Living Bangkok: There is no good reason to stay on or even visit Khao San road

I had been chatting for a couple weeks with a woman from Brazil who planned to visit Thailand and would be staying in Bangkok for a few days. We made plans to meet. She told me she would be staying in the borough of Banglamphu, near but not on Khao San road. Banglamphu is actually a pretty nice area, most of its streets lined with trees and shop-houses, and it includes some of Bangkok’s most popular attractions, including Wat Pho and the Grand Palace.

Khao San road and the area immediately surrounding it, though, in my opinion, is an absolute cultural wasteland. I loathed it and will never return. I saw more westerners there in ten minutes than I did in two months living and exploring the rest of the city. Khao San is a cartoon version of Bangkok, a gross exaggeration, like a film set designed by someone who has never visited the city. The thought that some people visit Bangkok and see only this part of it is profoundly disheartening. It would be like visiting Montreal and spending all your time on or around Crescent Street, or St-Paul in Old Montreal. It would be like going to New York and spending all your time on Time’s Square, like visiting New Orleans and seeing only Bourbon Street.

Khao San is the only place I’ve seen edible scorpions being sold; that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the city and is largely an invention for tourists alone. I finally saw people wearing “traditional” Thai clothing, but these were dreadlocked back-packers. Again: this is the equivalent to walking down Queen Street in Toronto and seeing Thai tourists wearing full lumberjack garb. It’s ridiculous.

And to make matters worse, these back-packers are exactly the type to proudly say they never frequent resorts while traveling…believe me, Khao San road IS a resort, a space designed for (and, in some ways, by) tourists and embedded into the city proper. It truly is disingenuous: at least the people visiting Nana’s ping-pong shows and Pattaya’s Walking Street know and accept why they’re there; I’m not sure that’s true of back-packers frequenting Khao San, they’re likely convinced that they aren’t the “resort type” and that they’re only into “authentic experiences”.

The area is rife with touts (people trying to aggressively sell you crap) and scam artists (I was sorry to have to tell the young woman I met that, no, the Grand Palace wasn’t closed, she’d been lied to and taken for a ride, a popular scam in the area). It’s also where Thai friendliness seems to reach its limit as the service is more rushed and curt here, though I certainly don’t blame them. Every week there’s a story in the local news of some drunken westerner breaking the law in some idiotic way. It must be a nightmare dealing with us on a daily basis and in this context.

I’m not one to chase “authenticity“, but this was a bridge too far. Honestly, the Ronald MacDonald statues offering visitors a wai is more Thai than anything on Khao San road, at least he’s been adapted to Thai culture rather than the other way around. Make no mistake: Khao San road is an example of Thais adapting to foreigners in the worst and most explicit way.

More genuinely Thai than Khao San road

I genuinely can’t think of a single reason to stay on or near Khao San road, unless your comfort zone is so razor thin that you’ve flown 15-30 hours only to spend time with Brits, Americans and Australians. No, the beer is not cheaper. No, the bars are not better. No, it’s not a convenient spot from which to explore. No, Thais don’t hang out there, unless you count the college students who go there to see and be seen among foreigners. Yeah, it’s where you go in the city to find foreigners. It’s basically a zoo, a neighborhood-sized tourist trap. Avoid Khao San the way you would a badly run resort. Seriously.

Okay, rant over. Now comes the hopefully constructive part of this post.

So, why does this happen? Why do so many visitors flock to Khao San road? Part of it, I think, is that a certain echo chamber has developed among backpackers visiting Bangkok. Look online to find out where to go and, unfortunately, Khao San remains the go to answer, so most people simply stop looking for an alternative. It’s a self-perpetuating loop: backpacker goes to Bangkok, stays only on Khao San, returns home and asked by a friend where she should stay, back-packer number one answers Khao San, back-packer number two visits and stays on Khao San. Repeat, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

Another problem is that many people only stay in Bangkok on their way to the islands or the north. I get it, vacation days are limited and you may only be able to devote two or three days to the capital; that’s totally fair. But, this only means you have further reason to ensure you truly experience the city. People in this situation zero in on Khao San as it seems like a convenient place, with plenty of reviews from fellow back-packers and so on, so it must be the easiest spot from which to see BKK in a couple days.

Fact is, in addition to being a caricature of what Thais think foreigners expect of Bangkok, Khao San road is nowhere near a BTS (Skytrain) or MRT (Subway) station and so can only be reached by taxi (many of which may try to scam you, given you’ll be viewed as a dumb tourist on Khao San road) or by river boat, which only operates until 7pm. So as a base—no matter what you want to see and do—it’s terrible.

Luckily, Bangkok is a huge and varied city in which it is impossible to feel bored, and so there’re dozens of alternatives to Khao San road. I’ll list a few suggestions in a later post.

For the time being, if you did visit Bangkok and barely strayed from Khao San, the bad news is that, in my opinion, you didn’t really visit Bangkok at all. However, the good news is that you now have a perfect reason to come back and explore this wild and wonderful city to the hilt!

Chinatown: A lively alternative to Khao San