At the busy neighborhood of Banglamphu north of the Grand Palace is the famous backpacker’s Mecca: Khao San Road. Chaos is constant in Khao San, a pulsating plethora of multicultural, gastronomical and commercial life… true to the images swirling in my head as I read Alex Garland’s cult-classic-turned-blockbuster about a secret paradise called “The Beach”:
“The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok on Ko Sanh Road. The Ko Sanh Road was backpacker land. Almost all the buildings were converted to guest houses, there were long-distance telephone booths with air-con, the cafes showed brand new Hollywood films on video, and you couldn’t walk ten feet without passing a bootleg tape stall. The main function of the street was a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand: a halfway house between East and West.”
Khao san means raw rice, because this tourist trap was once a rice market. Today, the goods have more than diversified. Night markets hawking textiles, trendy RTWs, pseudo-antiques and shameless knock-offs make Khao San, like most of Bangkok, a haggler’s heaven. And, of course, you won’t miss out on your neighborly Western staples: 7-Eleven and Burger King and Starbucks and Mr. McDonald himself fiberglass-ed in traditional Thai greeting.
The passersby–a sight to behold with a bottle of Singha (THB 60.00) in hand and a mouthful of push-cart Thai noodles (THB 45.00) incinerating your palate as you “chill” in a sidewalk beer garden after a haggle victory– come in myriad morphologies: grunge backpacker with a week’s worth of body odor, underaged hipster with pasty hair, sloppy farangs and their prized girlfriends, superstar soccer exhibitionist, lazy dreadlocked dude and groovy didjeridoo player.
Khao San Road is a short ride away from Ko Ratanakosin by taxi (THB 50.00) or tuk-tuk (THB 60.00). At the night markets, haggle rabidly to get the best deals. Learning a bit of Thai helps a lot. And pretend to be uninterested over a hot item. Sellers’ initial offers are usually double the fair price. Bring home a graphic tee (THB 100.00 – 200.00), brass buddha (THB 300.00) or wooden demon mask (THB 250.00).
Check out Nancy Chandler’s Map of Khao San and Old Bangkok (THB 150.00), a colorful hand-drawn fold-out with tips and insider information.