Once upon a time, the locals peddled rice on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Lots of it.
Barge after barge paddled, and later motored, down the vast Chao Phraya River and into the mouth of Banglamphu Canal, where they dropped off thousands of tons in jute sacks to wholesalers in the neighborhood.
By the end of the 19th century, Banglamphu district was by far the largest rice market not only in Bangkok, but anywhere in Siam, the world’s largest rice growing nation.
Smaller vendors opened shops south of the canal, where a dirt-track alley became so thick with the rice trade that King Chulalongkorn ordered a proper road built in 1892. Running only 410 meters, the cobbled strip wasn’t grand enough to be named after a historic Thai figure or nation-building principle, unlike other city thoroughfares, so it was simply called Soi Khao San (Milled Rice Lane).
As Banglamphu flourished on rice profits, the district expanded into clothing (including Thailand’s first ready-made school uniforms), buffalo-leather shoes, jewelry, gold leaf and costumes and regalia for Thai classical dance theater. Local demand for entertainment gave birth to two musical comedy houses, Thailand’s first national record label (Kratai), and one of the kingdom’s first silent-movie cinemas.
Yet only 100 years later, an invasion of international backpackers almost completely eclipsed local market culture. Starting as a trickle in the late 1970s, when Bangkok was a terminus for the Asian hippie trail, the influx became a tidal wave in the 1990s.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted the inexorable evolution of the road and surrounding neighborhood.
When I first strolled down Khao San Road on a research trip for the first edition of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide, 40 years ago, it was lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century two-story shophouses.
At street level were rows of shoe shops, Thai-Chinese coffee shops, noodle vendors, grocers and motorcycle repair shops. Owners or tenants lived above.
A few rice dealers hung on,