Jennifer Gampell
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March 10-11, 2000

Weekend Journal: Life's a Beach Without Leo

By Jennifer Gampell

If you must watch Leonardo Di Caprio cruise an ersatz Khao San Road and discover the downsides of utopian life on a Thai island, the best place to do it is on the real Khao San. The road itself is no more illustrative of life in Thailand than the film "The Beach," but it's infinitely more entertaining.

Weeks before the movie's March 7th Bangkok premiere, crowds of budget travelers were packing the lobbies of no-star guesthouses along the hyperkinetic one-block street to catch free showings of "The Beach" on pirate video. Last week I joined a couple dozen tourists crowded around oilcloth-covered tables in the open-to-the-street restaurant-cum-lobby of CH 1 Guesthouse to catch the 7 p.m. show. "Khao San is the perfect place to see The Beach," opined Dutch tourist Marco Vredenburg afterwards. "But it still doesn't make it a better movie." His friend Olav agreed. "It was a big disappointment."

CH 1 is one of a dwindling number of the original cheap and cheerless Khao San flophouses still located in the old wooden structures that once lined both sides of the street. Over the past five years, many older buildings have been remodeled or torn down to make way for tonier ones. True to its roots, the unairconditioned CH 1 provides no-frills accommodation, bland western and Thai food, and movies from noon to midnight. Its only concession to modernity is the two banks of computer terminals that transform half of the downstairs into a dusty, noisy Internet café. (Old or new, every Khao San guesthouse worthy of the appellation offers Internet access.)

The first wave of westerners in search of their authentically Thai experience transformed Khao San into a freewheeling, self-contained entity teeming with character but lacking any identifiable Thai-ness. Underwhelmed by the availability of fake FBI and student ID cards, beaded hair braiding and banana porridge, locals without specific business interests on the street generally shunned it. Now the fickle finger of Thai fashion has turned Khao San-ward and the fastest-growing presence on the street these days is Thais themselves.

The changing demographics of the Lonely Planet backpacker set was taking Khao San upmarket well before the Alex Garland novel "The Beach" came out in 1997. As a new generation of international middle-class travelers donned expensive backpacks and headed off into the no-longer-wild blue yonders of the world, stylish, form-fitting black and Doc Martens overtook baggy tie-dye and Birkenstock as the dominant fashion statement on the street. Anxious to cash in on the higher purchasing power of this new breed of tourist, Khao San businesses began reinventing themselves. Cluttered Mom and Pop grocery shops ceded their places to a sterile minimart and two 7-11s; dank restaurants became swank cafes with verdant patios; and tiny, old-fashioned souvenir stores metamorphosed into mammoth tourist emporia and silver jewelry wholesalers. Recently a sleek branch of the English chemist shop, Boots, opened.

The Khao San buzz grew even stronger last year in the wake of the international media blitz surrounding Leonardo di Caprio's stay in Thailand during the filming of "The Beach." The cliques of surly young Israelis who can't get visas for Muslim Malaysia or Indonesia and the single-file lines of trendy Japanese in perfectly accessorized Harajuku street attire had been regular fixtures for years. However, paunchy, middle-aged Eastern Europeans dragging suitcases on wheels represented a new market segment. As did all the trendy young Thais desperately trying to look hip by covering themselves in tattoos, black leather, and piercings.

"All the signs on the buildings are in foreign languages like English, Japanese and Hebrew," explains Ms. Dam, a waitress at the popular Susie Pub which catalyzed the trend two years ago. "Thais think they're in another country." She says the easy access to hip young foreigners appeals both to moneyed young Thais returning home after studying abroad, as well as to those who've never left the country. They also come for the music, she notes. While Bangkok doesn't lack for discos and karoake bars blaring Thai tunes at ear-splitting volume, most Khao San nightspots feature an all-western discography.

"Teenagers are crazy about farangs [foreigners] these days," agrees Sukanya Senjantichai. Her jewelry store an the corner of Khao San and the alley leading to Susie Pub has been operating for four years. She estimates the ratio of Thais to foreigners on the street has jumped from 10 to 30 percent in the last two years. "Young Thais also love the 24-hour scene here," observes Ms. Sukanya. "They come at 2 or 3 a.m. after other places have closed." Unlike bars in Bangkok which ostensibly must close at 2 a.m., guesthouses apparently can serve drinks all night.

Leonardo's character Richard might have been happier if he'd spent less time spearing fish and more time hanging out on the real Khao San Road instead of a simulated one. Certainly he wouldn't have looked so bored. Every night around 9 p.m., the sidewalk vendors in front of the guesthouses--those purveyors of travel essentials like T-shirts, halter tops, fake Swiss Army knives, jewelry and Nepalese shoulder bags--swap places with an army of plastic tables and chairs. The makeshift seating spills out onto the street and soon fills with a mutable cast of international characters. Up and down the street stroll American website designers, Thai transvestites, British barbers, and German bankers (sans their business suits, of course). The nightly Khao San pageant has commenced.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer

Copyright © 2000 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell