Being neither a woman nor Thai, I have a good sense of direction. If I’ve been somewhere once, I can find my way there again without much effort. It’s not a conscious piece of reckoning so much as it is an awareness of place. Compass points are confusing to many, which I totally get. North, in and of itself has no value, but applied to a known landmark it then becomes useful for getting your bearings or when following directions. Landmarks, regardless of their spot on the compass are more useful in determining where you are or how to get to where you want to be.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area with the bay and ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. The sun sets in the west, which for that locale meant over the water, which in turn meant the mountains were to the east. North and South were a bit less obvious, but knowing San Jose was to the south – which was ‘that way’ took care of those two compass points too. Seemed pretty simple, not to mention obvious to me but my older brother, who got his driver’s license ten months before me, could get lost changing gears.
Years later on O’ahu I felt instantly familiar with the local way of indicating direction. Makai meant toward the water, mauka toward the mountains, Diamond Head, the famous crater that dominates the Waikiki skyline covered the eastward direction and that left Ewa, another town on the island, to fill in for West. That should have made navigating around town a breeze. There was no confusion in following the directions, “Head Ewa two blocks on Kalakaua.” The only problem was with locals you’d then get, “Then make a right where the old Love’s bakery used to be.” Landmarks that are no longer there can be problematic. I considered myself a kama’aina when I could start giving directions using well-know landmarks that no longer existed.
I don’t get lost in Bangkok, but getting your bearings is not easy. There are no hills or mountains. And while the Chao Phraya is a good directional marker, unless you are standing practically on its banks you’ll never know where it is. Considering that the local population is not known for their navigational skills, that the BTS lines use the respective end stations to denote direction rather than the points of a compass is a good thing. That they keep expanding the lines and replacing the end station that was with one further out, not so much. Sometimes I wonder how many of the locals packed into a train are only there because they are totally lost and staying on in hopes of recognizing something familiar.
In a flat metropolis the size of Bangkok, skyscrapers are good landmarks to help keeping you from becoming lost. The Baiyoke Tower, the tallest building in the city, is a good building to use to determine where you are at and which direction you are headed. After that, it depends on your stomping grounds, and which of the taller buildings strikes your fancy. One that I use, close to my usual hotel, is a tall uniquely shaped high rise easy to pick out from the surrounding buildings. But I never knew its name. And no one seemed to care. It’s only partially built out and has been abandoned for almost fifteen years. So it’s a great local landmark to use in giving directions, one that no longer exists, but still does. Hawaiians ain’t got nothing on Thais.
I asked my friend Noom once for an explanation of the building. Snorting in disdain he gave me a one word answer, “Thaksin.” Noom is not a fan of the red shirts. Trying to goad him into giving out a bit more info didn’t seem to be a good idea. But then I ran across a picture of the place on the internet, found it’s name, and then it’s story, so I thought I’d share.
A victim of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the 49 story Sathorn Unique Tower was built as a residential project that was supposed to offer 659 upscale luxury apartments. Less than 200 meters from the Saphan Taksin BTS station, the building offers a commanding view of the Chao Phraya; had it been completed it would have been one of the city’s most prestigious addresses. Now it’s home to packs of wild dogs and a few drunk security guards. And ghosts.
At one point, Bangkok had more abandoned buildings and modern day ruins than any other major city on earth. An estimated 320 high-rises were left to rot for over a decade. Since the Thai economy recovered many of those buildings have been completed, including the nearby 68-story neoclassical State Tower that now is home to one of the city’s ritziest restaurants and most famous rooftop bars. Sathorn Unique Tower’s claim to fame is of a different sort. A blight on the urban landscape, its unique tiered open lanais and central location has made it one of SE Asia’s most famous abandoned buildings. It even has its own Tumblr page complete with an original hip hop instrumental soundtrack.
Part of what makes it so unusual is that it was 80% completed when construction stopped; it’s not just a building shell, the condo units have plumbing fixtures installed and there’s a grand set of elevators rising from the mezzanine. Now the million dollar views that were once intended to be home for the rich can be enjoyed by anyone brave, or foolish enough, to climb to the building’s top. It’s become a sought after address, not by Bangkok’s wealthiest citizens as intended, but by those who call themselves Urban Vertical Splunkers.
Launched by a Thai conglomerate linked to powerful local families, Sathorn Unique Tower was supposed to help transform the area into Bangkok’s new financial center. They blanketed the city in advertising and pre-sold a large percentage of the condominium units. But in early 1997, one of the project’s 11 lenders failed, triggering a freeze on funding. The developers eventually stopped construction, leaving the exterior completed though its concrete shell starts to peter out about 20 stories up, leaving exposed metal and a half-finished dome on the roof. Condo buyers were furious. And left holding worthless deeds to a property that will never be finished.
The development has changed hands several times since then, but thanks to Thailand’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, it is hard to trace the last owners of the project and government officials routinely refuse to disclose information about them. Courts and government officials haven’t been eager to force the owners to unload the property or resolve continuing legal disputes. Engineers say partially completed buildings like Sathorn Unique can’t survive much longer than 10 years in Bangkok’s blistering tropical heat and rain before suffering significant structural damage. The buildings won’t necessarily fall down, they say, but the cost of repairing or reinforcing their rusted-out beams becomes prohibitively high. And since Bangkok has plenty of land to build on, it is easier for developers to sidestep the ruins of yesteryear instead of tearing them down. Sathorn Unique’s corinthian columns and four-story arches are now sprouting a tangle of trees, vines and graffiti; it’s the only growth the abandoned building will ever see.
Someone still pays a security guard to watch the place but urban vertical splunkers who are drawn to the monolith report for a few baht or a cheap bottle of whiskey entrance into the building can be easily secured. Reading their various tales of excursions through the property you can trace its history of disintegration; early reports tell of furniture, art, copper wiring, and exotic wood flooring, in later tales anything of value has disappeared leaving broken walls and rusty rebar exposed to the elements. Futuristic post apocalyptic sci-fy movies are often used as a comparison in describing the interior landscape, and all warn of large gaping holes in the floors, stairwells so littered with debris they’re booby traps, crumbling walls, and feral packs of street dogs who have claimed the residence as their home.
Like with scaling Mount Everest, peaking is the real draw. Not everyone who makes the climb summits; many settle for one of the large open-air lanais that offer breathtaking views of the mighty Chao Phraya snaking its way through Thailand’s capital city. Those who do make it to the top speak of incredible 360 degree unobstructed views of Bangkok’s skyline and one of the few places in town where you can draw in lungfulls of clean, fresh air. If you make it that far in one piece.
As for the ghosts, some say all old buildings are feared by Thais as apparently ghosts occupy them. Others claim the locals insist Sathorn Unique Tower is haunted to keep kids from entering the dangerous site. Thinking I could broach the subject again with Noom, ignoring the Thaskin thingy by zeroing in on the tale of ghosts I got a flared nostril in response. Most Thais believe in ghosts. And talking about them is never a wise idea. I listened to Noom rant about the red shirts instead.
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