Khao San Road at Night, a frenzy of backpackers, booze and bright lights
Bangkok’s Khao San Road at night

Khao San Road is an affront to the senses.  For the fresh-off-the-plane traveler, a visit to this part of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, may have you wondering what the hell you got yourself into.

It’s a frenetic scene of neon signs, drunk backpackers and scantily-clad promo girls (who may or may not be transvestites), but Khao San is also the crux of the budget traveler scene, where hostels, tour operators and sarong shops converge.

It’s the ultimate backpacker hub for the budget South East Asian traveler. This strip is where you can book overland trips to Laos, find cheap flights to Vietnam or get your visa for Cambodia. Chances are good that, if you’re going through Bangkok, you’ll end up on Khao San Road.

A selection of delicious (and cheap) Thai street food
A selection of delicious (and cheap) Thai street food

Most are lured by the international vibe, cheap accommodations, $10 Thai massages and tasty food. Stalls lining the street sell a rainbow assortment of incredibly cheap and tasty curries available curb-side. The air smells of fresh banana pancakes and peanutty Pad Thai, an immediate reminder that you are, in fact, in Bangkok, one of the most vibrant and fascinating metropolises of the region.

There are also tons of vendors selling every knock-off imaginable: fake Gucci sunglasses, fake Puma shoes, fake Diesel jeans. There are phoney student cards, bootleg DVDs and photocopied Lonely Planet guides for the price of a Starbucks latte. Vendors (dressed as some of Northern Thailand’s indigenous hill tribes) stroll from patio table to table hawking novelty items: massive Zippo lighters, X-rated flasks, wooden frogs that make a “ribbit” noises when you stroke them, and other knick-knacks you don’t need but somehow end up buying.

iPood T-shirt, a popular item sold in kiosks along Khao San Road
The iPood T-shirt, a popular item sold in kiosks along Khao San Road

Today’s popular backpacker purchase is a t-shirt with an ironic saying. A big seller is “Ipood,” with an illustration of a man on a toilet listening to his iPod.  Let’s not forget the classic Thai t-shirt with the words “Same Same But Different” –  the commonly used vernacular in the Thai backpacker lexicon –  scrawled on the front.

The shopping in Bangkok (especially the Chatuchak weekend market) is sick, with silk sarongs, hand-made leather jewelry, flimsy summer dresses, colorful canvas purses, knifes and Nunchucks.

Shopping till you drop is made easy with ever present ATM machines and 7-11’s as common as Buddhist temples.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when bargaining in Bangkok:

Rule #1: when the vendor first tells you the price, balk at it. You’re a tourist, so no doubt it’s inflated. Never accept the first offer.

Rule #2: offer half (sometimes 1/3) the wanted price and negotiate from there. I like to use a calculator to show the price I want to pay. I set a mental limit of how much the item is really worth to me and won’t go over that price.

Rule #3: always negotiate in local currency and bring small bills to pay for it.

Rule #4: don’t squabble over a few bucks. Bargaining isn’t about screwing the other guy. It’s about coming to a price that works for both of you.

Rule #5: the “walk away” sometimes works but if it doesn’t get you your desired price, don’t be ashamed to come back and purchase the item. Don’t let pride get in the way of getting a cool souvenir. After all, it’s likely to be waaay cheaper in Thailand than at home.

Have you been to Bangkok? What are your travel tips for navigating the chaos of Khao San? Have any bargaining tips you’d like to share? Post your comments below….