Going back to what was once the epicenter of backpacker-dom after being away for 13 years.
BANGKOK, Thailand- I went over to Khaosan Road tonight. It was the first time that I went back since 2006. I was basically just a backpacker then, just beginning to develop my capacities as an itinerant chronicler. While I wouldn’t admit this at the time, I fit right in then.
The Khaosan area, which consists of a few streets in the old core of Bangkok, was once the epicentric cesspool of the backpacker universe, a required stop where all dirt-level travelers would congeal, compare notes, buy plane tickets, apply for visas, pick up a stack of English language books, and party while doing so. Khaosan was our filling station — a respite from the world of lovely places, cultural intrigues, and everything else that we really travel for. While most of us wouldn’t have said that we necessarily liked Khaosan in those days, we all knew we needed it.
Nobody needs Khaosan anymore.
I stepped out of an Uber at the head of Khaosan and entered the main drag as I’d probably done a hundred times throughout my travel career. But something seemed different this time around. I watched some old dread-locked, bearded, and beaded hippy from some far off white-mans-land aimlessly drifting through the racks of Bob Marley t-shirts. He was wearing a thousand-yard-stare, as if he wasn’t really where he was — more than likely the result of drugging himself into oblivion long ago. However, my take in that moment was that he gazing out through the goggles of memory, discombobulated by temporal vertigo, as though what was before him didn’t seem to match what was imprinted in his mind.
I knew I was projecting my own state of mind.
Nostalgia has probably been one of the most common feelings on Khaosan for the past couple of decades, with old travelers stumbling around in disbelief — “Look what they did to it!” — as they replay stories in their minds of how it used to be. They would probably like to sit down and tell “In my day …” stories, but I don’t think anybody has ever wanted to listen to those. As is so often the case, what a place was is immediately forgotten as soon as it’s different. We are convinced that what we see in front of us at any given moment nicely matches the recent past. We have a hard time understanding change — time is the proverbial whip-it.
I’m on the other side of the age curve here now. My first stint on Khaosan was when I was in my early 20s. The main drag here was still a shithole, full of cheap-o backpacker bars, low grade restaurants, t-shirt stands, fake ID stalls, and English language bookstores who sold knock-off photocopied versions of just about any book you could want. The core of the travelers here were in it for the long haul, in the midst of multi-year journeys around the southern parts of the Asian landmass. It was a nightly freakshow made up of people at the trendy margins of whatever society they came from.
The old hippies intrigued me then — they were the last glimmers of a rapidly fading sub-culture that blazed the backpacker trail from Europe to SE Asia. I’d talk to them and they’d tell me stories of Afghanistan before the Russians, the piles of hash that would be set out in the street for the king of Nepal’s birthday, and, invariably, all about their out of body experiences and drug-induced visions of Asian deities. They were bat shit — those who couldn’t go home. Those with a shred of sanity bailed long ago for the more respectable climes of American and European suburbs.
I once spent a month on the top floor of a guesthouse here with Stubbs — a guy that I traveled with for a couple of years in the mid-2000s. We stepped off the train in Bangkok after tramping through the south of China and Laos and just kind of got stuck in Khaosan. I’m not sure what happened.
Clichés are often written about how travelers come to Khaosan and disappear, and while Stubbs and I probably mocked this then that’s exactly what we did. We just sat up on the top floor of that old, rickety guesthouse and read books. We took bucket showers. (It was disgusting.) Every once in a while we’d descend into the streets below for some fifty-cent pad Thai or join the parade of freaks that gets started each night around 11. This was in the pre-smartphone era, neither of us traveled with a laptop, Stubbs was taking photos on 35mm film, and I didn’t even have a camera. I’m not sure if anybody knew where we were.
I think back on this time and I conclude that I must have been a very different person during this stretch. I had no inclination to accomplish big things, little drive to build skills or to dive deep into labyrinthine projects, no obsessive need to document everything happening around me. It was the polar opposite of what Stubbs and I do today. I’m obsessed with becoming the greatest whatever in the world and Stubbs went on to become Erie Country’s Citizen of the Month — no joke.
I come from the second generation of backpackers, which probably went from 1990 to 2010 or so. This was the Lonely Planet era — full of Gen-X kids with one foot in the analog era and the other in the digital. We picked up where the old hippie travelers left off, disgraced their legacy, and transformed backpacking into a highly profitable industry — always with a guidebook tucked under an arm. We could see the remnants of the old world of travel then then, but mostly we blazed a new trail of commercialization, leading the charge for the fat, old, moneyed tourists who would soon follow.
However, we were still deluded enough to be looking for something then. Garland’s Beach was still out there … we believed we could get off the map and have profound / spiritual / unique experiences.
It’s not my impression that people are still looking for The Beach anymore — the mobile signal there probably isn’t strong enough to post Instagram selfies.
Nobody uses a Lonely Planet anymore either. To use one now doesn’t get you ironic old school cred; it just makes you look dumb. This is the post-Lonely Planet era, the commercial coup has been completed, backpackers are now clean and pretty and moneyed.
Khaosan is now a spring break kind of place dominated by big fast food and hotel chains, fancy restaurants, over-priced bars, and posh guesthouses. The people there are different too. Gone are the old hippies, the backpackers, and those who have feel off the edges of their lives. In their place are the usual tourists — a huge percentage now from China — and locals.
This last point is something rather interesting: half the people on Khaosan now seem to be young middle class locals looking to party. This is a marked change that shows a broader transition in Thai society: the locals now have enough money to be marketed to, they are now consumers almost on par with the tourists. The economic disparity between foreigners and locals is rapidly shrinking here, as it is in many emerging markets around the world.
I went and ate dinner at this old backstreet family-run restaurant that Stubbs and I would eat at almost every day. I did a quick nostalgic run down of our travels, drank some beer, and then came back to reality. My nostalgia had run out.
I looked around: tuk-tuks piled up in a swarm, touts were shoving ads for ping-pong shows in everybody’s faces, the words “massage, massage, massage” were being rattled off from all directions. An old lady walked up to me as I was drinking a beer with two boards full of friendship bracelets. They said things like:
I heart black dick
I heart big c*ck
I heart rape c*ck
I heart white jizz
I heart big ass
I heart eat ass
Khaosan is the same shit hole it’s always been.
I walked down the main drag — it was around 11pm now and the party was getting started. I sat with a group of French travelers with handlebar mustaches and watched a half dozens groups of young Chinese tourists doing whip-its. I watched the sign-holding touts do their thing — stepping in front of people and physically trying to push them into their respective bars with big smiles on their faces. Khaosan has always been about selling whatever sells — it doesn’t matter who the buyer is, the price things are being sold for, or how nice the venues are doing the selling. That’s the only ethic here, and this has never changed.
This was one more thing that didn’t change. As I was walking around, now sort of digging the torrents of intoxication that flowing in all directions, I peered into a tattoo studio and stopped short. Sitting inside peering into a computer screen was a guy that I partied with for a stretch 14 years ago. I walked up to the studio and he walked out to greet me. He had the same job he had before — running the front of the shop — and seemed oddly frozen in time. He didn’t remember me, and there wasn’t any reason why he should have. Memory has never served one well on Khaosan.