Last weekend, Cengiz and I were plumb out of ideas for cheap, local adventures. So, we decided to go looking for Bangkok’s best pizza and to head to the Grand Palace to do some time lapse filming. On the way there, we got a little side tracked. As we rode the BTS toward the mighty Chao Phraya, zombie like gazes directed out the window, the Sathorn Unique entered our lives. It sits, sadly, naked, just beside the BTS line, towering above everything around it. Cengiz looked at me and said, “You see that graffiti in the building? We can get up there. We should go up there.” It was a silly comment to make, probably made half jokingly; after all, sneaking into abandoned construction projects is probably pretty illegal. Unfortunately, I agreed, wholeheartedly.
We approached the building and quickly cased the grounds, almost immediately finding a generous hole in the barrier fence around its foundation. Entering the tower is a weird sensation. The scene is a massive mess, with liter and old construction materials scattered everywhere. The floor is extremely open and poorly secured as if perhaps it isn’t a big deal that we are walking through it; in the middle, drawing us like a magnet, was a set of escalators. Nice, still new looking, half wrapped the two escalators were both a surreal image and the gateway to any more exploration.
As unexpected and surreal as they were, the escalators were not out of place in the building. There was a skeletal aspect to everything: pipes, wires, outlets, rebar all left uncovered in an otherwise fairly complete project. Rooms were left wide open to the elements, but had fully furnished bathrooms and wood floors already put in and left to rot. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Once up the escalators, we were faced with abandoned rooms, adorned with the oddest objects: a manikin, the King’s picture, a dilapidated couch. Flanking them was a stair well; we couldn’t believe how easy this was. The stairs were actually barred and our moral was quickly crushed. We decided there must be another way, a route was open, the graffiti was evidence of that. The second stair well we found was also barred; but, this time I was less quick to give up. After climbing up the gated door, I was able to slip through a small hole above it. Cengiz didn’t think he would make it, but 15 lbs lighter, he slipped through pretty easily.
The stairs were creepy. Dark, pitch black even at times, with no railings to keep you from falling through the center and extremely small, uneven, rough concrete stairs. All over the stairs, were littered booby traps. We climbed the stairs efficiently, causing the breathing to labor, back to sweat, and legs to burn. The first 25 floors are the most complete of the building. The halls are dry walled, the rooms floored, bathrooms furnished, and the whole floors fully wired. The only thing left to complete is the balconies and windows. The floor, once beyond the hall ways, into residences, is open to the sky. The balconies, if present, are only half finished and holes in the floor to hoist materials up and down are still gaping. The atmosphere is straight out of a zombie movie. The shadows laying against the white walls are surely full of malicious antagonists- like “28 Weeks Later” or “I am Legend.” In fact, I only wish I had the talent to write this story in the terse style of Cormac McCarthey’s “The Road.” The fact that the day was overcast and chilly (for Thailand; read 70 degrees) added to the post apocalyptic feel (as did the haphazardly strewn trash, as if the place had been raided). It helped that the building was literally a frozen piece of history. Huge iron pipes literally lay overhanging the side of the building, as if one day the crew just didn’t show up and everything was left. There is no evidence of precautions taken to keep the abandoned building safe even though construction was going to be halted.
Several of the embellishments on the building must have been undertaken, in excitement, a bit early as randomly suites have full balconies; or, like in the picture below, frames of ornate windows or doors lay partially finished. As the tower climbed at the level of completion decreased, plant life began to sprout. Mostly grasses and mosses had over run the floors, but small trees were struggling to push through concrete cracks. Up here, the “Mad Max” abates and things feel more like an episode of “Life after People,” on the History Channel.
As the very top of the building, there is one of the best views in Bangkok. A tangle of rebar is centered on the roof, the initial steps toward a crowning dome. The scaffolding all over the roof makes the center a bit jungle like and you have to squeeze in between, under, or over iron bars everywhere. Some are unconvincingly stable and seem unable to bear their load anymore. The side of the roof is liberating. There is nothing at your level and only one twin building (finished) sitting just a little higher. Everything below is ant sized and seems much more relaxed than at street level. The furious traffic of Bangkok, the sounds of taxis and vendors, the assaulting smells of street food, the core elements of Bangkok, don’t exist 50 floors up. The whole city seems quite even and looks like it is moving in some well choreographed pattern. Most mind-boggling? The ability to get a breath of fresh air.
From one side of the tower, the view is a bustling business sector of Bangkok- filled with busy businessmen, shoppers, and visitors. The other side offers an unparalleled view of the huge Chao Phraya and the hulking barges that traffic up and down it. As we stood there, Cengiz enjoying a cigarette, me hiding from the sun under a ruddy maid burka, felt like Christian Bale atop the Shanghai skyline in Nolan’s “Batman.” The wind is strong and unceasing and the temperature is delightfully temperate. Though, 50 floors up, the South East Asian sun is even more searing on unprotected skin; even on a cloudy day.
The day was, for me at least, the best adventure we have had so far. How many people can claim to have scaled a ghost tower? To have stood atop the roof of one of the tallest buildings in a metropolis with nothing ensuring you don’t just shuffle off the side? To be honest, I hope it starts a new trend- like Parque. I’d like to call it “vertical urban spelunking.” The whole process felt an awful lot like hiking a mountain. The views, urban versions of the vast panoramas found in the Rockies. I hope that we can track down and infiltrate Bangkok’s other ghost towers, there are plenty.
In 1997 Thailand, especially Bangkok, was hit hard by the Asian Financial Crisis. Much like the bursting of the housing bubble in the States that inspired this website, the Thai Baht collapsed in 1997 due to a serious overextension of real estate. During the earlier years of the 90s, Thailand was the largest growing economy in the world, growing over 9% annually and speculators were going wild. Ghost towers are scattered throughout the city and major roads are flanked by half finished pylons ready to become super highways. Unfortunately, Thailand was also taking on a lot of foreign debt, bankrupting the country and causing the baht to collapse.
The decaying corpses of the 1990′s prosperity are a bit sad. A blemish protruding from an otherwise youthful city. They stand, usually taller than their neighbors, like blackened elephants in the room- a reminder that Bangkok isn’t the first world. Though the nearly furnished residences in Sathorn Unique are evidence that at one point it was on its way. There were toilets and bath tubs! I can only imagine. Anyway, anyone trying to truly get off the beaten path on their back-pack trip through Asia should see if they can make the pilgrimage to the top of Sathorn. It will be one of the few adventures that no one else on Khao San will be talking about. Plus, the view really was breath taking (see the panoramic stitch shot at the bottom of the post).