Friday, December 22, 2006

Khao San

The Khao San of Bangkok is the epicenter of backpacker culture in Southeast Asia, a neon gateway between hemispheres. For arrivals fresh from the airport and foggy-minded with jet-lag, that first hesitant walk under the unfamiliar weight of a pack is an initiation, an onslaught of weirdness and possibility. To veterans, like the dreadlocked Kiwi who escaped Phnom Penh in the trunk of a taxi and walked for three days from the Cambodian border to reach Bangkok in time to catch his Christmas flight to Auckland, Khao San is a re-entry portal, one last stop on a long trip home.

Khao San is a place that transcends the very idea of authenticity. The road is a tourist trap grown to the point of self sustaining parody, a carnival of players permanently passing though. As a tourist attraction, it is perhaps the only place in the world where the sightseers are themselves the sight to see.

The street hawkers who make their living on Khao San are by and large also from away, economic migrants who stand with arms full of hammocks amidst the flow of travelers. Their business is to attract attention, to make people stop and do a double take, maybe dig out the camera for a photo and make an impulse buy. Some don false noses and Santa hats, others wander about croaking like frogs. One daring man squats behind a display of T-shirts and squirts passersby with a water pistol, smiling nervously when his targets whirl around.

Perhaps Khao San is a vision of the future, an impersonal post-cultural service economy where all transactions are conducted in broken English and everyone is always on the move, a place that only a stray dog could consider home. But, as the pink neon sign at the head of the road reminds us, it’s not where you go, but who you meet that matters. When nothing about a place makes sense anymore, people will still be walking past, clutching Lonely Planets and wolfing down Pad Thai.

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