How Bangkok’s Khao San Road became the world’s most well known journey hub

Bangkok (CNN) — As soon as on a time, the locals peddled rice on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Plenty of it.

Barge just after barge paddled, and later motored, down the huge Chao Phraya River and into the mouth of Banglamphu Canal, wherever they dropped off thousands of tons in jute sacks to wholesalers in the community.

By the end of the 19th century, Banglamphu district was by much the most significant rice market not only in Bangkok, but any place in Siam, the world’s major rice rising country.

Scaled-down suppliers opened stores south of the canal, the place a grime-track alley grew to become so thick with the rice trade that King Chulalongkorn purchased a suitable road created in 1892. Working only 410 meters, the cobbled strip wasn’t grand adequate to be named after a historic Thai figure or country-creating principle, contrary to other town thoroughfares, so it was simply called Soi Khao San (Milled Rice Lane).

As Banglamphu flourished on rice profits, the district expanded into garments (like Thailand’s initially prepared-made faculty uniforms), buffalo-leather footwear, jewellery, gold leaf and costumes and regalia for Thai classical dance theater. Nearby need for leisure gave start to two musical comedy residences, Thailand’s first nationwide document label (Kratai), and one particular of the kingdom’s very first silent-film cinemas.

Still only 100 a long time later on, an invasion of global backpackers just about fully eclipsed regional current market tradition. Commencing as a trickle in the late 1970s, when Bangkok was a terminus for the Asian hippie path, the inflow turned a tidal wave in the 1990s.

Guesthouses proliferate

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

When I first strolled down Khao San Highway on a investigation journey for the initial version of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guideline, 40 several years back, it was lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century two-tale shophouses.

At road degree were being rows of shoe retailers, Thai-Chinese coffee retailers, noodle vendors, grocers and bike repair outlets. Owners or tenants lived earlier mentioned.

A couple of rice sellers hung on, but as 10-wheel trucks had taken more than from river barges, rice transportation and buying and selling had for the most portion moved elsewhere.

Although Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, was the key industrial emphasis for Chinese merchants and residents, and Phahurat served the Indian neighborhood, Banglamphu was evidently a far more Thai realm. Close to the corner on Chakkaphong and Phra Sumen streets, artisan shops still crafted costumes and masks for classical Thai dance-drama performers.

06 Khao San Road

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

Joe Cummings

I had a put in a prolonged, scorching 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 Road.

These are arguably the city’s main sightseeing points of interest, so when I seen two Chinese-Thai hotels on Khao San Highway, I immediately considered to propose them in my guidebook as a effortless base for vacationers. Nearly similar in their modest amenities, Nith Chareon Suk Resort and Sri Phranakhon Hotel price tag $5 a night at the time, and catered to Thai traders purchasing wholesale items in Banglamphu to offer upcountry.

Down a narrow alley nearby, I was even additional thrilled to stumble on VS Guest House, recently opened by a Banglamphu family members getting company into their 1920s-vintage wooden dwelling for $1.50 for every head. Further alley exploration turned up two far more family-run, similarly priced guesthouses, Bonny and Tum.

“Foreigners back then traveled so quietly. They ended up interested in heritage and lifestyle, not like children we see currently, who seem additional interested in obtaining drunk and partying.”

Rintipa Detkajon, Khao San Highway guesthouse operator

These two accommodations and a few guesthouses shaped the sum of Khao San Road accommodations I mentioned in the very first “Thailand: A Vacation Survival Package,” released the adhering to year, 1982.

When I returned a calendar year later on to update data for the 2nd version, five more guesthouses together or just off Khao San had appeared, so I dutifully added these for the 1984 edition.

From that point forward, each time I came back to Banglamphu for the guide’s biannual update, the number of spots to continue to be experienced multiplied exponentially. Inside a decade, the options proliferated, block by block, from Khao San Road out to other streets and alleys in the district, right up until backpacker motels and guesthouses numbered properly above 200.

“The Seaside” outcome

By the mid-1990s, the neighborhood was a world-wide phenom, the biggest backpacker heart among the the three Ks — Kathmandu, Khao San, and Kuta Beach. Aside from housing and feeding the biggest transient backpacker populace in the environment, Khao San Highway became a globe-record contender for its black industry in unlicensed cassettes, CDs and DVDs, pretend IDs, counterfeited guides and brand-knockoff baggage.

Dozens of bucket outlets provided unequalled bargain fares on small-acknowledged airways flying imaginative routes to pretty much any airport on the world.

Alex Garland, an mysterious author at the time (now famed for directing sci-fi movies “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation)’, boosted Khao San’s bad-boy rep even more with his 1996 cult novel, “The Seaside.” Centered on Garland’s have travels in Thailand, the very first 7 chapters acquire put on Khao San Street, wherever Richard, a youthful English backpacker, satisfies an eccentric Scot contacting himself Daffy Duck who presents him a secret map to “the seashore.”

Prior to the pandemic, Khao San Road was a popular spot for travelers and locals to celebrate Songkran, the Thai new year festival.

Prior to the pandemic, Khao San Road was a preferred place for tourists and locals to celebrate Songkran, the Thai new 12 months festival.


The novel describes a area in a common Khao San guesthouse of the period: “One particular wall was concrete — the side of the constructing. The many others were Formica and bare. They moved when I touched them. I experienced the sensation that if I leant towards a person it would fall more than and probably hit one more, and all the walls of the neighboring rooms would collapse like dominoes. Just shorter of the ceiling, the walls stopped, and masking the area was a strip of steel mosquito netting.”

A film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonard DiCaprio hit earth cinemas in 2000, and likely released Khao San Road to a bigger audience than either the novel or my Lonely World guides.

That same year Italian electronic music producer Spiller released a video of his dance monitor “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Like),” shot in Bangkok with a notable scene at the end in which Spiller and singer Sophie Ellis-Baxter dance in an underground Khao San Highway club.

A New Yorker posting that year explained Khao San Road as “the travel hub for 50 percent the world, a location that prospers on the motivation to be someplace else,” mainly because it was “the most secure, simplest, most Westernized spot from which to launch a vacation via Asia.”

Khao San Street right now

According to the Khao San Enterprise Affiliation, in 2018 the highway noticed an astounding 40,000-50,000 travelers per day in the high year, and 20,000 for every working day in the lower year.

With such quantities, it was not considerably of a surprise when the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority introduced in 2019 that it was investing $1.6 million to transform Khao San Street into a controlled “international strolling road.”

Initiated probably in element to counter Khao San’s considerably unsavory track record, the challenge was to be done in late 2020, with a repaved street and footpaths, and retractable bollards designating spaces for 250–350 licensed Thai distributors, chosen by lottery.

Automobiles would be banned from the highway from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. day by day.

10 Khao San Road

Former Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings stands with VS Guest Household owner Rintipa Detkajon throughout a January 2021 stop by.

Ian Taylor

When the coronavirus pandemic forced Thailand to near its borders in April 2020, worldwide vacationer arrivals fell to zero almost overnight. Khao San Road partially recovered when domestic vacation re-opened in July, nonetheless, and by the time the renovated Khao San was launched in November 2020, weekends found the road packed with Thai youth as very well as lesser quantities of expats.

Pubs alongside the road that normally boasted 80% European clients turned just about 90% Thai.

A vibrant 10-working day collection of light-weight installations referred to as Khao San Disguise and Look for attracted a regular crowd in November. The installations ended up supplemented by stay performances from approximately 20 bands. Neighborhood studios led workshops centered on regular Banglamphu arts these types of as embroidering khon (common Thai dance-drama) costumes, planning conventional khaotom nam woon (sticky rice triangles steamed in aromatic pandanus leaves), and crafting thaeng yuak (refreshing banana tree trunks carved into intricate patterns, for use in funerals, monastic ordination and other Buddhist ceremonies).

The community endured a further setback when a second wave of coronavirus circumstances spiked in early January 2021. The federal government speedily requested the closing of all amusement venues in Bangkok, and the moment all over again Khao San Highway emptied out just about absolutely.

When I re-visited a deserted Khao San later on that month, I decided to prevent in at VS Guesthouse, the initial and oldest guesthouse still standing. Every single other community guesthouse I handed by that day was shut restricted, but to my shock the classic wooden doors to VS stood huge open up.

I chatted with the associates of the family who owned the dwelling, now in their fourth era. Rintipa Detkajon, the elder of two sisters who appear soon after the household right now, recalled how her late father, Vongsavat, began getting in foreigners all-around 1980, permitting them to slumber on the family’s residing space floor.

“I was around 16 a long time outdated when our initially guest, an Australian man, stayed the night,” she recounted. “Foreigners again then traveled so quietly. They were being interested in historical past and tradition, in contrast to kids we see nowadays, who look additional interested in receiving drunk and partying.”

The family extra to the picket household above the several years, at a person point achieving a peak of 18 rooms. They now operate 10 rooms going for $10 a evening. The working day I visited, just just one area was occupied, by an American who was being prolonged-time period.

I asked Rintipa about the absence of organization owing to the pandemic.

“It can be not just us, it’s the complete earth,” she explained. “We’re all in this jointly. This is our house, so we are going to survive.”

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