Khao San Road – Travel Heaven or Hell?

Khao San Road

You could be in a café in Quito or a rickety bus in Kenya but it is a small street in Thailand that bizarrely continues to strike a chord with travellers as the centre of the backpacking universe. With Thailand still the most popular country in the world for backpackers, it seems every other traveller you meet has passed through Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road at some point and has invariably formed their own, usually strong, opinion of it.

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For some it’s a fun, vibrant international community with everything you could possibly need and more in the space of just a few blocks in the Thai Capital. For others it’s a busy, sleazy street full of questionable characters, both local and foreign, where you’re just as likely to be scammed or taken advantage of, as you are have a good time. The road stretches for only a few hundred metres but often it can seem like you are running a giant gauntlet. Everyone seems to want a piece of you and for the totally uninitiated, it can be quite an overwhelming experience.

What can’t be disputed though, is that for better or worse, there is a real energy to the place. Or at least there was.

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a drastic decline in the number of international visitors to Thailand and inevitably the Khao San Road has been quite a different place since. Below, we’ll cover just what the Khao San Road is like in 2021, but first let’s rewind to a pandemic-free world and take a stroll down the Thai capital’s most international street.

What is Khao San Road known for?

Everything on Sale

“Khaosan” literally translates as “rice market” but it’s safe to say there is far more than just rice being sold here these days. In fact, you get the impression that whatever you are looking for, you can probably find it, or there’ll at least be somebody willing to help you get it even if that means travelling halfway across the city.

In and around the Khao San Road, there are dozens of cheap Thai massage joints, a popular daytime and early evening pastime for visitors to Bangkok, one of the world’s most populated capital cities. The street is lined with stores and street stalls selling various printed t-shirts and clothing items. They all seem to sell almost exactly the same things but they remain a hit with travellers, many of whom can be seen wandering around Bangkok with ‘Chang Beer’ t-shirts or something similar. If you really look around, you can find some more imaginative original clothing for only a few hundred baht.

If you’re not being encouraged to buy clothes or get a massage then that’s possibly because somebody is trying to convince you to rent a room for a few nights. There is a lot of basic budget accommodation in the area although the better and indeed cheaper places are off the main drag. The Khao San Road backpacker district is the obvious destination for any budget-minded travellers in the city and like most things in the area, you can find excellent value for money.

If you’ve found a room and don’t want to get a massage or buy t-shirts then why not get a masters degree? There are people who for a few dollars will issue you with authentic looking forms of ID and even TEFL or degree certificates from your chosen university. We’re not sure how useful they are back home but the fake student ID looks like it might be pretty good at securing discounts in shops and bars in the world you left behind.

The Khao San Road attracts all sorts of inventive sales ideas, some of which work pretty well but there are also a few major oddities. For example, on a sweltering hot street, full of scruffily dressed backpackers, there are numerous smartly dressed South Asian men hoping to sell you a suit. Meanwhile, as you approach the end of the Khao San Road and think you are about to escape the madness of it all, you may even run into a bunch of tuk-tuk and moto drivers eager to take you to see some ping-pong.

If you’ve never been to Bangkok, then you may not be aware of Thailand’s long ping-pong traditions. This ‘sport’ is very popular with some visitors to the country. If you couldn’t fit your trusty table-tennis bat into your backpack then fear not as the rules are a bit different here. Put simply it involves ladies shooting ping-pong balls out of their private parts and hitting targets with an impressively high success rate. This takes no little skill and presumably many years of practice. Eager to keep the show fresh it seems no two performances are the same and if stories are to be believed you may also see toads, frogs, rabbits and even darts popping out.

Khao San Road Nightlife

Khao San Road bar
Khao San bar via Steve Upton, CC BY 2.0

Moving very swiftly on, Khao San Road by night becomes something of a party hub. The sexual undertones are never far away although are easier to avoid than in other areas of the city, some of which are considerably seedier. The many bars and restaurants are good places to grab a cheap beer, enjoy some live music, play some pool or watch a game of football with live matches or re-runs of English Premier League games seemingly broadcast around the clock in some bars.

Despite this, there was only ever really one club directly on the street (imaginatively named “The Club”). It was roughly midway down the Khao San Road, had a couple of beefy Thai bouncers and before the pandemic, blared out the latest club tracks each night, attracting a steady flow of people coming in and out. Inside it was a mixture of drunk tourists and travellers as well as locals including some working girls but essentially it was good fun until 3:00 am each night when everyone spilled out onto the streets to be greeted by guys selling cheap beer and more ladies or ladyboys of the night. Unsurprisingly this place was shut down during the pandemic and it’s unclear whether it will ever reopen.

You don’t need to go to a club to enjoy Khao San’s nightlife though. Just hanging out in the street and having a few drinks can be great fun and in many ways is the best way to soak up the Khao San Road atmosphere. If you get hungry, there are many street barbeques selling tasty and dirt cheap Thai snacks, one of the highlights of the street. You won’t have to move too far to get your hands on a cold Thai beer or cocktail either. Meeting people is quite easy but shaking off unwanted “new friends” is harder as you keep constantly seeing the same people in what is a pretty small if crowded area.

Khao San Road
Khao San Road in the 2010’s by Ken Marshall, CC BY 2.0

Khao San Road – How was it impacted by the Pandemic?

The Khao San Road experience outlined above is largely a reference to what it was like before Covid-19. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, Thailand was quick to effectively stop almost all forms of international arrivals and there has also been a major clampdown on all forms of nightlife and the sale of alcohol, all of which inevitably had a huge impact on the Khao San Road and many of its stalls and small businesses. In the blink of the eye, it was no longer centre-point for travellers on Southeast Asia’s famous but now deserted Banana pancake trail.

It’s safe to say the Khao San Road has been a considerably quieter place since the start of the pandemic. Almost no backpackers or budget travellers have come since March 2020 which has made it hard for many businesses geared to that to survive. Instead the Khao San Road since the pandemic has mostly just been a place for young Thais and in most cases older expats who are living in the city to hang out in the day. However a large number of the businesses in the area have been forced to shut for much if not all of the last 18 months, and by night the streets in the area are very quiet indeed.

Is it open today?

The Khao San Road is open at the time of writing (it’s just a street, so technically it never closed), however the old buzz is far from back. From 1st November 2021, fully vaccinated travellers from 46 countries have been allowed to enter Thailand without quarantine which should lead to a steady increase in visitors to the Khao San Road but those looking to experience the energy of the world’s most famous backpacker street will still be left sadly disappointed.

The alcohol ban has been eased ever so slightly with restaurants now allowed to serve booze until 9:00 pm but bars remain closed. Some bars and street sellers will continue to operate and risk punishment just to stay in business, but the laws have totally changed life on the Khao San Road.

How will things change in the future?

This is hard to predict. If we are to assume that the worst of the pandemic is over and travel restrictions and local Thai laws continue to ease, it seems safe to assume that everyone from budget travellers to wealthy tourists will eventually return to Thailand. However there may be some hesitancy to do that until a clearer picture emerges of what the travel experience is going to be like in Bangkok and across the country.

The first indicators we may get will be the New Year period rolling into January which during normal times is the busiest period of the year for the Thai tourism industry. However it may still be a long time before Khao San Road gets back to anything like normal as many of the bars, hostels and shops have received little to no government support and many will not have survived the pandemic.

If you’re eager to visit Thailand and experience the Khao San Road for yourself, it may be wise to wait a bit more time until life in the area and across Bangkok settles back down to something more like normal. The country isn’t as far along with its vaccination programme as most western nations and there could be fresh setbacks before things really change for the better, meaning it’s probably wise to exercise a cautious approach before making any firm travel plans.

This article was first published in 2013 and was adapted and updated in November 2021.

Khao San Road – Travel Heaven or Hell?

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