The Most Famous Road in Thailand

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by Kate Mrotek

In the heart of Bangkok, not a ten minute walk from the Grand Palace and the national museum, lies the most infamous street in Thailand–Khaosan Road.

The straight and narrow Khaosan Road, no more than a mile long, is covered by a could of exhaust. At night it looks like a compact miniature of a Vegas strip, buzzing with light and teaming with people. Hole-in-the wall bars pour out American pop songs. Guest houses and chain link fences stuck with t-shirts and dresses line the streets. Steam rises from vending carts frying pad thai; street shops sell everything from ash trays to jewelry to pirated cds and movies. The slow-moving crowd is engulfed between it all.

by Kate Mrotek

In the heart of Bangkok, not a ten minute walk from the Grand Palace and the national museum, lies the most infamous street in Thailand–Khaosan Road.

The straight and narrow Khaosan Road, no more than a mile long, is covered by a could of exhaust. At night it looks like a compact miniature of a Vegas strip, buzzing with light and teaming with people. Hole-in-the wall bars pour out American pop songs. Guest houses and chain link fences stuck with t-shirts and dresses line the streets. Steam rises from vending carts frying pad thai; street shops sell everything from ash trays to jewelry to pirated cds and movies. The slow-moving crowd is engulfed between it all.

Neon signs hover over each side of the strip as far as the eye can see. One is a sign for the Chada Hostel; the second advertises for the Rainbow Money Exchange; the third(and largest) is an advertisement for Durex Condoms: “Good Night and Safe Sex.”

A blur of predominantly white faces mills in the gap between street vendors and shops. Dreadlocked travelers carry beat-up backpacks. A twenty-something guy holds a 20 oz. bottle of Chang beer in one hand and a stumbling girl in the other. A group of paunchy men in dress shirts and slacks sit at a table outside a bar, scanning the crowd. A shop owner stands in the periphery, tapping the passers-by insistently on the shoulder, “Sir, look what I have here for you,” and points to his t-shirt collection. The strip is spotted with young Thai girls and boys made-up to look like girls, strolling around unabashedly in their lingerie and platforms. Everywhere you look, people are trying to push their shady wares. “Sir, Miss, ping pong show 50 baht?”

I spent my first night in Thailand at a dirty and cheap hotel on Khaosan. I had some idea what I was in for when a Jurassic-sized cockroach cut me off in the lobby. My room smelt like cigarettes, mold, and stale whisky and the walls were tinged with brown. Later that night, I was up using the hotel’s computer, wondering why the hell I had come to Thailand, when a boisterous group of two unshaven middle-aged men and two Thai girls(they didn’t look old enough to drive) stumbled into the lobby and up the stairs. Climbing the six flights of stairs to my room later on, I could plainly make out the sounds of wrestling, muffled cries, and two men laughing.

Lechery and consumerism aside, Khaosan serves an important role for the travelers of Southeast Asia. It’s a good place for a traveler in need of a cheap hotel and it serves as a meeting ground for potential traveling companions and a base for making travel arrangements. Alex Garland, author of the best-selling novel, The Beach, refers to Khaosan as “the center of the backpacker’s universe.” Garland’s backpacking character, Norman Duveal, has a relationship of convenience with Khaosan, “Look at this place,” he says pointing down the strip, “it’s a shithole. But I am staying at a guest house for 100 baht(less then three USD) per night, and I booked a cheap flight to Laos on the corner.”

Khaosan used to be home to Bangkok’s biggest rice market. In 1982, the year of Thailand’s bicentennial celebration, the Thai government advertised the affair to attract tourists in hopes of generating money after a stock market crash. So many foreigners poured into Bangkok that there were not enough hotels to house them all. Travelers bargained with the occupants of apartments on Khaosan for a place to stay, giving rise to guest houses and creating businesses that cater to tourists, eventually resulting in the Khaosan Road of today.

The Beach, which was made into a movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio, made Khaosan famous. In 2008, scenes form the movie Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicolas Cage were also filmed on the strip. Though travelers flock to the glitz and infamy of Khaosan, the street doesn’t seem to hold the same allure for the Thai. According to 26-year-old citizen Eag Rathumakin, Khaosan Road is “a place for foreigners. Thais don’t go there.”

A small shop owner named Pat sells counterfeit jewelry on Khaosan. He says, “Khaosan is too loud, I don’t like, but good for business.” Mr. Nat, a graduate from Thailand’s prestigious Singpakorn University, has owned a small t-shirt stand on Khaosan for the past 20 years. He also says that Khaosan is a good place for foreigners to go. “Good bars, and lots of other foreigners,” he says. “But, I see the man talking with Thai girl and then go off with her. Police station right on the corner, just give police 200 baht, and it’s ok.”

Khaosan is only a street apart from Bangkok, where colorful rooftops of the 15th-century palace shine and chanting rings out of every temple. Here the light from thousands of hand-made lanterns light up the Chao Praya river during the Loi Krathong festival. Here every cab driver is overjoyed at the chance to talk with a foreigner who can speak a few words of Thai. Run into trouble of any sort here and you will come to know a brand of kindness that is truly unique.

Khaosan Road seems like the worst parts of Thailand’s outside influence, condensed into one little street with a neon sign pointing “Foreigners Here”. This once residential street inBangkok’s center has turned into a squalid playground for foreigners, making famous everything about Thailand that isn’t Thai.

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