Let’s start of this blog by saying that we are not writing this to spoil your fun, pretend we know more about Thailand than you do, or trying to talk down the Khao San experience in any way. It is what it is, and it is definitely a part of Bangkok everyone will check out eventually.
But it is important to point out that it Khao San has very little to do with Thailand and that the locals tend to avoid the place like the plague. You see, every country that enjoys heaps of tourist has that one place that regular locals simply don’t go to unless they are employed there in one way or another (more on that later).
So while everything in the area revolves around tourists, this also means that there is virtually nothing left that can be considered “genuinely Thai”. Restaurants adapt their menus to the taste of foreigners, shops sell low-end tourist trinkets, the entire neighbourhood is rife with hostels (often illegally constructed) and with no public transport conveniently nearby you will be cut off from the rest of the city.
In the area, there also is a disproportionate amount of tour operators, dealers and tattoo artists who specialize in “quick & cheap”. Con artists knowing full well that an unprepared foreigner is valuable also consider Khao San their preferred work space.
The only way of getting anywhere is by taxi or TukTuk, and the ones operating from Khao San are notorious for their shake-down practices. Taxis in the capital are forced by law to use a meter and to take on any ride their passenger desires. At normal hours this is usually what happens, but in Khao San you will find yourself dealing with inquisitive taxi drivers who will haggle with you for a fixed fee.
Pro tip: If a driver is cool about flicking on his meter right away, tip them and let them know you appreciate him doing the right thing.
The last time friends of mine came to Bangkok I urged them to book a hotel a little closer to the city centre so we could explore Bangkok itself, instead of the Khao San Disneyland. So we settled for a nice hotel in the Thong Lor area, and booked their last nights at Wayha Hostel since they were flying to Chiang Mai the next morning at 7am. This is a great solution for early flights by the way, and I recommend anyone with an early flight from Don Mueang to look into Wayha Hostel – it really saves you a lot of stress.
Getting away from the backpacker area (in essence, that is what Khao San is), you will have the opportunity to visit temples that are not tourist attractions and where people actually come to make merit. You will be able to taste genuine Thai food and experience the delight from the local staff when they see that you find their dish “aroi” (delicious).
What Khao San is good for
If you are looking for a cheap night out and you would like to avoid a potential dud, make sure you check out Khao San at least once. The entire street is well-dialled into the party process, and as night falls, things kick into gear. The bars who are allowed to play their music loud most definitely will, and you could argue that the atmosphere on these little terraces is better than in some of the high-end clubs downtown.
You will also make friends easily, as Khao San is the one place where there is a very high concentration of low-budget backpackers and the ones who are wrapping up their 3-month trip will share all their experiences with the newbies.
What Khao San isn’t good for
Don’t expect anything genuine on Khao San. The Banana pancakes are there for you only, as Thai locals don’t eat them. The same goes for Pad Thai, the aforementioned scorpions or fried rice. There are plenty of beginner dishes for curious tourists that won’t taste like napalm but still challenge a curious traveler. Think of Tom Yum, a medium-spicy Somtam or any other noodle soup pimped up with one of the four different condiments.
The good stuff is not always compatible with western stomachs and as such, nobody makes or sells it around that area. You will also find that most Asians hanging out are actually from Singapore, China, Japan or elsewhere as the Thai prefer to go to RCA (a massive party complex), Thong Lor (an upscale nightlife area) or one of the many clubs/restaurants/venues downtown.
Don’t shop in Khao San unless you are fine with buying fake articles. Almost everything is fake in the area, and while that’s fine for flipflops or a funny wifebeater, watches, sunglasses, diving goggles, camera equipment or other more valuable items are usually not the real deal around here. So keep that in mind when you’re about to buy a Rolex from a guy leaning over to your table.
Khao San pros
Lots of backpackers like you
Every night is a party, identical to last night’s party
Best area for eating fried scorpions
Embrace that 3rd world feeling
Khao San Cons
It’s cheaper elsewhere
Lots of backpackers like you
The regular nightlife follows a normal pattern with concerts, pool parties and special events
Nobody in Asia eats fried scorpions
Bangkok is a hyper-modern city