my home town HK, turn from a hippie to now a bussiness man , i can afford to stay in a 5 stars hotel in the city but i preferre more staying in KSR area, where i can find a nice room for USD30, strole along the area doing nothing, drinking beer watching people & being watched. I see the changes of this area for the last 30yrs from a budget travelling meeting point into where I’m setting now at the the pool side of the Riva Surya hotel. A lot of choices of guest house & hotels.
KSR is a culture!
Khao San Road is a bad joke for sure, but at least a funny and amusing one. A must see if you want an entertaining potpourri of the world and scanty female dress that will make your mouth drop. But there is a reason for staying in the area. Access to Sumen Fort, the walk along the river, the river ferry, easy walk to Thammasat University and all the attractions nearby. A center for all tourist services and an excellent tourist office on the river. There are loads of funky guesthouses and sweet boutique hotels just a short walk away on very quiet sois. So you can enjoy the circus and still avoid it whenever you like. The park at Sumen on the river is my favorite morning hangout, and the garden by the river is a peaceful and cool escape with excellent, student-priced food in the cafeteria. Talking about a bad joke, Alex Garland’s description of KS in The Beach is a disgusting libel. Sinister men stepping out of the shadows and offering cobra blood. More likely a hooker coming up and offering to pay you to do her.
I agree so much with you!
coming may we’ll be in bangkok, first time, afraid/confused to stay in khaosan, at the same time challenging to stay too.
I will be traveling to Bangkok solo at the end of this month for two weeks. I land in Bangkok on August 1st 5am. I am looking forward to the good and the bad, I think it is about the experience. I am not a drinker or a party person, but I will be out and about observing people and eating, its the best thing to do. I enjoyed reading all of your posts. If anyone will be in Bangkok around that time, please let me know!
My point with Khao San is simple: why I should pay thousands of dollars to go to the other side of the world, just to drink beer with the same people that I have back home?
definitely one of those love it or hate it spots, considering it is a pain in the butt to get to most probably shouldnt stay here
I am staying at a hotel in the Khaosan Road right now. Just this 1 night, as the hotel was recommended as “calm” to me by my bf who stayed here cca 6 years ago. Well. I am SHOCKED. I have to say I consider myself still young (29y) and although I dont party anymore, I used to party&drink a lot in my 20s. Nevertheless, Ive never seen anything so DISGUSTING as this street. I have no idea what purpose that has… going to a street that is so loud ive never heard anything louder (I think), ppl bothering you and trying to sell all kinds of shit, scams… I am SHOCKED. DISGUSTING. The scorpions they waved 5cm from my face with were the LEAST disgusting thing. The whole place is…a hell. No, thats not “youth” as someone here pointed out. Thats just ill.
Do they still sell fake ids?
In a city filled with 3 star hotel for $35-50per night. Who in hell would stay in that trashy dump. The accommodations there are similar to prison surroundings , not holiday. I think that’s a disgusting way to take a vacation.
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