Dreadlocks or some other variety of unkempt hair? Check. Mis-matched tie-dyed clothing? Check. Tattoos, facial piercings, henna-stained hands? Check, check, check. Street vendors selling roasted cockroaches and scorpions? No, it’s not an acid-induced flashback to the 60s – it’s Khao San Road.
The history of how Khao San Road became a hippie haven is unclear. Wikipedia says that it became so about 20 years ago – which is dead wrong, as I first visited back in 1996 and it was already well established on the budget backpacker scene. One account has it that back in the 80s, as Thailand celebrated the auspicious year 2525 on the Buddhist calendar, local hotels couldn’t handle the influx of tourists. Euro-cheapskates, accustomed to homestays and pensionne, scouted out neighborhoods near the tourist sites where locals might let them bed down for a few bucks. Once the locals realized that letting a few sweaty tourists sleep over could be much more lucrative than selling bags of rice (khao san implies the street was once a rice market), a niche market was created, and the now infamous Khao San Road was born.
I always assumed it started as an extension of the hippie trail, the famous overland route from London to India or Nepal embarked upon by many an alternative youth wanting to get high and check out of the 60s/70s mainstream. Busloads of counter-culture types, visions of cheap, legal drugs dancing in their heads (quite literally), crossed Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on chicken trucks to reach places of nirvana such as Kathmandu or Goa. With Bangkok becoming a popular R&R hangout during the Vietnam War, it would’ve definitely been on the map – why not continue on?
Perhaps Tom Wolfe describes this traveler best:
His hair has the long jesuschrist look. He is wearing the costume clothes. But most of all, he now has a very tolerant and therefore withering attitude toward all those who are still struggling in the old activist political ways…while he, with the help of psychedelic chemicals, is exploring the infinite regions of human consciousness.
When my brother and I first moved to Bangkok to work, in 1999, it was our habit to breakfast with a couple of these old hippies in a Khao San area guesthouse (one I still frequent and highly recommend). One ancient fellow, going by the for-sure-not-his-real name, Vincent St. Vincent, was an Einstein look-alike, but smaller and wearing hippie clothes. He was a yogi, and claimed to spend two hours a day standing on his head. He had in some way been involved with the Seattle Liberation Front, and when the Feds rounded up the ‘Seattle Seven’, in 1970, Vincent skedaddled, hit the hippie trail – and had been ‘hiding out’ from the government ever since.
Bernie, describing himself as an angry Brooklyn Jew, was less a hippie and more a hipster or beatnik of the late 50s/early 60s ilk, still trying make it as a beat writer, a la Kerouac or Kesey. I’m pretty sure he arrived as a soldier during the Vietnam War and just never went back. He chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank liters of black coffee, all the while holding forth our little breakfast table on his views of literature and politics, arguments mostly belonging to a generation gone by. Once he’d finished a manuscript, Bernie often insisted that we listen as he read it to us – you know, so we’d get the proper beat rhythm. When we declined, as we often did – not being beat poets ourselves – he’d swear and rant, say as how we weren’t friends anymore. Then we’d see him at breakfast the following weekend.
Although it’s moved decidedly upscale over the past decade, Khao San Road is still the place many choose to check out of society for a time, still a place to encounter some colorful characters. The 5-dollar room and 1-dollar meal still exist, and enlightenment in the form of temples, meditation, and yoga – and probably drugs – is not hard to find. Yes, there are definitely more ‘tourists’ and fewer ‘travelers’ than there used to be, and many of the younger ones appear to be mainly interested in drinking cheap beer and posting photos on Instagram. But the quietude of the wat, the barefoot monks on alms at dawn, the shopkeepers offering incense to tiny family shrines – these are all still a part of the vibe here.
So, while you’re here, soak up the international atmosphere, get a tattoo or a piercing, have a few beers, eat the roasted cockroach – or at least pay the vendor a dollar to let you take a photo of you pretending to eat one. But talk to the old hippies. Wake up at dawn and head down to the Chao Phraya. Meditate with the monks. Or, at the very least, walk a block or two away and see something – anything – that doesn’t have anything to do with tourists.
And, for god’s sake, turn off your phone once in a while and just enjoy the vibe of Khao San Road.
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