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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 10th June, 2012.