Kaosan Road... the best place in the world to see 'unspoilt' backpacker culture

Kaosan Road... the best place in the world to see 'unspoilt' backpacker culture

…This particular trip to Laos has begun for me in Thailand.  The story I will be covering in a few days was filmed by a Human Planet crew a few weeks ago whilst I was in Mongolia, so I have taken this opportunity for independent travel by choosing to make my way to the destination in Laos overland from Bangkok and in the process treat myself to a little of one of my favourite pastimes… backpacking.

I’ve been backpacking on and off for over 20 years now and have to admit that I still get butterflies in my stomach at the mere thought of roaming around with a bag on my back.  For those of you who’ve done it yourselves, you will know exactly what I am talking about because once you have experienced that unique feeling, it never really leaves you… just hides away quietly, resurfacing from time to time throughout your life.

Bangkok has figured quite extensively in my travels over the last 2 decades… it’s just one of those places that is very easy to end up in.  On this occasion, as with every other time I find myself here, I am always sure to make my pilgrimage to the now infamous backpacker haunt, the Kaosan Road.

I’ve seen Kaosan change a fair bit over the years.  I think it was probably amidst the well worn pages of an early edition of Maureen and Tony Wheeler’s South East Asia on a Shoestring that I first heard of this particular  traveller hangout.  Back then, backpacking was something that relatively few people did and places like Kaosan Road were a vital meeting point for the exchange of information between travellers.  As with all major capital cities in South East Asia at that time, independent travellers could also count on them for the exciting opportunity to indulge in such rare pleasures as visiting a pharmacy, collecting their mail from Post Restante at the central post office, and swapping or selling some possessions (particularly books) before heading off again on the road less travelled.

Tonight somehow, I feel as if I have seen the life cycle of the Kaosan Road come full circle.   Earlier, I stood and watched a newly married Thai couple who had chosen to have their wedding photos taken in the middle of the street on Kaosan, formerly the site of a dusty rice market.

Now it seems that backpacker culture itself has become a bonafide tourist attraction.  Such a beautifully fantastic irony and one that I’m sure the Wheelers could never have predicted when they first began putting pen to paper writing the Yellow Bible back in the 70s.

8 Responses to “Backpacking”

  1. Timothy says:

    Margaret – When I was in Darjeeling a couple of years ago I found a tatty first edition of LP India on a guesthouse bookshelf and ended up spending about 2 days sat on a balcony leafing through its fascinating pages. All those lovely hand-drawn maps and brilliant advice on ‘hidden gems’ like Anjuna beach in Goa, which it described as very hard to find, with no where to stay, no where to eat, but well worth a look if you bring your own food and don’t mind sleeping on the beach! Also plenty of dubious information on where to go to purchase various illicit substances throughout India… something they appear to have omitted in the later editions!

    I’m very envious of your pre-1980 traveling. I was still at school then with little or no idea of what lay out there in the big wide world. The changes I’ve seen in the last 10 years alone are astonishing. It really is unbelievable how quickly things are changing on our planet these days.

    Angelique – I miss pre-email traveling that is for sure. A lot of the magical feelings I used to feel knowing that I was lost in an unfamiliar culture on the other side of the world are no longer there in this day and age, but I agree that change is good and inevitable and it just means that you must accept the new experience the way it is and appreciate the good in that. Mind you, saying that I’ve just had a brilliant two days in Bangkok on the way back from Laos, just hanging out on the street eating noodle soup and watching the monsoon pour down. It could have been 1990 for all I knew or cared!

    Thank you both for sharing your experiences.

  2. Angelique says:

    I loved it, what you wrote down. It is so true!
    The first time I went to Bangkok with my husband was in 1990. Travelling was so different, back then. No internet, a telephone call every 2/3 weeks.
    Exchanging info with other travellers, post-restante, changing traveller cheques. (which took for ever in India)
    In 2 weeks I will go to Thailand for the time with my husband en daughter, 7 years.
    And I think the changes are good and it is much easier to travel now.
    But I feel lucky to have experienced the other way.

  3. Margaret says:

    I bought my second hand copy of South-East Asia on a Shoestring from a book stall in Simla in 1978. It was the only reference book I had to get me from Bangkok to Singapore via Malaysia and Sumatra.My journey involved overnight buses,ferries and some hitch hiking-sometimes on my own.From this book I found places to stay ,sights to see and fellow travellers using the same yellow book. It was the source of all the info I needed!
    When I returned to South East Asia for a month’s holiday in 1982 clutching my yellow book-so much had changed in those 4 years that it was of little use to me.However I will always keep my tatty copy of this book for sentimental reasons and happy memories of travel in S.E.Asia.

  4. Timothy says:

    Yani, bad luck! It could happen to anyone. I hope it didn’t put you off Bangkok. Next time you are stuck for a place to stay, try heading down to the end of Rambutri… its at the eastern end of Kaosan Road, much quieter and less crowded – you can always find a nice room there with friendly people.

    Yes, I know Jalan Jaksa very well.. I lived in Indonesia for a couple of years when I was younger. In fact, in just over 4 weeks time I’ll be back in Eastern Indonesia for a ‘Human Planet’ shoot. I can’t wait… its been over 5 years since I’ve been to your lovely country.


  5. Yani says:

    Hi Timothy,

    I’ve been in Bangkok last week on my backpacking. Unfortunatelly all guesthouses recommended by the Yellow Bible are full 🙁 so I moved to Little Arabia ;).
    The 2nd unfortunate is that my husband n I trapped in a scam mafia. Beware of tuk tuk that offering you 20 Baht/hour!

    However we really enjoyed staying in Thailand for several days, especially in Krabi n Phi Phi island!

    Jakarta, Indonesia

    ps: The Kaosan road of Jakarta is jalan Jaksa (Jaksa street) 🙂

  6. Diego says:


    Woohoo that’s fantastic to hear! Can’t wait!


  7. Timothy says:

    Hi Diego,

    I’ve never been to the Philippines before, but we will be traveling there in a few months time to shoot one story for the ‘Oceans’ program of ‘Human Planet’, so keep your eye on the blog and I’ll post some pictures when I get some.


  8. Diego says:

    I hope to visit Bangkok for the first time sometime this year. What a cool idea on the wedding photos 🙂

    I’m wondering though, have you ever been to the Philippines? It would be great to see your vision of our country in 2 dimensions.

    Regards from the Philippines,

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