Heidi – My first trip through Thailand in 1986 started off in the famous Khao San Road. From there I traveled to other parts of the country, nine weeks altogether with one week in Burma.
So I was very excited to return after 22 years, since I figured this place must have changed more than any other tourist haunt. Even then, in the mid-late 1980s, Khao San was already a pretty ludicrous backpacker ghetto. Nevertheless I enjoyed the cheap food, cheap beds and above all the company and advice from other travelers. This was the essence of Khao San: guesthouses, restaurants and places to book onward tickets. Future trips to Asia took me to Bangkok, but I always stayed in different areas of town. So big suspense, what will it look like now, in 2008?
I still find it difficult to describe: I approached from the side closer to the Democratic Monument in the evening and at first did not believe it was Khao San Road. But I was too embarrassed to ask, in case I was indeed standing on the world’s most famous “backpacker street” inquiring about the very place. All I saw was neon-lights and people, lots of people, moving between and along an alley of stalls selling anything from food, T-shirts, flip-flops, jewelry, hair extensions, toys, anything, you name it! Each was blasting its own music, which created a weird fusion with the music coming from the many bars and restaurants.
I was speechless, because there was not one single place or spot that I could recognize. Although I expected a major change, I was not ready for this! To me, it all seemed more a carnival or fair and after my first crossing I hardly remembered seeing too many guesthouses. I was not sure if they had disappeared behind the neon-signs or altogether. Who could possible sleep in this party zone? The Lonely Planet used the word “gentrification” to describe the change. Excuse me? The road also seemed much longer, but I was so numb that my senses were misleading me. Later I realized how far is has sprawled out: it seemed a maze of alleys, parallel and side streets.
I few days later I ran into two young ladies from Switzerland who I met in China two months ago. They told me how much they liked Khao San and then it dawned on me: for most people, it is the only Khao San Road they know.
Unlike many other travelers, who constantly rant about how this or that place has changed – more modern, more touristy, less authentic – I see this as something that comes along with mass tourism and there is nothing to fret about. We, who travel there, are part of the system and to believe that backpackers are less invasive to a culture or the environment than a tour group is naïve. Probably the effect is even stronger, because groups stay in their hotel, use their own transport and hardly have any contact with the population beyond their hotel. Thus I do not regard this transformation of Khao San as something negative altogether. I just did not think it would be possible to such a degree…