Immortalized in guidebooks - like Lonely Planet's own - and novels such as The Beach, and having served as the crash-pad for cash-strapped travelers since the early 1980s, Bangkok’s Khao San Road might be the most famous backpacker enclave in the world. Until recently, many of the 20-plus million people per year who made Bangkok the world’s most visited city hit the street to shop, drink, or sleep. Khao San Road’s foreign-dominated nightlife also made the strip a draw for counterculture-minded locals, perhaps the closest thing Bangkok had to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury or Copenhagen's Christiania.
“I first walked through Khao San Road in 1977,” says Joe Cummings, a former Lonely Planet author. “The street was lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century one- and two-story shoe shops, Chinese coffee shops, noodle vendors, etc. I noticed two hotels on the street".
Cummings decided to include these two hotels in Lonely Planet’s first Thailand guidebook, released in 1982 and putting Khao San Road on the backpacker map. Yet it’s fair to posit that, in the last decade or so, those who sought out Khao San Road in search of a The Beach-like vibe would be disappointed. The dirt-cheap, family-run guesthouses that once provided the street with its reputation have been increasingly replaced by flashpacker hostels, pool-fronted mid-range hotels and international chains such as Boots, 7-Eleven and two branches of McDonald’s. A recent April Fool’s article in a Bangkok newspaper even spoofed that the whole of Khao San Road was going to be turned into a luxury mall. “In recent years the carnival ambiance got to be a bit much for me,” adds Cummings.
The Thai authorities, never fans of the street’s scruffy, anti-establishment vibe, have also played a role in this shift. Since 2015, Bangkok City Hall has expressed a desire to do away with the city’s numerous and emblematic street vendors, including those on Khao San Road. And early this year, while the rest of Bangkok was in quarantine, the city went ahead with a US$1.4 million plan to renovate the legendary street. As it stands, the city and the Khaosan Road Street Vendors Association are in talks, but it seems likely that City’s Hall’s latest vision for Khao San Road will include fewer vendors. And the renovation, finished this month, has left the street with a new surface and widened footpaths; a plan to cover it with a Thai-style roof was not implemented.
Taken together, the changes seem like yet another step toward changing the face of Khao San Road, but COVID-19 has, not surprisingly, proved an obstacle. Healthwise, Thailand has been impacted little by the pandemic – to date, the country has seen approximately 3000 infections and 58 deaths. The military-led Thai government is keen to keep it this way, and has yet to hint at when it will allow foreign tourists to enter the country again. Local hotel owners reported that the pre-pandemic economy of Khao San Road was already sluggish, with low occupancy rates and reduced room tariffs. In early August, the normally buzzing strip was virtually dead, with only a couple hotels and souvenir shops seemingly operating; boarded up shop fronts and “For Rent” signs could be seen.
This has left Khao San Road with the unique burdens of a shoestring legacy, upscale aspirations and no customers. For now at least, it seems as if locals are filling the gap. According to Kiaw, for decades a vendor at and resident of #215 Thanon (Road) Khao San, “Before, no Thai people came here. Now, local teenagers are coming on weekends to drink.”
In an odd twist of fate, in 2020 it seems entirely possible that the future of Khao San Road will be, once again, budget and Thai.
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