Khao San Road in Bangkok is arguably the chaotic, budget-travel hub for Asia, if not the world. The infamous backpacker slum grew from nothing, peaked, and is only slightly tamer now days after much government effort.
Cheap accommodation, a thriving social scene, and a reputation for all-night parties have made Khao San Road the default destination for backpackers and budget travelers that stay in Bangkok. Love it, hate it, or both—Khao San Road is a place for meeting other travelers before setting off to other destinations in Thailand.
Khao San Road (pronounced "cow san" not "koe san") is located in the Banglumpoo district on the west side of Bangkok.
A Short History of Khao San Road
Khao San or Khao Sarn actually mean “rice mill”; the street was once a center for trading rice. Later, the street became known as “Religious Road” because of several shops that catered to the needs of monks. A tiny guesthouse opened in the early 1980s, and from there the street exploded into one of the busiest travel epicenters in the world.
Alex Garland's 1996 novel The Beach (later made into a film starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio) permanently added "Khao San" to the vocabulary for millions of backpackers.
The Banana Pancake Trail
Both adored and lamented for how "touristy" it has become, Khao San Road in Bangkok is considered the unofficial epicenter for the Banana Pancake Trail, the loosely defined circuit of backpacker hotspots scattered throughout Asia. With cheap flights and a solid infrastructure for travelers, Bangkok often serves as an easy starting point for first-timers on around-the-world trips, gap years, and extended jaunts in Asia.
Unfortunately, with everything a traveler needs on hand, many backpackers staying in Bangkok never venture far away from the sticky web of Khao San Road. Although the area is a great place to meet—and party with—other budget travelers, only hanging around Khao San Road is hardly a good way to discover what Bangkok and Thailand have to offer!
Although you'll still meet plenty of backpackers in the Khao San Road area, word of the famous walking street is out. The government put a lot of effort into cleaning up the chaotic scene, even going as far as to build a police station at the end of the street. A closing time (some bars, midnight; others, 2 a.m.) has been imposed but is only loosely enforced. Even after close, revelers take to the streets.
Today, you'll meet travelers from all walks of life, not just budget travelers. Prices for alcohol are still relatively lower than those in other Bangkok nightlife hotspots. Plus, Khao San Road lacks the armies of sex workers seen patrolling other areas such as Sukhumvit. Families with children frequent the strip. Even hip locals come to stroll, eat, and enjoy live music on weekends.
As the crowd changes, the businesses catering to them do as well. New boutique hostels and spas have popped up in recent years. A long stretch of Soi Rambuttri was demolished to build a large hotel, affecting both the personality and prices of the street.
The Surrounding Area
Khao San Road has long since outgrown its boundaries and spilled into the adjacent neighborhood including Soi Rambuttri, Chakrabongse Road, and Phra Athit Road. Many travelers prefer to stay just on the outskirts of Khao San Road where a nicer, less-chaotic atmosphere can be enjoyed still within walking distance of the action.
Although Soi Rambuttri is a popular alternative to Khao San Road, the stretch one block away across Chakrabongse Road remains a little quieter for eating, drinking, and sleeping. It rests in the shadow of Wat Chana Songkhram, perhaps contributing to a vibe that feels completely different than that on Khao San Road.
Another alternative to the Khao San Road area is the neighborhood to the north, across the klong (canal). Follow Chakrabongse Road north (turn right when exiting Khao San Road by the police station) and continue until Samsen Road begins at the bridge.
How to Survive Khao San Road
Although not necessarily dangerous, you can pretty much assume that the many touts, drivers, and merchants along Khao San Road are after your baht in one way or another. Even the smiling people cooking pad thai at street carts overcharge tourists who are too intoxicated to notice.
The fleet of tuk-tuks and taxis parked along Khao San Road belong to drivers who are seasoned scammers and masters of the up-sell; always hail a passing taxi rather than taking one of the parked "mafia" ones. Avoid the age-old tuk-tuk scam of “free” or low-cost rides. You'll probably be taken to overpriced shops and put under a lot of sales pressure.
Avoid making large purchases on Khao San Road such as gold/silver, gemstones, and tailored suits which are nearly always less quality than you'll find elsewhere. Expect that most of the art or "unique" items available for purchase are probably fakes.
Khao San Road Safety
Although Khao San Road is relatively safe, some opportunists do prowl the street looking to prey on drunk or naive tourists.
Pick pocketing happens, and smartphone snatches are common; don't walk around with an expensive iPhone sticking out of your back pocket. Although violent crime is still very low, travelers have been attacked while walking home to areas on the outskirts of Khao San Road; try to walk with someone else.
Sadly, don't expect the police station on the west end of Khao San Road to be of much help for incidents. They'll refer you to the tourist police (a 20-minute walk away) for thefts.
Getting to Khao San Road in Bangkok
Despite the popularity, Khao San Road is not as convenient to reach as other tourist-oriented parts of Bangkok. No BTS Skytrain or subway stops are within proximity. The nearest train station is the big one at Hualamphong, a 50-minute walk east.
Drivers love to overcharge people heading to Khao San Road. Always choose a taxi driver who agrees to use the meter before you get inside. Taking a tuk-tuk can be a fun Thailand experience but will invariably cost you more!
From the Airport: If your flight arrives at night, your only option for getting to Khao San Road will probably be by mafia-controlled airport taxi. You'll have to get in the queue, pay the surcharge, meter, and the tolls if the driver takes the expressway. During the day, look for a counter before the taxi queue (near Gate 7) advertising inexpensive minivans to Khao San Road.
From Sukhumvit: A taxi from Sukhumvit to Khao San Road will cost between 100–150 baht.
By Boat: Ferries ply the Chao Phraya River on the west side of Bangkok. Rides are very inexpensive and enjoyable; you pay for the distance traveled. Many travelers don't consider river taxis as an option because they're intimidated by the system. Phra Artit is the pier nearest the Khao San Road area; it's a 10-minute walk from the river to Khao San Road.