We had an hour to burn while we waited for our van to the airport (and onward to Phuket). Minah had an episode of 태양의 후예 she wanted to watch, the latest hot hot hot Korean drama. The weather was also hot, so we went next door and sat in the restaurant/bar of D.I.O. Guesthouse.
I ordered a beer and she ordered a mango shake and the WiFi password. We were deep in it – a side street on the infamous backpacker heaven / backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road, which for decades has simultaneously had both the cheapest rooms and offered the “least authentic Thai experience” of any neighborhood in Bangkok.
As we get settled, a fella at the front of the bar gets our attention with a big “hey!” and shoots his arms up, V for peace or V for victory, all smiles, and beckons me over. I grab my beer and take a seat. He introduces himself as “Luke”, from London, though his accent tells me maybe he’s French.
Luke effuses a kind of unfocused enthusiasm. His attention moves from the two cigarettes lined up on the wood table in front of him, to the handlebars of his mustache, oiled by the attention of his fingers, back to the cigarettes, upsetting them on the table, and then lining them back up. But it is a languid, lazy attention, not frantic, but excited. He is excited to talk to me. He touches his bottle of Chang beer, it is about a quarter full, he seems to sense that, and he touches an empty glass next to his bottle. It has the remains of beers suds at the bottom.
“Pour me a bit?” he asks, and I fill his glass from my bottle. We talk about everything, in half starts and stops. He is difficult to understand, and I’m not sure if it’s the beer, the language barrier, or simply that he mutters and his attention is always divided between me, the glass, the cigarettes on the table and the people outside. I mention that I’m American and he grabs my arm and praises the soldiers landing on the beach at Normandy. He points to a picture on the bar ceiling, a standard Thailand bar photo, this one is a vintage shot of the members of Led Zeppelin standing out on the street.
He points at one of the guys in the shot. “That’s me,” he says, “next to Jimmy”. I laugh, playful disbelief. “Sure!” I say. “Sure, that’s you.” He smiles.
He is excited about pictures. He says, “wait here and I will show you something”, and goes upstairs to his room in the guesthouse, for which he’s only paying 200 baht (about $5.70). I grab a lighter from the bar staff while he’s gone, and he lights one of the two cigarettes as he pours over what he’s brought me.
It’s a sort of People Magazine, only in French, and he goes through each page, pointing to pictures and alternatively looking at me and grinning with a thumbs up, or screwing up his face in distaste. I am suddenly struck by how similar this is to, say, sharing a picture book with a toddler. He points out French footballers which I have no hope of knowing about, but we bond over his love of DiCaprio (a big thumbs up), and I’m starting to think it’s more of a French/English language divide, than him being completely addled. At one point I mistake an aging Sylvester Stallone for French ex-President Sarkozy, and that leaves Luke in fits of laughter, it takes him a while to recover.
We fall into an easy rhythm, Luke and I, and I’m really enjoying the raw enthusiasm of his company. He senses this too, and says, “I want to show you my room,” and with a wave to Minah (deep in her K-drama), I follow him up the steep wooden stairs to the rooms on the second floor.
The doors of the rooms are close together, maybe only 6 feet apart, which lends the hallway a kind of hospital air, but the construction is framed with bamboo; it’s an exotic impression. We find his room and he fumbles with the key in the lock, inserting it and turning it, backwards, forwards. I tried too, it doesn’t work.
“Are you sure this is your room?” I ask. The number on the keychain doesn’t match the room number. “Oh!” he says, embarrassed. “My friend asked me to keep his key.” He fishes around in his pocket and produces another key, turns it in the lock and opens to his room in one motion.
There is a simple mattress and blankets on the floor, a dusty fan oscillating in the ceiling, a wooden window that opens onto the building next door. Beer bottles, piles of clothes, and suddenly he is embarrassed again. “It’s very simple,” he says. “No, it’s great,” I reply. “Only 200 baht a night, that’s amazing.” “Yes,” he says, “and sometimes we’ll have 4 or 5 in one room, you know, save money.” At that moment a small, wet man wearing only a towel stands smiling next to us.
“Ah, meet my friend Pascal!” Luke is again bright and excited, and Pascal reflects that smile and then some. They speak in French, it seems Pascal wants to change his clothes in Luke’s room, and so we move on.
Luke leads me down the hall in the guesthouse and suddenly I am swept up in the flow of an exposition movie scene. He is knocking on doors, peering in open rooms, exchanging esoteric handshakes and giggles with friends. He tries to introduce me to a guy lying on his bed, picking on a guitar, but the man barely looks up at us.
We turn the corner and find ourselves in a sort of upstairs lobby with plastic tables and chairs. Luke introduces me to a man named Daniel, about my age, who doesn’t speak enough for me to gauge where he is from, but I think he is North American. Daniel is smoking and drinking with two middle-aged Thai women, and they motion for us to join them, but with Minah waiting downstairs, I sense this is my cue to leave.
Luke leads me down, and I tell him it’s time for us to take a taxi to the airport, and we say goodbye – we flow right into one of his complex handshakes, I don’t even need an explanation, and a “hey!” “yea!” and we’re on our way out.
I regret that I didn’t get more of his story. And that I didn’t take a picture with him. t hadn’t wanted to push, I had let his excitement lead us. He mentioned hanging out with the “freaks” (his smile told me he was proudly one of them) in Pai, northern Thailand. He told me he’d been at D.I.O. Guesthouse for months. But other than that, I’m not sure what he was all about. Apart from his years with Zeppelin, of course.
Minah and I walked in one direction to the 7-11 to buy some water, and then walked back past D.I.O. one last time before we left. Luke was sitting with Pascal now, same table, a new beer, and again, hands up and wide with peace signs, his face in the biggest grin.
You can see threads of the old Khao San story still woven into the tapestry of KSR2016. The streets maybe be cleaner, the nights may be wilder – we saw a bona fide stage with a DJ, smoke effects, all that. And even corporate sponsorship – we passed a booth on the street giving away free Hite (Korean beer). That’d be unbelievable 10 years ago when I first came to Thailand.
But where there are three or four tanned, tattoo’d, and tight-shirted hotties with their faces in iPhones, there is one grizzled old man, deep into a big bottle of Chang, cigarette in hand, staring out into the street or into the past or just staring, fueled by the beer and the energies of that place.
And that’s Khao San Road – banana pancakes, cold beer, cheap massages, McDonalds, etc – after weeks of rice noodles and the self-imposed hardships of the village-hopping backpacker trek trails of Southeast Asia.
Or just the hardships and complexities of normal life.
3 thoughts on “Khao San Road: Behind the Curtain”
In a few months, someone will be writing a blog very much like this about the ‘weird, gangly ginger raving about a black lotus’
Must be a street term for something extra potent.
My search for traditional accommodation with character took me to your story of The DIO Homestay in Kao San Road that you stayed at, and reminded me of the similar melting pot of Peaches GH that used to be on the Riverside, and the instant family atmosphere there even with years between revisiting. I’ve enjoyed your stories tremendously, and looking at your other humorous travel writings where you’ve caught many of the emotions of those moments of delight mixed with horror that all great travelling tales evoke at the time, and we travellers who have lived through similar experiences can look back on them with knowledgeable compassion. Your blog should help people to keep exploring outside their comfort zones, and to remember the journey is often more important than arriving. Also, you have the whole overseas working, family lifestyle worked out to a T! Thank you 🙏 , Dominic 30/06/2020