Khao San Road safety and scams

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First published 10th June, 2012

There's been talk on the Travelfish forum that Thailand's backpacker nerve centre, Khao San Road, is little more than a "dodgy" place where "sharks", "the most unscrupulous people in Thailand", "Thai mafia", "thugs, gangsters and thieves" prey upon the droves of dreamy-eyed travellers passing through each day. For many, the area's party-gypsy-rainbow-child atmosphere is a fun time, but how safe is it? It's unlikely problems will arise if you stay smart, but just in case, here are some tips for safely experiencing Khao San.



Most of the creepers come out at night.
Most of the creepers come out at night.

Watch your things. This doesn't only apply to Khao San but is truly smart travel 101. Don't put your valuables or yourself in situations with a high risk of theft or worse. Violent robberies are uncommon in Thailand, but pickpockets, bag snatchers and cat burglars aren't.

Secure your valuables to the best of your ability (use security gear if you want to be extra safe), and never leave them lying around anywhere; on a bar, on a convenience store counter, on the seat of a tuk tuk (even while moving), in an unattended hotel room, anywhere. Leaving a camera bag passively under a table, or a wallet clearly visible in your pocket is just asking for it.

This should go without saying, but if you drink so many buckets that you end up comatose under a Khao San streetside table at 04:00, you're probably not doing a great job of watching your things.

Watch yourself. Related to the above, although perhaps even more important, is to stay mindful of your own behaviour. Thai society doesn't appreciate aggressiveness or cockiness. Someone bumped into you in a bar? Let it go, or as the Thais would say, mai pen rai.

Thai society is also quite courteous overall, but you can pretty much throw that out the window on Khao San Road. Even so, anywhere in Thailand it's a big no-no to humiliate or intimidate a Thai person, making them "lose face". Do that around Khao San, even if the person seemingly has it coming, and you can expect a not so pleasant visit from those "thugs, gangsters and thieves" during your late night stroll back to the guesthouse.


Thumbs up to safety!
Thumbs up to safety!

Watch your drink. Tales of unsuspecting travellers being drugged, usually in a drink, and later robbed are among the more rumoured about Khao San horrors. However, it appears to be more gossip than truth -- a google search for "drugged Khao San Road" reveals just one idiot's story of taking home three sex workers and waking up walletless.

Surely there must be some instances of bar drugging that have occurred on Khao San, but it doesn't appear this dirt-bag practice is any more common here than at other night haunts across the world. Still, it's advisable anywhere to keep an eye on your drink while out, and to not accept drinks from strangers.

Watch who you hang with. Again, this is good advice for any nightlife area, but if an overly charming stranger seems to be trying way too hard to become your best friend on Khao San, be wary.

There's no doubt that Khao San attracts some serious sketch-balls (both Thai and foreign), and if you wind up hanging with one of them until the wee hours when you go to put the straw in your mouth but it ends up in your nose instead, it won't be difficult for your new "friend" to snake something from your pocket, or worse. It's easy to ride the wave of a big night out, but use common sense and sound judgment with regard to who you hang with.

Even in broad daylight, there are plenty of scams common around Khao San (it's also good to have a handle on common global scams), so don't hesitate to walk away or get the police involved if something doesn't feel right.


Hmm, do I spend my last 50 baht on another bucket, or a M.A. from Oxford?
Hmm, do I spend my last 50 baht on another bucket, or a M.A. from Oxford?

Watch who you roll with. In the Khao San area, choose your means of transport wisely. There are a host of tuk tuk drivers usually camped near the Tanao Road end of Khao San who like to get in travellers' faces asking, "Where you going, what you need?" Avoid them like the plague.

Instead, walk off Khao San a bit and catch a taxi, tuk tuk, or motorbike taxi as they pass. If a tuk tuk or motorbike, be sure to clearly negotiate a price before setting off. If a taxi, make certain the driver turns the meter on, and never go for "a special price for you".

In terms of transport further afield, the buses departing from Khao San are not your safest ticket. Not every bus operator from Khao San (this one, for example, is a fine choice) will be rummaging through your pack in the stow away compartment down below while you sit in headphones bliss up top. There are however enough reports of theft on the Khao San buses that we generally wouldn't recommend them, especially considering safer (and cheaper) government buses can be caught relatively easily at Bangkok's public bus terminals. On any bus, always keep your valuables safely on your person and never in the stow away compartment below.


Where am I going? To catch a non-sketchy tuk tuk off Khao San, thanks.
Where am I going? To catch a non-sketchy tuk tuk off Khao San, thanks.

Watch where you are. I don't mean to raise any alarms with this, but if terrorists were going to strike Bangkok, Khao San would most likely be at the top of their list of targets. Thousands of Westerners gather here nightly to let loose, and although Khao San has thankfully never been the sight of an attack, similar places frequented by Westerners -- in India and Bali for example -- have been hit over the last decade. A recent terrorism threat on "tourist areas in Bangkok" was immediate enough for the US State Department to issue a warning.

Currently, I would not avoid Khao San or anywhere else in Southeast Asia due to terrorism concerns, but I am selective about where I go while in such places. You know those mega bars on Khao San that are filled to the gills with hundreds of boozing Westerners each evening? No thanks.

Both for peace of mind and what I find to be a better ambience, when I do go to a Khao San area bar it's typically at the more low-key Soi Rambutri or Phra Athit Road, which are still lively spots but away from the all-out debauchery of Khao San.


Red sky over Khao San.
Red sky over Khao San.

Finally, don't be too up tight. Be smart and prepared, but if you're utterly consumed with worries of being scammed, robbed or worse, it simply won't be an enjoyable trip. Is Khao San populated by a disproportionate number of thugs, scam artists and thieves compared to most of Bangkok? Definitely. Is everyone around Khao San trying to scam or steal from you? Certainly not. Is Khao San also frequented by some genuinely good and interesting people who you might want to meet? Absolutely.

After getting out of a cab in the Khao San area at one point in my journeys, my travel companion realised he had forgotten his backpack in the backseat, which was full of electronic goodies. In our bemoaning, we accepted it as a loss right off and started the process of making a claim through his travel insurance. About a half hour later, we glanced at the spot where we'd been dropped off, and who did we find standing on the sidewalk in the hot sun holding my companion's backpack while sharply perusing the crowd of travellers? That's right -- the goodhearted Khao San cabbie had come back to look for us and returned the backpack with all contents still inside.

Expect the bad, and you'll probably find it. Act stupidly, and the bad will probably find you. Be smart and look for the good, and chances are your experience will be flawless, even on Khao San Road.

About the author
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary.


About the author:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.


Read 11 comment(s)

  • In May 1990 I was on Koh San Rd 4 times in a month. In the space of one memorable day I met a one armed pirate, 6 proper acid-head saucers for eyes hippies, watched 3 Van Damn films, drank 4 cokes, and a 25 stone American who had just drunk 18 Singhas threatened to kill me because I was wearing black and thus obviously a fascist. Even then people said it was dull and boring. In fact I thought it was excellent. Been going back for over 20 years and it hasn't changed a huge amount

    This is great advice

    "Finally, don't be too up tight. Be smart and prepared"

    There are a lot of worse places in the world...

    Posted by Stuart Lodge on 11th June, 2012

  • Thanks for sharing your hilarious experience, Stuart. Only on Khao San, right?

    Although I'm based in Bangkok I don't find myself on Khao San too much these days, but in truth I'll always have a soft spot for it. Reminds me of my "good old days" in the parking lots of Grateful Dead and Phish shows back in the States.

    Cheers!

    Posted by David Luekens on 11th June, 2012

  • "Khao San attracts some serious sketch-balls".

    I'm going to show my ignorance here.

    Just what is a sketch-ball?

    Thanks, Len

    Posted by Len Neary on 11th June, 2012

  • thanks for the advice; the desscription of the place would make any sane person want to avoid it; it is not real life. why bother?

    Posted by yakob larma on 11th June, 2012

  • Hi Len,

    A "sketchball" is someone who is "shady", who is often conniving, dishonest, or looking to scam people in some way, who is not trustworthy, who might appear somewhat normal on the surface, but does "sketchy" things like hitting on women far too young, dropping drugs in people's drinks, or going to a house party and stealing something from the owner's bedroom.

    "Sketcy": maybe more of an American slang term?

    Posted by David Luekens on 11th June, 2012

  • I remember when we left my Girlfriend's reflex digital camera on one of the street food stalls
    in Soi Rambutri. when we noticed we were missing it and were already a few feet from the guesthouse, a THAI woman suddenly appeared. She had been chasing us for the las 5 minutes, trying to get our attention. She finally told us that back at the food stall, we had left our camera there!. we obviously found it with no problem whatsoever. If this would had happened in our home country spain, this would have never of happened! for us kao san and thailand are the safest places we've been so far

    Posted by miguel on 14th June, 2012

  • Great article! A little common sense goes a long way while traveling!

    Posted by Nessie on 17th June, 2012

  • Rambutri is my afternoon/early evening soi of choice. Far less intense, laid back and I wouldn't miss a meal at my fav restaurant with its Mexican dishes.

    It's got trees,(hence shade) a nice ambiance and when minding your manners, you are safe as a kitty.

    I occasionally take a stroll, a quick one to KS but I must say all the clothes, jewelry and assorted do dads are repeated over and over every 6 ft. Last time I was there many rack merchants were gone and the outdoor massage beds were set up. Changes a lot in my monthly wander down to the area. Mainly junk but I do once in a while find something to wear or send home. Worth a look especially if you are a people watcher.

    I also enjoy a bite at the mid eastern restaurant between the two streets. Great hummus, hot pita, a cold drink. Nothing finer and it is all very, very reasonable.

    (Sketchy = dodgy or crafty - not meaning maker of handicrafts!)

    Posted by Jj on 4th July, 2012

  • I was badly scamed in Koh San Rd , unfortuantly the people who took all my money where the thai police the very people who are supposed to be their to help you.I was held in Koh san rd police station for three days and it was made clear to me the only way i was getting out of their was to sign a "confession" written entirly in thai, i was denied a lawyer and forced to hand over 35ooothai bart(£750)to the police in order to be let out. They had insisted theywanted 80000 thai bart and only relentyed to 35000 when they saw my accomadation. They wernt shy about what they where doing and openly admitted they where pocketing the cash. i was then forced to plead guilty by the police holding my passport without allowing me to extend it.How i was treated in thailand was a frightening harrowing experience orchestrated by scum corrupt thai police scammers. If you have had a simmilar experience please email Davexj5@aol.com They will be doing the same thing to some other unfortuanate person right now.

    Posted by dave on 10th January, 2013

  • It's such a horrible place.

    I found this opinion piece about it which absolutely nails it!

    http://wp.me/p2mlKB-L

    Posted by Danger on 15th February, 2013

  • Bangkok Sex Massage Scam - - I would like to offer this negative review of "Maiden Massage" on Narathiwat Ratchanakarin Rd., near Surawong Road in Bangkok. http://www.maidenmassage.com The English-speaking male tout pulled me in from the sidewalk, and offered me a "..young beauty special friendly girl for special massage.." I paid in advance 800-THB for the 1-hour. After I paid, the tout made a point of saying to me, "..you tip her extra, if she do all OK for you..". That also seemed clear enough to me. After I showered, the young girl re-appeared, and I initiated the usual negotiations trying to determine what it was going to cost me in "tips". There wasn't any sex service available at any price. The tout then re-appeared and explained that "..there was a misunderstanding, that really they don't offer any sex services of any kind there.." The tout asked if I wanted to cancel, and I said yes, and I put my clothes on, and went back downstairs to the desk and stood there. The tout refused to refund all, or even a portion, of my 800-THB. So, a special sex massage was offered, for which I should tip, and then... "whoops", no sex...

    Posted by Gai on 27th February, 2014

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