by Tom Vater, The Telegraph, August 1, 2019
Leonardo Di Caprio has been here; as have countless young backpackers from the West.
Over the past 40 years, Khao San Road, once a quiet residential street on the fringes of Bangkok’s historic centre, has morphed into the world’s best-known backpacker hub.
Loud, inexpensive, garish and in your face, the 400m strip has been a party destination and traveller transit point like no other in Southeast Asia, with more than a million annual visitors slumming it, often in a culturally insensitive manner and on a tight budget, through its guest houses, cheap eateries and roadside bars. Now it seems, the days and nights of laid back, devil may care tropical revelry may be coming to an end.
Deputy Bangkok governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul has announced a 48 million Baht (£1.25 million) budget to resurface its footpaths and level them with the road, and to register and limit the number of street vendors, who will be asked to vacate the road by 9pm. The face-lift is to be undertaken from October to February.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) has been waging a war against street food stalls and hawkers across the Thai capital’s popular tourist spots since 2017, at a time when the country is winning international accolades for its tasty roadside eateries.
The BMA claims hygiene and security make the restrictions necessary, but its efforts to reorder the kaleidoscopic Thai capital have resulted in killing off some of its ragged atmosphere, nightlife and fun. While the BMA initially stated that Khao San Road would be exempt from the clean-up which has affected thousands of street vendors and others working in the informal economy, the authority has since gone back on its word. Since August last year, vendors are no longer permitted to set up during the day and all life has been sucked out of the area.
Journalist and long-time Bangkok resident Joe Cummings wrote the first Lonely Planet to Thailand and witnessed the road’s gradual transformation first hand. “In 1977, Khao San Road was lined with charming shophouses and there were a few attractive-looking noodle shops and restaurants and two Chinese-Thai hotels,” he said.
“So when I was doing research for the first LP guide to Thailand in 1981, I listed both hotels. From then on, every time I returned, the number of places to stay doubled and then tripled. I marvelled as the strip transformed into the world’s biggest backpacker hub from the mid-Nineties onwards, while regretting the loss of local charm and innocence.”
Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach and a Danny Boyle-directed film based on the book starring Leonardo Di Caprio, put the area on the global map. Drug crazed globetrotters seeking extreme adventure while zoning out under slowly revolving ceiling fans in worn out flop-houses may in reality have been few in number, but both the novel and the movie created an expectation that has since been re-lived by thousands of young, often shirtless travellers with mojitos in hand on their first trip east.
Young Thais then discovered Khao San Road in the early Noughties when the strip was pedestrianised, Cummings remembers. “I thought that was an improvement. It became even more lively at night, more vendors, more action,” he said.
Since then, Khao San Road has undergone a number of facelifts. Most of the old houses have been replaced by haphazard concrete monstrosities, and more recently, by long rows of attractive shophouses. Essentially though, the area has remained a filling station for young, temporarily affluent tourists keen to let it all hang out far from home.
Now deputy governor Phattiyakul wants to change the road into an international tourist attraction, but with the lively chaos being replaced by cleanliness and regulations. It remains to be seen whether this will continue to attract budget travellers.
Jan works in one of several tattoo parlors on Khao San Road. She hasn’t heard of the restoration plans. “Shop owners are not consulted on what’s happening here. We have no voice. Thailand is not a democracy. We just get told what to do,” she said.
“The authorities should have other priorities. Too many foreigners get scammed on Khao San. There’s no parking for locals working in the area. I don’t know if my bike will still be there when I finish work.”
Jan is not, however, against bringing some order to the area. “They should turn it into a proper walking street, bar all the traffic, day and night. And we need street food on Khao San, it is part of Thai culture, it is part of the reason why foreigners visit Thailand,” she said. “I'll believe the change when I see it. We’ve heard the politicians talk so many times.”
Just a year ago Sakoltee Phattiyakul pledged 88 million Baht (£2.3 million) to resurface the road and construct a roof along the strip. No wonder locals and expats take the BMA’s proclamations with a grain of salt.
Peter, a performer at the Khaosan Comedy Club, was not optimistic about the plans: “I imagine that most of the project’s budget will go into someone’s pocket and nothing much will happen.”
Whatever hurdles are likely to pop up, Cummings thinks the sanitisation of Khao San Road is likely to continue. “I fear it will become like the new Bugis St in Singapore: soulless. But I could be wrong. Let’s wait to see it close up after the dust clears.”
Have you been to Khao San Road? Do you think the clean-up plans will sanitise the backpacker haven's allure? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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