For those of you who were here in younger years, lugging around a heavy backpack covered in travel dust, wandering up and down the busy road in search of a decent guesthouse, a place to rest for a couple days, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
For those of you who haven’t been here but might remember the beginning of DiCaprio’s film “The Beach”, you’ve got a little insight. A little glimpse as to what it looked like on the famous Khao San Road back when a tiny, dirty room with a tired bed, a plastic bedside table, and a creaky folding chair cost as little as $3 per night. After checking in, you’d receive a key to a rusty padlock so you could “secure” the room’s cardboard-thin door. A bowl of steaming hot banana porridge or banana pancakes for breakfast were included in the rate. Coffee, juice, or a frothy coconut milkshake cost a little extra.
Because of how easily rooms were broken into, passports were always stored in the reception’s “safe” and only taken out when it was time to cash in a traveler’s check at one of Khao San’s two small bank offices.
In the autumn of 1988, when I walked along Khao San Road for the very first time, the street was dominated by guesthouses, a dozen tiny travel agencies, a few tailor shops, and countless rows of rickety stalls filled with trinkets and hippie apparel.
Stopping by “Khao San” for a layover before the next adventure often meant running into folks you’d met before; on one of the southern islands, maybe during a wild, nightlong beach party in Bali, on a street in Singapore, or outside the Thai consulate in Penang during a “visa run”.
Most of us were on our way somewhere, but there was almost always time to share a meal and bid bon voyage with a gleeful toast from a foamy bottle of Singha, Kloster, or Foster.
Every guesthouse on Khao San had a restaurant on the ground floor where Hollywood movies were shown in the evenings, one at 7pm, another at 9pm sharp.
Oftentimes, rather sizable groups gathered in front of the restaurant’s 32-inch fat screen TV to watch an action flick like “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis, “Lethal Weapon” with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, and “Above the Law” with debutant Steven Seagal.
I had unloaded thousands of banana crates at the port of Gothenburg all summer long and brought a thick stack of traveler’s checks (American Express) with me to Southeast Asia. But it turned out to be quite the challenge to spend my money when a pad thai with tofu cost only 20 baht ($1) and fried rice with chicken, vegetables, and cashews just a bit more.
I remember how a small Singha cost 25 baht and that the infamous Khao San Party Pack, a small bottle of Mekong, three small Coca-Colas, an ice-filled tin bucket, and some straws, going for 100 baht ($4). For an extra 5 baht, you got a tiny bottle of what would later become known as Redbull. All the liquids were then unceremoniously poured into the bucket, stirred, and straws were handed out. Party time.
Letters and packages were sent and received at the main post office a few streets south of Khao San Road, and that’s where I also made collect calls to Sweden or to the US.
When I walked along Khao San Road earlier tonight, roughly 35 years after that very first time, I felt swept up by a little nostalgic melancholy.
It wasn’t the chaotic hustle and bustle, or the cacophony of sounds I missed. It wasn’t the nagging pitches from the road’s persistent tailors, the piles of cheap, pirated cassette tapes, or the scent of charcoal-grilled chicken-on-sticks that I longed for. It was the era I missed. Being 25 and having so much life ahead of me. Knowing that I had more amazing sunsets to look forward to than were already behind me.
Before we headed to the subway for our journey back to the hotel, Charlotte and I ate dinner at the classic Buddy Beer (which is now a large hotel and restaurant corporation). Khao San Road seemed deserted. Perhaps because it was still so early in the evening, But maybe it was because the world has changed so much after the pandemic.
When our kind waiter asked if I I was “finnish” with the meal, I skipped my stock response, no, I’m actually Swedish American. It just didn’t feel right tonight. Then came the monsoon rain. But we made it home dry and just a little bit older.