How Bangkok’s Khao San Street turned the world’s most renowned travel hub

Bangkok (CNN) — At the time upon a time, the locals peddled rice on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Tons of it.

Barge just after barge paddled, and afterwards motored, down the vast Chao Phraya River and into the mouth of Banglamphu Canal, in which they dropped off hundreds of tons in jute sacks to wholesalers in the neighborhood.

By the close of the 19th century, Banglamphu district was by far the premier rice industry not only in Bangkok, but anyplace in Siam, the world’s biggest rice escalating nation.

Lesser suppliers opened outlets south of the canal, in which a dirt-keep track of alley turned so thick with the rice trade that King Chulalongkorn requested a good street designed in 1892. Managing only 410 meters, the cobbled strip was not grand enough to be named right after a historic Thai figure or country-developing basic principle, as opposed to other town thoroughfares, so it was only called Soi Khao San (Milled Rice Lane).

As Banglamphu flourished on rice revenue, the district expanded into clothing (which includes Thailand’s to start with completely ready-produced college uniforms), buffalo-leather sneakers, jewelry, gold leaf and costumes and regalia for Thai classical dance theater. Regional need for entertainment gave beginning to two musical comedy properties, Thailand’s to start with countrywide record label (Kratai), and one particular of the kingdom’s 1st silent-motion picture cinemas.

Still only 100 decades later on, an invasion of intercontinental backpackers almost entirely eclipsed local market place lifestyle. Starting as a trickle in the late 1970s, when Bangkok was a terminus for the Asian hippie path, the inflow grew to become a tidal wave in the 1990s.

Guesthouses proliferate

I don’t imagine any person could have predicted the inexorable evolution of the street and surrounding community.

When I initial strolled down Khao San Street on a investigation vacation for the initial version of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide, 40 several years in the past, it was lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century two-tale shophouses.

At avenue degree have been rows of shoe shops, Thai-Chinese coffee shops, noodle distributors, grocers and motorcycle repair retailers. Entrepreneurs or tenants lived higher than.

A couple rice sellers hung on, but as 10-wheel trucks had taken around from river barges, rice transport and buying and selling had for the most aspect moved in other places.

Although Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, was the major business emphasis for Chinese merchants and inhabitants, and Phahurat served the Indian local community, Banglamphu was obviously a much more Thai realm. All over the corner on Chakkaphong and Phra Sumen streets, artisan stores continue to crafted costumes and masks for classical Thai dance-drama performers.

06 Khao San Road

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

Joe Cummings

I had a invested a extensive, 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 Big Swing, all of which lie inside of a kilometer’s radius of Khao San Highway.

These are arguably the city’s chief sightseeing attractions, so when I seen two Chinese-Thai resorts on Khao San Street, I right away assumed to suggest them in my guidebook as a practical base for tourists. Nearly identical in their modest amenities, Nith Chareon Suk Lodge and Sri Phranakhon Lodge price $5 a evening at the time, and catered to Thai traders buying wholesale items in Banglamphu to sell upcountry.

Down a slim alley nearby, I was even much more thrilled to stumble upon VS Guest Dwelling, lately opened by a Banglamphu household using visitors into their 1920s-vintage wooden property for $1.50 per head. Further alley exploration turned up two much more family members-operate, similarly priced guesthouses, Bonny and Tum.

“Foreigners back again then traveled so quietly. They had been interested in heritage and society, as opposed to kids we see currently, who look more intrigued in obtaining drunk and partying.”

Rintipa Detkajon, Khao San Road guesthouse owner

These two lodges and a few guesthouses shaped the sum of Khao San Street accommodations I listed in the to start with “Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit,” posted the following 12 months, 1982.

When I returned a yr later on to update data for the second version, 5 extra guesthouses alongside or just off Khao San experienced appeared, so I dutifully extra these for the 1984 version.

From that stage ahead, each and every time I arrived back again to Banglamphu for the guide’s biannual update, the amount of spots to stay experienced multiplied exponentially. In a ten years, the alternatives proliferated, block by block, from Khao San Highway out to other streets and alleys in the district, right up until backpacker accommodations and guesthouses numbered effectively around 200.

“The Seashore” outcome

By the mid-1990s, the community was a world wide phenom, the major backpacker heart amid the 3 Ks — Kathmandu, Khao San, and Kuta Seaside. Moreover housing and feeding the largest transient backpacker populace in the planet, Khao San Highway became a planet-file contender for its black current market in unlicensed cassettes, CDs and DVDs, faux IDs, counterfeited books and manufacturer-knockoff luggage.

Dozens of bucket shops offered unrivaled discount fares on minimal-recognized airways flying imaginative routes to just about any airport on the world.

Alex Garland, an mysterious 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 Seaside.” Centered on Garland’s have travels in Thailand, the 1st 7 chapters take put on Khao San Street, the place Richard, a younger English backpacker, fulfills an eccentric Scot contacting himself Daffy Duck who presents him a solution 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 Highway was a well known location for travelers and locals to rejoice Songkran, the Thai new yr pageant.


The novel describes a room in a common Khao San guesthouse of the era: “One wall was concrete — the aspect of the setting up. The other people ended up Formica and bare. They moved when I touched them. I experienced the feeling that if I leant towards 1 it would fall about and probably strike a different, and all the walls of the neighboring rooms would collapse like dominoes. Just small of the ceiling, the walls stopped, and covering the space was a strip of metal mosquito netting.”

A movie adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonard DiCaprio strike world cinemas in 2000, and probably introduced Khao San Street to a greater viewers than either the novel or my Lonely Earth guides.

That very same 12 months Italian electronic music producer Spiller introduced a video clip of his dance keep track of “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Appreciate),” shot in Bangkok with a notable scene at the stop where Spiller and singer Sophie Ellis-Baxter dance in an underground Khao San Road club.

A New Yorker write-up that yr explained Khao San Road as “the travel hub for 50 % the entire world, a location that prospers on the want to be someplace else,” simply because it was “the most secure, most straightforward, most Westernized put from which to launch a vacation as a result of Asia.”

Khao San Street these days

According to the Khao San Organization Association, in 2018 the road saw an astounding 40,000-50,000 holidaymakers for every day in the large time, and 20,000 for every working day in the reduced season.

With this sort of numbers, it wasn’t a lot of a surprise when the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority announced in 2019 that it was investing $1.6 million to change Khao San Highway into a controlled “worldwide walking road.”

Initiated most likely in component to counter Khao San’s somewhat unsavory standing, the task was to be done in late 2020, with a repaved road and footpaths, and retractable bollards designating spaces for 250–350 certified Thai distributors, picked by lottery.

Vehicles would be banned from the highway from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday.

10 Khao San Road

Previous Lonely Earth author Joe Cummings stands with VS Guest Property owner Rintipa Detkajon through a January 2021 stop by.

Ian Taylor

When the coronavirus pandemic compelled Thailand to near its borders in April 2020, worldwide vacationer arrivals fell to zero pretty much overnight. Khao San Road partially recovered when domestic journey re-opened in July, having said that, and by the time the renovated Khao San was introduced in November 2020, weekends located the road packed with Thai youth as perfectly as lesser numbers of expats.

Pubs along the avenue that usually boasted 80% European prospects grew to become just about 90% Thai.

A vibrant 10-working day series of mild installations identified as Khao San Cover and Look for captivated a continual crowd in November. The installations ended up supplemented by dwell performances from approximately 20 bands. Area studios led workshops concentrated on regular Banglamphu arts this sort of as embroidering khon (common Thai dance-drama) costumes, preparing regular khaotom nam woon (sticky rice triangles steamed in fragrant pandanus leaves), and crafting thaeng yuak (fresh new banana tree trunks carved into intricate designs, for use in funerals, monastic ordination and other Buddhist ceremonies).

The community suffered one more setback when a 2nd wave of coronavirus conditions spiked in early January 2021. The govt promptly requested the closing of all amusement venues in Bangkok, and as soon as again Khao San Highway emptied out virtually absolutely.

When I re-frequented a deserted Khao San later that month, I made a decision to prevent in at VS Guesthouse, the first and oldest guesthouse nonetheless standing. Every single other community guesthouse I passed by that day was shut limited, but to my surprise the classic picket doors to VS stood large open.

I chatted with the associates of the family who owned the property, now in their fourth generation. Rintipa Detkajon, the elder of two sisters who glimpse after the property today, recalled how her late father, Vongsavat, started out using in foreigners all over 1980, permitting them to snooze on the family’s living home ground.

“I was close to 16 yrs outdated when our very first guest, an Australian male, stayed the night,” she recounted. “Foreigners back then traveled so quietly. They ended up intrigued in record and tradition, as opposed to children we see at present, who appear to be extra interested in having drunk and partying.”

The spouse and children additional to the wooden property in excess of the years, at just one place achieving a peak of 18 rooms. They now work 10 rooms heading for $10 a evening. The working day I frequented, just just one area was occupied, by an American who was remaining long-term.

I questioned Rintipa about the deficiency of small business due to the pandemic.

“It really is not just us, it is really the complete environment,” she claimed. “We are all in this collectively. This is our household, so we will survive.”