For a lot of people, the first thing you will experience in Bangkok (and usually Thailand, and often Asia) is Khao San Road.
Khao San Road is one of those strange places which is a tourist attraction simply for being a tourist attraction. It is the world’s first tourist ghetto; a strange melting pot of all sorts of nationalities in one thriving, bustling street in Bangkok.
I was one of those people whose first stop in Thailand was Khao San Road. In 2009, I hopped off my plane, threw off my backpack and headed straight for it, eager for some pad thai and a cold Chang. I didn’t hate it but didn’t love it, but I was drawn there. You can’t help it when you’re in Bangkok, however much of a tourist snob you may be.
Why? Because it is interesting. One of my favourite things in the world is people-watching, and there’s not many places better to do so than Khao San Road. In fact, this is probably the best place in the world to play Backpacker Bingo, an ingenious game which involves earning points for seeing:
- Stop Thief! (Anyone wearing their daypack backwards);
- Penny Saved (Tourist arguing with a taxi/tuk tuk driver);
- Commit Already! (Anyone sporting a henna tattoo);
- Armpits and Beer (A guy wearing a beer logo singlet); and, amongst others;
- In Yo Face (Someone taking a photo less than two feet from the subject’s face).
The people to me are fascinating, and the reason why I came back on this trip to Bangkok. Unlike other types of ghettos, people choose to come to Khao San Road. It boasts everything tourists need; hotels, hostels, bars, restaurants, food stalls, clothing stalls, 7-Elevens, a KFC, booking agencies and loads more. When I say ‘loads more’, I’m referring to the sordid side of Thailand. It’s a side I hate, so I’m not even going to go there.
I bought hippy pants on Khao San Road. I stared open-mouthed at the street stalls selling fried crickets and beetles. I sat at a plastic table and ate cheap pad thai. And I was happy.
Khao San Road isn’t the only tourist ghetto in the world, but it was the first and arguably the most pure. There’s Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City, Senefelderstrasse in Munich and some would even say the Red Light District in Amsterdam. But in all of these places, locals – though part of a minority – still exist. Locals buy their lunch from food stalls on Pham Ngu Lao, Senefelderstrasse boasts call centres and inexpensive restaurants where you’re greeted in German, and the Red Light District is one of the most expensive areas of Amsterdam in which to live. Along Khao San Road, the only locals you’ll see are the ones flogging things to the tourists. Nobody local comes there as a consumer.
So why do we do it? Why are we drawn there like moths to a flame? Both times I visited, I had an awful taste in my mouth. Khao San Road is not Thai, it’s simply a Thai reaction to tourist demands. Years ago I can imagine that Khao San Road would have been different and a sense of comfort after travelling long distances without the comforts of communication with home. In comparison, I witnessed someone walk along Khao San Road with their iPad in front of them, chatting with someone presumably from home.
On our last night in Bangkok, we were in taxi, heading to Siam Square. Our driver was super friendly, chatting away along the entire journey. At one stage, we passed a street absolutely full of food stalls, with queues for some reaching into the street. We asked our driver what it was all about.
‘Oh, that’s the place for the best food in the city,’ he explained. ‘Only locals. No tourists ever go there.’
Paul could tell that I longed to yell, ‘Stop the cab!’ and make a beeline for the local chaos. But I didn’t, and because it was our last night in the city, I never got to check out what could have been my culinary mecca.
We were perhaps a kilometre from Khao San Road.
To me, Khao San Road is tourism in a nutshell. I don’t like it when tourists simply dismiss it; it is worth having a look at. This is how tourism looks to many locals, albeit in a hyped-up form.
Naturally, I don’t like the seediness, the total lack of Thai culture and the rampant Western consumerism. But I love the feeling of community; the fact that the people on the streets come from dozens of countries I know nothing about. You can hear the different languages floating around, tut-tut at tourists to whom you feel superior and simply enjoy the feeling of people on the streets at night.
So I scoff at Khao San Road. But I know I’ll be back someday. Even if it is just to scoff.