I remember eight or nine years ago, I was hanging out with a group of acquaintances who were several years older than me, and they were talking about their time in Bangkok. They talked endlessly about “Khao San Road”, this mystical place where sinners go to sin and pretty much anything goes. “Honestly, I can’t even tell you how crazy it was” one of the girls said, before leaning in and giving me a knowing look. Um ok, so did you like, kill someone or something?
It’s been described as ‘grungy’, ‘dirty’, and ‘dangerous’. A kind of , ‘Vegas meets Amsterdam’ where you can drink snake blood, play a genuine game of Russian roulette, or hire prostitutes to act out any fetish or fantasy you like.
In reality, it’s far less sensational. To start, Khao San Road is backpacker mecca. I’m not talking about the stereotypical backpackers of the 80’s and 90’s, who were mostly strung- out addicts, wandering weirdos, or perverts looking for cheap sex. I’m talking about the college grads who used grandma’s graduation money to pay for a ticket to Thailand, or the couple who are here on their honeymoon. Fresh-faced, clean, normal, and I guess by my standards, a little boring. This isn’t where they congregate to engage in debauchery or illegal acts – this is where they come to get ‘white girl wasted’ and sing bad karaoke, or to buy cheap sarongs and bus tickets to Pattaya.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I first stepped on to Khao San Road; maybe a rush of excitement? I guess I thought it’d be pretty “cool” to stay at a hotel here, and I’m embarrassed to say that I felt like kind of a bad ass when people back home asked me where I was staying in Bangkok and I smugly told them, “Khao San Road”.
“Oh, be careful!” they all warned. “It’s so dangerous” they all said.
I’m sorry, but I must have gone to some sedated, PG rated, Disneyland version of Khao San Road, because the only time I felt any kind of danger, was when I sensed the onset of diarrhea after my first pad thai.
Let me describe to you the Khao San Road I experienced. We arrived late at night, so the street was busy and crowded. There were lots of neon lights, very bad house music, and quite a few merchants crowding around us trying to sell us ‘this crap’ and ‘that crap’. After we checked into our hotel, we went out for a walk to see what was up. It was really not that much different than the club or bar district of any big city.
Instead of strip clubs, we saw 7-11’s. In place of cockfighting and other such gruesome displays, we saw a man playing his accordion for tips. There were no ladyboys strutting around suggesting ridiculous sexual acts to passersby, and the only unwanted thing that was shoved in my face was a travel pamphlet for Koh Phi Phi by an aggressive tour agent.
Yes, there were people selling fried scorpions and tarantulas, but there were so many of these vendors that it completely took away its ‘exotic’ appeal. When you’ve seen 38 trays of fried bugs, they start to look as normal as chicken nuggets. There were also lots of tailors who approached Carey and tried to sell him a custom-made suit. I guess that doesn’t really happen back in Toronto, but watching a man show us fabric swatches is hardly the kind of scandalous entertainment I had envisioned.
There were, of course, plenty of scantily clad women. The interesting thing, is that it was mostly tourists who were baring flesh. The majority of the Thai women I saw were modestly dressed, even when trying to win the affections of a Western man. It was the young, white sorority girls who were leaving very little to the imagination.
Some of the Thai girls were draped all over the arms of men – both young and old – doing their best to get free drinks and maybe even more. It really wasn’t overt or as in-your-face as I thought it would be, and Carey and I had to play, “guess the hooker” because we couldn’t figure out which ones were actually ‘working’.
To further rub salt in the wound, Khao San is also apparently a family-friendly vacation destination. We saw MANY families wandering around (even at night!) with very young kids who looked completely unfazed by the crowds and flashing lights. WHAT THE HELL?!
During our 4-day stay on Khao San, we didn’t see a single fight. We weren’t robbed or scammed or jumped. None of the girls tried to seduce Carey into anything (not because he isn’t handsome, but just because he obviously wasn’t looking for it). None of the men made me feel disrespected, or like I was unsafe because I was a woman.
Where were the sketchy Thai guys sitting on crates at the entrance to a dark alley, asking me if I wanted to drink snake blood or buy a baby prostitute? Really, where was all the smut, the debauchery, the drugs – the stuff that would make for a cool story ?!
Turns out, this stuff does exist, but not so much on Khao San. If you really want to check out a ‘ping-pong’ show or find a date for the night, then you’ll have to taxi to Patpong or Nana Plaza. Apparently, it is possible to buy drugs in Khao San, but there are so many undercover cops posing as dealers, that most tourists don’t try. If anything, a tuktuk driver may ask if you’re interested in buying any, and will then take you to another part of the city for the transaction. As for snake blood, I heard a wanky American tourist bragging about drinking it, but considering its source, I have my doubts about the credibility of this claim. Just because Leo did it in The Beach, doesn’t mean you can stroll into a restaurant and expect to find it on the menu (not the genuine article anyway).
In conclusion, let me just say that Khao San Road is a fine place to stay if you’re in Bangkok and don’t mind being in a tourist hub. It has lots of restaurants, (Thai and Western), 7-11’s, budget hotels, and cheap souvenirs. But if you, like I, have romanticized Khao San Road as being something that it’s not, then prepare to be disappointed. It’s just a street with a bunch of stuff on it, and the most ‘exciting’ thing you’ll probably see is a frat boy puking in the street from too many Chang beers.