Koh San Road or Khao San Road? You hear both iterations in reference to the famous backpacker street in Bangkok, but which is correct?
First things first: The correct usage is Khao San Road, not Koh San Road as travelers are often heard saying.
Koh San Road is a common mispronunciation and misspelling for Khao San Road in Bangkok, a popular tourist street. But koh and khao have completely different meanings in Thai. They are not interchangeable.
Khao San Road in Bangkok
Khao San Road once attracted mostly backpackers looking for cheap accommodation and a social scene. The street and surrounding neighborhood still serves as a base for many backpackers in Southeast Asia. Prices for food, drinks, and accommodation are relatively inexpensive compared with other neighborhoods in Bangkok.
In recent years, the neighborhood tends to attract just as many short-term travelers and families. Even locals head to Khao San Road on weekends to walk, shop, eat, and hear bands.
The Correct Pronunciation of Khao San Road
Saying "koe san" or writing Koh San Road is incorrect. The correct pronunciation of Khao San sounds more like "cow san."
Another mispronunciation sometimes heard is "kay-oh san" — also incorrect.
Koh San Road vs. Khao San Road
The word koh — pronounced more with the throat as "goh" — means "island" in Thai. Travelers often use the word incorrectly when referring to Khao San Road after hearing it applied to the many island destinations such as Koh Lanta, Koh Tao, and Koh Chang.
Saying "Koh San Road" implies that the area is an island or is on an island rather than in Bangkok.
The word khao can have several meanings in Thai depending on the tone used. The road gets its namesake from the past activity there. In this instance, khao means "rice mill" or "milled rice." Long before Khao San Road became a rowdy, popular hub in the late 1980s for budget travelers, it was an important center for buying and trading rice.
Adding to the incorrect usage of "Koh San Road," sometimes unofficial signs and travel agencies even refer to Khao San Road as Koh San Road. This happens because the spellings are transliterated from the Thai alphabet without a structured "crossover" language such as Chinese Pidgin English. Many Thai people can speak and understand English but don't write it. You will also see Ko San, Khao Sarn, Kow Sarn, and a number of other variations for the spelling.
The History of Khao San Road
The road dates back to 1892, during the reign of Rama V, the king most credited for saving Siam (the name for Thailand then) from Western colonization. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia to have not been colonized at some point by a Western power.
Before it attracted tourism, Khao San Road transformed from a rice-trading center to Bangkok's "religious road" because of a few shops selling supplies needed by monks in the neighboring temples.
A small, inexpensive guesthouse opened on Khao San Road to cater to budget travelers in the early 1980s. They may have been attracted to the temple atmosphere and cheap prices. Somehow, this kicked off an explosion of guesthouses, bars, restaurants, travel agencies, and other services geared toward foreign travelers.
Today, for better or worse, Khao San Road is considered the beating heart of the Banana Pancake Trail — an informal label given to the circuit that backpackers typically traverse throughout Asia, especially in Southeast Asia. The name "Banana Pancake Trail" may have stuck because of all the carts selling banana pancakes in the places where Western travelers were gathering. Budget hostels and cheap guesthouses often serve banana pancakes as the free breakfast. Ordinarily, breakfast in Thailand is simply any food eaten in the morning.
Modern Day Khao San Road
Love it or hate it, Bangkok's Khao San Road is a base for travelers in Bangkok to sleep, party, and arrange travel needs to other places in Thailand and Asia.
The infamously rowdy strip once brought in mostly backpackers on shoestring budgets. Today, travelers with bigger budgets but less time, families, and short-term holiday goers also come to the street to eat, drink, get massages, and shop. As pricier properties and boutique hotels move into the area, prices have increased along the street once famous for the cheapest beer in Bangkok. Still, the neighborhood's nightlife draws young locals, especially on weekends, as well as non-Thai visitors.
Compared to other tourist areas, Khao San Road is also the cheapest area to stay in Bangkok. From restaurants to travel agents who can arrange transportation and activities, you'll find everything you need before heading off to a quieter part of Thailand.
Hardly an authentic experience, the Khao San area is home to more than the usual amount of cheap fakes for sale, rambunctious parties, and an army of scammers who prey on tourists. Fast-talking tuk-tuk drivers work hard to separate inexperienced travelers from their colorful Thai baht.
With so many world travelers collected in once place at any given time, unexpected reunions between people who met in other parts of the world is a nightly occurrence. Khao San Road is an easy place to meet new friends and to team up with new travel mates. It isn't really the best choice for learning anything about Thai culture and etiquette.
Taken for what it is (in many ways, a swirling human circus), Khao San Road can still be a fun place to stay or visit. At least take a walk down the strip one evening to have a look. Soi Rambuttri, the street parallel to Khao San Road, is also a popular place to walk.
Is Khao San Road Safe?
The legendary street earned a reputation as obnoxious, and slightly out of control — a carnival with no closing time. After all, Khao San is lined with bars advertising laughing gas for sale and impossibly cheap bucket drinks. Many have signs boasting they don't check IDs of young travelers — but not that it matters: Fake documents of all sorts (including college diplomas and driver's licenses) can be bought right on the street!
Despite the party atmosphere at night, prostitution isn't nearly as prevalent along Khao San Road as it is in Sukhumvit and other tourist areas in Bangkok. The usual "go-go" bars and seedy massage parlors are pleasantly missing. Families on vacations still come to take advantage of cheap drinks and massage chairs along the street.
Many weary-eyed travelers stepping off the plane in Thailand for the first time are surprised by what they find on Khao San Road, particularly after arriving late on a long, international flight. Because of this wild reputation, Khao San was restructured, pedestrianized (some of the time), and slightly cleaned up by officials in 2014.
A police station is situated at the primary end of Khao San Road, however, this is not a Tourist Police station. The officers stationed there tend to focus on fining travelers and street vendors. If you have a problem or want to report a theft, they'll most likely refer you to the Tourist Police station — absurdly, located farther outside of the tourist area.
Don't Say Koh San Road!
Do your part to halt yet another cultural mutation due to tourism. If you hear someone using the term "Koh San Road," don't join in. If they ask, politely correct them and explain the difference between Koh San Road and Khao San Road.