There’s a part of Bangkok loaded with backpacking farangs, cheap street food carts, and plenty of opportunities to unload you of the burden of your hard-earned Baht. It’s the famous (and infamous) Khao San Road. And this place is the centre of the backpacking universe in South East Asia.
It’s my fourth visit back to the Khao San area, the American’s eighth or so. It’s the type of place you always find yourself returning to, whether out of necessity or out of boredom. The neon signs welcome you when you first arrive to the Khao San, but they glare at you when you’ve overstayed your welcome. This is a place that is best experienced for only a few days before you move on to your next destination.
The Khao San has a reputation as a backpacker hub for good reason — everything you need is right here. There’s plenty of travel options to sort out your next move. There’s cheap massages to treat your aching body. There’s 7-Elevens next to 7-Elevens. There’s cheap pad thai, fruit shakes and banana pancakes from roadside stalls for 30 Baht (about US$1). After hours, bars pop up out of nowhere. If you’re in Bangkok and on a budget, this is your world for a few days.
There’s always something happening around here. People are just arriving into town, weighed down by their packs. People are moving out, their packs stuffed with cheap gifts for their mates back home. There are people just hanging out, having set up camp on a vacant gutter to people-watch and eat their treats from the many food carts. There’s faces I’ve never seen on the road before, yet I’ve seen them a thousand times. At once, familiar and unfamiliar. I love imagining where they’re all from.
As someone who is no longer 23 and constantly looking to party every available second of the day or night, I prefer the more mellow street of Soi Rambuttri. It’s very central, just around the corner from the main drag of the Khao San Road, but it feels as though someone just turned down the volume on just about everything: from the pushy tuk-tuk drivers seeking passengers to the local vendors hawking Thai fisherman pants. It’s more my speed.
The Khao San experience is also peppered with some of the familiar multinationals, like Starbucks and Burger King. Here, they don’t appear out-of-place. They serve a purpose, reminding you of the reassuring ways of ‘home’, with Thai twist. It’s little things like this that can make the world of different when you’re on the road.
I have found that whilst so much of the South East Asia I saw when I was here four years ago has changed. But the Khao San Road has stayed almost exactly the same. The hordes of English-speaking farangs keep on coming, and the area (especially Soi Rambuttri) has lost none of its kitschy charm. It’s kind of nice to know that the Khao San Road and surrounds still exists as it does in my memory. There’s something about the Khao San Road that keeps me returning. But not for long.