Bangkok, Thailand: Iconic backpackers’ hub Khao San Road ‘dead’ after Covid, government clean-up

An iconic backpackers’ hub in Southeast Asia has been described as “dead” by a professional nomad, years after it was extensively rehabilitated by the local government.

Matt Kepnes, who goes by the name Nomadic Matt on social media, described Khao San Road in central Bangkok, Thailand as “probably the most famous backpacker area in the world”.

The 410-metre-long street in the Phra Nakhon district was once a bustling rice market but, in the past four decades, transformed into a world-famous travel hub sometimes called a “backpacker ghetto”.

It was touted as a vibrant must-see attraction in South East Asia, offering cheap hostels and hotels, souvenirs and bus journeys to other parts of the region.

“It was a place you’d travel through over and over again,” Kepnes explained.

“The place where you’d randomly run into people you saw two countries back. The touristy place you said you hated but secretly loved. Over the years, I made a lot of memories and friends here.”

But, he added: “Backpacker KSR (as it is called for short) is GONE.”

The Thai government has tried several times since 2018 to “clean up” Khao San Road, including by (unsuccessfully) banning street vendors and repaving it to be a pedestrian thoroughfare.

But, according to several prolific travel bloggers, the final blow came with Covid-19, when backpackers abandoned the area and, by some reports, haven’t come back in the same numbers.

“Coming back to Thailand, I booked a place on KSR to relive some glory days and to talk backpackers and find out what travel is like these days,” Kepnes said.

“And, while it’s still crowded, the area is now full of families (so many kids!), seniors, and tour groups. On weekends, you’ll find lots of Thais / expat kids parting here. The young backpackers are gone. The chill bars have been replaced but a string of loud clubs.

“There are still a few backpackers around and Soi Rambuttri still has that old KSR feel to it but, for all intents and purposes, the KSR of old is dead.”

Kepnes accompanied his lengthy review with a recent photo of the iconic thoroughfare, now home to a McDonald’s and a 7-Eleven.

It still appeared busy, though not bustling, and still seemed to attract a painfully stereotypical tourist decked out in a basketball jersey, board shorts and a Santa hat.

Kepnes said the fate of KSR was symbolic of Bangkok as a whole.

“I don’t know where the backpackers went,” he said.

“Friends say Bangkok is just a transit stop and no one stays here long. That’s sad if true. A lot of the new hostels are geared towards digital nomads, which is cool but it’s not the same.

“I wouldn’t suggest visiting KSR now. It’s so different from what it once was. The community and vibe are gone. (And it’s far from everything too!) Stay somewhere downtown near the subway and skip it.

“RIP Khao San Road. You will always have a place in my heart.”

Many people agreed with Kepnes’s assessment of the road but some said it mightn’t be such a negative thing.

“I have to agree but its not the end of the world for it, it’s just changing with time,” one person wrote.

“I’ve been going there since the ‘80s and was there last year and the difference is quite substantial. I was a little sad for the first few days but then I found new beginnings.”

“I visited KSR in my twenties and enjoyed it for all that it was. Your description of the changes makes me feel like I want to revisit now that I’m in my 50s and have a family,” added another.

A third said: “Sounds great to see lots of locals, seniors and kids there. Interacting with the people of the country is what travelling is about.”

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