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Tom Vater

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From Backpacker-Ghetto to Global Shopping Mall – Joe Cummings on Bangkok’s Khao San Road

The Khao San Road, one of the world’s greatest and most fascinating tourist ghettos, is coming of age.
Last week the first MacDonald’s outlet opened inside one of the guesthouse complexes on the strip. Legendary hippy hangout, subject of a Hollywood blockbuster and barely more than 300 metres long, the Khao San Road offers a stop-over to between 1 and 3 million foreign tourists a year. Joe Cummings, the million-selling author credited with the strip’s ‘invention’, returns to his roots.


In 1981, Joe Cummings, a young American traveler and writer, recommended a couple of basic hotels in the Khao San Road area, for the first edition of his book, the Lonely Planet to Thailand. The book became the foundation of a publishing empire and went on to sell millions of copies. Joe Cummings is generally credited for the ‘invention’ of the Khao San Road.

The author, who continues to update his best-selling guide, recalls, “I first walked down the street on my way to buy curry paste at Nitaya’s in 1977. I didn’t get back there till 1981, when I was doing the first edition of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide. At the time the road was full of Chinese merchants in one-story houses and two-story shop-houses. There were beauty salons, noodle restaurants, sundries shops and two Chinese hotels, the Nit Charoen Suk and the New Sri Phranakorn Hotel. Those are both still there, now known as the New Nit Charoen Suk and Khaosan Palace respectively.”

As the Hippy overland route from Europe via Kabul was beginning to dry up in the late 70s, foreigners started knocking on people’s doors, in search of cheap accommodation. Some locals rented out rooms that soon turned into guest-houses.

Once the word (and the Lonely Planet) was out, a new breed of tourist was born. The backpackers had no interest in package tours, were not using credit cards and international standard hotels and soon set out to create their own subculture. Increasing affluence and leisure time in the West led to the emergence of a global drifter culture. Tumbling plane fares turned a dream into a reality for millions. Travelers suddenly popped up in rapidly growing, specifically designed enclaves all over the planet. From the Sinai in Egypt, to the narrow alleys of Kathmandu’s Thamel area in Nepal, to the beaches of Goa in India, young people were looking for new experiences that didn’t cost the world. The Khao San Road was always on the front line of this development, initially as an insider tip, but the secret was out in no time.

Joe Cummings recommended the area with good reason, “The Khao San Road is in walking distance of the city’s biggest-drawing attractions: the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and the old Weekend Market (which covered Sanam Luang at the time). The restaurants in the area were cheap then, in fact everything in Banglamphu (the area around Khao San) then seemed cheaper than in Chinatown, Sukhumvit or Sathorn.”

Alas, it was not to last and many old time travelers who return to the haunts of their youth now barely recognize their past.

No wonder, because the Khao San Road has truly moved into the global cultural mainstream. In 1996 the British writer Alex Garland’s published ‘The Beach’, a novel every traveler must have had in his/her hands at some point. An international bestseller, some of the book’s most persuasive and dramatic scenes take place on the Khao San Road. Garland caught the mood perfectly and Hollywood was not far behind. In 1999 ‘The Beach’ was released as a multi-million dollar blockbuster and the fame of the film’s star, Leonardo Di Caprio, propelled the Khao San Road into cinemas around the world.

Today, the Khao San Road is crammed with more than 120 guest houses, restaurants catering to every taste on the planet, Internet cafes, bars, tailors, massage-parlors, tattoo and piercing parlors, laundries, moneychangers, ATM machines, 7/11s, nightclubs, pharmacies, air-conditioned telephone exchanges, jewelry and souvenir shops and a seemingly endless range of stalls selling hippy garb from India and Indonesia, bootleg CDs and fake ID cards. There’s even a Boots chemist.

Slowly all that was genuinely Thai has disappeared from the strip, replaced by global youth culture and increasingly global consumer ethics. Fried chicken and chips, muesli and pancake have largely replaced the Thai food.

The Khao San Road now has its very own magazine, called FARANG (farangonline.com), an irreverent travel publication that features stories and information by travelers and professional writers (including Joe Cummings), both on travel destinations and traveler culture.

Editor-in-Chief Cameron Cooper says, “Everybody who is there is on the way to go somewhere else. It’s like a giant bus station, that’s why there is a subculture there. The planet meets on Khao San. As far as I know, it’s the only 300 metre stretch of road in the world that has its own publication.”

The pancake trench has begun to reflect on its own existence.

At the dawn of the millenium, the Khao San Road is set to make another leap forwards. Investors are sniffing around, looking to turn the strip into a more up-market institution. The Thai ministry of tourism is forever talking about wanting to attract more affluent visitors. Backpackers are often treated with disdain by the local police force and some islands in the Gulf of Thailand even discourage their presence these days.

Joe Cummings regrets these developments. “All the studies show that net income left by backpackers is more than that left by any other sector of the travel market, while the ecological/social impact is typically less. Backpacker tourism, with all its faults, is still better than any other kind. To paraphrase the old political saw about democracy, ‘Backpacking is the worst form of tourism except for all the rest.’”

Meanwhile, guesthouse after guesthouse is renovating, extending, redesigning and improving its facilities. Prices are going up of course.

The pack is led by the long-standing Buddy Lodge, which has been transformed into a 4 star establishment with 76 air-con rooms. The management is sure that this investment will pay off. That’s why they invited MacDonalds onto their premises.

A local travel agent comments, “The travelers who came here penniless in the 80s have all made a pile of money since. If they still enjoy traveling, they will come back and they won’t want to stay in a 100 Baht (2.5$) shoebox. And many of the younger kids travel with credit cards these days.”

There are other dramatic changes. While drugs are largely a thing of the past, due to the government’s uncompromising policies, prostitution is on the increase on Khao San Road. Hang around Gulliver’s, a bar on the corner of Khao San and you will be hustled by a multitude of beautiful young women.

Cameron Cooper comments, “The stick-juggling hippies are still there but these days there are up 8000 arrivals a day on the strip. The Thais want to make more money and the travelers have different expectations. The age range of people staying on Khao San is much wider now than, say, 10 years ago. You can get a room there for 2.500 B (60$) but you can also find a dorm for 90 B (2$). I think Khao San is a little bit confused right now.”

Depending on your point of view, you will welcome or resent these developments. More importantly though, what happens on the Khao San Road has deep implications, not just for other tourist destinations in Thailand, but throughout South East Asia.

The local tourist office wants to erect a huge gateway to Khao San, much like the one that welcomes visitors to Patpong, one of Bangkok’s notorious red light areas. And mini-Khao San Roads, tourist strips modeled on the real thing, have sprung up in as far-flung places as Vang Vieng and Muang Singh in Laos, the Phu Nga Lao Road in Saigon, Vietnam and many other destinations.

On Khao San, the future looks increasingly safe and familiar. Tourists will be at home away from home and while tourist statistics and incomes may increase in the short run, it’s possible that by replacing the very things visitors come for with corporate retail outlets like McDonalds, Thailand may eventually lose her own culture – the reason for a substantial amount of tourists to visit.

As we travel into the 21st Century, worried by international terrorism and mystery diseases, the Khao San Road is turning from adventurous Far Eastern hang-out into a global shopping plaza. Will three million visitors continue to travel half way round the world to knock back a Coke and devour a Big Mac?

Joe Cummings is skeptical, “I think the current Khao San Road trend will eventually turn off the backpackers and they’ll give it up. That’s already happening. Most backpackers stay on other roads in the area. Within the fairly near future there won’t be any more budget lodgings on Khao San itself. Backpackers may still walk down to Khao San for shopping, but even that will eventually give way to more expensive shops without anything interesting to sell, so they’ll stick to other areas and new centres will grow up.”

Enjoy it while it lasts, the good times won’t roll forever.

First published in The South China Morning Post.

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