On the road
I first went backpacking in 1989. The Berlin Wall was about to crumble, Margaret Thatcher seemed invincible and Nelson Mandela was confined to a tiny cell.
I'm in a tiny cell, now, although, in fairness, I have chosen to be. I'm spending 24 hours in the Bangkok neighbourhood where my infatuation with travel began. My room has bars on the windows, a tatty mattress and the heady aroma of marijuana mixed with mosquito coils. I don't need to stay in such a shabby guesthouse but nostalgia can make you do odd things.
A sign in the lobby promises free hot water, which elevates my lodgings to mid-range in this corner of the Thai capital. Another sign warns that 'guests will be responsible for all kinds of damage'. The establishment hasn't made it into Lonely Planet's current Thailand edition.
For almost 30 years, Khao San ('milled rice') Road has served as transit lounge and decompression chamber for a never-ending procession of mainly young globetrotters. It first appeared in guidebooks more than a quarter of a century ago, thanks to its proximity to Rattanakosin, Bangkok's historic district. Word of mouth spread and the 400-metre thoroughfare evolved into a backpacker's bottleneck that reinvents itself more often than Madonna.
Keen to escape my claustrophobic cubicle, I venture into the mayhem, neatly sidestepping a Sikh fortune-teller ('I sense a long journey, sir') and numerous Myanmese refugees touting tailoring solutions. The smell of hot cooking oil mingles with tuk-tuk fumes and the stench of canal water. Hawkers holler, mopeds fart past and dance music thumps out of rock-concert-sized speakers.
Khao San Road is a pit stop for backpackers in need of logistical support, a spot of pampering and some R&R before the next foray along the banana-pancake trail. Its travel agents organise visas while photo labs burn your digital snaps onto disc. Laundries do what they can with a backpack full of filthy clothes, leaving owners free to top up their henna tattoos and get a 2,000-kilometre service on their hair braids. E-mails are sent; phone calls are made ('send more cash please, mum') and bars show the latest movies around the clock. If you can't find what you 'need' on The Road, then you probably don't need it.
An inevitable legacy of playing host to a generation of skinflints is a fixation with prices that borders on obsession. The going rate for anything travel-related is always prominently displayed. Rooms, 150 baht (HK$40); bus to Chiang Mai, 400 baht; laundry, 30 baht per kilo. You can surf the internet for 30 baht an hour and slurp Thai noodles from a street cart for 25 baht. Eak's Parlour is offering a 20 per cent discount on lip tattoos, though it might be a while before you're able to return all those Thai smiles.
Backpackers have long been the target of ridi- cule, and not only because of their notoriously shallow pockets. The almost identical guidebook-dictated migratory patterns seem at odds with the travellers' mantra of being independent. William Sutcliffe, who took a humorous swipe at gap-year students in his 1998 novel Are You Experienced?, agrees: 'Backpacking through Asia has gradually transformed itself from an act of rebellion into an act of conformity.'
At Mulligans Irish Bar, I fall into conversation with Mike 'from the States'. He looks every inch the veteran traveller: facial piercings, ethnic garb and dreadlocked hair. I ask him how long he'll be on the road for.
'Could be months; could be years,' he replies enigmatically. Mike is only 22 but already on his third tour of Asia. This experience confers status in the hierarchy of The Road and moves him up the backpackers' pecking order.
A tour group marches past our table and Mike bristles with irritation. If there's one thing penny-pinching travellers reserve their venom for, it's well-heeled tourists. But surely backpackers are just mainstream tourists who spend less? Mike ponders my question, bites into a slice of pizza and takes a swig of Guinness.
'Backpackers travel to learn about local culture,' he explains.
It's surprisingly easy to escape the tie-dyed throng for another, saner world. A block away, on Tanee Road, locals shop for Buddhist paraphernalia, bridal gowns and household bric-a- brac. Nearby, two photogenic temples, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara and Wat Chana Songkram, provide serene respite from the Khao San chaos. The monks don't mind posing for photographs, as long as you e-mail them a copy.
The revolution in communication technology is a blessing for budget travellers as well as Buddhists. Internet and e-mail have replaced guesthouse notice boards as means of gathering travel intelligence. Khao San Road itself is subject to more online attention - adulation even - than ever before. Besides a Facebook and Wikipedia presence, there's a dedi- cated YouTube page. On Google Scholar, academics ponder The Road's role in the evolution of the international soap dodger.
There can't be many police stations with their own Facebook page but the Chana Songkram Tourist Police take their law-enforcement duties seriously. So, is Thailand's most famous street a sordid hotbed of crime?
'The biggest problem is theft on overnight buses,' says Captain Kritsna Yongjiranont. It's a sting that's been around for years. A thief stows away in the luggage hold and has all night to rummage through the rucksacks. The police chief is keen to stress that, most days, his officers deal with nothing more hazardous than inebriated youngsters.
'It's quiet here, compared with Patpong and Soi Cowboy,' he says. At 6pm, The Road closes to traffic. Cafes position chairs and tables to optimise people-watching possibilities and vendors arrange clothes rails so no one can get past. English Premier League football plays out on giant screens and Akha tribeswomen in full costume peddle trinkets to anyone who doesn't look away quickly enough.
Luke and Katie, a couple of guidebook huggers from Britain, are on their first Asian tour. Both have a youthful glow, though that could be alcohol - or possibly anger.
'Our hill tribe trek was a rip off. The villagers all had mobile phones and TVs,' Katie grumbles. 'We're away to Vietnam tomorrow. Our friends say we should get there before it changes as well.'
Ah, change. The reason I've returned after so many years. Has Khao San Road changed much since I first visited as a wide-eyed teenager?
You bet, although probably no more or less than any other shopping street on the planet. The retail mix is tweaked every so often to reflect global trends but, fundamentally, The Road still offers what it has since 1989. If anything, back- packers have changed far more than the places they gravitate towards.
It's 4am and The Road is as quiet as it ever gets. Stray dogs outnumber ladyboys, who outnumber boozy backpackers. I head back to my cubbyhole to collect my bags. I can't face actually sleeping in the grubby room but it worked out cheaper than the left-luggage office at Bangkok airport. With the money I saved, I might come back for that lip tattoo.