Khao San Road is a microcosm of the tourism industry in Thailand, and its evolution into a package tour shell of its former self is reflective of Thailand as a whole, but is it too far gone for backpackers to ever enjoy again?
Khao San Road; love it or loath it, it has held a special place in the hearts of the backpacker community for decades. It has been held sacred as a backpacker mecca, as the decompression stop all newbie backpackers make before they head off into their south east Asia adventure.
Fifteen years ago Khao San Road was a lawless free for all, an awesome no holes barred, unadulterated adventure. Everything was cheap and local businesses sprung up to cater specifically for backpackers. Backpackers enjoyed the dirt cheap street food stalls and haggled at the overpriced markets as they avoided the ping pong show touts. They made do with fan cooled (if they were lucky) cupboards that passed as private rooms in locals homes or dorms filled with as many other backpackers as could humanly be squeezed into one small place.
To an extent in recent years it has always been a little bit touristy. Snobby backpackers have for at least a decade now derided it as too mainstream, as home to a ‘lesser’ breed of backpacker more concerned with staying in McDonalds and looking for the free wifi than ‘real’ travelling, whatever that is.
Ignoring the snobby aspect for a moment, to a certain degree they weren’t wrong. There was always that element of growing mass tourism to Khao San Road, but it also always still retained that hint of what it used to be. Among the touristy elements there was always the wide eyed spirit of adventure, where new backpackers and independent travellers took advantage of the cheap hostels and the amazing street food, mingled with other backpackers in cheap bars with knock off DVDs playing on a big screens, exchanged tips and tales of life on the road and still managed to avoid the ping pong show touts.
As much as Khao San Road has changed over the years, it always had that excitement, that edge. It was still a home for backpackers. But on my most recent visit it felt like that feeling had disappeared completely.
The wild, independent backpacker ghetto has been replaced with a package tourism shell of its former self.
Just as backpackers themselves are leaving Thailand for new, more independent, backpacker friendly countries, they are leaving KSR behind for the package tourists and the families too.
This is far more than the criticisms of recent years where backpackers dismissed Khao San Road as too touristy or just for the party crowd who inhale whisky buckets all night. It is more than that. It is no longer managing a balancing act between the two worlds of mass tourism and backpacking, it has gone wholly and completely over to the dark side.
Backpackers themselves have changed over the last decade no doubt, but to a large extent KSR has always had that independent backpacker vibe and I have always been a staunch defender of it.
It was always to an extent a touristy backpacker ghetto to an extent, it was never really ‘authentic’ (whatever the hell that means anyway), at least not in my lifetime, and that was okay. It was never meant to be. It was always that decompression chamber between real life and the backpacker bubble and it was always just a little bit tacky. That was part of its charm.
It was that tackiness, that ambience of mainstream tourism that just hovered on the backpacker side of line, that edginess, that made it fun, and that is exactly what it was, fun.
Maybe it is my own jaded perception after 15 years of travel but now the feeling is different. That line has been crossed, and I don’t think it can ever go back.
The nostalgic Khao San Road of ‘The Beach’ is well and truly dead.
Just as Thailand has over the last 5 years or so embraced mass package tourism and shunned the travellers and backpackers its economy relied on for decades, KSR has been completed gentrified to cater almost exclusively to mass package tourists.
Of course the backpackers are still there, lured by tradition, aged copies of Lonely Planet and false notions that the nostalgia from the Beach is still real. You can still find the cheap street food and vendors selling cheap T shirts with badly spelled slogans, the hostels and cupboards with mattresses in are still there, and you will always find fresh of the plane, wide eyed travellers with their brand new backpacks being ripped off and scammed by the taxi drivers.
But now they are in the minority.
Now backpackers are becoming outnumbered by package tourists on guided tours, eager to see what the fuss is about and get a glimpse of the independent travel lifestyle they dream about but don’t want to step out of their organised comfort to experience.
Entire families with 2.4 kids in tow are wondering the now infamous street stalls, package tourists and not backpackers are now waiting in line for those ever trendy and individual dreadlocks, and McDonalds, Starbucks and other franchises have moved in en masse for their comfort. A police station has sprung up on the corner, reducing the crime and largely getting rid of the touts no doubt, but also reducing that spirit of lawless adventure too.
Even Khao San’s surrounding streets have been gentrified to the Nth degree, with busy and expensive restaurants and spas replacing the cheap food stalls and side street massage places. Boutique chic has replaced backpacker cheap en masse. And the result is obvious.
Just like the rest of Thailand is now catering to mass package tourism en masse, prices have shot up and they are now catering to a very different market to the budget backpackers spending a few pounds a night.
The backpacker lifestyle has itself become pastiche. A tourist attraction.
Is it just me? Am I being too judgmental?
Khao San Road is now almost completely taken over by package tourism and gentrified beyond recognition. You can still catch a glimpse of what it used to be if you explore a few of the smaller side streets. The dingy rooms and cheap whisky buckets still exist if you really want them, but the heart of KSR has gone.
I know things change, it is inevitable. But it’s also a little bit sad too.
What do you think? Has Khao San Road been gentrified beyond recognition? Have you only recently discovered it or have you seen it change over the years too?
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