How Bangkok’s Khao San Highway became the world’s most famed travel hub

At the time on a time, the locals peddled rice on Bangkok’s Khao San Street. A lot of it.



a group of people walking down a busy city street: Khao San Road, pictured in this file photo taken in 2015.


© CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/AFP by using Getty Illustrations or photos
Khao San Highway, pictured in this file photograph taken in 2015.

Barge right after barge paddled, and afterwards motored, down the large Chao Phraya River and into the mouth of Banglamphu Canal, where by they dropped off countless numbers of tons in jute sacks to wholesalers in the neighborhood.

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By the finish of the 19th century, Banglamphu district was by much the largest rice current market not only in Bangkok, but any where in Siam, the world’s major rice rising nation.

Scaled-down vendors opened outlets south of the canal, in which a grime-keep track of alley turned so thick with the rice trade that King Chulalongkorn purchased a good highway built in 1892. Managing only 410 meters, the cobbled strip wasn’t grand sufficient to be named right after a historic Thai determine or country-building basic principle, not like other metropolis thoroughfares, so it was basically named Soi Khao San (Milled Rice Lane).

As Banglamphu flourished on rice revenue, the district expanded into clothes (such as Thailand’s very first all set-produced faculty uniforms), buffalo-leather-based footwear, jewellery, gold leaf and costumes and regalia for Thai classical dance theater. Local demand from customers for enjoyment gave start to two musical comedy houses, Thailand’s to start with national record label (Kratai), and a single of the kingdom’s initially silent-film cinemas.

Still only 100 many years afterwards, an invasion of intercontinental backpackers just about fully eclipsed nearby sector tradition. Commencing as a trickle in the late 1970s, when Bangkok was a terminus for the Asian hippie trail, the inflow turned a tidal wave in the 1990s.

Guesthouses proliferate

I don’t feel everyone could have predicted the inexorable evolution of the highway and encompassing community.

When I to start with strolled down Khao San Street on a research excursion for the 1st version of Lonely Planet’s Thailand manual, 40 decades ago, it was lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century two-tale shophouses.

At road stage had been rows of shoe outlets, Thai-Chinese coffee shops, noodle suppliers, grocers and motorbike fix shops. Owners or tenants lived earlier mentioned.

A several rice sellers hung on, but as 10-wheel vans experienced taken in excess of from river barges, rice transportation and buying and selling experienced for the most aspect moved in other places.

Even though Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, was the major commercial aim for Chinese retailers and inhabitants, and Phahurat served the Indian group, Banglamphu was evidently a much more Thai realm. Around the corner on Chakkaphong and Phra Sumen roadways, artisan stores however crafted costumes and masks for classical Thai dance-drama performers.



calendar: The 1st (1982) and 2nd (1984) editions of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide.


© Joe Cummings
The 1st (1982) and 2nd (1984) editions of the Lonely Planet Thailand tutorial.

I experienced a spent a very long, very hot working day jotting down notes on the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho), and the Huge Swing, all of which lie in just a kilometer’s radius of Khao San Street.

These are arguably the city’s main sightseeing sights, so when I recognized two Chinese-Thai lodges on Khao San Highway, I promptly believed to suggest them in my guidebook as a easy foundation for vacationers. Practically identical in their modest amenities, Nith Chareon Suk Resort and Sri Phranakhon Resort charge $5 a night at the time, and catered to Thai traders obtaining wholesale items in Banglamphu to sell upcountry.

Down a slim alley close by, I was even more thrilled to stumble upon VS Visitor House, lately opened by a Banglamphu family members having guests into their 1920s-vintage wooden property for $1.50 for every head. Even more alley exploration turned up two additional household-run, equally priced guesthouses, Bonny and Tum.



a group of people walking down the street: Prior to the pandemic, Khao San Road was a popular spot for travelers and locals to celebrate Songkran, the Thai new year festival.


© PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/AFP by using Getty Photos
Prior to the pandemic, Khao San Road was a well-liked spot for travelers and locals to rejoice Songkran, the Thai new 12 months festival.

These two accommodations and a few guesthouses formed the sum of Khao San Street accommodations I listed in the initially “Thailand: A Travel Survival Package,” revealed the pursuing yr, 1982.

When I returned a year afterwards to update info for the next version, 5 much more guesthouses alongside or just off Khao San had appeared, so I dutifully included these for the 1984 version.

From that place forward, every single time I came again to Banglamphu for the guide’s biannual update, the range of places to keep experienced multiplied exponentially. Within a decade, the selections proliferated, block by block, from Khao San Street out to other streets and alleys in the district, right until backpacker hotels and guesthouses numbered well over 200.

“The Beach front” result

By the mid-1990s, the neighborhood was a global phenom, the most significant backpacker centre amongst the three Ks — Kathmandu, Khao San, and Kuta Seashore. Aside from housing and feeding the largest transient backpacker population in the environment, Khao San Street became a environment-report contender for its black market place in unlicensed cassettes, CDs and DVDs, fake IDs, counterfeited books and manufacturer-knockoff baggage.

Dozens of bucket outlets supplied unequalled discount fares on minor-recognized airways traveling imaginative routes to almost any airport on the world.

Alex Garland, an unfamiliar writer at the time (now famed for directing sci-fi movies “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation)’, boosted Khao San’s terrible-boy rep further with his 1996 cult novel, “The Beach.” Based mostly on Garland’s have travels in Thailand, the initial 7 chapters just take location on Khao San Highway, where by Richard, a younger English backpacker, fulfills an eccentric Scot contacting himself Daffy Duck who presents him a solution map to “the seaside.”

The novel describes a area in a standard Khao San guesthouse of the period: “Just one wall was concrete — the aspect of the setting up. The other people had been Formica and bare. They moved when I touched them. I had the experience that if I leant versus one it would slide above and probably strike a further, and all the walls of the neighboring rooms would collapse like dominoes. Just brief of the ceiling, the partitions stopped, and masking the place was a strip of steel mosquito netting.”



a man and a woman standing in front of a sign: Former Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings stands with VS Guest House owner Rintipa Detkajon during a January 2021 visit.


© Ian Taylor
Former Lonely World writer Joe Cummings stands with VS Guest Household owner Rintipa Detkajon throughout a January 2021 stop by.

A film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonard DiCaprio strike globe cinemas in 2000, and likely released Khao San Road to a more substantial viewers than possibly the novel or my Lonely World guides.

That identical calendar year Italian digital audio producer Spiller unveiled a video clip of his dance track “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Like),” shot in Bangkok with a popular scene at the end the place Spiller and singer Sophie Ellis-Baxter dance in an underground Khao San Street club.

A New Yorker posting that calendar year explained Khao San Street as “the vacation hub for 50 % the earth, a area that prospers on the drive to be someplace else,” because it was “the safest, easiest, most Westernized put from which to start a trip by way of Asia.”

Khao San Highway these days

In accordance to the Khao San Small business Affiliation, in 2018 the highway saw an astounding 40,000-50,000 holidaymakers per day in the superior year, and 20,000 per day in the small season.

With these quantities, it wasn’t significantly of a surprise when the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority introduced in 2019 that it was investing $1.6 million to rework Khao San Road into a controlled “global walking avenue.”

Initiated possibly in portion to counter Khao San’s somewhat unsavory status, the venture was to be completed in late 2020, with a repaved street and footpaths, and retractable bollards designating spaces for 250–350 certified Thai vendors, chosen by lottery.

Autos would be banned from the street from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day.

When the coronavirus pandemic compelled Thailand to near its borders in April 2020, worldwide vacationer arrivals fell to zero just about overnight. Khao San Road partly recovered when domestic journey re-opened in July, even so, and by the time the renovated Khao San was released in November 2020, weekends identified the street packed with Thai youth as effectively as lesser figures of expats.

Pubs together the road that generally boasted 80% European consumers grew to become almost 90% Thai.

A vivid 10-working day series of mild installations named Khao San Disguise and Request attracted a regular group in November. The installations have been supplemented by stay performances from just about 20 bands. Neighborhood studios led workshops concentrated on regular Banglamphu arts this kind of as embroidering khon (basic Thai dance-drama) costumes, preparing conventional khaotom nam woon (sticky rice triangles steamed in fragrant pandanus leaves), and crafting thaeng yuak (contemporary banana tree trunks carved into intricate styles, for use in funerals, monastic ordination and other Buddhist ceremonies).

The neighborhood experienced another setback when a second wave of coronavirus scenarios spiked in early January 2021. The govt rapidly ordered the closing of all leisure venues in Bangkok, and as soon as once more Khao San Highway emptied out nearly wholly.

When I re-frequented a deserted Khao San later on that thirty day period, I determined to end in at VS Guesthouse, the to start with and oldest guesthouse nevertheless standing. Every other community guesthouse I passed by that working day was shut restricted, but to my shock the classic wooden doorways to VS stood vast open up.

I chatted with the customers of the household who owned the property, now in their fourth technology. Rintipa Detkajon, the elder of two sisters who seem just after the residence now, recalled how her late father, Vongsavat, started out taking in foreigners about 1980, letting them to sleep on the family’s residing room ground.

“I was about 16 years previous when our to start with visitor, an Australian guy, stayed the evening,” she recounted. “Foreigners back then traveled so quietly. They were fascinated in history and tradition, not like children we see currently, who feel far more interested in acquiring drunk and partying.”

The spouse and children included to the picket home about the many years, at a single position reaching a peak of 18 rooms. They now operate 10 rooms heading for $10 a night. The working day I visited, just 1 place was occupied, by an American who was remaining extended-phrase.

I requested Rintipa about the absence of business enterprise owing to the pandemic.

“It’s not just us, it can be the entire entire world,” she said. “We are all in this together. This is our household, so we’ll endure.”

Carry on Studying

About Antoinette G. Tucker

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