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Khao San Road: Return to the Nest
' Nowadays it seems the Diesel, Rip
Curl, Red Bull and twenty minute
degrees are not selling like they use to.
"I think there are about 25% less farang
this year," said one stall holder selling
fake brand name beach wear '

November, 2007

     A seemingly endless stream of tourists moves up and down the street: a horde of colourful people; some clumsy, some street wise, most new to this part of the world. Theres certainly diversity in the way people dress and look, gesticulate and speak but all the same, its a generic diversity. New buildings are being constructed and since the last visit it seems they have piled even more stalls, signs, vendors and bars upon the last lot. Word on the street is Khao Sans backpacker numbers are down considerably, but returning to this place after many years, it seems to me to be just as frenetic as it was on my first hyper-manic day in Thailand.

     To understand why this particular street, miles away from the bustling nerve centres of Silom and Sukhumvit, turned into the epicentre of backpacker vogue, you have to go back some years. In the late eighteenth century when Bangkok was still a bairn, the centre of the city was concentrated around the palace, not far from Khao San. The neighbourhood has always had significant importance in Bangkok, and when, in 1982, the city celebrated its bi-centennial anniversary with festivals, concerts and thronged streets, tourists flooded the palace area. With some of the more budget minded farang stranded in four star regions they were forced to venture into the satellite streets, some ending up asking local shops owners around the dusty old Khao San Road to put them up for a night courtesy of a few baht. Doors opened and the frugal crowd had a place to lay their heads. Add some more years and mix in with a flow of budget travellers, sprinkle on a bunch of golden coins, put in the oven until the rest of the property owners in the area get savvy to the lucrative grains in their land and, Ta Da! A great fantastic street that never sleeps, another iconic landmark on the South East Asian trail which migrating flocks make home for a while.

     Although nowadays it seems the Diesel, Rip Curl, Red Bull and twenty minute degrees are not selling like they used to. I think there are about 25% less farang this year, said one stall holder selling fake brand name beach wear, I want to sell something else, but Im not sure what the fashion is, so I just sell pretty much the same as before. Speaking to a tout purveying body massages, who also mirrored the stall holders views, For sure, numbers are down, everywhere in the city they are down, no one is coming to Bangkok these days, they all go somewhere else. He did admit, though, that he manages to get at least one farang into a massage joint every night of the week, If they are drunk, its easier. Have to wait until theyre drunk! We both stood laughing at the foot of the street, next to the police station where cops moved about. Asking the local Khao San bobby why tourists numbers were down, he said possibly the tsunami, government coup and trouble in the south didnt help, although he did say that tourists had nothing to fear. After some questioning on the safety of Khao San he replied, Thailand is very safe, Khao San . . . safe, and he motioned to his gun, smiling never have to use this!

     John Hughes, founder of KhaoSanRoad.com, who first visited and stayed on the street twenty years ago commented, Whats changed most is probably the profile of the people who come here, twenty years ago it was a farang ghetto for the budget traveller. Nowadays a different kind of traveller comes here. The backpackers still come, but you will also find people visiting with more focused travel plans: the gap year traveller, people looking for work . . . people come with more credit and in turn some of the hotels and guesthouses are becoming more up-market. He pointed out that the mindset of the visitor has changed and so the street has had to evolve to meet the demands of the tourists. Its not uncommon to see 2,000 baht a night hotels with pools and air-con being built alongside the dingy apartments erected years ago. The biggest change might be the number of Thai visitors to the road. The street has become very popular with the young Thai crowd, especially its nightlife; big clubs have opened, and bars are packed with young Thais, as well as farang.

     Khao San is Khao San, its a lot less like Europe or America, and its a lot less like Thailand, too. No one is out of place here, anyone can have a good time, added Hughes.

     Nevertheless plenty of refined expats forsake this street for more cultural surroundings, decrying Khao San as being tawdry, un-Thai or annoying. Although in its defence, Khao San has a culture of its own. If youve been away for some time, you might appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the street when you return. With more Thais, and definitely more Asian tourists, with more places opening up especially on the nearby Soi Rambuttri theres much more to do and see. Of course, some things remain the same: the florid afternoon beer drinkers, disappointed two day tourists, the late night scuffles and sabbatical dread locks, but this adds, if youve been here some time, to the wonderful delirium of Khao Sans tireless carousel.

     In Gullivers Bar, a Khao San landmark, the tourists shoot pool under dim lights, while bi-cultural couples short time and long time eat fish and chips and green curry. Teachers walk in from nearby schools donning ties and speaking a few words of the local lingo; the rookie traveller is amazed. Whether or not Gateway to Asia, Decompression chamber, East meets West, this street is definitely interesting, confounding even. From Gullivers its stuck in a traffic jam for an hour on the way to the station and then a mystical night train journey through Thailands countryside. The carnival of Khao San Road slowly becomes a vague and strange memory.

10 things you can do on Khao San Road

1. Buy fake goods! They may have similar things in Chiang Mai but on Khao San they have more and its cheaper. The range of music CDs is phenomenal. Get a degree without having to read a book; post-modern education! You may also acquire press passes so you can get into parties with Citylife staff.

2. Spend a night partying with a truly eclectic crowd in Gullivers, Susie Bar; The Cave, Lava Club, Brick Club, The Club (discos).

3. Get wasted on cheap cocktails in the street (60-80 baht).

4. Cheap Street Eats: pad thai, falafel, banana crepes and roasted scorpions.

5. Get a massage both traditional Thai, and dubious (actually, the dubious is not on Khao San).

6. Become a demi-Rastafarian (get dreadlocks) in only two hours price negotiable.

7. Visit these nearby attractions: The Grand Palace, The Royal Garden, Wat Arun.

8. Stay at Khao Sans most luxurious hotel The Buddy Lodge. Room rates start at 2,000 baht a night, or alternatively, stay at Prakorb's House - a real taste of how KSR used to be 20 years ago!

9. Have your fortune read by an Indian guy in a turban who starts the conversation off by saying, 'You are a lucky man - want to know why?

10. Gorock climbing at The Cave - they have one of those artificial Xtreme rock climbing walls to tackle after a couple of beers...

By James Austin Farrel
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