Road Trip

Thailand: Along Bangkok's exotic Khao San Road - now taking a star turn in 'The Beach' - the spirit of the '60s is alive and well.

February 20, 2000|By Joshua Kurlantzick | By Joshua Kurlantzick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anthony and Karen Mendoza fit right in on Bangkok's Khao San Road. They arrived three days ago from America and already are having the wildest experience. Anthony reveals the new tattoo on his forearm -- the word sabai, Thai for fun. "It's my life philosophy," he confides.

Karen's head is covered in wires like some abstract sculpture. The staff at her guest house set her red hair into dreadlocks. Karen is satisfied with the work, but worries that the dreadlocks will fall apart when she goes to the beach.

A beach of a different sort is currently shining a light on Khao San Road. The Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach," shot on location in Thailand, is showing the rest of the world what young travelers to Southeast Asia have known for some time: Khao San has the feel of the anything-goes '60s.

A maze of streets no bigger than two city blocks, Khao San is jammed with bars, billboards, shops, junk dealers, inexpensive guest houses, and a spirit of adventure that keeps people from leaving.

So far, Anthony and Karen Mendoza have not ventured beyond Khao San. "Why go anywhere?" asks Karen. "This is the most fun part of town."

Khao San Road "was backpacker land," writes Alex Garland in "The Beach," the popular 1997 novel on which the movie is based. "Almost all the buildings had been converted into guest-houses ... the cafes showed brand-new Hollywood films on video, and you couldn't walk ten feet without passing a bootleg-tape stall. The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand; a halfway house between East and West."

Discovering Khao San

When I arrived for the first time from my flat in East Bangkok, the crowded but exhilarating Khao San neighborhood reminded me of an eclectic, surreal version of Disney World's International Village.

Stores and restaurants cater to every nationality. A pseudo-French bistro advertising pommes frites competes with Israeli falafel joints that show Seinfeld tapes subtitled in Hebrew.

All upper-story real estate has been converted into guest houses -- inexpensive lodgings that usually offer private rooms and shared bathrooms. At street level, hundreds of foreigners dressed in everything from business attire to thong bathing suits lounge at cafes.

October through March is high season, when Bangkok temperatures fall to a manageable 70-85 degrees and humidity is low. The street is so busy that taxi drivers have given up moving their vehicles and many guest houses display "No Vacancy" signs.

To understand Khao San's appeal, I decided to spend several days commuting to the area and learning its history from longtime residents such as Piyapong Jantaravong, manager of the CH2 Guesthouse.

In the 1980s, Khao San was just a few guest houses. Then Thailand began promoting its tourism industry, and young travelers discovered the area.

Soon, the Lonely Planet Thailand guide praised the few Khao San guest houses for their location and services. As backpackers moved around, word spread along the Goa-Katmandu-Bangkok trail about the Khao San area. New guest houses and shops sprang up along Khao San Road and in surrounding alleys.

By the early 1990s, Khao San was as much a part of the Bangkok tourist scene as Buddhist temples and spicy Thai meals. Some backpackers complained that Khao San was overcrowded, passe. A few people gravitated to other areas.

In recent years, however, entrepreneurs have opened cybercafes along Khao San alleys, making the area an Internet-access hub. Close to Khao San, Pra Arthit Road has become the center of a burgeoning Bangkok arts scene, as young Thais convert 19th-century villas into gallery cafes. Skilled Thai chefs have opened vegetarian restaurants on Tanao Road, a two-minute walk from Khao San. And Garland's novel has found its way into many adventurers' backpacks.

Khao San is cool again.

Thailand's undervalued currency also has made its restaurants, temples and markets more alluring. Decimated by speculators during the Asian currency crisis of 1997, the baht, which traded at 25 to the dollar in 1997, now trades at 37 to the dollar. For American visitors, everything in Thailand essentially is marked down 33 percent.

Interestingly, Khao San is not truly representative of the rest of Bangkok, for few Thais actually live there. It is an enclave populated almost exclusively by travelers.

Lively Bangkok

Bangkok itself is one of the most congested, hot and polluted cities on Earth -- and also one of the most exciting.

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