The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
30 November 2012
Bangkok doesn’t agree with me… or perhaps, rather, it agrees too much. Either way, on my last night in the city I decided that it would be a superb idea to get myself good and drunk, before trying to tackle an abandoned fifty-story skyscraper in the heart of Bangkok. The result? Well, it certainly wasn’t my finest moment.
I first spotted the building from Sathorn Pier. I had spent a day visiting temples around the city, choosing to travel by boat up and down the Chao Praya River. Stepping back onto dry land near my hostel, I happened to cast my eyes upwards… to spot fifty floors of abandoned skyscraper towering over me.
Driven by curiosity, I headed in for a closer look. The fifty-storey tower lies just off a busy street in the Sathorn District, the entrance securely sealed with a chain link fence. I adopted the guise of ‘lost tourist’ (confused expression, map in hand, only non-Asian in sight), before slipping down one of the alleys that runs parallel to the skyscraper.
The narrow residential street led nowhere, but I was able to spot a few possible entry points towards the rear of the building. Although with this many people about, I knew I would have to return under the cover of darkness.
Just then, as I turned to leave, I made out voices – the sound of several people engaged in a heated argument, on one of the higher floors of the ghost tower. It was at this point that I decided against exploring the site alone.
Time for some research. Construction of the building, titled the ‘Sathorn Unique’, was set into motion in the mid-nineties… a time when Thailand was enjoying something of an economic boom. The skyscraper was designed for exclusive, luxuriant apartments – close to the city centre, and overlooking the river.
However, 1997 saw the dawn of the Asian Financial Crisis, and the Sathorn Unique was one of many grand projects which were subsequently abandoned; developers withdrew their funding from this concrete monolith, and the building, now nearing completion, was doomed to become another one of Bangkok’s ‘ghost towers’.
The evening drew on, while I sat back at my hostel drinking beer and searching for more information about the tower. I’m a huge fan of Thai lagers such as ‘Chang’, but the often unpredictable alcohol content, combined with the humid, balmy heat of Thai monsoon season, was having more of an effect on me than I realised.
As I became increasingly more desperate to find a partner in crime, I resorted to approaching strangers around the hostel; drunkenly asking,
“Do you like danger?”
It seemed as good an opening as any, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the tactic got me nowhere. A few hours later I was sitting alone in the house restaurant, just finishing off a panang curry and contemplating bed, when someone waved at me from a nearby table.
“Do you like beer?” he asked.
It transpired that he had accidentally bought more than he could drink. As it happened, I did like beer; and so began a brief yet beautiful friendship.
My friend – let’s call him ‘Agent Chang’ – struck me as the adventurous sort. However, I didn’t want to risk coming on too strong, as regarded the whole ‘danger’ thing. So instead, we headed out for a couple of beers in Patpong.
Amusingly, Wikipedia describes Patpong as an ‘entertainment district’. To give the place its dues though, it certainly was entertaining. After fighting our way through the chaotic crowds and declining several dozen invitations to ‘Ping Pong’ shows, we eventually found ourselves sat in a quiet, civilised bar tucked away into a back street.
For a few moments it felt as though normality had been restored… until a bell rang, and a line of girls in matching lingerie and tagged with large, numbered labels were paraded out in front of us.
“Just to talk,” the proprietor assured us, “have a drink, make talk.”
It turned out that my new female companion, who went by the curious name of “27”, was actually working as a bar girl to fund her way through a history degree. I spent a delightful half hour quizzing her about the Japanese occupation of Thailand and their subsequent movements into Malaysia and Myanmar, before Agent Chang and myself made our farewells.
It was on the way back to the hostel, now that we were both fully inebriated, that I popped the inevitable question:
“Do you like danger?”
Inside the Ghost Tower
Pretty soon I was guiding Agent Chang down the alleyway I had found earlier, that runs the length of the Sathorn Unique. Strangely, he hadn’t batted an eyelid when I pulled two torches (one waterlogged, the other with flat batteries) from various pockets about my person.
The security fence was tight around the tower itself, but on the other side of us stood a derelict multi-storey car park – a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the main building, perhaps five floors above our heads. A portion of fence had come loose at the back of the structure, and it was here that we made our entry.
An abandoned multi-storey car park looks remarkably similar to a functional multi-storey which just happens to have no cars in it. There wasn’t a lot to see here – save for a selection of camp beds apparently fashioned from cardboard and plastic bottles.
When we finally reached the covered walkway on the fifth floor however, we found our way barred – the metal tunnel that ran from this building to the ghost tower itself was hermetically sealed with a thick, barred grate; the only way to cross it would have been to cling to the outside, and shimmy hand over hand to the other building. Given the circumstances, this didn’t seem like a wise option.
Thwarted, we returned to the ghost tower itself… approaching from the side, where vines and creepers had laid claim to the romanesque arches and columns of this potentially magnificent structure.
Scaling the fence, we dropped gracelessly into the compound – waking a couple of stray dogs that had been sleeping inside. They seemed harmless enough though, more confused than anything else.
The Sathorn Unique is a modern ruin left in a curious state of decay; great concrete pillars line the main foyer, which for the most part is without walls. The forecourt seemed to be in use as a private parking space for a range of battered tuk-tuks and delivery bikes, while there were few corners or crevices inside which didn’t show signs of having been slept in.
From this grey, open hall rose the escalators – symmetrical travelators frozen in time, plastic wrappers still trailing from the sleek steel exterior to collect dust. We ascended by the nearest of these, being careful not to trip on the rubber drive belts; which had been torn free from the motors to lay splayed across the ground like tendons on a butcher’s slab.
The first floor was as far as we would get.
Either the balcony walls were yet to be built, or they had long since disappeared… all that was left was a sheer drop over the edge, down into the vast foyer chamber below.
Steering well clear of the rubble-strewn edge, we started looking for a passage upwards, towards the fifty floors of residential flats and apartments above. I had come across photos from the Sathorn Unique during my online research – it seems the developers had got as far as installing plumbing, electricity and even interior fixtures such as wardrobes and desks into the rooms, before construction was abandoned.
Twin staircases led up from this open-plan reception area, fore and aft of the escalators. I charged eagerly up the first of these, only to be met by a thick iron grill welded firmly in place. In typical Thai style, this first security measure had been embellished by others – to create a warped tapestry of corrugated sheet metal, bars, chain link and even barbed wire that stretched across the stairwell like some kind of demonic spiderweb.
The other stairwell was no different. The haphazard arrangement of scrap metal appeared infuriatingly flimsy, but on closer inspection (I inspected those metal sheets until my hands were bleeding and I was pouring with sweat), there was absolutely no chance of getting past.
I made one last reckless attempt at reaching the higher floors. Beside one stairwell stood an elevator shaft – its doors welded together, to remain forever closed. However, in the small bare chamber beside it, a series of pipes and cables led up through a narrow hole in the ceiling.
Squeezing into the alcove behind the pipes, and by resting my back against one wall while planting my feet firmly on the opposite, I was able to slowly climb my way up .
Managing to scramble through the first hole, I reached a bare, sealed chamber. From here I continued to climb, passing through another floor… before reaching a dead-end. The pipes stopped above me and there was no way out – but for a securely barred doorway ahead, through which I could make out a long corridor lined with what appeared to be residential apartments.
And so, the mission ended in failure. While the foyer itself was pretty impressive, I only got to look at three out of fifty floors of this colossal ghost tower. Maybe next time?
 The technical term for this climbing technique is ‘chimneying’.