The changing face of Khao San Road

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First published 28th April, 2005

The first time I stayed on Khao San Road was after a trip through Nepal and India in the early 1990's. I remember arriving late at night, new to Thailand and climbing out of the cab, dazed and confused straight into the arms of a tout who led me to a flophouse in the back of KSR. Windowless with cardboard walls, a filthy mattress and a never-ending racket from the rooms that surrounded mine, from memory it cost about 50B -- in those days about US$2 -- what a bargain I remember thinking.


The next day I got savvy and upgraded to a guesthouse I would use repeatedly over the next decade - the Bonny Guesthouse -- it still had fibro walls and crummy mattresses but the shared bathrooms were clean and there was a small garden area with a funny little swinging table where you could relax and meet others -- for years it was 60B for a single -- and my home away from home whenever I was in Bangkok.

Alas, Bonny is gone -- bulldozed and replaced with an ugly lump of gardenless, characterless concrete. Across Khao San and the areas it splurged into - soi Rambuttri, Trok Mayom and further afield, high land prices and the incredible increase in traveller numbers brought about by the (first) Amazing Thailand campaign have meant that in many cases the only way has been up up up.

Despite this some "old" (a relative term I admit) style places survived, but they are few and far between - Prakorb's House, Small Joe, Sitdhi, Barn Thai, Di-o and Apple remain standing, though even Barn Thai looked closed at my last pass in March 2005. Meanwhile the larger "prison-cell" style guesthouses like Nat, Yoon, 7-Holder, Hello, Marco Polo, Nana Plaza Inn and New Nith Charoen have pretty much cornered the super-budget market -- but you get what you pay for. With a couple of exceptions if you want to pay under 150B for a room you'll end up in one of these gems -- some of which have over 100 rooms -- don't forget your earplugs.

A concrete-hulk with 100+ rooms was never my idea of a fun way to relax and meet people -- I've always preferred the small family-run houses where it is easier to meet other travellers and to get to know the family who runs it. Luckily over the years in the West Banglamphu area (between Khao San Road and the Chao Phraya) a lot of previously private houses opened their doors to guests. But now, as with Khao San Road in the past, the money-driven boom continues there as well. Construction in the last couple of years has left us with Mango Lagoon Place, Rambuttri Village Inn, Lamphu Place to name a few.

As the western area has boomed so has Khao San itself. D&D reinvented itself, Buddy went seriously upmarket, and a whole host of fairly featureless "backpacker factories" appeared on the scenes -- Budget Guesthouse, Kawin, Mom's, Siam Oriental and all the Sawasdee hotels (many of which were older hotels which Sawasdee bought out and rebranded). And still the backpackers come.

As the guesthouses changed so did the food and shopping -- McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Boots, 7-eleven, Asia Books, Coffee World sprung up like mushrooms in the wet season. The number of streetside bars exploded, today converted VW buses provide mobile drinking spots stocked with "60B super strong cocktails". Although you can still get fake student ID's and press cards, they're now a small portion of the market, pushed aside by throbbing pirated CD and DVD stalls.

And the internet cafes -- the biggest scrouge of all. Today you'll often see guesthouses replacing their common areas with computer terminals. The punters sit there, logged onto Lonely Planet, Rough Guides (or perhaps even Travelfish!) getting the hows, whats, wheres and whens to get to the next beach, mountain or river, when often they could just ask the person sitting next to them!

Luckily not everything is bad. If you're on a budget, you can still take the ten minute walk up to the National Library area, where small family-run operations such as the Sawatdee (opened for business in 1980!), Shanti Lodge, Tavee amongst others continue to trundle on. These places represent far better value than most of the options on Khao San Road. But if you really want to stay on Khao San Road and want to do so in an old style place, consider Prakorb's, Little Joe's or Di-O's, while if you're willing to spend more, Shambara remains our favourite. Further afield, don't forget the Soi Ngam Dulpi area where the guesthouses are within easy walking distance of the newly opened Bangkok subway.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 3 comment(s)

  • Hello and you only got their in the 1990 s in the 1980 s it was so plain and thai, then everything became all mixed up and prices changed and everything went to the standard formulas - chain resturants, chain hotels (sawasdee and such). It has lost a lot of it s charm but it only followed the wider big picture of the world losing its charm. At the end of the day it is what you make it but do not take Khao San for being Thai because it is globalized Thai/ Falang. The recommendations are as good as you can get but I myself have returned to another section of town pre- Khao San - Ngam Duphli might as well change and go back to somewhere that has actually less changed than Khao San. Best wishes,

    Pierre

    Posted by Pierre Lachance on 25th January, 2009

  • Khaosan is the street that greets backpackers and travelers from around the world....
    there are lots of places to stay
    I've stayed at a nice guesthouse at Khao-Sarn Rd.
    I got fish spa, Thai massage both!!
    free breakfast, wifi. Safety & Service Mind
    Price only ฿390!
    You can view more info at www.happyhouseguesthouse.com

    Posted by sunum on 18th August, 2010

  • Barn Thai Guesthouse is still open.

    However,the door is always closed for safety and security reason.
    The guest has to ring the bell as instruction beside the door.
    Then, the door will be opened.

    Next time when you visit Barn Thai please " Ring the Bell ".

    Posted by Jod Dul on 18th September, 2011

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