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The Great Nightlife Debate: Downtown Athens or Khao San Road?

I didn’t know what to make of Khao San Road when I first got to Bangkok. It overwhelmed and confused me. Exhibit A:

I quickly and unapologetically compared Thailand’s notorious backpacker hot spot to my tried and true little collegetown of Athens, GA. Much has happened since my last Khao San-related tweet, and I now feel I have sufficiently experienced both Athens (DT Athens) and Khao San Road (KS) and I’m prepared to make a final judgement on which is the better nightlife destination.

Let’s qualify “better.” The contending locations will compete and be judged in five categories: crowd, logistics, expenses, dining options, and overall fun factor. Shall we begin?

Crowd

Initially, I was really turned off by the latenight crowd on KS. The tiny little walking street seemed to be swarming with creepers, plus hundreds of peddlers every three feet soliciting me to have a custom suit made or buy silly woven bracelets. The decoratively-dressed Burmese women relentlessly stroked their weird cricket-noise instruments as they approached us with their wares. As for the backpackers, they were all dirty and sunburnt from partying down south. Many wore bathing suits under their clothes, likely because they had run out of clean undergarments. Or maybe they were expecting rain? I don’t know. Either way, I was super turned off by the lack of class.

I pined for the homogeneity and predictability of DT Athens. Unlike KS, the crowd DT is anything but diverse. There is of course the unofficial yet pronounced division between East DT Athens (frat!) and West DT Athens (hipster!), but in the end everyone is a 18-to-22-year-old Georgia native with a poli sci quiz in the morning.

I know predictability and homogeneity may not sound like the most appealing thing when you’re going out at night, but it made the town easy to navigate and understand, whereas KS seemed like a bad amalgamation of cultures and consumerism; a consolidation of the human hedonistic desires that we all share despite our distinctive nationalities.

Khao San road
Khao San

Something changed along the way. As I went out to KS with more frequency, I began to appreciate the diversity of cultures and even the inherent hedonistic desires shared amongst them. The truth is, it’s just easier to meet new people on KS. Downtown Athens has a few friendly-people hot spots (namely Allgood), but generally you go out with a group of friends and stick together, maybe running into some other friends while you’re out at the bars but also, maybe not.

It’s true: there are still the peddlers and the creepers on KS, but when you look past them, there are also the multitudes of travelers – open and friendly and fun – waiting to tell you their stories from distant lands, or just dance with you sweatily to David Guetta house remixes in The Club. I’ll take that over the exclusive hipster/frat scene any day. One point for KS.

Logistics

I’m gonna do it – I’m gonna map it out:

Map of Athens, GA
Downtown Athens was a short 1.2 miles (1.9 km) from my junior/senior year apartment.
Map of Khao San Road
Khao San is 2.2 miles (3.6 km) from my apartment in Pinklao.

Even though we didn’t live in DT Athens, it was always easy enough to get to. We could walk, which we liked to do if we pregamed hard enough and it wasn’t freezing cold outside, or take the Milledge Ave bus if it was still early enough, or find a designated driver, or get a cab (although this pricier option was almost always reserved for the latest of nights when we really had no other way to get home from DT).

I’m lucky in that I live close enough to KS to walk if I want to, but the it would be a bit of a trek (40 minutes or so?) and I would arrive at The Club prematurely drenched in sweat. I like to walk there, but I usually do so as a daytime exercise-ish activity – not as a way to transport myself to go out drinking at night.

Public transportation to KS is super accessible and cheap for me – I can get there with as much, if not more, ease with which I used to get to DT Athens from home.

riding in a tuk tuk to party on khao san
Riding a tuk tuk is one of my favorite ways to get around in Bangkok. It’s like riding a roller coaster in the middle of the street.

I can take a ten-minute busride for, like, 10 baht (33 cents), or a 50 baht ($1.63) cab, which is made even more reasonable when you split it with friends.

The cabs that run through DT Athens charge $5 a person, and that’s to go less than 2 miles! Rip-off!

Athens may be close to everything since it serves as the geographical center of town, but Khao San Road is everything. If you’re a backpacker, you’re probably already staying in a hostel on KS. And trust me: You can exist on KS and never need to go anywhere else.

If you do need to go somewhere else, that’s easy too. There is no dearth of tuk-tuks and taxis for you to choose from. KS also serves as one of the major night-bus transportation hubs: you can hop a bus literally to anywhere else in Thailand from KS Road. Chiang Mai, the islands down south; hell, you could probably get a bus to Athens, GA if you wanted (okay, maybe not).

DT Athens and KS are both accessible, at least from my home bases on Milledge and in Pinklao, respectively. I’m not sure who wins here. One point to each, then!

Expenses

Many things are cheaper in Thailand than in America, but alcohol isn’t one of them.

taking shots in Athens
I generally don’t buy anything this fancy when I go out DT (it was my 21st birthday!) but when I do, it’s not that outrageously priced.

Athens had the best happy hour specials.

I remember Magnolia’s would do 1 or 2-dollar wells specials. 8d’s Bar did $2 pitchers of beer on Thursdays. And what was it – $2 happy hour specialty martinis for ladies at the Capital Room on Thursday nights? Gosh, so many awesome specials, I can’t remember them all. The cheapest alcohol you’re gonna find on KS is in the 7-Eleven: you can get a 30-ish baht ($1) can of shitty beer or a 45 baht ($1.50) shitty winecooler or Smirnoff Ice or something like that. But if you want a real drink, it’s probably going to cost you at least 100 baht ($3.25). I know this doesn’t seem like much to those of you who live in bigger American cities, but bars wouldn’t make a cent off college kids if the only drinks they offered were upwards of $3. So yeah, Athens, you win.

Drinking on Khao san
Drinking on KS is expensive, even when you’re sharing with friends. Beer towers can’t even compete with 8d’s bar’s $2 pitchers of Yuengling. Yes – PITCHERS.

Dining Options

This is an interesting category, because both destinations boast a wide variety of latenight dining options. Seriously – it’s a close one.

When the bars close at 2am in DT Athens, you can take your drunken self to Little Italy and get a slice of amaaazing, fresh, gooey, greasy pizza for a mere $1.17 (or something like that). Maybe you want greasy hashbrowns instead, in which case you can hit up the newly-opened DT Waffle House and order something hot and full of carbs from the $1 menu.

Say it’s only midnight and you’ve had a bit too much to drink already, but you want to keep raging for the next two hours. Grab a hot dog from the hot dog guy on College Ave. You might even get lucky and come across a weird latenight bakesale, whereupon you can nom on cupcakes and cookies to your heart’s content and feel good about it because you’re supporting charity.

Eating pizza late night in Athens
Just think: you can get TWO of these bad boys for under $3. No place like Athens.

Hmm, what else? There’s The Grill, an expensive 50’s-style diner with the best french fry feta dip in the world. What you can’t get is greasy 35 baht ($1.20) pad thai. You can’t get mango and sticky rice, or roti made with banana and nutella. Chicken kebabs. A bag of sliced pineapple. Fried bugs. (Wait. How drunk are you?) Yes – these are your options on Khao San Road at 4am.

I can’t declare it a tie again, can I?

No, no, that wouldn’t be right at all. I’m gonna have to go with Athens for this one, simply because of Little Italy. There’s just nothing better than melted cheese when you’re drunk. And MAN OH MAN do I miss American pizza.

Overall Fun Factor

Let’s have a look at the running tally: DT Athens: 3. KS: 2.

It seems appropriate that this final category should determine the winner. After all, the only thing that truly matters when you go out partying at night is how much fun you have. That’s the whole point of going out, isn’t it?

I’ve had some REALLY fun nights out in Athens. Random, spontaneous, awesomely fun nights, most of which would end at The Loft, dancing until the bars closed at 2am. Khao San Road doesn’t close at 2am. It doesn’t close ever, actually.

Drinking buckets on Khao San
We happened to be drinking at an appropriate hour, but I think you can get buckets on KS at any time on any day.

Every day is a holiday on Khao San. Every day, every time. Monday, 2am: party time. Wednesday 9pm: party time. Sunday, 6am: party time. You can go out and stay out all night long and you won’t run out of people to party with either. The bars in DT Athens close at 2am, which has somehow dictated the “going out schedule” utilized by nearly all DT-goers: pregame somewhere that isn’t a bar DT from 10-ish to 11:30pm. Thing about going DT around 11:30pm. Arrive DT around midnight and have your “night out” until 2am.

Forget the 2-hour time limit – on Khao San we can go until the sun comes up. (Haven’t done it just yet but I’ve been dangerously close. I’m sure it will happen when the time is right.) You don’t have to worry about pregaming because you can buy dranks in the 7-Eleven and walk around on the street with them. You definitely, DEFINITELY can’t drink on the street in Athens.

You’re not even supposed to be drinking in Athens if you’re under the age of 21. Let’s be real: fake ID’s are omnipresent and almost compulsory if you’re a student at UGA and you want to have a social life, but there’s the whole getting-in-trouble-with-the-law thing you have to worry about. And having your name printed in the Red and Black the next day (wait – does the R&B still exist?) for being stupid and talking back to a police officer, or for being stupid and peeing on the sidewalk, or for being stupid and disobeying the little blinking WALK man who dictates your crossing of the street at any given moment.

Mai pen rai if you’re under 21 and wanna have a fun night on KS. Seriously – I haven’t been carded since I got to this country. I don’t even know if Thailand has a legally-enforced drinking age. There’s even a bar on KS called “We Don’t Card”, or something like that.

in downtown athens
DT, probs on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night between the hours of 12am-2am.

While Khao San Road is a party any day, any time, DT Athens parties in waves. During the school year, “going out” nights are dictated by UGA’s academic calendar. You’re pretty much guaranteed a crowd on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, but only if it’s not one of those weekends in-between football games during which everyone collectively decides to drive home to Atlanta to see their parents. Or if it’s not the weekend before final exams. Or mid term exams. If it’s Thanksgiving, forget about it – DT will be dead. Same for the entirety of the summer break.

Then when everyone does decide to go DT, it’s sometimes just too crowded to be enjoyable. See: any Saturday night after a football game, or the night after graduation. Imagine: impossible to traverse the sidewalks, let alone enter a bar and actually make it to the bar to order a drink. Can’t find your friends. Can’t move, everyone is drunk and sweating on you.

There are things that I do appreciate about the “seasonality” of DT Athens nightlife. For example, Athens has a cute college-town culture that Khao San Road will never have. We have Twilight and Athfest and the International Festival and other such small celebratory moments that sparkle in the sea of “regular” “going out” nights.

Speaking of sparkling, how about the beautiful way the trees light up all golden with Christmas lights during the holiday season? How about the way the seasons actually change in Athens? You get to cycle through your “going out outfits” over the course of the year; from leggings and boots to summer dresses and wedges…Here on KS, it’s whatever’s clean and lightweight. Eh, nevermind it being clean, you’re just gonna sweat through it anyways.

Twilight in Athens
Every year on a weekend just at the cusp of Springtime, DT Athens hosts “Twilight,” a bicycle race and accompanying festival.
Singing karaoke in Athens
Just some more fun times in Athens. Karaoke for my birthday/going-away-to-Sydney-party 2010.

Let’s review: Athens has cool festivals and culture and a seasonality surely lacking in Khao San’s every-day-is-a-holiday thing. But what’s more fun than partying any day, any time you want? You don’t have to stress about getting in trouble with the law on KS because there’s no enforcement of a legal drinking age and there is no open container law in Thailand. Good on you, KS!

Now, on to a very important activity that can make or break a “fun” night: the opportunity to go out dancing.

The Loft – the only dirty, dive-y, hip hop-blaring, truly fun place to dance in Athens – no longer exists. If you wanna go dancing DT your options are limited to 9d’s bar, which plays the same songs on nightly rotation (they don’t have much of a choice now do they?), Bad Manor, which may or may not have a cover completely unworthy of the sometimes-danceable dubstep they play (although the soap bubbles-falling-from-the-ceiling-when-the-bass-drops thing is amazing), and…that’s kinda it. There’s no real place to go out dancing. There is no dance club.

Going out dancing in Athens
Classic Loft photo. Man, I miss that place.

Khao San doesn’t just have a dance club; it has The Club. It’s dirty and grimy and just the right size. They play house, electro house, techno, and trance. They have couches and they also have a stage. They have a room for smoking. They are open until 3am and it’s free to go in. Major, major fun points to KS for having The Club.

My last point, not that it’s a particularly strong one, is that KS is a convenient place to get all kinds of stuff for very reasonable prices.

I was initially disgusted with the prevalence of things to buy on Khao San, but that disgust has since become deep appreciation for the convenience and affordability of it all.  I mean literally anything you have ever wanted and more – things you didn’t even know you wanted! – these things are here, on KS.

Drinking on Khao San
Drankin outside on KS.

Foot massages, jewelry, bags, henna tattoos, real tattoos, piercings, hair wraps, hair braids, fake hair, dreadlocks, clothing, luggage, backpacks, a custom-made suit, a ticket to a ping pong show, a ukulele, fisherman’s pants, sunglasses, bikinis, pirated DVDs – [breath!] – hammocks, mango and sticky rice, time on the Internet, a flying light-up obelisk thing, a bus ticket to Chiang Mai, a jungle trek on the back of an elephant, a Burger King burger, a tuk-tuk ride, a fake ID, a fake TEFL certificate, condoms, prostitutes, speakers, vegetarian Thai food, books, Indian food…

I mean, really. It’s a lot.

I go to Khao San to run errands because I can get anything I want there and it’s all for a decent price and the vendors speak English and it’s fun to walk around.

Conclusion

So yeah, KS wins for now, but before you raise your voice in indignant protestation, just remember that the context in which these two places exist plays a huge role. KS would be a totally different thing if it were in America, and same for DT Athens if it existed in Bangkok. And where am I? Bangkok.

I never claimed this contest was going to be judged objectively…

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6 comments

  1. You are probably the first person in the world to compare a Bangkok suburb with an Atlanta suburb! Nice job, though I’m not sure how much the context colors your perception – i.e, a teenager at college in a college town, vs. an adult teaching English to Thai kids in Thailand.

    • mishvo says:

      Haha I made sure to Google it and see if there was already a comparison somewhere out there (definitely couldn’t find one). As for context…yeah, it definitely makes a difference where I am in my life, literally and figuratively.

  2. KimVo says:

    Absolutely marvelous, fabulous analysis. So many laughs, so entertaining AND YET SO INFORMATIVE. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoy reading these posts. You are brilliant, and I’m not biased, I promise. Hey – what happened to the little thing that tells how many hits the blog has gotten? What’s it up to?

    • mishvo says:

      Haha thanks mom. I should probably go back through and cut this post down. It’s just so LONG. Yeah, I might just do that.
      I took the view counter off…I’m at just under 10,000.

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