Memories from Khao San Road

Gained a few new friends yesterday during a culinary safari led by buddy and colleague Thomas Engström. We ended up in the Banglamphu area where we ate at a small vegetarian restaurant tucked away in an alley a few hundred meters from Khao San Road.

In the 1980s, Khao San was a meeting place for backpackers  from all over the world. I’m sure it still is. You’d meet there, stay a few nights, enjoy some good, cheap meals and then move on to Bali, Samui, Goa, Chiang Rai or the mysterious Myanmar. It was a carefree, free-wheeling period of my life, signified by casual socializing, superficial friendships and laconic romances.

I’ve spent many hours along Khao San Road. And I’ve slept at a half dozen sketchy places on that short stub of a street. You could pay as little as 50 baht per night for a small room on one of the guest houses’ dimly lit floors. A guest house staffer would unethusiasticaly show you to a room with a small bed, a ceiling fan, wafer thin walls and a generic padlock to lock your door. Showers and bathrooms were shared and everthhing was wet, dirty, noisy and uncomfortable, but I loved it. Each guest house had a restaurant on the ground floor with cheap, decent food and most places would be packed during the evening when a couple of popular pirated films were shown back to back at 7 pm and 9 pm. on a large TV or projector screen.

It was such a stripped down existens and one that I could afford to live for a half a year or so after working a summer unloading gazillion banana boxes from rusty old ships in Gothenburg’s harbor.

Along both sides of Khao San Road were several shops specializing in cassette tapes with pirated music. Except for the usual comical misspellings, tape labels looked like the real deal and sounded pretty good, too. At least for the heaadphones connected to my beat up old Sony Walkman

This was a couple of years before the compact disc went mainstream.

Side note: According Wikipeida, The first commercial compact disc was produced on 17 August 1982. It was »The Visitors« by ABBA. The first 50 titles were released in Japan on October 1, 1982, the very first of which was a rerelease of the Billy Joel album 52nd Street.

Most Khao San cassette shops had a wide selection and I usually found some of the music I liked back then (and I still listen to, at least from time to time). Taking long bus and train rides and drowning out noise from a neighbors room in a guesthouse was easier while listening to greatest hits and mixtapes with jazz favorites, which included, Dave Grusin, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Stan Getz. I want to recall that back then a tape cost about 100 baht, or so. I usually carried about ten in my backpack and must of spent a small fortune on batteries.

After my very first trip to South East Asia, I started staying at a guest house a few klicks north of Banglamphu at the C & C Guest House first location in a temple neighborhood that I can’t remember the name of. At some point, I’d invested in a couple of small speakers that I could connect to my Walkman’s headphone jack. The sound must of been horrific.

Fast forward to 2018 and I’m laying in a nice Bangkok hotel, listening to a playlist on my iPhone with ambient electronica (chillout grooves) from Apple Music (yup, I’m one of the few folks I know of not on Spotify). Same, same. But different.

The scenes from Khao San Road in Danny Boyle’s film »The Beach« with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton, offers a fair depiction of Khao San Road back in the day.