It’s approaching midnight fast, and the immigration lines in Suvarnabhumi Airport are long. Walking through the modern, sprawling airport, I remind myself not to touch anything in the Duty Free stores, thanks to a Gadling article that I read a few weeks prior to my trip.
The immigration official examines my passport. “First time to Thailand?” he asks. I nod my head. He points a small, futuristic Logitech camera in my direction, presses a key on his keyboard and waves me through. I skip baggage claim. All I’ve brought is a backpack, a camera, and a sense of adventure – my ideal vacation.
Once outside the airport, I scan the sidewalk for the signs advertising the A2 Airport Express – which I had been told would take me to a place called Khao San Road. Everybody recommended the area. “It’s really the only place you want to stay in Bangkok”, friends had told me.
I find the bus at the last minute, pay my 150 baht and find an empty seat among a few young people that look well-traveled. I settle in to the large seat and stare out the window as the bus merges on to a large, elevated highway. The cleanliness and engineering quality of the highway takes me by surprise. I had heard that Thailand was a developing country, but the bright LED lights that adorn the skyscrapers seem to suggest that Thailand is a little more prosperous than the other developing countries I’ve been to. But then again, the view from the highway can be deceiving.
After 45 minutes of driving through the expansive city, the bus rumbles to a stop at the end of a busy street in the Banglamphu neighborhood. I step out of the bus and am immediately overwhelmed with the amount of activity buzzing at this hour on a weeknight. Hundreds of people are milling around one long street that’s lined with neon signs and advertisements for hostels, bars, and restaurants. Vendors peddle goods out of small road side stalls and mobile carts: t-shirts, hats, pirated DVD’s, fake driver’s licenses, jewelry, souvenirs, falafel, pizza, beer, pad thai, even fried insects – crickets, beetles and worms are all available for purchase.
A boom of tourism in the 1980’s gradually made the area known as a place for cheap accommodation with easy access to the Grand Palace and temples that are popular with tourists. Now it’s a destination in its own right, touted as “The Gateway to Southeast Asia”.
The first few hostels I wander into are fully booked, but there’s a seemingly unlimited number of options in the area, and I’m able to find a basic room with a fan, a bed, and not much else. I set my bags down and head outside to explore the rest of the scene. Every type of traveler imaginable is represented. The street is full of dreadlocks, tattoos, Havaianas sandals and oversized backpacks. New arrivals look lost and overwhelmed. They blearily rub their eyes while thumbing through guidebooks in search of a place to sleep.
Taxi & tuk tuk drivers are everywhere, discreetly offering passengers rides to ping-pong shows or late night clubs. As the night gets later, they all seem to be offering rides to the same place – a late night club called “Spicy”, which apparently pays taxi drivers commission to wrangle tourists to the club with a cheap fare, so they can command an exorbitant cover charge upon arrival. I wander down the road frequently stopping to chat with welcoming groups of people sitting on the curb of the road. They sip large bottles of local brews – Chang or Singha – and swap stories of their recent adventures of tubing in Laos, trekking in Chiang Mai, or diving off Ko Phi Phi.
An especially engaging American tells me about a 3 month motorcycle trip he just finished. He bought a Russian Minsk in Hanoi for $400 USD and rode with a friend through the north of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, eventually selling the motorcycle for nearly the same price when they had reached their destination. The following month he plans on riding a bicycle through India & the Himalayas.
Patrons of the sidewalk bars are momentarily interrupted from conversation by a young Thai girl that begs them to buy roses so that she can go home for the night. She can’t be older than 8 years, but is already an expert saleswoman – offering to place bets on a game of thumb-war when the roses are declined. A few moments later, an old woman with a bag full of cheap Thai souvenirs comes and places a funny hat on a tourist. Everyone laughs and takes pictures, but no transactions take place and the woman moves on down the road.
I’m completely taken in by the stories, the laughter, and the energy of the place. It’s a paradise for backpackers with a passion for meeting new people and making spontaneous travel plans with new friends.
Things begin to quiet down around 2.30 in the morning, and I decide to call it a night. Several people around me have made plans to go to the full moon party – and we exchange phone numbers, promising to find each other when we get to Ko Phan Ngan. If that plan fails, then we agree to track one another down on Facebook so we can be best friends for the rest of our lives…