The Evolution Of Khao San Road.

Khao San Road Bangkok

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.

Bangkok Khao San Road night

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. 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.

To a certain degree they weren’t wrong, there was always that element to it, 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 avoided the ping pong show touts at the ends of the road.

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.

Bankok Khao San Road Tourism (1)

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. Backpackers have changed over the last decade no doubt, but to a large extent KSR has always had that vibe and I have always been a staunch defender of it.

It was always 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 benefited from for decades, KSR has been completed gentrified to cater almost exclusively to mass package tourists.

Bankok Khao San Road Gentrified

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 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.

Bankok Khao San Road Package Tourism

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.

Bangkok Khao San Road Bar

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.

Bangkok Khao San Road

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?

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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10 comments on “The Evolution Of Khao San Road.
  1. Oh absolutely!

    I first went to Bangkok in ’99 on a solo trip around Asia. At the time I didn’t go to Khao San Road as it was my first destination in Asia, and I wanted to “get” my bearings before partying with strangers. I did that in Bali and Hong Kong!! I’ve been to Bangkok 3 times since, and every time it’s an adventure, but I love it! I even went to Vietnam for a month, and flew to Bangkok “for a break!”

    However, the last time I was there in 2013, I finally went to Khao San Road and was shocked! There was a McDonalds in the corner, and it was clean and tidy. Mind you, I too was there with my husband and 12-year-old son. We even had ice-cream!

    My budget backpacking days are firmly over, but I still have a killer instinct for where the action is, and if you look further back, and down the alleyways, you’ll find the Bangkok of old!

    • The back alleys and little hidden gems are always where the best action is! ;D But you are right the fact that families are the predominant tourist there now is very telling about KSR. It’s all for the package tourists, not the independent backpackers any more.

  2. Julie Hayes says:

    Hi Michael,
    I feel drawn to reply to your article on KSR as I too felt the same feeling whilst there. For me it was my first visit backpacking solo. Friends had told me beforehand that it was a must, and that you couldn’t do Thailand without visiting it. So, off I toddled with great enthusiasm and excitement. But, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and although I enjoyed the experience, I didn’t feel the ‘feeling’ everyone said I would ! I returned the next evening just in case it was me who was expecting too much, but alas, no, nothing really jumped out at me. And on coming home, oh dear ! I actually felt embarrassed trying to explain to friends that it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting ! It’s a shame how things change but I suppose that’s just the way it is. Shame too to see so so many Starbucks and McDonalds…….. But, they were all always full and doing great business ! On saying all that, I did north of Thailand, and yes it’s got it’s tourist packages but all in all I had a great time, found Thai folk just lovely and came home with some super memories.

  3. failong says:

    Philippines is way, WAY nicer, better, friendlier and MUCH more fun than anywhere in Thailand…Thais are just nasty and despises Farang…sorry but it is a fact…

  4. Matt says:

    Definitely agree it has changed almost beyond all recognition. Thailand is for package tourists now.

  5. Lisa McDonelly says:

    I love Khao San Road, so many amazing memories from there last year! I do wish I could have seen it 10 or 20 years ago though.

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