The Khao San Road is an electric promenade of masonry and textiles. The road itself encroaches on the stroller. Once the stalls on either side of the street gave the illusion of space, but now travellers journeying down its centre are never more than a yard from an entreaty to buy or trade. The only respite is when the police appear and some of the vendors run off for 15 minutes while the rest move back until the police go away again.
For some travellers a walk down the Khao San Road is a pleasure and part of the Bangkok experience but for others this is hell – not Thailand at all. I rather like the place. While it would be depressing to see tourists remaining in and around the KSR area and not leave to explore other parts of the city, the Khao San Road is as valid a place to visit in Bangkok as Wat Pho or the Grand Palace.
The road’s origins are revealed in its name. Khao San means rice mill and the first hotel in the area catered to provincial civil servants visiting on business. Today hundreds of places to sleep over can be found and the area has spilled over into the surrounding streets and alleyways. Along with hostels and hostels, this street is an easy place to get a Thai massage, an Arab shisha, English language book, Italian meal and pirated Hollywood movie all within a short walk of each other.
Every city has a backpacker or tourist ghetto but Bangkok does its one better than anywhere else in the world. Even if you choose not to stay there, and add your foreign body to the throng, the Khao San Road is well worth visiting to observe or play your small part in the drama. Personally I prefer some of the surrounding streets – particularly Soi Ram Buttri, which winds around the nearby temple – to the KSR itself but either way I recommend just kicking back with a beer and a shisha and enjoying the show.
The actors in this massive piece of street theatre are you and me, or the wide eyed new arrival, whether young from urban Europe or old from rural America: we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The boys don’t look like that there. He’ll regret those heals later in the evening.
Occasionally emancipated casualties of Thailand’s vice and favour toestep their way slowly past and sit on the statue blob outside the hotel bar. No doubt this structure is of faux religious significance but from here, without illumination or artificial optical aid it looks like a blob, on a blob, on a pedestal.
Between the tables a man seems to sit on the floor. He moves along and the gap reveals propulsion via skateboard but no legs. A man with the withered stunted deformity peculiar to Southeast Asia solicits contributions nearby.
For the Bug Boys, Light Guys and Frog Ladies moving up and down the Khao San Road and adjoining streets is business. The Frog Ladies provide the underlying aural accompaniment to a day or night in the area by repetitively stroking a stick up and down a wooden toy to emit a croaking sound. The Bug Boys proffer insect refreshment to those who dare while the Light Guys thought what every Westerner needs and wants above all other things is a novelty laser pen.
Every now and again the Light Guys do piqué some interest: if I get this Steve from accounts will think I’m a god with my new found ability to project a green knitted light on a nearby wall or tree. Someone else tries on a hat. Food vendors tout to restaurant goers that moved on from food to drink hours ago.
When I want to say no to a sale I put my hand on my heart, catch the eye and smile. It’s something learned in Muslim countries but it tends to work well here too; a quick, polite negative. Saying no, and occasionally yes, can become a time consuming occupation around here so it’s best to perfect your technique quickly.
For the most part the vendors take rejection well and move on. Someone new will arrive soon, carrying their baggage on their backs to replace the ones who did or didn’t buy. A more sad sight is of someone checking out alone and walking away from the noise and light, gently trundling away alone to the airport or an island. Wherever he lands, by air or sea, the landscape will be dramatically different from tonight’s departure.
We are leaving too. We are not staying here this time around so we exit stage right to argue our way home via taxi or tuk tuk to our hostel in Hua Lumpong.
Do you like the Khao San Road, or other tourist ghettos, or do you hate the place?