Khao San Road is the famous backpacker street of Bangkok. This road and surrounding streets is the budget travel hub of Southeast Asia. In normal times it is a spectacle like no other place in the world.
When the Covid-19 virus reduced travel to a trickle in March 2020, Thailand closed its borders to international travel. With a heavy reliance on international travel, the tourism businesses of Khao San Road were always going to struggle.
I returned to Thailand in December 2021, a month after the international lockout was lifted. I knew that the main tourist places were going to be hard hit, but nothing could prepare me for the devastation of the backpacker area of Bangkok.
Khao San Road before 2020
I first visited Khao San Road in 2005. As per The Yellow Bible’s recommendation, I got the shuttle bus from Don Muang Airport to Khao San Road. This was my first time in Southeast Asia (I had just come from Cambodia and Vietnam) so I had never seen so many backpackers congregating in one place.
[Khao San Rd in 2005.]
In those days you would just turn up and look around for a room without making a booking. I returned to Khao San Road over the years when I was passing through Bangkok on the way to somewhere else.
[Khao San Road in 2011.]
On each return, it got harder to just arrive and look for a room. I turned up one night at 10 pm after a long international flight and I spent an hour looking for a room. From then on I booked accommodation in advance.
Eventually, I stopped staying here as I tend to stay in the Sukhumvit area or Ari, but I would still drop by if I were in the old city area.
I don’t drink and I am averse to noisy bars, so I don’t have much business being in KSR. I enjoyed the experience in my early backpacking days, and it is a useful travel hub and base for exploring the old city area of Bangkok. You hear the occasional expat that poo-poo’s KSR, making derogatory remarks about backpackers. But I love the whole spectacle of it, and I always say to imagine if this street was in your home city. You would never see this in Australia (for example).
[Khao San Road getting an industrial-strength hosing down after another night.]
Khao San Road after 2020
I don’t know how many times I’ve walked down Khao San Road, but in all those times I’ve never seen it as quiet as this. I had read reports of it being a graveyard, and if you have been in the boom times it felt like a ghost town now.
With Bangkok being a major air hub, these streets were always buzzing with activity at all hours of the day. There were some days I walked down the street and I had to fight my way through the crowd. It was so strange to come back and see the absolute desolation.
Most of the businesses on the road were closed.
It is hard times when even the 7-Elevens are closed.
McDonalds was also closed.
Susie Walking Street is usually a busy shortcut to Rambuttri Alley.
A sign of the pandemic times.
For Sale signs are a common sight.
Some of the street vendors were back, but business is still slow.
There used to be food vendors all along the street, now there were just a few who have returned so far.
Hand sanitiser and social distancing – welcome to the “new normal”.
In October 2019 the government had announced that it was going to repave Khao San Road, and it was finished in August 2020. There is an improved drainage system and bollards that create a wider walking area along the shop fronts. Now all it needs is tourists.
The police station at the end of Khao San Road has been demolished. Perhaps they ran out of things to do with no drunken backpackers to look over.
When people say Khao San Road, it is often used to refer the backpacker area in general, which includes Rambuttri Alley. Rambuttri is split in two, with one section running parallel to Khao San Road, and another section wrapping around a temple complex. This is a quieter tree-lined street but with the same backpacker vibes. After my first visit to Khao San Road, I realised that Rambuttri was my preferred street to stay in.
[Rambuttri before the pandemic.]
After walking Khao San Road I went over to the Rambuttri Alley section near the temple, and things were just as bad there.
This sign that was posted in March 2020 says it all. I wouldn’t have guessed in that crazy month that I would be there 21 months later looking at the same sign.
These restaurants used to be open all day and were always busy.
A boarded-up guesthouse.
Another guesthouse closed down with corrugated metal sheets. I don’t know if this was all they had available to board up, or if it was being prepared for demolition. There were other buildings in the alley there were being demolished.
The barbed-wire barricading added to the grim feeling of the street.
New My House Guest House was open, and there were a few hardy backpackers congregating here.
To celebrate this stalwart of the backpacker scene being open, I stopped for a banana pancake. I figured I should make an offering to the backpacker gods to let them know that the trail has reopened.
The comeback starts here
Khao San Road started showing signs of life in the early evening when some of the bars opened up. I went back later in the night but there was a vaccination checkpoint and I didn’t have a vaccination app.
[Khao San Rd covid checkpoint.]
I have been vaccinated in two different countries (and boostered in Thailand), so I have certificates from each country without being represented on a single app. I couldn’t be bothered carrying around my certificates so I didn’t go back at night.
Rambuttri Road was open without a checkpoint, and at the entrance to the road there were a couple of bars and restaurants leading the comeback. I went by and there was a group of locals having a party. Domestic patrons may be the way forward for the time being.
Deeper into Rambuttri Road the closed shops looked even more depressing and spooky at night.
On the other section of Rambuttri (parallel to KSR), the end that has a night market was doing ok (also sustained by local visitors).
I was here about 6 weeks after Thailand relaxed its entry rules, so it was still early days in the recovery. It will take years though to get back to 2019 levels of tourism.
Will these pandemic times mark the end of an era of Khao San Road? Will it become like Soi Ngam Dupli, which was the original Bangkok backpacker street before the scene moved to KSR. Soi Ngam Dupli is now a shadow of its former self, with only a few shops that hint that it used to be a backpacker haunt. Or perhaps there will be smaller backpacker areas spread out across the city. There is a cluster of hostels that have congregated in Phayathai (near the Airport Rail Link), and another hostel area in Silom.
I hope that Khao San Road is able to make a comeback. Even though I rarely stay there anymore, I like knowing that it’s there.