Learning to Love the Khao San Road

When I arrived in Bangkok, I was determined not to stay at the Khao San Road. Bangkok’s Khao San Road is what Piccadilly Circus was to soldiers in the Great War: sooner or later, if you survive, you’ll meet everybody there.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I was determined not to stay at the Khao San Road. The Khao San Road is what Piccadilly Circus was to soldiers in the Great War: sooner or later, if you survive, you’ll meet everybody there. During the day, dazed and jetlagged foreigners dodge the tuk-tuks and the taxis, bumping backpacks. Newbies are tempted by the tailor shops which advertise two suits and five shirts for two hundred dollars–hand-tailored, sir. The windows are plastered with photos of lumpy, sunburned tourists in their poorly-fitting purchases, which belie the testimonials in Danish, German, Dutch, and English.

At night the area is closed to traffic and hucksters bark their pirated DVDs, marijuana t-shirts, chopstick sets, orange juice and knock-off Diesel gear. On Sri Ram Bhuttri, vans set up mobile Red Bull cocktail shops beside the blaring CD stands. There are fried-spider sellers catering to those who need a quick dose of exotica to dine out on back in Lewisham. Young locals arrive to gawp at the _falangs_, though many of the clubs and bars have a no-Thais policy.

It’s a freakshow. Some timid visitors pick through pad-thai-with-egg before burrowing back into the nearest internet café, but elsewhere every possible variant and combination of tattoo, piercing, sun damage, hairstyle, strange clothing and bared skin parades the street. Ancient hippies with waist-length hair trawl near English skinheads. New Age mamas are serene as their toddlers play with the bongs, but they scoop them up when the Chrish-tian missionaries appear with their white smiles. American frat boys can’t believe their luck with all the fake ID and international press cards for sale. Sometimes glum young monks show up, waiting out the end of their retreat like military service. It’s on the Khao San Road that the international phenomenon of Bad Israeli Pants reaches its height.

It’s a horror. It’s irresistible. If you want to travel in Southeast Asia, and Nine Days of Splendour and Elephants is neither your style nor your budget, you will wash up on the Khao San Road at some point. The bucket-shop travel agents are rude and efficient. A girl who has never had the money to leave Bangkok for a holiday can get you a visa for any of the surrounding countries in two days, or book your “trekking” in Chiang Mai. There are ATMs, money-changers, tourist police, cheap airport minibuses, even a branch of Boots that heavily promotes its morning-after pill and STD tests.

Of course, I was too good for the Khao San Road. I have the sort of notions of being a Traveler, not a tourist, that irritate me so in other people, mainly because it’s central to the pose that _everybody else_ is just a tourist. (And self-styled Travelers are so damn annoying. I want to shout “Get a job, hippie,” at every rugged, misty-eyed one of them, including myself.) But it’s ingrained, this unattractive smirk at those who order sausage and chips instead of _som tum_ with fermented crab, this condescension towards those who think Koh Samui counts. Sometimes I want to smack myself for being a snotty cow.

So it served me right that my decision to stay in Bangkok’s Chinatown rather than the Khao San Road scared the daylights out of me.

The push factors for my trip were far stronger than any great pull to travel. My husband and I had separated. Since it was my decision and my fault, I didn’t think I deserved sympathy, so I didn’t talk to anyone about it. It didn’t help that I was his employee, and dependent on that job for immigration status in the US. We bore it as well as we could for six long months, but when we couldn’t stand it any more, I had to leave the company. My six-year visa allowance was running out; no one would hire me, I thought, with just fifteen months left. So I cooked up the plan of traveling for a year, as cheaply as possible, so that I could reset that allowance to the beginning. I would go back to New York as soon as I could, I thought. Now that looks both less likely and less appealing.

I have never felt more alone than I did the night I arrived in Bangkok with a year to fill. I had insulated myself from reality in New York, but it was hard to ignore it here. I knew no one. I couldn’t read the street signs. There wasn’t a westerner in sight. I couldn’t cross the street; the traffic ploughed right through the pedestrian crossings. I didn’t know how or where to get food, so I ate the Kit-Kats I’d brought from London. Stray dogs growled and snapped whenever I went out. I started to count how much I had left and lost.

But somehow it seems pointless to stay miserable without people to mirror it. My cautious exploration radius grew bigger every day. I ticked off all the attractions and faced every Bangkok scam listed in my _Rough Guide_. When I made it all the way up to the Khao San Road, I was joyful. It was a freakshow, but it was familiar. I wallowed in the second-hand bookstores and cappuccino houses and spent hours on email. It felt like cheating. I told myself, my bossy, condescending capital-T Traveler self, to just shut up.

2 thoughts on “Learning to Love the Khao San Road”

  1. Totally correct on the Khao San Road phenomenon. Same applies in Paharganj, Delhi BTW, and probably other regional hubs I’d reckon.

    And 100% agreement on the Bad Israeli Pants thing! Worth noting that it’s usually accompanied by the Bad Israeli Dreads and, most importantly of all, the Just Got Out Of National Service And I Got Paid So I’m Getting Really Stoned for 6 Months general attitude, I think. I don’t know if you went west to India, but if you thought Khao San Road had quite a lot of Bad Israeli Pants, Paharganj is quite simply *insane* (probably because it’s the first stop going east from Israel).


  2. Oh, Dervala, word. I just returned from India for a six-week jaunt and got an infected tonsil in my last week while in Kerala and was totally and completely miserable. When I got to Mumbai (from which I was flying back to the States), I was my own worst nightmare. I drank milkshakes and ate fancy food yet internally snorted at every sandal-and-socked backpacker that crossed my path.

    But, I was totally spreading the dervala.net gospel with newfound friends. Reading your blog over the past year was one of the things that inspired me to get to India in the first place.


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