Bangkok/Khao San Road
Khao San Road (ถนน ข้าวสาร Thanon Khao Saan; also spelled Khaosan, Kao Sarn, Koh Sarn and many other variations) is, technically speaking, a small street about three blocks long located about a block from the Chao Phraya River in the Banglamphu district northwest of downtown Bangkok. Backpackers and budget tourists are drawn by some of the cheapest accommodation and travel deals in Thailand.
The word khao san itself means milled rice and is an attribution to the historical role of this street in the rice trade. The first business to open on Khao San Road was a small hotel aimed at serving civil servants from the provinces who came to Bangkok on business. The hotel was followed by Sor Thambhakdi, a shop selling monks' accessories. It was followed by four similar businesses, and Khao San became known as a "religious road".
Word soon spread about the easy lifestyle and friendliness of the locals. Friends told friends, and before long, the owner of the house started to charge 20 baht for food and lodging. The first commercial guesthouse, called Bonny, opened with six small bedrooms.
Today, there's a lot more than six small bedrooms on offer: in the span of just a couple of blocks, there are bars, food stalls, restaurants, convenience stores, pharmacies, internet cafes, money changing booths, ATMs, shoe stores, massage parlors, tailors, travel agencies, laundry, boxing gyms, optometrists, endless warrens of suspiciously discounted designer clothes and, oh, rooms for the night.
Khao San Road is fairly easy to get to from anywhere in Bangkok. Taxis, buses, and river ferry are your main options. While the metro and the skytrain are convenient ways of getting to many places in Bangkok, there is unfortunately no train (yet) that will take you near Khao San Road (or anywhere else on Rattanakosin Island, for that matter).
The half hourly airport bus, A2, arrives and departs from the corner of Khao San Road, and now serves the new Suvarnabhumi Airport. Buy a ticket (150 baht) from the booth at the airport or on the bus. A meter taxi should cost no less than 300 baht, if using the toll roads (known to Thais as Toll way) which cost up to 65 baht. Traffic during the day can make the toll roads very worthwhile, as it will save time and money. The trip takes around an hour in good traffic, but allow considerable leeway during rush hour as the area around Khao San can get very congested.
See the Bangkok section for info on arriving in town.
Even the metered taxis will try to charge you a flat rate of about 200-300 baht to take you to Khao San Road, rather than use the meter (which would mean no more than an 80 baht fare from the Silom district). The drivers will claim that Khao San Road is "too far away" for the meter, but that's not true; the fact is, they can get away with overcharging tourists, and if you don't take it, the next schmuck down the street will. You can refuse to pay that amount and try to find an honest taxi, or try to haggle (which may be just as difficult). There is certainly no shortage of taxi drivers anywhere in Bangkok. As a general rule, older drivers tend to be more amenable to the meters, while the younger ones tend to gun for big fares from tourists.
If for some reason there aren't many taxis around, one trick that appears to work is telling the driver to take you to a location near Khao San Road, such as Tanao Road. If you don't mind a short walk, memorize a few landmarks in the Banglamphu area and see if the driver will take you there using the meter and then hike the rest of the way to the road.
The majority of taxi drivers are reasonably honest. If they seek to 'quote' a fare, just smile and point at the meter. If they still don't want to use the meter, just hail another taxi. As a general rule, avoid the parked taxis (dishonest drivers prefer to wait for gullible tourists) and hail a moving taxi (red light on dash board indicates not available). The majority of taxis are new (less than two years old), and its best to avoid the older taxis as their air-conditioners function poorly, and these drivers tend to be less reliable.
Boats on the Chao Phraya River are the cheapest and most scenic way of getting to Rattanakosin Island from the rest of the city. The Central Pier is just outside the BTS Saphan Taksin station; you can take a Chao Phraya Tourist Boat for 13 baht or the Chao Phraya River Express for 18 baht to Phra Arthit (pier number N.13). From there, it's a short but confusing walk to Khao San Road. A map, a good sense of direction, or help from a local is usually required.
The ferries stop running at around 5pm, or will run but stop at fewer locations (and Phra Arthit is not one of them).
From Moh Chit (the Northern Bus Terminal), catch bus 3 which will drop you right on Khao San Road. 7 Baht, approx. 30 minutes.
From Ekamai (the Eastern Bus Terminal), catch bus number 2 (non-ac, 7 baht) which will stop at the Ratchdamnoen Klang road where a short walk across the road will take you to Khao San Road.
Although there aren't any famous historical sites to speak of on the road itself, Khao San is on the Rattanakosin island. Around the street, there are a number of old buildings and temples, some of which have been transformed into restaurants and even tattoo parlours, although you will still find quiet family homes if you look deep enough. Aside from some interesting architecture, Banglampoo shows the mix of peoples and heritages that is the character of Bangkok. There are Muslims, Buddhists, Mons, and of course a great number of foreigners in this small area. All of this makes the area an interesting place for a glimpse of Thai life. Thais also appreciate the area for the many types of traditional kanom or Thai snacks and desserts available and the cheap clothing available in the Banglampoo Market (see below).
At the bottom of Khao San is Wat Chana Songkram, which translates as "War Victory Temple". This area was formally given to the Mon peoples who helped the Thai fight off the Burmese centuries ago. The Mon set up a community here and built this temple as well. Many travelers use the temple grounds to connect between Khao San and Phra Athit Rd where the ferry pier is located. The temple is worth a visit, though, with nice murals, crisp sounding temple bells hanging from the eves, Bougainvillea vines and beautiful trees. There is no charge for admission and you are welcome to pay respect to the Buddha images or just find a little tranquility away from the throngs of backpackers on Khao San proper.
Famous sites within walking distance from Khao San Road include The Grand Palace (Wat Phra Kaew), Wat Pho, Sanam Luang Park, Chao Phraya river, Democracy Monument and The Golden Mount (Phu Khao Thong). See Rattanakosin for details.
The Banglamphu market is a good place to pick up cheap Thai knock-offs of everything from jeans to Italian sneakers, as well as a few posh Thai silk stores. (Not on Khao San but nearby, you can go to the bottom of Khao San, turn right and walk about 50 meters.) Food stalls also abound in this area. Khao San road is also home to many wholesale silver jewelry stores.
Khao San Road offers one of the most diverse food selections anywhere in Bangkok. Since the street sees such a varied nationality of travelers, several ethnic foods can be found here. Street carts that line Khao San Road sell decent phat thai (fried noodles), quail eggs, roti (like a pancake), falafel, hummus, various bugs and some sell just cocktails.
However, it's worth noting that much of it is specifically geared for backpackers — even the local phat thai, especially the 10 baht variety, economizes on the ingredients and uses soy instead of the traditional tamarind sauce. Those looking for truly good food would be advised to head elsewhere, such as to Sukhumvit.
As Khao San leaves its backpacker roots, standards (and prices) are rising. International outlets Burger King and Starbucks moved in during 2004.
Khao San Road has some of the cheapest bars in town, and these days even some Thais head down to knock back a few. A can of Beer Chang is 25 baht at 7-11. Worth a look are a few street side VW vans converted to mobile bars, serving cocktails made from cheap liquor.
Most restaurants on Khao San serve freshly brewed coffee.
Khao San Road is Bangkok's main backpacker guesthouse centre. Since places spring up and disappear on a monthly basis, accommodation and restaurants are hard to recommend. Before checking into an unfamiliar place, always ask to see a room first, and don't be afraid to test the fan or the a/c if you think you'll need it.
Note that some Khao San Road guesthouses don't accept Thai guests.
Keep in mind that anything on the main drag will be loud, and anything with exterior windows will get hot. Try walking a block or two off Khao San proper to find something a little quieter. The street past the police station end of the block (Soi Rambuttri) has reasonable little bars and restaurants that are starting to spill out onto the sidewalk. The road gets darker and quieter as it wraps around the wat (temple) grounds. The post office end also has a few original spots - including a great veggie restaurant and cooking school; the area just beyond the park has a number of small river-front guesthouses which can be an escape from the noise and chaos.
There are several better class hotels in the area, with swimming pools, minibars, etc. The better one is the Royal Hotel, while the Vieng Tai is also a popular choice.
Internet cafes are rivaled only by tuk-tuks for sheer ubiquity on Khao San Road. The standard rate is 10 baht / 15 minutes. Virtually all cafes are set up for Skype and plain old international phone calls.
Astounded at how delicious that 20 baht pad thai was? Keep an eye on the chef - you may see them shake a certain spice out of a canister before they hand it over. That's MSG, aka monosodium glutamate, the notorious flavor enhancer. While basically harmless for most people, some may have reactions, including swelling of the throat, chest pain and headaches.
As everywhere else in Bangkok, if someone offers you a great one-day-only sale on gems, smile faintly and keep on walking.
Cheap tourist bus, mini-van, and airline tickets are available at any of the dozens of travel agents in the area.
Popular day-trip destinations include Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi. The cost of the tour - usually 450-600 baht - will include transportation to and from the destinations and one meal. Shop around, because prices do vary, and are not necessarily connected to the quality of the service you'll receive. The travel agents are simply passing you on to another company that will conduct the tour, so you may be in a van with five other people who booked through five different travel agents at five different prices. Although these trips are cheap and require no planning on your part, they offer plenty of frustration as well. The other people in your van may all have booked slightly different itineraries, so you may find yourself spending the morning somewhere that's not of interest to you, only to be rushed along with half an hour in the afternoon at the one place you really wanted to see. Although the travel agent will show you a meticulously planned minute-by-minute itinerary, the day will inevitably feature at least one (long) stop at a commission-paying handicrafts shop, and the schedule will never recover. The day-trips are a decent way to pass some time, but if the destination is somewhere you've been looking forward to seeing, you're much, much better off doing it independently.
Visas for other Southeast Asian countries can also be obtained on your behalf from the Khao San travel agencies. Popular destinations include Chiang Mai in the north, Phuket in the south, Angkor Wat in the east (in Cambodia), and various islands off the coast. See also the One month in Southeast Asia itinerary.