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Live from Bangkok - Khao San Road

By Diana McLeod

I must prod my jetlagged body to stay awake. (I have traveled twelve time zones, and I am now exactly on the other side of the world) The hotel bed looks tempting, but I must resist sleep in order to re-set my internal clock. A stimulating environment is what I need. I take a deep breath, and leave the serenity of my hotel behind.

I slip down the little back alley. This little secret shortcut takes me directly to the heart of Khao San Road. I pass noodle vendors, several tourist laundries, and four super cheap back-alley guesthouses with massage parlors attached. Idle workers call out to me, "Hey, Miss, you want massage?" I suspect that, here in the back alley, they are half-hearted about getting female clients. They make their best money with the men.... Or, maybe I misjudge these girls. Most of these places, I'm sure, are perfectly respectable family businesses. But which are which? Are the older women their mothers, or their madams? It's impossible to know for sure... But it doesn'’t matter and I don't dwell on it. They all flash me lovely smiles.

The alley is also home to a tattoo parlor/whiskey bar, and a little leather shop. Somebody is playing a diggeree-doo. I can hear the whining voices of Chinese soap opera characters, blaring from a TV somewhere. Two Australians are haggling with an old lady about her laundry prices. There is a large pile of garbage in one corner of the alley. I steer clear, in case of rats. Two other foreign travelers are arriving in town, and they also cut through the alley, sweating profusely under the weight of giant backpacks.

At the end of the alley, I steel myself as I prepare for sensory overload. Khao San Road is the heart of the backpacker/student tourist district of Bangkok. Khao San is only about three blocks long, but it is a famous mecca for young, bargain-hunting tourists from around the world. Cheap guest houses, bars, travel agencies, streetside restaurants, email centers, tattoo parlors, souvenir shops, and tailor shops all compete for elbowroom along this little stretch of Banglampoo. It also houses the wholesale silver shops where my work is done. Garish neon lights crowd out the sky, and street vendors plaster the sidewalks with colorful goods, all competing for the tourists' attention.

Bootleg CD sellers blare competing music selections at everyone; Bob Marley and Hip Hop, full blast, with the bass turned way up. The neon amphitheater of Khao San reverberates and pulsates with sound. Lately, this area has become something of a street circus as well. Performers gather crowds, making the street even more difficult to negotiate. Hip hop performers and garage bands compete for street space with schoolchildren doing traditional Thai dance. In the early evening, the street is always packed with people. Khao San is at its peak; plugged in, and moving at fast forward speed. Am I ready for this in my jetlagged state?

I pick one of the streetside beer bar/restaurants and have a seat beside the sidewalk. The jet stream of humanity flows around me. I feel like a rock in the middle of a fast moving river. Khao San has some of the most entertaining people watching anywhere: beach goddesses with bronzed skin and dreadlocks, Japanese punks with red dyed spikes in their hair, Australian boys with no shirts and nipple rings, swilling beer right on the street, the odd straight middle-aged couple from Iowa, bewildered and overwhelmed, the little street beggar boys who have signs saying that they are deaf, which gets them tips from the tourists until someone calls out to them and debunks their scam, little girls who sell roses, “hostesses” in spiked boots and micro minis, who are passing out coupons for the big disco, young Thai couples who come here on dates because the tourist district is so interesting, Thai “ladyboys” in drag, who cruise the street hoping to pick up foreign men, Euro babes in skimpy outfits with perfect bodies and blasé expressions carefully implanted on their faces, eternal hippies carrying African drums and wearing their uniforms of tattered tiedyed beachwear, the grouchy old lady from the guest house up the street, who scolds everyone for not taking their shoes off at the door, the squid cart vendor, with a cartload of nearly transparent dried squids hanging from clothespins, The guy who sells nothing but little mirrored disco balls, the seventy year old hammock seller, who has been selling hammocks as long as I can remember...

The faces blur into the noise, and the lights, and the music and the beer. The restaurants begin to morph into keg bars as the bar scene blossoms. The VW bus bar arrives on the street, parks, and opens for business, with the top peeled off. Bartenders pop up through the cut-off car roof, mixing blender drinks at warp speed to satisfy the crowds. Even a local gas station closes for the night, and transforms itself into a bar. The bartenders set up shop among the gas pumps. Working girls arrive for the evening shift at Suzie Q’s nightclub. With every hour, the volume rises and the night gets steamier. Couples meet, pair off, and disappear into the night.

I come to this place every year, when I arrive in Asia from New York. Khao San is my first stop. I spend at least five days here, buying silver. It can be a lonely, loud, obnoxious environment for a solo traveler. Then why, after all these years, does this sordid late-night snapshot of humanity still fascinate me? I guess it is because it is a living photo gallery, and no two images will ever be exactly alike.

If you ever go to Bangkok, you will be offered luxury accommodations at the large downtown hotels. If you want predictable five-star pampering, I suggest you go there. But if you want a walk on the wild side, I suggest that you book your room in Banglampoo.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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