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Fifty years ago, Khao San Road was known locally as a good place to buy rice. Today, it's the most famous backpacker ghetto in the world.
This notorious strip of cheap digs and bars was originally projected into fame by pot-smoking hippies ambling their way along the four Ks of Kabul, Kathmandu, KSR and Kuta back in the 1970s. Despite its complete transformation since then, Khao San's exotic allure has stayed alive in traveller imaginations, fired partly by the decent book-turned-rather-lacklustre-film, The Beach.
Modern Khao San is a hub of somewhat crazed activity that reminds us of the scene at a free-flowing music festival, but with a lot of tuk tuks. It's home to dizzying neon lights, dusty silver shops, persistent touts, stalls selling everything from tie-dyed tank tops to fake Harvard masters degrees, ubiquitous pad Thai and fried bug carts, rowdy bucket bars, tattoo parlours that make a killing off people coming from the rowdy bucket bars, a fastfood joint or two and the occasional Thai granny who shakes her head at the hippies while remembering when it was still a quaint little rice-selling community. Khao San is heaven for some and hell for a few, but it's worth a stroll at least once in a lifetime.
It would however be unfair to label this whole area as a backpacker ghetto. Khao San Road itself is a fairly short street situated within walking distance of Ko Rattanakosin in the heart of the old city, known as Banglamphu. Although budget guesthouses and increasingly more upmarket hotels stretch outwards from Khao San for quite a way, the surrounding area is still one of the most charming and historic in the city.
Running parallel just north of Khao San Road and continuing across Chakrabongse Road to the west is Soi Rambutri, which was the first neighbourhood street to be gobbled up by the backpacker craze and now feels like Khao San-lite. Beyond that, Phra Athit Road runs along the river and hosts artsy cafes and bars, laidback guesthouses and some fantastic hole-in-the-wall eateries. North of Khao San you'll find a similarly low-key atmosphere amid the old city streets that meander up towards Dusit.
By David Luekens.