Khao San Road
Khao San Road is regarded as backpackers’ central in Bangkok. It’s been described by many as epitomizing East-meets-West, with its budget hostels, second-hand bookstores fast food restaurants, roadside bars, flea market stalls and roving food carts. The crowd counts as many, if not more tourists than locals. It’s a melting pot of cultures and races, making it a must-visit destination.
The best time to visit is after dark, when the neon lights come on and the food carts come out. It’s a beautiful, bustling scene of controlled chaos. People are everywhere, so many things are going on, but the atmosphere is friendly and the vibe is (mostly) wholesome fun. Everyone speaks a respectable amount of conversational English, so there’s no problem communicating, even with the hawkers and vendors.
There are fly-by-night makeshift roadside bars everywhere selling ice-cold local beers (80 Baht for 330 ml, 100 baht for 500 ml) and cheap cocktails “by the bucket”. It’s interesting to see that Thailand also has a “bucket culture” when it comes to drinking. Unlike the Philippines though, they enjoy their buckets of mixed drinks and not beer. Each bar had their own unique come-on signs lauding the alcoholic content of their booze, but the one above was the best one I saw: all the bars had strong cocktails all the same, but theirs was supposedly better. I didn’t bother to try, as I’ve sworn off cheap cocktails for the longest time.
There even is the occasional street performer, like this breakdancer who was taking turns b-boying with his crew. Discreet agents of the infamous ping pong shows make their rounds among the gathered crowd, showing a “menu” of tricks and/or performances. It is advisable not to indulge them, as they are known to overcharge and scam the overeager and horny (or just curious) tourist.
Of course, the street food here is pretty good. I stayed away from the Pad Thai after two days of eating it, paying attention to the caveat that the noodles in Khao San were geared more toward visiting palates. The first food cart to draw my attention boasted this beautiful selection of grilled fresh mushrooms. It had everything from shiitake to enoki wrapped in bunches, to fat mushroom stems and thick golden mushrooms (like enoki on steroids) which I wasn’t familiar with. For a mere 15 Baht, one could get a stick of their choice, grilled in front of you and doused with some chili and garlic-spiced vinegar. The mushrooms were so fresh that they burst in your mouth and their subtly earthy flavors were accented beautifully by the hot and spicy vinegar.
Another attraction was this lady who made roti, twisting and kneading the dough to order. Folded on bananas and some condensed milk, this was pretty much a crepe, as well. I haven’t really encountered stuffed roti before, so unless I’m mistaken, this may be another example of Khao San’s East meets West spirit.
Another cart grilled chicken parts. The Philippines is also known for eating the entire chicken, and Thailand was no different. Since I could get most of the items being offered back home, I just went with a stick of chicken hearts, which I actually had yet to taste. It has a bit of that iron-y bitterness of overcooked chicken liver but it was juicy, not chalky. It definitely holds its own among the classics of chicken offal such as intestines, feet, liver and gizzard.
There were probably a dozen kebab carts selling chicken wraps. In the Philippines, these spit-roasted meats would be more specifically referred to as shawarma because of the greater Persian influence, while kebabs generally refer to skewer-grilled meats. Of course, the Turkish doner kebab is more in line with the former. Having grown up enjoying this variety of Middle-Eastern food, I found this pretty disappointing. The chicken was bland and the sauces tame. Again, this may be the result of Westernizing the food, but then again, the lady hawking the stuff looked more Chinese than Middle-Eastern to me. What I appreciated the most, though was the generous helping of fresh vegetables that went into the kebab, which is a rarity in Filipino-made shawarma.
After walking around a bit, we decided to sit down at one of the street bars. This one was being manned by an Indian-looking fellow. I ordered a bottle of Leo, which apparently was also produced by Boon Rawd, the same brewery behind Singha. While Singha was an all-malt lager, it turned out that Leo was their lower-end adjunct offering, which I did not know at the time. The taste was literally forgettable, and drowned by all the amazing food, the highlight of which were of course:
Crispy bugs, overpriced perhaps at around 60 Baht for a bag of the tinier critters to 100 Baht for a serving of the more shriek-inducing ones. These were simply seasoned with salt and white pepper, but I also enjoyed dipping them into some of the leftover vinegar from the grilled mushrooms. While walking around, I decided to start with some bamboo worms, which were around an inch long and a couple of millimeters thick, as well as some crickets. These were excellent, especially when paired with the local Sigha. This was something I’d eat instead of potato chips. There was nothing offensive at all with their taste aside – in fact, I’d say they were over-seasoned salt.
I decided to get some more, from another cart selling the same items. This time I went with a mix of grasshoppers and small frogs. The grasshoppers were had a slightly acrid bitter taste that made them not as enjoyable. The frogs, on the other hand, were excellent munchies. The legs were crisp; the meat was substantial and filling. I went back for seconds. To the horror of an Israeli family, I also ordered a small scorpion, priced at 100 Baht. The stinger was removed of course. I have a love of eating fried prawn and shrimp shells, especially the tail and the head. That probably be the closest comparison of what fried scorpion tastes like. The pincers were my favorite part.
Once we had sat down, there were hawkers who walked by selling the same scorpions on a stick. This scorpion lady in particular was friendly, spoke good English and was quite game to pose for photos. Plus, she sold me another scorpion for only 50 Baht, half the price of what the food carts sold them for. Again, onlookers were aghast as I raised the arachnid to my mouth. This time it was an Austrian couple that we later ended up talking to for a good part of the evening.
I loved Khao San, not just for the food and for its festive atmosphere, but also for the people. Everyone you bump into is a new friend, and it’s never off-putting or rude to strike up a conversation with a stranger. I even ended up in a short conversation with a German college student who was traveling alone while I was walking to the men’s room.
I guess it’s a bit weird, but nevertheless fun, and you get to learn a little bit more about the world, and maybe even about yourself. I think that’s Thanon Khao San in a nutshell, for me.