Feature Presentation: “….Stays on Khao San Road”
[wholly bemused, told by American college graduate who’s had his fair share of fun]
If you Google “Bangkok backpacking,” Khao San Road will likely be featured in all the top hits, from blog posts to hostel bookings to Wiki articles (assuming you don’t have wickedly draconian parental controls or something). In conversations about Bangkok with past and current travelers, I’ve heard the entire gambit from “avoid Khao San at all costs” to “you shouldn’t stay anywhere else.” The important commonality: everybody at least mentions it. Well, that’s enough hype for me to at least “check it out” for a night.
Anton, David, and I set off for Khao San around 9pm, armed with backpacks, cameras, and a token beer each. We hail a tuk tuk, haggle the driver down to half the offered price, and with a splutter of black smoke we’re off, weaving through the Friday night Bangkok traffic. Us three passengers converse idly to pass the time and dampen the high-speed exposure of tuk tuk driving . Our driver–could swear his name was Kasem or something reminiscently Arabic–drives adeptly, though on a tuk tuk this feels a bit like riding in the trunk of a rickety go-cart driven by a caffeinated teenager. At one point we abruptly swerve to the left; a white BMW speeds past, its blacked out windows vibrating to Kanye West (or maybe it was Taylor Swift? I dunno *wink*). For a moment I have a flashback to driving on Chicago’s eight-lane freeways and I think, a tuk tuk driver could probably handle the infamous traffic of the Most American of American Cities.
A half hour or so later, we arrive on the scene of brightly colored lanterns, neon signs, blaring music, and a horde of foreign backpackers: we are here! We pay the driver and then shuffle our way down the infamous backpackers’ mecca. It’s a proper rager, and even though it’s Friday night I’m led to believe that Khao San storm rarely ebbs . We gawk and stroll the length of the street, then settle in at an outdoor table at Gulliver’s Travelers to watch the carnival.
A brief description:
Five hundred meters (5-8 city blocks) of Thais and tourists of every nationality, drunk on the scene— alcohol or otherwise–and sporting everything from dreadlocks and Thai fisherman’s pants to dreadful sport coats and fish-themed ties. These fiesta fleas bump and burp and bustle through a road haphazardly decorated with steaming food carts; street stalls selling knockoffs and novelties; deceptive lady boys hawking strip clubs and sex shows; and cheeky boys selling flowers to swarthy women—a fierce freshening awaits those who meekly decline. Among the local hustlers, a few celebrities stand out: a wizened and grinning elderly Thai woman bearing a metal tray of skewered scorpions, black as death; another aged local veteran who makes an unreasonable chunk of cash by slingshotting a neon-flashing whirligig high into the sky; the “ping-pong show” hustlers, who advertise their venue with puckered lips and a wet “pop pop” that leaves just enough to the imagination; and the nitrous tank gang, who swiftly exchange wads of Baht for a head-wobbling balloon and a hearty snicker. After nearly drowning in the bacchanal fantasy on the street, the Khao San revelers gasp and stumble their way to the sanctuary of crowded bars that line the road. These raucous establishments spew a buzzing medley of drunk babble, hookah and cigarette smoke, and a bass-heavy mix of house and trance and club bangers, each seeming to compete with the rest for the unsung prize of “loudest mess of the night.”
Khao San Road, January 17, 2014.
[Recovery from poetic reverie] To be honest, the permanent parts of Khao San–the bars, clubs, and hustlers–aren’t so special. The place reminds me of Bangkok’s version of Las Vegas, much like Japan’s version of Disneyland. It’s seedy like a rotten raspberry: dirty, odorous, bad for your health, and sticks with you afterwards—though perhaps not in your teeth .
But, the one redeeming and perhaps entirely unique facet of Khao San is the overwhelming numbers of backpackers from around the world. I would swear that I saw a tourist from each one of the two hundred or so countries, but I fear that might the beer talking. True, I didn’t speak to many of them—to those I did, I don’t recall saying much of substance—but the people-watching was superb that night. Looking back now, about three weeks into travel, I will concede that the people safari—observing and meeting and getting to know people from every culture and creed—has been the most fulfilling part of my trip so far. And, Khao San will likely wolf the cake on diversity per square foot.
Which is not to say that I like everything about the backpacker circus on Khao San Road. Some of the participants are rather comically grotesque, particularly this reoccurring character: an overweight pale man holding an appropriately fat cigar in one greasy hand and spewing putrid smoke from a putrid-er gut over a beautiful Thai girl held with the other hand, the luck[y|less] latter likely hoping the former’s wallet is as overstuffed as his tastes. [Consenting afterthought] OK, yes, I bummed a few cigarettes and patronized part of the debauchery with my drinks at Gulliver’s; perhaps I am not much more noble [end afterthought]. Not my culture, though, and that is all.
Anyhow, yes, Khao San is unique, or as unique as anyplace if you looked deeply enough I suppose. Let me take you back to Gulliver’s Travelers. Now, I had vowed to take in all of the chaos and partake in as little as possible. I did drink a fair[ly large] quantity of beer and smoked a handful of cigarettes, but that’s quite tame. The only intimacy that I pursued on Khao San involved one absolutely scintillating Israeli girl—I would have kicked myself later if I hadn’t tried—and both of us walked away with pleased smiles and neither of us doled the other a single baht. But that’s it….well, I may have cajoled Anton and David into joining me at The Club, where it’s possible that I let myself get a bit hedonistic dancing on the upper platform with a couple beautiful Thai girls. Hard to say—the night was hazy at that point . I do distinctly remember the end of the night: step one, engage in fare diplomacy with a tuk tuk driver; step two, crazy ride home singing horribly along with Thai tunes on the radio; and step final, drink two full liters of water and fall asleep dreading….
The Hangover, Part II.pi: “Well, Almost Everything Stays on Khao San Road”
[painful amusement, told by, well, a hungover person]
Well it was bound to happen at least once in Bangkok. I woke up the following morning feeling stale and way too tired, with that dry feeling in the upper cranium that signifies the oncoming 24 hours of discomfort. I immediately try to mitigate–two tylanol and another liter of water, and a hot shower–but it’s far too late. The headache sets in before I get the first bite of breakfast down. Ah well, I grumble, I’ve had worse. Anton and David seem to be moving slow today as well but we all have the “if you take a day off, then Khao San wins” attitude, so we head to another tourist gem of Bangkok: the Chatuchak Market.
[Wholehearted attempt to give Chatuchak proper justice, despite the pounding in my head] Thailand is known for its street stalls and secondhand markets, but I don’t think any of the rest compare to Chatuchak Weekend Market. The market area sprawls over 100,000 square meters—frankly, I’m not sure “sprawls” is adequate, for Chatuchak appears as if it mushroomed to glut the entire space like a virile bacteria colony might overrun a pitri dish. Take one step under the corrugated metal roof of the outer complex—which surrounds a looping street and a central complex—and you are lost. The dimly lit alleyways squeeze between rows and rows and rows of one room shops that connect like the rooms of a cutaway dollhouse, each shop brimming with the entire spectrum of art to bric-à-brac, antiques and showpieces to overstocked commodities and knockoffs. You could furnish every home in Portland with the exotic this and that sold at Chatuchak, and the place would refill itself in a day. It’s Alice’s rabbit hole of consumerism. It’s…it’s just crazy [f**k it].
Back to the hungover trio. We somehow make it through the wormhole of the outer complex with little more than some knockoff Ray Ban shades (which regrettably don’t even block UV light). We wander through the inner pathway, gawking at the tourist zoo that in many ways rivals Khao San Road . But the hangover takes away some of the novelty for me: I feel like I’m just detoxing around and eating chicken skewers, occasionally dodging lobster-burned tourists. I vow to come back at the end of my trip and fill a second suitcase full of knickknacks for friends and family.
The sweltering heat (listen to me—sweltering—let’s see how I fair with the summer) gets the best of us so we seek shade in the neighboring park. We rent a multicolored bamboo mat and gratefully plop down to read or pass out. I lay down and idly watch the light rays anoint the other lounging, picnicking and yoga-ing park-goers. My mood instantly improves and I have the mental energy to compare Chatuchak to Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, which I visited on trip to Egypt back in 2009. Both are equally chaotic, but there’s one significant difference. With rare exception, Egyptians heckle, Thais do not. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a time-elapsed excerpt from my written journal. The first impression:
Bangkok is chaos. Chaos reigns supreme. Chaos holds title and deed over all. Chaos takes commission.
A bit drunk on jet lag and culture shock, I fear. But the follow-up, a few days later:
…but it is leisurely chaos. No one yells. An exchange between local and farang can start and end with a single smile. There are no catcalls, no jeers, no “Look! Look! See here, see here! My friend my friend my FRIEND!”
Now, I should state that I very much liked Egypt and miss the few Egyptian friends that I made outside of the buyer-seller space. And, there are many confounding factors that muddy the comparison . But the excerpts do illustrate the human capacity for adaptation to strange environs. On the first day in Bangkok I could barely open my mouth—so stunned was I with the exoticness of the place. A few days later, I was trouncing around and speaking my “nid noi” (นิดหน่อย or “a small amount”) Thai to the food cart owners and Suk 11 workers. It’s a surprising joy of traveling: the foreign does not stay foreign for long (though it may never become familiar), particularly when you still need to eat and sleep and communicate. Um, that might have been a veiled plug for my friends to come join me during my travels.
The auburn-tinged evening soon finds the park, so we head back to Suk 11. Anton and David had to check out earlier in the day, but I let them store their backpacks in my room for safekeeping. As they carefully repack, I lay exhausted on my bed and fight sleep. We make courteous plans to meet again at some point, all realizing that it may not happen and none of us would be hurt. Then, it is time for them to catch the train to Kho Tao, where they will take the PADI open water scuba course. I have a brief feverish urge to join them, but it subsides quickly. We exchange hugs, and once again I’m alone.
Thus passed the first three days of my Asia travels. Unsurprisingly, I’ve spent little time by myself so far. The urge to meet new people and observe their culture against the backdrop of the local culture—and thereby truly learn my own culture—is too strong right now. Later, there will be solitary moments and much reflection. As for Bangkok, my activity will prove to be subject to Moore’s Law: exponential growth curve. A new character, a blitzy but thoughtful South African, will help spur a true dive into sleepless madness that will make this Khao San night sound tame. We will barely escape Bangkok before it sucks the life out of us with a smile, and will carry the frantic momentum all the way up to Chiang Mai. All this and more to come, and next up: “It Begins With Grapa (Bangkok Pt 2).”
Footnotes for the Curious Reader
 In Bangkok Pt 2, I’ll likely admit that tuk tuks are nothing compared to riding backseat on a motorbike taxi.
 Khao San’s eternal festivities were confirmed by a sleepy Finnish girl in Ayutthaya, who stayed at one of the many hostels near the road for about a week: “Ha no, zat place never sleeps I think!”
 The only thing missing from that rotten raspberry simile is the noise, a deafening cacophony that leaves your ears ringing long after you’ve left Khao San. Not bad, eh English teacher?
 Their names were Ploy and Aom, or at least that’s what I think they yelled over the blaring house music.
 In Egypt, I was part of a large and easily identifiable tour group; now, I’m alone or with a few other independent travel companions. More significantly, there I looked very different from the local population; here, the locals often unknowingly speak Thai to me. I promise a more thorough reflection at some point. Not yet. Too soon.