Khao San Road, Bangkok. If the bright neon signs don’t demand your attention, the pounding music will. Guys in Chang t-shirts, chat to girls in elephant print pants – and every ten minutes someone tries to sell you something you didn’t know you needed (because you probably don’t).
It’s a rite of passage for every backpacker and sniffed at by serious travellers – so it might surprise you to discover that just a few minutes’ walk from Khao San lie intriguing alleys, a giant Buddha, an amazing abandoned shopping mall, cool bars and a thriving market teeming with local life. You just need to know where to look.
So, if you’re looking for a few less touristy things to do near Kao San Road, check out our mini walking tour which helps you find them.
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Where is Khao San Road?
Khao San is to the west of central Bangkok close to the Chao Praya river.
Despite its party image, Khao San Road is smack bang in the middle of two of Bangkok’s oldest areas – Rattanakosin, where all the major temples and Grand Palace are found and leafy Dusit, former home to the Thai Royal Family.
It’s a great place to stay on your first trip to Bangkok because it’s walking distance to many of the main sights you’ll want to visit. (and if it is your first trip to Bangkok, you’ll want to check out this post on first-timer tips which will help you enjoy it a bit more).
But this rich history means that the area near Khao San Road is surrounded by traditional life. I admit it took me a few trips to go and find it, but on this trip my hotel, the 4-star Casa Nithra, was about 10-minute walk north of Khao San– and I was scouring the map for things to do – I then spotted the words Thewet Market, and it seemed to only be a ten-minute walk away.
Heading to The Market
I love markets in Asia. Tasting fruits I’ve never seen, marvelling at what part of a pig that is exactly hanging at the butchers– and, spotting the market cats that always seem to find a warm place to sit (and don’t care if it’s on the scales).
I admit I wasn’t expecting much from the walk to the market – Thanon Samsen, the road I needed to take is pretty busy, but as I crossed under the Rama VIII bridge, everything changed.
The shops got more local. They sold work shirts rather than ‘Same Same’ t-shirts, there were a bookstore and a beauty salon doing a roaring nail business – and, then the food stalls started.
A wheel of sausages cooking over a small triangle of coals smelt delicious and the man selling eggs had boiled and halved a few to proudly show how golden their yolk is.
Stallholders chatted with their regulars to catch up with the day – and suddenly, the tourist scene of Khao San seemed miles away.
Crossing the road brought me to Thewet Market proper. Dodging a mix of old ladies with their shopping trolleys and motorbikes taking a short cut – admittedly, I’m not sure which one is more dangerous if you get in their way – I headed into the cool, dark space.
It was just as I expected. Slippy floors that made me feel glad I’d worn my plimsolls, the smell just one notch away from unpleasant and the whole place abuzz with activity.
Fish sellers were throwing water at the still wriggling fish while a crab tried to make a break for it from his bucket on the floor. Piles of chilli each more potent than the last threaten to spill into the aisles – and yes, there are cats.
Although, this time they weren’t all of the small furry variety – standing by one of the stalls was a lion dancer, head in his hand as he chatted. I don’t know whether he was coming from his performance or doing his shopping before it.
Stumbling Across a 105ft Buddha
After about half an hour exploring the market, I started to head back to the hotel – but this time, I took a detour.
While walking up Thanon Samsen, I’d noticed an alleyway between shops with houses behind it.
It led to a small residential area lined with small shuttered houses and flats. As I wandered the streets, I saw everything from gyms in people’s gardens to caged songbirds hanging out in the air.
And then, I saw a flash of gold. A temple – and probably the tallest Buddha I’d ever seen.
I’d stumbled across Wat Intharawihan, home to a 32-metre tall, 10-metre wide (105ft x 33ft for the imperial amongst you) Buddha.
That might not sound impressive until you see a tiny Thai woman praying next to it and realise she’s roughly as tall as his ankle.
But even that wasn’t my favourite sight of the morning.
That prize went to the old Thai lady with bright pink hair sat on one of the tiny plastic chairs you find all over Asia. On a chair to her left sat three, small fluffy dogs, in front of her a brown and white duck that she was feeding by hand.
It was perfect.
Once you’ve done exploring around the backstreets, it’s time to head back to Khao San – and a few other things you might want to check out.
Cool Bars Alert
You can weave your way back towards Khao San Road via more backstreets, or wander back down Thanon Samsen where you’ll walk past more local shops and some cool bars aiming at locals and expats.
They probably won’t be open if you’re up early enough to catch the market, but f you’re fed up with booze in buckets and want to try some something a bit less-touristy head up here in the evening where you’ll find everything from live blues (at Adhere the 13th) to Thai Craft Beer at the Beer and Cider House.
As you cross over the river just south of the beer bar, look over the edge and you might see one of the large monitor lizards that make the river their home sunbathing on one of the pylons.
And That Abandoned Mall
Next up as you walk back toward Khao San on the eastern corner of Thanon Samsen and Phra Sumen is that abandoned mall I mentioned.
Called the New World Building this eleven-storey mall was built in 1982 – the only problem was that the owners only had permission for four storeys – so, its demolition was ordered. It happened – but no renovation followed.
The Mall is left totally abandoned – and without a roof, so it flooded.
At one point there was a thriving group of fish living in there, but they got removed – now it’s just abandoned.
I can’t tell you how to get inside the building because that would be illegal (I’ll just say it has been done – but even proper urban explorers say it’s tricky) – but when I was there last, there was a gap in the front doors you could peer through which lets you see quite the cool sight without breaking any laws – or bones.
Pancakes, Crispy, Crispy Pancakes
From here take a quick detour west down Phra Sumen Road where you’ll find Mae Prapha Pancakes – this local institution is a stop on some of the tours around Khao San (like this one) and is famous for it’s sweet or spicy pancakes.
I always think pancakes are a bit of an odd name for these as they look more like tacos when they are served, but good ones are not to be missed.
While you’re up here, I’ll also just bring your attention to another couple of cool bars you might want to check out later.
Off to the west, down Phra Sumen Road, you’ll find Pat’s Bar, recognisable by its pictures of Danny and Kenickie in Grease on the wall – and, a bit further down from there you’ll find Jahm Jun Bar and Bistro, one of the few rooftop bars near Khao San Road (the other one that I know of is At-Mosphere Rooftop Cafe). Sadly, there’s no actual Skybar near Khao San Road – but this is a nice place to watch the sunset.
At this point, you can either head back and keep walking down Thanon Samsen and you’ll walk past a small food market until you arrive back at the infamous road itself.
Or, follow Phra Sumen road towards the river where it turns into Phra Athit, which is home to the Phra Sumen Fort and an interesting mix of hipster local coffee shops and bars and old restaurants that have been here forever. I can firmly recommend Nai Soie Beef Noodle Soup as a most excellent hangover cure!
Take Sana Chongkrahm or Rong Mai alley and you’ll find yourself in lively Soi Rambuttri (if you haven’t found this yet, then it’s a great place to spend an evening – the food is better, and usually cheaper than on Khao San)
As I sat there that night, with a pint of Chang in my hands, trying to decide if I really did need a frog that croaks when you stroke its back I wondered how many people on the road had any idea how many cool things were just a few minutes’ walk away.
I was glad I did.
How to Find My Less Touristy Things to do Near Khao San
Google maps is your friend.
North of Khao San Road on Thanon Samsen you’ll find Thewet Market. The food stalls start a few blocks south of this on the right-hand side of the road.
To find Wat Intharawihan and the cool area around it, take any of the three alley’s that lead east off of Thanon Samsen and just wander. If you need a map reference, look for Soi Wong Phakdi. Then, just wander, you never know what you might find.
The Abandoned Building is marked on the map with a photo symbol.
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