The Khao Sahn Road gets into your bloodstream faster than slamming high-octane tequila shots in quick succession. And unlike tequila, your liver doesn’t filter it out the next day. Once you’ve experienced the Khao Sahn Road it will stay with your forever, embedding itself in your psyche the same way the stickiness of Thailand’s steamiest city infiltrates your body’s every pore.
The Khao Sahn Road in the most alive place I have ever been, and as addicting as heroin. It only takes a drop to hook you.
L and I arrive on a sweltering afternoon in early February, straight from chilly antiseptic Hong Kong into Bankok’s chaos. At first the Khao Sahn is overwhelming. An endless mumble-jumble of colors, smells and sounds. This one tiny road in the heart of Bangkok is the holy-land for backpackers, or at least a jumping off to some place better. A melange of vegetarian pad-thai noodle stands and vendors selling everything your heart could ever desire – sarongs, shoes, knock-off Oakleys, big amber rings, dubbed CDs, used books. Even love is for sale, or at least it’s illusion – twenty minutes in a dirty bed with a fourteen-year-old hooker. Crowded in among the stalls are endless rows of dirt cheap guesthouses, bars, restaurants, visa shops and travel agents selling adventures as far away as Paris or as close as Koh Samui. Hundreds upon hundreds of backpackers descend upon this street on a daily basis all year long. Some are dirty, others deeply tanned. They dress like ravers or hippies or preppies, and share the street with tuk-tuks and taxi-cabs and mini buses. This is a street for travelers, not tourists. There are no tourist class hotels here, no graying middle-aged last hurray vacationers, no screaming babies. The street is a living legend, and anyone who calls herself a backpacker on the Asia trail will at some point end up on this tiny, yet totally self-sustainable, stretch of pavement.
You can tell the new arrivals from those who’ve been “in-country” for a while. The new people are cleaner, they’re paler, better dressed. Their eyes still dart around in either terror or awe. They haven’t mastered how to gulp a big brown bottle of Singha fast enough that it doesn’t melt. They don’t have the laid-back beach lingo that lifers adopt after a few weeks, or months, or years playing in heaven down south.
You could spend weeks on the Khao Sahn Road and not even realize any time had gone by. Entire days passed shopping at the stalls, drinking beer and eating heaping plates of noodles for .25 cents. When I arrived, there was a rumor floating around that there’s a man whose been living on the Road for the last 20 years. The man’s nationality changes every time the story is told, sometimes he’s Swedish, other times American, but the heart of the tale stays the same. The guy’s visa ran out, and he couldn’t get out of Thailand without paying thousands upon thousands of bahts in fines, so he just stayed. One year a bunch of travelers pooled their money and, as the legend goes, gave the guy enough dough to pay the fines and get out, but instead of leaving he took the whole street out drinking. Of course no one ever meets this guy, but on the Khao Sahn Road getting sucked in isn’t a question of “if.” It’s inevitable.
L and I let the Khao Sahn Road seep under our skin that first night at a sidewalk bar squeezed between t-shirt and CD stalls. To the left leggy girls in dirty white tank-tops and skimpy sundresses leaf through endless booklets of bootlegged CDs, writing labels down on scraps of paper. To the right a group of stoned boys check out gray T-shirts with names of Thai beers scrawled across the front in an alphabet made up of symbols. The backpackers are out in droves, filling the sidewalk bars, pouring beer down their throats, and cramming thin brown noodles into their mouths with skinny wooden sticks. The food here is as spicy as the air.
The air is thick with heat, the green plastic chairs we sit in stick to our legs, already slick with sweat. I’m wearing as few clothes as possible, have only been outside for 20 minutes and already I’m dripping. It’s exhilarating though, maybe they put something in the air here, because it’s bristling with energy and anticipation of the night to come.
This is a street where anything goes. We’ve only been sipping our Singhas for 10 minutes when two Canadian boys sit down in the empty chairs at our table. Privacy doesn’t exist here, not in the paper-thin walls of the guesthouses nor at the cramped restaurant tables.
I peel the label off my beer. The booze is sweating so heavily it slides right off, and I pocket the slick rectangular paper for my journal. I’ve decided to collect beer labels on this trip, one per country. In the middle of the street a dread-locked couple is locking lips. I can see the girl’s nipples through her shirt. The guy looks drunk. But who isn’t here? If you’re not drunk on booze, your drunk on the languid air, so thick it wraps around you like a blanket.
“I’m S,” says a good-looking boy with shaggy blonde hair and deep brown eyes now sitting to my right. He extends his hand. Months later, back in Colorado, a friend will flip through my photo-album and tell me Scott looks exactly like one of the Backstreet Boys.
S points to his friend.
“This is J. We’re from Canada.”
“Really?” L says. “I can never tell the difference between Canadian and American accents.
The four of us make travelers small talk, standard questions. Where are you going, where have you been, for how long? The boys are messing around Asia for three or four months then heading to Australia to work for the rest of the year. They have a third friend with him.
“But he met some Swiss chick earlier,” Scott says. “I think they’re hooking up. I just hope we find him because he doesn’t have a key to the room.”
Everyone is hooking up here. On the street the dread-locked couple looks like they’re about to drop drawers right there and have sex in the middle of the asphalt. I doubt anyone would care. As I said, on the Khao Sahn Road, just about anything goes.
It doesn’t take long for the lively group one table over to order a plate full of bugs.
“No fucking way,” John says.
“Gross,” L chimes in, draining her beer and signaling the waiter over for another.
“I’ve eaten bugs before,” I say. “They’re a delicacy in Africa.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t eat the bug voluntarily,” L says. “You said it would have been rude to refuse the ants.”
“It would have,” I say, and pick at the edge of the checkered cloth that covers the grimy plastic table. “But that’s besides the point, I still gobbled them down.”
S is staring at a beefy guy shoveling some type of crispy critters down his throat. They look sort-of like beetles or roaches.
“I’d eat one,” he says.
“Well go get one boy, what are you waiting for?” I taunt.
S returns a minute later, a very dead, very crispy bug in one hand. The bug’s species is still a mystery to me, and will remain so to this day, because before I even have time to snap the lens off my camera, S has popped the bug into his mouth and swallowed it whole. He chases it with his beer.
“Not bad,” he says. “Not bad at all.”
The bugs are only the beginning of the night.
From bugs and beer we move onto nightclubs. We find the hip-hop club after a Thai man hands us a white paper flyer. Inside it’s dark and smoky. We sit at a table in the back and listen to a South African DJ spin American hits. S and J tell us about their forays into Patpong – Bangkok’s sex district.
“It was nasty really,” S says. “All these girls just giving it away for practically nothing. I’m sure they all had AIDS.”
J isn’t so disgruntled. He talks about lap-dances until some other travelers join us and S brings back another round of beers.
The other travelers are an Australian couple. They’re going around-the-world too. They ask about our route.
“You’re doing all that in two months?” the guy looks shocked.
“It’s really more like two-and-a-half,” L says.
“We might extend it,” I say, embarrassed. Cool backpackers do the world in a year. We must seem like wimps. Like we’re scared to stay away from home too long.
“You’ve got to leave three months, at least, for Asia,” the guy says. “Otherwise you only hit the shit holes like this road. This isn’t Asia. You’ve got to go deep man. Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam.”
“We’re going to do Vietnam,” I say. We’re not sure if we are, but it sounds good.
“North or South?”
“North,” L says confidently, like she knows the merits of both.
“Good choice,” the girl says.
And that’s the extent of our conversation, because an older white guy with stringy hair and a baseball cap has collapsed just a few feet away. He looks like he’s having some kind of a seizure. His arms are flailing all over the place, and his eyes are rolling back in his head.
The Australian guy jumps up. I’m tipsy and praying someone in here other than me has some kind of medical training, because I don’t think I can deal with another plane incident right now.
It’s over in just moments. The DJs is still spinning Will Smith. People are still dancing, and the Australian guy and a group of others are half carrying, half dragging the guy out the back door of the club.
“You’ve got to get them out before the police show up,” he says when he returns. “Not good for business.”
“What the hell was wrong with him?” I ask.
“Drug overdose, I suspect,” The Australian says. “Probably heroin.”
My opinions are cemented — just about anything can, and does, happen if you spend a few hours on the Khao Sahn Road.