How Bangkok’s Khao San Highway grew to become the world’s most popular vacation hub

As soon as on a time, the locals peddled rice on Bangkok’s Khao San Highway. Plenty 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 way of Getty Photographs
Khao San Street, pictured in this file picture taken in 2015.

Barge following barge paddled, and later motored, down the vast Chao Phraya River and into the mouth of Banglamphu Canal, exactly where they dropped off 1000’s of tons in jute sacks to wholesalers in the community.


By the conclude of the 19th century, Banglamphu district was by far the most significant rice marketplace not only in Bangkok, but anywhere in Siam, the world’s largest rice developing country.

Smaller distributors opened outlets south of the canal, where a dust-observe alley became so thick with the rice trade that King Chulalongkorn ordered a good street built in 1892. Working only 410 meters, the cobbled strip wasn’t grand ample to be named soon after a historic Thai determine or nation-developing theory, contrary to other town thoroughfares, so it was only termed Soi Khao San (Milled Rice Lane).

As Banglamphu flourished on rice gains, the district expanded into apparel (which include Thailand’s initial ready-designed university uniforms), buffalo-leather footwear, jewelry, gold leaf and costumes and regalia for Thai classical dance theater. Area demand from customers for amusement gave beginning to two musical comedy residences, Thailand’s 1st national report label (Kratai), and one of the kingdom’s first silent-film cinemas.

Nonetheless only 100 a long time afterwards, an invasion of global backpackers practically absolutely eclipsed area marketplace society. Setting up as a trickle in the late 1970s, when Bangkok was a terminus for the Asian hippie trail, the influx turned a tidal wave in the 1990s.

Guesthouses proliferate

I don’t assume anyone could have predicted the inexorable evolution of the street and surrounding community.

When I initially strolled down Khao San Street on a investigate trip for the to start with version of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide, 40 decades in the past, it was lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century two-story shophouses.

At street amount were rows of shoe outlets, Thai-Chinese coffee shops, noodle suppliers, grocers and motorcycle restore stores. Owners or tenants lived above.

A few rice dealers hung on, but as 10-wheel vans had taken over from river barges, rice transportation and buying and selling experienced for the most component moved somewhere else.

Though Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, was the primary commercial target for Chinese retailers and citizens, and Phahurat served the Indian local community, Banglamphu was clearly a additional Thai realm. All around the corner on Chakkaphong and Phra Sumen roadways, artisan shops 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 World Thailand tutorial.

I had a invested a extensive, incredibly hot 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 a kilometer’s radius of Khao San Road.

These are arguably the city’s chief sightseeing points of interest, so when I noticed two Chinese-Thai accommodations on Khao San Highway, I immediately assumed to advocate them in my guidebook as a handy foundation for vacationers. Virtually equivalent in their modest features, Nith Chareon Suk Hotel and Sri Phranakhon Resort price tag $5 a evening at the time, and catered to Thai traders getting wholesale items in Banglamphu to offer upcountry.

Down a slender alley nearby, I was even additional thrilled to stumble on VS Visitor Dwelling, just lately opened by a Banglamphu family members getting company into their 1920s-classic picket household for $1.50 for each head. Additional alley exploration turned up two far more relatives-operate, similarly 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 means of Getty Photographs
Prior to the pandemic, Khao San Street was a common spot for vacationers and locals to rejoice Songkran, the Thai new calendar year festival.

These two resorts and 3 guesthouses shaped the sum of Khao San Road accommodations I stated in the 1st “Thailand: A Travel Survival Package,” posted the pursuing yr, 1982.

When I returned a 12 months afterwards to update information for the second version, 5 extra guesthouses together or just off Khao San had appeared, so I dutifully included these for the 1984 edition.

From that place forward, each and every time I arrived again to Banglamphu for the guide’s biannual update, the variety of places to keep experienced multiplied exponentially. Within just a 10 years, the alternatives proliferated, block by block, from Khao San Street out to other streets and alleys in the district, till backpacker motels and guesthouses numbered nicely about 200.

“The Seashore” impact

By the mid-1990s, the neighborhood was a world phenom, the biggest backpacker center amongst the 3 Ks — Kathmandu, Khao San, and Kuta Seaside. Other than housing and feeding the most significant transient backpacker inhabitants in the environment, Khao San Street became a planet-document contender for its black current market in unlicensed cassettes, CDs and DVDs, pretend IDs, counterfeited publications and model-knockoff baggage.

Dozens of bucket shops provided unmatched discount fares on small-known airways flying imaginative routes to pretty much any airport on the globe.

Alex Garland, an unfamiliar author at the time (now famed for directing sci-fi films “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation)’, boosted Khao San’s negative-boy rep further with his 1996 cult novel, “The Beach front.” Based mostly on Garland’s have travels in Thailand, the initially seven chapters consider put on Khao San Street, in which Richard, a younger English backpacker, fulfills an eccentric Scot contacting himself Daffy Duck who presents him a top secret map to “the seashore.”

The novel describes a space in a usual Khao San guesthouse of the period: “1 wall was concrete — the aspect of the building. The others had been Formica and bare. They moved when I touched them. I had the sensation that if I leant towards just one it would slide more than and possibly hit another, and all the walls of the neighboring rooms would collapse like dominoes. Just brief of the ceiling, the partitions stopped, and masking the house was a strip of metallic 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 creator Joe Cummings stands with VS Visitor Household owner Rintipa Detkajon all through a January 2021 stop by.

A film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonard DiCaprio strike earth cinemas in 2000, and probably introduced Khao San Highway to a larger sized viewers than either the novel or my Lonely Planet guides.

That very same calendar year Italian electronic songs producer Spiller released a video clip of his dance track “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Appreciate),” shot in Bangkok with a well known scene at the close where Spiller and singer Sophie Ellis-Baxter dance in an underground Khao San Highway club.

A New Yorker article that year explained Khao San Road as “the journey hub for 50 percent the earth, a location that prospers on the wish to be someplace else,” since it was “the safest, least difficult, most Westernized place from which to launch a vacation as a result of Asia.”

Khao San Road right now

In accordance to the Khao San Enterprise Affiliation, in 2018 the highway saw an astounding 40,000-50,000 holidaymakers for every working day in the high period, and 20,000 for every working day in the reduced season.

With this sort of quantities, it was not substantially of a surprise when the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority declared in 2019 that it was investing $1.6 million to change Khao San Highway into a controlled “worldwide walking road.”

Initiated perhaps in section to counter Khao San’s rather unsavory reputation, the undertaking was to be finished in late 2020, with a repaved road and footpaths, and retractable bollards designating spaces for 250–350 licensed Thai sellers, picked by lottery.

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

When the coronavirus pandemic compelled Thailand to close its borders in April 2020, international tourist arrivals fell to zero pretty much right away. Khao San Road partially recovered when domestic journey re-opened in July, even so, and by the time the renovated Khao San was released in November 2020, weekends uncovered the road packed with Thai youth as perfectly as lesser figures of expats.

Pubs together the road that ordinarily boasted 80% European shoppers grew to become virtually 90% Thai.

A vibrant 10-day series of gentle installations called Khao San Conceal and Request captivated a constant group in November. The installations were being supplemented by reside performances from virtually 20 bands. Community studios led workshops concentrated on traditional Banglamphu arts such as embroidering khon (vintage Thai dance-drama) costumes, getting ready common khaotom nam woon (sticky rice triangles steamed in aromatic pandanus leaves), and crafting thaeng yuak (fresh banana tree trunks carved into intricate designs, for use in funerals, monastic ordination and other Buddhist ceremonies).

The neighborhood endured yet another setback when a second wave of coronavirus situations spiked in early January 2021. The governing administration promptly requested the closing of all enjoyment venues in Bangkok, and when once more Khao San Street emptied out just about absolutely.

When I re-visited a deserted Khao San later on that thirty day period, I made a decision to end in at VS Guesthouse, the initial and oldest guesthouse still standing. Just about every other neighborhood guesthouse I passed by that working day was shut restricted, but to my surprise the vintage wooden doorways to VS stood wide open up.

I chatted with the users of the spouse and children who owned the house, now in their fourth generation. Rintipa Detkajon, the elder of two sisters who glance after the home nowadays, recalled how her late father, Vongsavat, started getting in foreigners about 1980, allowing them to rest on the family’s living place floor.

“I was all-around 16 decades aged when our initially guest, an Australian guy, stayed the evening,” she recounted. “Foreigners again then traveled so quietly. They were intrigued in history and society, in contrast to children we see these days, who look more intrigued in acquiring drunk and partying.”

The loved ones extra to the picket household above the decades, at just one place reaching a peak of 18 rooms. They now function 10 rooms likely for $10 a evening. The working day I visited, just just one space was occupied, by an American who was keeping prolonged-term.

I questioned Rintipa about the absence of business owing to the pandemic.

“It is not just us, it is the whole environment,” she reported. “We are all in this with each other. This is our household, so we are going to endure.”

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