All languages are welcome on Bangkok's Khao San Road, including Drunkard. "Hold my hand," a man fluent in Singapore Slings commanded a Scottish hairdresser one night at Lucky Beer and Guest House -- only in his dialect it came out soggy and rounded, more like Hole mah han. "Not right now," the Scottish hairdresser said. She was a slender girl with the pinkish pallor of a milkmaid, blond hair, gray eyes, and a nose ring. She was on a six-week trip through Asia with two cute friends from Glasgow. They'd just arrived on a super-discount flight from Scotland and had checked into a seven-dollar-a-night room at one of the several hundred or so cheap guesthouses around Khao San Road-Happy Home Guest House or Nirvana Caf and Guest House or Sweety's or Lek Mam's or something; they actually couldn't remember what it was called, but they knew how to find their way back. They also knew how to get from their guesthouse to the new branch of Boots, the English drugstore, which opened recently amid the T-shirt shops and travel agencies that line Khao San. Within their first few hours in Bangkok, the girls went to Boots and blew their travel budget on English soap and shampoo-same soap and shampoo they could get at home but somehow more exotic-seeming when bought in Thailand-and on snack packages of Oreos, which they worship and which are not easy to find in the United Kingdom. They thought Khao San was horrible because it was so crowded and loud and the room in the guesthouse was so dingy, but it was brilliant, too, because it was so inexpensive, and there were free movies playing at all the bars, and because they'd already run into two friends from home. On top of that, finding a branch of Boots right here was almost too good to be true. What's more, Boots was super-air-conditioned, and that distinguished it from many of the other Khao San Road shops, which were open to the hot and heavy Bangkok air.
Now it was close to midnight, and the girls were sitting at a rattletrap table outside Lucky Beer, eating noodles and drinking Foster's Lager and trying to figure out how to get to Laos. "Hole mah han," the drunk repeated, and thrust his arm across the table. The three girls studied his arm, then shifted away from him. "Wow," one of the hairdresser's friends said. "He looks kind of...old." "Shut up," the man snapped. He yanked his arm back, wobbled to his feet, and then fell across the table, sending a saltshaker and a napkin dispenser to heaven. All the while, the girls kept talking about their schedule. It was as if the strangeness of where they were and what they were doing were absolutely ordinary: as if there were no large, smelly drunk sprawled in front of them, as if it were quite unexceptional to be three Scottish girls drinking Australian beer in Thailand on their way to Laos, and as if the world were the size of a peanut-something as compact as that, something that easy to pick up, shell, consume, as long as you were young and sturdy and brave. If you spend any time on Khao San Road, you will come to believe that this is true. Finally, the hairdresser glanced at the man, who had not moved. "Hello, sir?" she said, leaning toward his ear. "Hello? Can you hear me? Can I ask you something important? Do you remember where you're from?"
I went back to Lucky Beer the next night, but the Scottish girls were gone-off to Laos, most likely. At their table was a South African woman who taught English in Taiwan and was on her way back from massage school in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. The next night, she was gone, too, replaced by an American couple in their twenties who'd just finished a Peace Corps assignment in Lithuania and were taking the long way home; the night after that, it was five Israelis who had just finished their military service and were stalling in Southeast Asia before starting college in Tel Aviv. Khao San Road, one long packed block in Bangkok's Banglamphu neighborhood, was the jumping-off point for all of them, a sort of non-place they went to in order to leave from, so they could get to the place they really wanted to go. People appear on Khao San just long enough to disappear. It is, to quote the Khao San Road Business Association's motto, "Gateway to Southeast Asia," provided that you are travelling on the cheap and have a backpack fused to your shoulders. From here you can embark on Welcome Travel's escorted tour of Chiang Mai, which guarantees contact with four different hill tribes, or the Cheap and Smile Tour to Koh Samui, or a minibus trip to Phuket or Penang or Kota Baharu, or an overland journey by open-bed pickup truck to Phnom Penh or Saigon, or a trip via some rough conveyance to India or Indonesia or Nepal or Tibet or Myanmar or anywhere you can think of-or couldn't think of, probably, until you saw it named on a travel-agency kiosk on Khao San Road and decided that was the place you needed to see. Everything you need to stay afloat for months of travelling-tickets, visas, laundry, guidebooks, American movies, Internet access, phone service, luggage storage-is available on Khao San Road.
Thailand, the most pliant of places, has always accommodated even the rudest of visitors. For hundreds of years, it was the junction between Chinese, Burmese, Indian, Khmer, and Vietnamese traders. Many Americans first came to know Bangkok as the comfort lounge for troops in Vietnam, and, later, as the capital of sex tourism. Starting in the early eighties, when foreigners started trekking to such places as Myanmar and Tibet and Vietnam, Thailand took on another hostessing job, because Bangkok was the safest, easiest, most Westernized place from which to launch a trip through Asia. Until then, Khao San was an unremarkable working-class neighborhood. It had a large temple called Wat Chanasongkhran, a small Muslim enclave, bakeries, motorcycle shops, grocery stores, and a surprising number of residents who were employed as traditional Thai dancers. There were some hotels in the neighborhood, frequented by Thai businesspeople.
In 1985, Bonny and Anek Rakisaraseree noticed how many budget travellers-mostly young French and Australian men-were drifting around Bangkok, so they opened Bonny Guest House, the first on Khao San catering to foreign wanderers. Locals were not even permitted to rent rooms. Dozens of other guesthouses opened soon afterward, most with forbidding signs in the lobby saying "Not allow any Thais to go upstairs." Drugs were fantastically cheap and available and quietly tolerated, despite wishful signs saying "We do not welcome use or possession of heroin in guesthouse." More than a third of Thailand's seven million annual visitors are young, and undoubtedly many of them pass some time on Khao San. Some are Americans, but even more of them are from other countries: Australians having what they call their "o-s experience," their overseas experience, which begins in Sydney and ends six or eight months later with requisite "Rough Guide" and "Lonely Planet"-advised stops in Goa for Christmas and in Nepal for a winter trek and in Angkor Wat for sunrise; hordes of Israelis, fresh out of the Army-so many, in fact, that the best kosher food and the only Hebrew bookstore in Thailand are on Khao San Road. There are such large crowds of Japanese kids that a few guesthouses are de-facto Japanese only, and you can buy a logo T-shirt of any Japanese baseball team from the venders on the road. There are French and German and British and Canadians.
Altogether, they have turned Khao San into a new sort of place-not really Thai anymore, barely Asian, overwhelmingly young, palpably transient, and anchored in the world by the Internet, where there is no actual time and no actual location. Khao San has the best foreign bookstores in Thailand, thanks to the books that backpackers sell before heading home, and it probably has the fewest prostitutes in Bangkok, partly because the guesthouses frown on overnight Thai guests, and partly because, one backpacker explained to me, most of the travellers would rather have sex with each other than with someone for hire. Khao San is now the travel hub for half the world, a place that prospers on the desire to be someplace else. The cheapest tickets on the most hair-raising of airlines can be bought in the scores of bucket shops that have collected in the neighborhood. Airlines you've never heard of, flying routes you never imagined, for prices you only dream of are the staple of Khao San travel agencies. The first time I ever heard of Khao San Road was from an American backpacker whom I met on a Bhutanese airline flight from Calcutta to Bangkok. He'd bought his ticket on Khao San Road. "I told the travel agent I didn't care how or when I got there," he said. "As long as it was cheap, I was ready to go."
I have a persistent fantasy that involves Khao San. In it, a middle-aged middlebrow middle manager from Phoenix is deposited at the western end of the road, near the Chanasongkhran police booth. He is a shocking sight, dressed in a blue business suit and a red tie and a white Oxford shirt, carrying a Hartmann briefcase, and wearing a Timex. He wanders through the snarl of peddlers' carts and trinket booths. First, he discards his suit for batik drawstring trousers and a hemp vest and a Che Guevara T-shirt, or knock-off Timberland cargo shorts and a Japanimation tank top, and he sells his Timex to a guy with a s
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