I came to Bangkok for the first time with my family when I was 15 years old. Like any typical Asian family travel, we joined a tour. We were bused from sites to sights, and the only thing I remember was getting sick from the boat ride to Pattaya.
I had never heard of Khaosan Road and backpacking was a notion I associated with young Caucasians on their gap year. My only understanding of it was what I saw on Discovery Channel.
Khaosan Road is a street in the centre of Bangkok. The tourism boom in Thailand more than 20 years ago has turned this once quiet and residential neighbourhood into the “backpacker’s Mecca”. It offers everything for the convenience of backpackers; dirt cheap accommodation, cheap alcohols, travel agencies to sort out all your traveling needs, fake IDs, etc.
Fifteen years after that trip to Bangkok, I started my backpacking life. In the 12 years since my first backpacking trip I have been to many versions of Khaosan Road in other countries; Taganga in Colombia; Dahab in Egypt; etc. But I had never been to THE Khaosan Road.
Until April this year.
The Khaosan Road in my head was a place full of characters; of hippies mingling with locals; of youngsters with various sizes of backpacks roaming the street; of seedy back lanes and cheap eats. It’s a beautiful mental picture of organised chaos.
But to my surprise, it’s quite a clean, wide, and organized street full of shops and stalls. Big sign boards compete with yelling vendors for your attention. Fast food chains and pseudo western restaurants vie for your Thai Baht.
As I wandered around I saw stalls selling identical goods; Chang beer t-shirt, Thai fisherman’s pants, etc. Tour agencies offering services that are carbon copy of each other. Tuk-tuk drivers congregated at both ends of the street waiting to take wide-eyed visitors to see golden Buddhas and floating markets.
But the backpackers that roamed this street aren’t exclusively Western gap year youngsters, or hippies. They were a mixed of Western backpackers, Asian backpackers, older travelers, flashpackers, tourists, and people on a short getaway, etc.
The backpacking culture has changed.
According to Wikipedia “backpacking is perceived as being more than a holiday, but a means of education. Backpackers want to experience the “real” destination rather than the packaged version often associated with mass tourism.”
With an unprecedented boom in the global tourism industry, the backpacking culture has become mainstream.
When I first started backpacking, over a decade ago, most of the backpackers I met were interested in local culture and having authentic experiences of the places they went.
The lack of gadgets and internet helped us to connect more and made us more helpful to each other; you couldn’t book a hostel in Pai, Thailand on hostelworld, or google transport information for La Guajira, Colombia. We were the lonelyplanet and tripadvisor to each other.
There was a sense of community and fellowship among the backpackers that are gravely missing in today’s backpacking culture.
Most backpackers nowadays are more interested in face-timing with their family and friends back home, and playing a few rounds of pong beers with new friends than seeking out interactions with the locals.
I’m sure there are backpackers who are interested in having an authentic local experience. But their numbers are so small to be indiscernible among the onslaught of mass tourism.
I spent roughly an hour or so in Khaosan Road, had lunch and wandered around. I felt lost. Not physically lost, I couldn’t find myself in the midst of what I thought was the backpacker’s mecca. I had thought that I would feel at home here.
But on the contrary.
I didn’t identify with the young people smoking shishas in a cafe, nor those sitting in a travel agency to arrange their travel itinerary. I also didn’t see myself in the obnoxiously loud group of youngsters drinking beers at 3pm, nor those that had just woke up after a long night of partying.
I neither liked nor disliked this backpacker’s ghetto. To some extend, I was disappointed that the place didn’t stir any stronger emotions in me; be it resonance or disgust. Because I’m indifferent to it, I will soon forget about it. This is worse than disliking it.
I guess, to me, Khaosan Road had represented what backpacking was to me. An idealistic notion of soul-searching journey, of beautiful spontaneous friendships, of authentic and local experiences. But the backpacking culture has evolved.
So it’s time to let go of my utopian idea of Khaosan Road. That is, I need to let go of the romantic idea of backpacking is to experience the “real” destination.
In this day and age of bucket lists and selfies, I feel like a dinosaur on the verge of extinction. Or maybe I’m just too old fashion for the new packaged ideas of backpacking.