The changing face of Khao San Road
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.
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