For most backpackers that are stopping off in Bangkok for a few days or more during their Southeast Asian adventure, Khao San Road will be their home; and for a lot of them Khao San Road will be their world. In fact, this small road in Bangkok is often described as the Gateway to Asia although others prefer to simply call it a backpacker’s ghetto.
Whatever your view of the road, there is no getting away from the fact that you can find some of the cheapest accommodation in the country while being surrounded by everything a traveller could ever possibly need. Bus rides to all the other parts of Thailand and beyond can be arranged at the many travel agents on the street, at prices lower than you will find elsewhere. Visa and plane tickets can also be acquired here without ever having to leave this travellers sanctuary.
Life on the Banana Pancake Trail
Staying on Khao San Road might be as far removed from traditional Thai life as is possible but for those starting out on the Banana Pancake Trail, it is a great place to meet like-minded travellers, pick up tips from seasoned veterans about to embark on their return journey home or just spend a few days relaxing before setting off on a 12 hour bus journey to Chiang Mai.
Although I never had the pleasure of staying on the road, I have visited it on many occasions during my time in Bangkok. Despite being smaller than you imagined it to be, and far less Thai than you would’ve thought, there is something captivating about this small road in Bangkok that is full of those starting their trip of a lifetime into the unknown, or not so unknown any more thanks to Lonely Planet and co.
Whenever you step on to the road, itchy feet begins to set in and a growing sense of wanderlust almost bubbles over into action. Although spending more than a few hours rubbing shoulders with braying traveller-types quickly dispels any desire to board the next minibus leaving town. Images of nights spent in air-con-less huts and weeks of eating nothing but 7-11 toasted sandwiches and banana and Nutella rotis alongside dreadlocked poi-wielding backpackers can quickly bring you back down to reality.
For those not put off by that image, everything you need to survive can be found on Khao San Road as well as a whole lot of stuff you don’t. If fake designer goods are your thing then the markets on the main street and the small alleys littered with stalls will most likely have anything you could ever think of, from watches to backpacks, right through to weapons, driving licenses and the obligatory degree certificates awarded by prestigious universities from around the world, so sought after by aspiring TEFL teachers wishing to extend their Asian adventure beyond the departure date of their round the world ticket. If you do decide to get on the TEFL merry-go-round, then the tailors on Khao San Road should be able to knock up a stylish suit that will have you winning any interviews you enter in the quest to find the perfect teaching job.
For many of the transient residents of Khao San Road, this will be their first introduction to Thai food in Thailand, and while Thai food cooked in its native country differs from that of back home, the chefs plying their trade in this backpacker enclave have taken this into account and concocted some wonderful hybrid dishes that bridge the gap between authentic and bland such as American Fried Rice, served with a side of ketchup.
Escaping Khao San without Leaving the Area
If all that Western influence has gotten too much for you and you still feel like you are waiting for your adventure to begin, try taking a short walk off the road and onto the connecting Soi Rambuttri. Here you will find a more (if only just) tranquil street that offers a more relaxing vibe with less tacky markets and more bars with open air seating. While this isn’t typical Thailand, sitting in one of these roadside bars, watching the world go by seems miles away from trying to do the same on Khao San Road.
While you can still find guesthouses, restaurants, bars and shops on Soi Rambuttri, it’s more pleasant surroundings make it a better choice for those looking to stay a few nights in Bangkok without succumbing to the charms of Khao San Road. There is even a temple on this road that is still populated with monks, something you probably wouldn’t expect to find on this roads noisy neighbour.
After sunset, the road is just as lively as Khao San but with less boorish travellers bragging about their trips and more laidback backpackers simply taking in the sights, sounds and buckets on offer on this more mellow stretch of road. But don’t get carried away just yet, there is a British café at the end of Soi Rambuttri serving up all day breakfasts and fish and chips. This is still Thailand don’t forget!
If you want to get even further, culturally, from Khao San Road, without venturing too far, Phra Athit is your best bet. This area has everything you need from great food to offbeat little bars that are still attracting locals thanks to their ability to so far at least, keep hold of some of its Thai-ness. Here you can sample some of the bests in independent Thai restaurants, coffee shops and bars serving up everything from traditional Thai fare to Islamic matabas and world class burgers. If you want the best of both worlds, splitting your time between the backpacker ghetto and streets like these should help keep you sane.
While it is easy to look down your nose at Khao San Road and all it stands for, for many it is the only taste of Bangkok they will get and hopefully this article will have given you some tips on expanding your horizons while staying in this comfortable and welcoming backpacker haven.
About Joe Fylan
Joe Fylan has written 41 posts in this blog.
Joe is from the UK but has been living in Bangkok for the last three years where he has spent as much time as possible exploring the rest of Thailand and South East Asia. When Joe is not travelling he enjoys reading, writing, photography, keeping fit and spending time with his kids.