|The Birth and Death of Khao San Road|
The following article was originally written in 2002 - just before I left Thailand after a two-year teaching stint. It was naively penned in a more innocent age of tourism, before 9/11 and the Bali bombings. My motive was to demonstrate how old Lonely Planet guidebooks could be used for anthropological referencing. I was to include this piece in my tourism-related book, Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates at Play in Asia’s Global Village, which was formally published by a branch of the Bangkok Post newspaper. In retrospect, I am surprised at how many of my prediction had come true. For this reason, I am making this work available on-line to interested readers.
Khao San Road (Bangkok, Thailand, 2002)Taxis and tuk-tuks slice seductively through the fields of tourists. Fleets of backpackers flay aside like blades of grass. The travelers are this season’s harvest. The neon glow echoes on the sheen of moisture, leftover from an afternoon downpour. The night is hot with human energy and carbon dioxide spewing traffic. The air is scented with sweat and stale beer. To the left: Akha hill tribes peddle traditional headgear, while wearing white T-shirts with western corporate logos: Coca-Cola, Adidas, Marlboro. To the right: a blind man begs by blaring a song through a distorted loudspeaker. Down the street: a flock of bucket shops beckon tourists with advertisements for visas, bus tickets, and discount tour packages. Up the street: elated earthlings slowly sit, getting hair braided with a side bouquet of henna tattoos to go. A bunch of balloons escape upward, released from the hands of a multi-pierced westerner: nose, eyebrows, cheeks, tongue, mouth - you name it. The ground that greets my feet from below is littered with plastic cups, phad Thai, and paper plates. In a random moment, next to a painted mini-bus, where kotoeeys mix budget cocktails for the price of a buck, a young tourist inquires about my opinion of which variety of insect tastes best. I vote for grasshoppers, he opts for the bamboo worms, we both experiment with the silk worm pupae, and cringe at the scorpions and thick water bugs. In the festive spirit, we toast Khao San Road by clinking together the thoraxes of crickets. This is just one typical night on Khao San Road.
The Chao Phraya River/ The Orchid Hotel (the Early Years):After the fall of Ayutthaya, in 1767, while still in recovery from the horror of having their nation ransacked, Thailand went through a semi-hermit stage. Commercial trade and diplomatic relations were discouraged. Foreign nations were no longer trusted while the country healed and formed its new capital. Although a small amount of trade was allowed western nations were rarely permitted to travel upstream or stay ashore overnight. In 1865, King Rama IV signed a treaty with Great Britain that allowed its citizens to trade and reside in Bangkok. Other counties also were permitted to open up consulates – including the French, Dutch, American, and Portuguese. Soon afterward, two sea captains invested in a hotel for officers. This establishment was known as the Oriental Hotel, and it remains today as the first and oldest hotel by the river. Wealthy expatriates still flock to this five star hotel.
Tourist visits were extremely rare, because it took months to arrive after a dangerous boat ride and the overland trail from Burma was also extremely hazardous. But, at least expatriates had a popular place to meet. Joseph Conrad and Harold Stephens once docked their boats on its pier. Silk tycoon, Jim Thompson, often visited this hotel before he vanished. Prolific writer, William Warren, has also put in substantial guest appearances. However, only a small group of tourists perched among these traders, sailors, eccentrics, and diplomats. The earliest red light districts were located in the Klong Toey area, where boats unloaded cargo and the backpacker phenomenon had yet to be born.
The Sukhumvit Area/ The Erawan Hotel (the 1950s):Before World War Two, Thailand’s tourism industry was rather small and undeveloped. Colonial diplomats, traders, scholars, and missionaries came here; but the country was not a major destination for foreigners seeking leisure and recreation. Tourism wasn’t a significant revenue earner. However, this would change as Cold War politics promptly overflowed into Asia. The Soviet Union and the United States competed for power in Asia. Western nations feared the spread of communism: China established its communist regime in 1949; the Korean War (1950-53) resulted in its northern half splintering into a communist nation; and in 1954 the French were defeated in Indochina by the communist-dominated Viet Minh. Cambodia and Lao would also become communist in the decades that followed. Western colonial power in Asia was also threatened by independence movements. After several centuries, Asia’s era of colonization by Europeans was rapidly coming to an end. The United States and the Soviet Union both raced to fill the void.
The United States pumped financial aid into Thailand in hopes of building a strong alliance. Between 1951 and 1957 Thailand received $149 million in economic aid and $222 million in military aid. A large sum of this money went into building highway roads and bridges, constructing expensive dams, and improving the railway system. The infrastructure for Thailand’s future tourism industry was born in the 1950s. The rate of education also improved, and a emerging middle class of Thai tourists were able to afford travel.
Tourists from the west started to trickle into Thailand. Sukhumvit Road became the prime destination for tourists around the late 1950s. The new British and U.S. consulates were relocated nearby and Sukhumvit became the residential area for most western expatriates. A key place for tourists to stay was the Erawan Hotel. In 1957 it opened its doors with the west in mind. The Erawan served European cuisine and was based on the Swiss philosophy of hotel management. It was a government enterprise that catered to the “quality” tourists who preceded the backpackers of today. However, the state-operated enterprise could not compete with private companies. With commercialization the Erawan style lost its appeal, and the hotel was unable to renovate or upgrade its facilities. It finally closed after 31 years in 1988. Ironically, this was almost exactly one year, to the day, after Thailand launched its first international travel promotion under the slogan “Visit Thailand Year 1987”.
I set out to explore the remains of the Erawan, which was located near Sukhumvit (494 Rajadamri Road). The hotel is now completely demolished. A highway runs by it now and a sky train speeds tourists past the place where it used to be located. At the former hotel site, Thais still make offerings at a small shrine to the four-faced Hindi god that the Erawan Hotel was named after (if you look for it, you can find a tiny donation box that still lists the hotel by name). The Erawan Hotel represents an era of early and more primitive tourism in Thailand. Many new hotels have now cropped up on Sukhumvit and it is booming with tourists, expatriates, and western style restaurants. It remains a prime area for tourism. However, this growth failed to attract the backpackers that would come in the following decade. The Sukhumvit area has always catered to the waves of “quality” or “sexpat” tourists. However, it has been too expensive to draw in budget-oriented backpackers. Furthermore, there appears to be a conscious effort to prevent backpackers from settling permanently here. Several old guidebooks mentioned common dope raids at Sukhumvit hotels (such as the infamous Atlanta) in earlier times. Backpackers needed to find a different part of the city to go to.
Hualampong Station/ TT Guesthouse & Sri Hualampong Hotel (the 1960s):In 1960 tourism was still rather small. Only 81,340 tourists visited Thailand and the country only made about $10 million in revenue from them. Most visitors stayed only three days on average. However, by 1969 the number of visitors had increased to a total of 469,784 and tourism revenue amounted to $85 million. The U.S. military buildup in Thailand was strong between 1964-68. There were several U.S. military bases established, and in U. Tapao there were over 45,000 military personnel. The presence of these soldiers no doubt contributed to the development of sexual tourism in Pattaya, Udon Thani, and Bangkok (Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, Patpong). American dollars fueled the rise in tourism and altered the face of Thailand. Although Thai authorities had no idea how tourism would evolve, they began to sense the value of its tourism industry.
By the end of the 1960s this growth would expand to include the first wave of young, pre-Khao San, travelers that would venture into Thailand. The first documentation I have found of a backpacker in Thailand was from the Bangkok Post archives (May 21st, 1968). The article referred to “hippies” that appeared in Thailand. They were allowed a 30 day visa, but with much hesitation due to the fact the “hippies” often smoked marijuana and traveled penniless. It was reported that the backpackers were on transit from Singapore and also ventured into Lao. The “hippy” population in 1968 was small. The article listed a total of 21 men and 4 women at the time it was written. They were staying at a unnamed hotel near the Hualampong Station. This made sense since a train track ran all the way to Singapore through Malaysia, including access to Penang, another city popular with backpackers. The second article about these hippies (August 23rd, 1968) verified that backpackers were linking to Thailand after extended travels through South Asia and the Mid-East. This travel was the distant echo of the overland trail.
Many of these hippie backpackers came penniless from India and Nepal and tried to survive. Many took advantage of local customs and slept and ate in temples for free. Many got stuck and begged their national consulates for tickets home. Others sold their motor vehicles or traded souvenirs for return money (this is my theory why so many souvenirs on Khao San today tend to be oriented toward western counterculture). Many backpackers came because they rejected western materialism, or sought Asia as an exotic source of spiritual freedom and adventurous experimentation. Ironically, this temporary migration came at the exact time that Asians strived for western goods, American-style wealth, and democracy. The new trend of backpacking shocked governments abroad. Many authorities tried to restrict the travel of these ragged looking backpackers.
I tracked down old hotels near the Hualampong Station in hopes of interviewing a local about these early backpacker prototypes. The problem is that the Bangkok Post articles never mentioned any hotel’s name, and I couldn’t find any guidebook from the 1960s. My impression was that these travelers were no longer seeking a particular hotel; but, rather, trying to find a community of like-minded individuals no matter where they ended up spending the night.
My research strategy was to seek out old taxi drivers. I reasoned that one of them might double as an accidental historian. Luckily, I found a 68-year-old cab driver that was willing to help. The trick was convincing him that I only wanted to look at the “ruins” of an old hotel, and not actually stay inside of one so that he could get commission. “Why do you want to see something that no longer exists?” he kept asking. The taxi driver took me to what he claimed was the oldest surviving hotel in the area. He dropped me at the front doorway of Sri Hualampong Hotel. When I walked into the hotel the receptionist gave me a look as if I was a lost farang. She was surprised when I asked to see a room. The hotel was rather run down, but it gave me an idea about what backpackers might have experienced in the late 1960s: squat toilets, flimsy locks, wire screens on the top of bedroom walls, loud and distracting traffic noise from outside. However, all the tourist clientele now were either Chinese or Indian. Many of them rented rooms on a monthly basis. I felt out of place because there wasn’t a single backpacker in sight. The receptionist gave me a business card before I left. It was written mostly in Chinese except for a note saying, “WELCOME TO EVERY BODY THANK YOU”.
Outside the hotel I was stopped by an aggressive tout for a travel agency. I decided I would check it out for more precise information. Instead, the travel agent admonished me, “Why you want to look to ghost hotel?”. He wasn’t convinced when I told him it was for an anthropology project. I couldn’t persuade him or his staff to take me on a walking tour of old Hualampong hotels. It would have been too hot and boring for him. However, he gave me an address of the TT Guesthouse (138 Soi Watmahaphruttharam), which he said was the most popular among early backpackers. He believed it had either been demolished to build a highway, converted into a shop, or turned into a place of residence. He also recalled a very old guesthouse called, “The Thai Song Greeting” but he had no idea where it had been located.
I set out on quest to find the great TT. On my way I was nearly hit three times by heavy traffic. Traffic was so bad at some intersections that I hired a taxi just to cross the street. Eventually, I found my way to an area that he circled on a map, but I couldn’t find anything. I wasn’t even sure that the street still existed. I walked up and down every Soi in the area hoping to stumble across a sign painted on a wall or street marker. I found my way to an underpass where children played football on a dirt lot. I stumbled by a tiny Chinese shrine hidden in a dilapidated soi among shards of broken glass and rusty car parts. But, I never found any trace of the TT that I was looking for.
I was photographing this Chinese shrine when I saw a taxi cab parked in the back. The driver was on his lunch break. I could see him playing with his children and displaying subtle affection toward his wife. When he climbed back inside his taxi I decided to recruit him for my project since he lived in the neighborhood (later to find out that he only recently moved to Bangkok two months ago from Isan). I gave him the address that the travel agent wrote down for me. It had to be close by. The driver nodded in recognition and raced off in the opposite direction. After about ten minutes the driver shyly confessed that he had no clue where the guesthouse was located. He pulled over, turned off his meter, and offered to take me somewhere else in apology. This is the type of situation that often makes tourists angry. The taxi driver claims to know where someplace is so they can pick up a fare, when they really don’t have a clue where the passenger wants to go. However, it was hard to express any anger after I saw him with his wife and children. I didn’t have a clue what I was looking for either.
The taxi driver reached into his glove department and pulled out a book written by the TAT office. I had to laugh because I didn’t realize that the TAT had produced such things. Immediately, I thumbed to specific pages to see if they actually taught “where you go, where you from, or what you name”. Alas, the manual used correct grammar (where are you going, where would you like to go, etc). I oddly ended up giving the taxi driver an impromptu English lesson. He insisted that I read from the book while he repeated after me. Admittedly, this is a poor way to teach English, but these drills were what he wanted. After the lesson we tried to establish where he would take me next, except that my pronunciation of place names weren’t understood by him. I rattled off multiple locations: Victory monument, Lumpini Park, the BTS sky train. Then I hit the name that rang a bell. Within minutes he was driving me back to Khao San Road. I paid him anyway; a deal is a deal.
I hunted down some old Lonely Planet guidebooks on Khao San to help me with this anthropology project. Clearly, I needed to make myself more prepared next time. I was able to buy a few copies of Lonely Planet from the 80s at used book stands on the side of the road. I thumbed through a 2001 guidebook to find that the TT hotel had since moved to a new location – renaming itself TT2 (like a bad sequel). In a way, this excursion wasn’t a failure. Wandering around lost, navigating from inaccurate street maps, and blindly attempting to communicate are something that the “hippy” backpackers from the 1960s probably experienced, too. I could identify with them. I was also able to theorize why backpackers stopped coming to Hualampong. There is simply too much traffic, noise, and the persisting threat of getting pickpocketed. There is simply no reason to congregate there. The “farang” backpackers have been replaced by tourists from other parts of Asia. Some older hotels have been reclaimed by local residents. It is highly unlikely that Hualampong will experience gentrification or that backpackers will return to the area ever again.
Soi Ngam Duphli/ The Malaysia Hotel (the 1970s):The 1970s witnessed a tourist boom that was triggered by the exhilaration of the Vietnam War. By the early 1970s the United States had seven military bases in Thailand, most of which were air force centers. At one point there were more U.S. forces in Thailand than in Vietnam. The aviation technology developed in World War Two had been adapted by the 1970s to create an age of jet travel for western tourists. In 1973, when the United States and Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement, Thailand broke the one million mark of tourist visits for the first time in its history. During the war there was a mass migration of Thais who moved to the cities to find jobs in the tourism industry. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. started to close some of its military bases, which caused many Thais, particularly those living in Isan, to migrate into Bangkok and Chiang Mai to find work. Many Thais learned English and became acquainted with western ideas, moral codes, and fashion. This influence from the United States was a double edged sword. On one hand, Thai youths were inspired to fight for western-style democracy, human rights, and constitutional reforms. On the other hand, this opposition was violently crushed by the anti-communist military leaders that the United States helped place into power. Student protesters were often mislabeled as communists and persecuted as such. Nevertheless, the United States was losing its battle against communism in Asia. In 1975, Lao fell to communists and the communist-oriented Khmer Rougue gained control in Cambodia. Both counties promptly closed their borders to tourism, and the flow of backpackers there was only a tiny trickle. In contrast, Thailand opened the flood gates to tourists and became a major hub city. By 1979, it received 1,591,455 tourists and earned $549 million in revenue.
It was in this chaotic environment that pre-Khao San backpackers started to burgeon. The “hippies” who were disillusioned by western greed and materialism came to Asia on mass. Many traveled a popular overland route from Europe into India and Nepal (via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Some continued this journey all the way to Australia where they worked to save money for a ticket home. Eventually, a few counter-cultural tourists branched out to SE Asia and others followed. There appears to have been an early preference by these backpackers for Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia had a competitive edge because the English language was already familiar to locals due to British colonization. However, in 1969, there was an outbreak of racial violence that was directed at its Chinese population, and there was also the fear of communist insurgency. In result, a New Economic program was launched in 1971 to redistribute wealth and political power to ethnic Malays. Riots broke out making Malaysia a more dangerous destination for travelers.
Across Asia there was growing resentment because these young backpackers openly smoked marijuana and opium, and they had a collective habit of traveling with little money. There were drug busts in Indonesia, where backpackers thrived on Bali beaches. The Indonesian authorities even build a jail in Kuta, a city where dope-smoking hippies loved to congregate. One Lonely Planet guidebook (1989) documents that westerners staying on a Malaysian beach, near Penang, could once be woke in the middle of the night and given 24 hour eviction notice. Other suspected hippies were given visas that were good for only a few days. Up north, Taiwan posted warnings at the airport about severe penalties for drug use and threatened to cut long hair on arrival. In result, waves of backpackers began to wash up on the shores of the more hospitable Thailand.
In the 1970s the budget oriented backpackers favored Soi Ngam Duphli as the tourist ghetto. This street was desirable because it was located near many embassies and Lumphini Park was a nearby recreational area where penniless backpackers could squander time. The main airline office was close (Silom Street) and it already had a developed infrastructure for tourism. Perhaps the proximity of Patpong, which was a well known center for sex and sin, also contributed to Soi Ngam Duphli’s popularity. The most preferred flop house at the time was the Malaysia Hotel (54 Soi Ngam Duphli). The Malaysia Hotel became a prime attraction during the Vietnam War. The legendary, run-down, hotel cut its prices once the war had ended to draw in Thailand’s invasion of backpackers. All the older Lonely Planet guidebooks that I found raved about its helpful notice board, where backpackers could find information about hot spots across Asia. I decided to seek out this hotel for the next stage of my anthropology project.
There is almost no trace of Malaysia Hotel’s former history as a backpacker center. It has raised its prices out of budget range, and has clearly tried to distance itself from its past reputation. I sat in Malaysia’s coffee shop for one hour watching its customers walk by. The clientele is comprised almost exclusively of men. The only females I could see were young, nubile, Thai women who were delicately perched on the arm of an older and wealthier western tourist –like a ripe fruit’s stem leading to its tree. Soi Ngam Duphli has its share of red light zones and drive in privacy motels for sexual outings, and this seediness also overlapped to the Malaysia to some degree. I hunted for the infamous notice board but couldn’t find one. A receptionist directed me toward a small hallway that led into the kitchen. The notice board was nearly empty. There was no hint of backpacker-style information. The board revealed only a flyer about a lost passport and various advertisements for massage. On closer examination, I discovered that at least 90% of the ads were related to gay friendly places to visit. When I returned to the lobby I noticed that a large portion of the tables hosted two men each. Were they couples? I wondered if Soi Ngam Duphli and Lumpini Park might have become a district for gay travelers (this fact was confirmed later by a colleague who had better personal reasons to know such information).
I explored the area in more detail (Soi Sri Bamphen, Soi Saphan Khu, and several unidentified side streets). Since I do not own any guidebook from the 1970s, I used some Lonely Planets from the 1980s as resources. The majority of guesthouses listed on maps have long since vanished, but still remaining were several budget accommodation. I visited a few which, although run down, were competitive to many guesthouses on Khao San. The guesthouses had many vacancies since few tourists venture to Soi Ngam Duphli anymore. The physical structure of the old guesthouses still stood on their original foundation, but few offered rooms to tourists. A pattern had been replicated much in the same way as on Hualampong: the old budget guesthouses had been adopted by locals as cheap places to live. The shells of past budget travelers served as homes for many poor Thais to reside in.
The dilemma for me was to understand why tourists left Soi Ngam Duphli for Khao San Road. It is clear that the Malaysia Hotel shed itself of backpackers by increasing its rates, but why did many of the other guesthouses fail to attract tourists. One reason is traffic. Rama IV Road is so busy that travelers would have found it difficult to cross over to Lumphini Park to relax. Soi Ngam Duphli is also congested with traffic that aggressively tries to escape the cluster on Rama IV. I was nearly hit while crossing the road, since motor vehicles do not slow down for pedestrians to cross. Another reason might have been that touts became too aggressive and drove backpackers from the street. However, neither of these explanations fully explains why backpackers migrated to Banglampu. Khao San Road now suffers from the same traffic problems and over aggressive vendors. So what explains this migration?
Toward the end of the 1970s, Khao San Road became strong competition for Soi Ngam Duphli. It was located near many popular tourist sites such as Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the Grand Palace. Many businessmen expanded north of Chinatown to invest in budget accommodations to lure backpackers toward Khao San Road. Many travel agencies soon sprouted up, so that backpackers no longer had to visit the embassies to obtain travel visas. These developments partially explain the gravitational pull toward Khao San, but what finally pushed them away from Soi Ngam Duphli? My research did not turn up any government policy or rezoning law that would explain this migration. However, inside my own backpack was the very evidence that could explain this changing trend. It was my outdated Lonely Planet guidebook.
In 1973, the son of a British Air employee published a thin guidebook with hand drawn maps. It was inspired by his recent travels on the overland trail from England to Australia. Thousands of hippies had made this trek before him, and by 1973 the South Asian route was already well-defined and saturated with travelers. However, this unknown travel writer, who had spent much of his younger life living overseas in countries such as Pakistan, had been one of the first to publish a guidebook that gave other backpackers specific directions. The book was called, Across Asia on the Cheap and the writer was Tony Wheeler – who founded the Lonely Planet enterprise with his wife Maureen.
In a short article in Farang magazine (May/June 2002) Tony Wheeler discusses his first visit to Thailand where he stayed at the Malaysia Hotel on Soi Ngam Duphli. He complained that it was too expensive, so he and his wife hitchhiked to Malaysia (the country) where they were harassed by border patrol as possible hippies. Eventually, the two of them published a second guidebook, in 1975, called South East Asia on a Shoestring. The later is perhaps the first English language guidebook that was custom-made for budget travelers who wanted to venture into Thailand (in contrast to earlier manuals that focused on the “quality” tourists that wanted luxury, security, and package tours).
It is difficult to estimate the impact of these guidebooks, especially since even bootleg copies are extremely rare to find and, to my knowledge, Lonely Planet has no plans to re-release its first edition for the benefit of amateur historians such as myself. But, I am willing to guess that the 1975 publication expressed a preference for Khao San Road. Word of mouth was the main guideline for travelers prior to 1975. This is why so many tourists sought out the notice board at the Malaysia Hotel. Travelers did not have the Internet, travel web sites, or chat rooms to discuss information like today. Instead, they left notes with recommendations for good hotels and places to visit. Many travelers wrote notes so that lost friends could find them later in another city. The notice board at the Malaysia Hotel probably had more in common with a refugee camp than the guesthouses of today. What the Lonely Planet guidebooks did was to supply information about recent trends and hot spots for those on a budget. Tourists could plan travel better, and not rely so much on random chance and spontaneity. In the late 1970s backpackers became aware of South East Asia on a Shoestring, and this is exactly when backpackers started to shift away from Soi Ngam Duphli. It is reasonable to theorize that Lonely Planet was a major contributor to this change, because this guidebook advertised new location opening in Banglampoo District.
Today Soi Ngam Duphli has only a moderate chance of drawing backpackers back into the area. The appeal of Khao San Road is just too strong. However, as Khao San Road becomes saturated with tourists, many individuals will seek out a quiet location that offers a more original experience. To a degree, Soi Ngam Duphli can refill this need. There are several guesthouses that offer a better deal than what is available on Khao San. Furthermore, gentrification often takes place in areas where a community of artists take root or where the gay community moves into and invests. In time the value of property improves and business develops in the area. This is happening at a modest level on Soi Ngam Duphli. However, tourism is unlikely to trickle back into the area because traffic problems prevent its return. Simply put, it is too dangerous to walk at night, there are too few tourist sites nearby, the sky train doesn’t directly connect, and most budget travelers enjoy the party on Khao San Road anyway.
Khao San Road (1980-2002)By the early 1980s Khao San Road was the prime location for budget travelers. Soi Ngam Duphli was a fading shadow and Hualampong could only appeal to Asian tourists. There was a well defined split as quality tourists went to Sukhumvit or luxury riverside hotel complexes; budget travelers discovered the new ghetto of Khao San. The Tourism Authority of Thailand had evolved into a finely tuned machine with tourist campaigns and international advertisements. The infrastructure was solid and tourists had little difficulty traveling by boat, train, plane, or bus. There are no more major wars in SE Asia. The Soviet Union has crumbled and even former communist countries such as China have made overtures of peace. Vietnam, Lao, and Cambodia have all opened up their doors to tourism recently, and Thailand has rushed to aid them with this development. The world was becoming a global village. There are now 10 million tourist arrivals per year and tourism in Thailand is a multi-billion dollar industry. Next to the production of electronic goods, tourism is Thailand’s largest revenue generator.
Guidebooks have evolved to explore every nook and cranny of the world. There are guidebooks to South East Asia, Thailand, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, northern hill tribes, southern islands, Thai beaches, scuba diving zones, and national parks. There are language guides for most dialects in South East Asia, although few tourists master anything above the basics. Thailand has been dissected and documented to its smallest fragments. All a backpacker needs these days for adventure is to open the latest edition and follow directions. Just add water and you have an instant tourist.
There is an abundance of information. As soon as the latest hot spot or trend is revealed, flocks of travelers will seek the undisturbed location, which will ultimately destroy the environment of the place. In Thailand, this process began with a brilliant Peace Corp volunteer who studied SE Asia since the early 1970s. This American learned to speak Thai fluently and traveled extensively throughout the country. The scholar also wrote a Thai phrasebook that is still widely used today. His name is Joe Cummings, and he published the first Thailand-specific Lonely Planet guidebook in 1982. I obtained his 1987 edition which clearly recommends Khao San Road as the prime spot for budget backpackers, although he also provides a reasonable outline of Soi Ngam Duphli. Ultimately, the Lonely Planet guidebooks, which sell around 7 million copies per year, helped spark life into Khao San Road. The problem is that this life just keeps expanding until it finally bursts.
By 2002, Khao San Road remained unchallenged as the center for backpackers in Thailand. Khao San Road has become a popular tourist site in itself. Tourism has become so popular on Khao San that the street has expanded in all directions. New guesthouses and restaurants sprout up every month near Khao San (Soi Chana Songkhram, Ram Buttri, Thanon Phra Athit, and every side street and alley in between). There are now many expensive hotels designed for “quality” tourists, so that prices are going up. On the surface the future looks bright because so much money is exchanging hands on Khao San, but if you examine underneath the veneer very closely you can see a few cracks in the foundation.
1) Traffic Problems: A common denominator that inhibits tourism in Hualampong and Soi Ngam Duphli is traffic. The thrill of tourism includes walking around peacefully while shopping or celebrating. However, the design of Khao San is to place vendors directly on a sidewalk with only a thin passage way. This tight fit renders backpacker vulnerable to theft and pickpocketing. I had my own wallet stolen once on Khao San Road. The alternative is for travelers to walk in the middle of the street. In the past this was no problem, but presently traffic is nearly at the level experienced on Soi Ngam Duphli. With the increase of tourists there has also been a rise in the number of motorcycles, taxis, and tuk tuks who are seeking potential fares. Moreover, with Khao San’s popularity there is an increasing amount of vendors, beggars, and hustlers who hope to milk tourists of a few dollars. The result is that the road has become too busy and nerve-racking.
The traffic is chaotic at best and life threatening at its worst. Tuk tuks race rapidly down Khao San and motorcycles weave around them as if they were traffic cones. I have met several backpackers who have been hit, and some have received more than minor injuries. I also know women who have been groped by motorcycle drivers speeding by. The traffic on Khao San Road is beyond the point of being managed by traffic police. The street will need to be closed to give tourists free reign. Time can be scheduled in the early morning for deliveries and other business, but motor vehicles should be required to park in a designated zone and wait for tourists to come to them. In the past two years I have heard a lot of talk about converting Khao San to a pedestrian only zone. There is a great opportunity to close the road and to use it for live music and other events that would appeal to backpackers. However, traffic is likely to persist in the future until tourists start going someplace else to stay.
2) Western Influence: The saturation of westerners on Khao San Road will alter its chemistry. The street becomes less like Thailand every day. It is easy to buy western food, English books, and music from home. In time there might even be western corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks. There has been some recent pressure by American companies to allow franchises in the area, although it would be hard to imagine it today. The influence of big money can change the face the street permanently. The spirit of this Asian street can take on a gradual appearance of any American city.
A second type of western influence is making legal attempts to alter standard practices experienced in the area today. Part of the ambiance of Khao San Road is the ability to watch newly released movies at guesthouses and to buy cheap CDs from street vendors. The United States might attempt to crush this practice in order to protect the wealth of U.S. entertainment and recording industries. It has already applied political pressure to provoke Thai authorities into taking action. If Thailand heeds U.S. demands then this attractions of guesthouse movies and cheap CDs might be lost. It would be easy for tourists to migrate to other cities or countries that offer this benefit.
3) Thai Reclamation: The appeal of Khao San has become so strong that it has started to attract Thai visitors. Many of my students in Ayutthaya talk about Khao San as if it were a forbidden fruit that they are eager to try. An article in Metro magazine (May 2002) explored how young Thais are starting to visit Khao San as if it was an exotic destination. They want a taste of western culture, just like we are curious about Asia. There are now many nightclubs, restaurants, and activities that draw in mixed crowds. Personally speaking, I am in full support of this change and feel that it will enhance the diversity of Khao San. Based on interviews with backpackers, most travelers have no complaints about it either. What the change is doing is melting the double standard that splits East and West. Khao San is not a western colony, why should Thai youths feel excluded from this global village, especially when Japanese and Korean tourists are already filling hotels?
This change might make Khao San guesthouses give up the practice of refusing to rent rooms to Thais, after all the street does offer the most affordable rates. The fear is that this change will lead to more theft. The guesthouses will need to invest in better locks and security measures. Tourists will need to take precautions when walking around outside. But, the true threat of Thai reclamation relates not to theft, but to the double standard. Lets be honest, westerners are given a lot of leeway in our behavior in Thailand. We can flaunt some minor laws or break cultural rules without punishment. It is easy to drink after hours or walk around topless on some beaches. Thais are not allowed these same freedoms. The mixing with locals could lead to more restriction and police busts. This would scare tourists off. The allure of locals to Khao San will also contribute to more overcrowding.
4) Purachai Curfew Laws: Thailand’s Interior Minister, Purachai, has launched a social order campaign that could threaten Khao San nightlife. A curfew is imposed that prevents the purchase of alcohol after 2:00 am, entertainment venues can be closed if underage drinkers are found in the club, and it was even suggested at one point to forbid single women from going into a club alone. Tourists come to Thailand on vacation and for many of them this includes celebrating at night. Like in Malaysia during the 1970s, such social reforms could send tourists to more permissive locations (like Lao, Cambodia, and the Philippines). Luckily, however, Khao San tourists have already found a dozen ways to circumnavigate these laws. It is easy to find places that sell alcohol if you know where to look. On the first day that Purachai’s reforms went into effect a group of us went into the nearby 7-11 and bought every beer in refrigeration at 1:45 am. We split the profits after selling this booze to the tourists that joined us later that night. However, this leniency could change if more locals migrate to Khao San nightclubs after other bars in Bangkok have been closed.
5) Population growth: This is the nail that will seal the lid on Khao San’s coffin. Khao San is already overpopulated. Thailand has over 10 million tourists per year. Furthermore, tourists are staying in Thailand much longer. In 1960, the average stay was only three days, but by 2000 the average visit was 7-8 days. Many backpackers stay in Thailand for months. On the islands in the south this growth has led to severe water shortages, pollution, and environmental damage. On Khao San the congestion is creating an urban sprawl. As mentioned earlier, Khao San visitors have expanded in every direction. New guesthouses are constructed monthly on all nearby streets. For the first time, I noticed that Wat Chana Songkhram closes its back entrance to prevent the hoards of tourists from disrupting their activities on route to Khao San. In the past 20 years this growth has been slowed by class segregation. Wealthy tourists went to Sukhumvit and river hotel complexes. However, Sukhumvit is becoming amore cost effective place to stay, because many expensive hotels are now being constructed on Khao San. The financial barriers have eroded and people will flow in all directions.
The situation will get even worse as vendors pack into the street and become more aggressive due to the surplus competition, or opportunistic motor vehicles will jam up so tight looking for passengers that walking will become a difficulty. Prices will also rise as “quality” tourists move into the wasp’s nest. After 20 years Khao San’s reputation is strong enough to attract plenty of tourists in the years to come, but its history as a backpacker’s haven is coming to an end. Khao San is thriving today and money is flowing plenty, but it is a dying plant that has gone to seed. The future has already been sewn, who knows what will be harvested in the next ten years?
The solo backpackers will be the first casualty. They will look for remote places to explore. Pay attention to them, because the trend is that other travelers will follow. Tourists are not loyal. They will seek new hotspots. Backpackers migrated out from Hualampong and Soi Ngam Duphli, the same will happen with Khao San Road. Nothing is permanent. The question is ‘where will tourists go next?’ I believe that it will be away from Bangkok. It is quicker to go to Ayutthaya from the airport due to Bangkok’s traffic jams. Ayutthaya has already attracted much of the overflow of backpackers with its rivers and ruins. How much would it change the face of Thailand if travelers turned right instead of left at Don Muang Airport? For that matter, what is stopping backpackers from heading straight to Hua Hin, Kanchanaburi, or Rayong? Thailand has to look at this situation now. They will be strong competition from Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the future. China has also begun to open up to tourists, and it has some amazing land to be seen on a tight budget. Backpackers have already jumped at the opportunity to explore across the borders that were closed off in the days before Khao San. The passion or pre-Khao San backpackers, and the desire for original experience and unique adventure, can be sparked in any of these places. Khao San Road is not dead yet, but perhaps it is time to start carving its epitaph.
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Tourism Authority of Thailand. Statistical Report. BKK: TAT Office, 2001.
Wheeler, Tony. South-East Asia on a Shoestring. CA. Lonely Planet, 1989 edition.
Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1984 edition.