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.
twenty five or so 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. Touts and scams were rife and everyone had fun.
Over the yeard of course more and more business sprang up to service the constant flow of first time backpackers and the Chang Beer singlets and Female Body Inspector T Shirts were in such abundance the Thai’s didn’t even over inflate the price too much. It became more tourist friendly.
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 first time 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. This was the first stop on the Banana Pancake trail! This was most travellers first introduction to south east Asia straight off the plane and it was still a home for many backpackers.
The problem is 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, 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 twenty plus 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 KSR of ‘The Beach’ is well and truly dead.
Just as Thailand has over the last decade 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 two decades out of date 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 a 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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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.
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.
It’s a shame you didn’t get to see it 15 years ago Julie, it was a totally different place, but I’m glad to hear you got to see some nice parts of Thailand too! 🙂
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…
Well, they don’t really do they. You’re just making things up there and being a bit daft aren’t you.
Definitely agree it has changed almost beyond all recognition. Thailand is for package tourists now.
You aren’t wrong Matt.
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.
I wish I could have seen it even further back! ;D
KSR has changed so so much! I barely recognised it when I went back earlier this year from my first visit in 2003. I suppose everywhere changes but it was a little sad to see.
I know what you mean Jack, I suppose a little nostalgia is a powerful thing.
Unfortunately the slow march of mass tourism and package holidays cant be stopped. ☹ So sad to see it take over places so much though
Agree completely. It is very sad.
I have only visited once, about 5 years ago, and I genuinely loved it. In hindsight yes is was very touristy but it was my first stop in Thailand and really let me have some fun, relax and get my bearings. I then went on to spend 6 months in Thailand before moving on to Indo and other places.
That i exactly why I loved it too, and kept going back. It is an excellent decompression zone, and if people take it for what it is, it’s a lot of fun too.
It sounds like I have missed the best of it! 😦
Not at all Louise, I have a lot of nostalgia for the way it used to be because that was a special time for me, you will see it and experience it for the first time now and those experiences will be special for you.
Man, you said it. I first went to Khao San Road in 2003. When I went again in ’17, I couldn’t believe what it had become. Two things stuck out:
1. It was LOUD. Shitty house music was blaring out of any of six or eight clubs on the street – I don’t remember that.
2. It’s expensive now!! My eyes popped out of my head when I saw a sign that advertised rooms for $40. Forty bucks!? On Khao San Road? My buddy and I paid four bucks each to sleep there back in the day.
… but like you said in another post: Khao San Road has changed, but so have I. I’m not 22 years old anymore. I’ll bet all the kids I saw were having the time of their lives in ’17, just like I did on ’03.
Haha yeah it is definitely changed! Maybe in another 20 years the kids now will be saying the same again!
I wish I could have seen KSR back in its 90s heyday! I love the Beach but just don’t recognise that Thailand in it.
I don’t think anyone does now Chloe!
well written, nice job. I’ve been going there for years. It all started to change when they started showing movies – don’t really know the year maybe 1990? After that people for the most part stopped talkin’ and starting watchin’
Wow, it must have been awesome to see it in the 80s! I was still playing with my Thundercat figures back then!