Exploring Bangkok’s Ghost Tower
We stock our backpacks with freshly made dumplings from a local market, bottles of beer, a portable speaker and a couple of cheeky tins of spray paint, then catch a small riverboat ferry up the Chao Praya river towards the foot of the tower. This is when Jackson explains about the bribes.
I’m not very experienced with paying bribes so I shut up and listen carefully. He says that there could be some men at the bottom who might ask us to pay an entry fee. They’re not officially stationed there to charge entry fees, and there’s no set price, but they might just do it anyway. This sounds a bit dodgy, but I nod along. Jackson, an Australian dude I met an hour ago, seems like a guy I can trust; after all, he’s the one who read the listicle about the weirdest attractions in Bangkok.
It’s called Sathorn Unique, but better known as The Ghost Tower. It’s a 48-story building in the centre of the city that’s been abandoned since the late ‘90s. Designed to be a mammoth block of opulent apartments, workers left the building to ruin during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The building’s developers ran out of money and discarded the huge structure when it was about eighty per cent complete, leaving this giant ghostly shell. It’s been described by the Telegraph UK as “one of the world’s most prominent temples of urban decay” and “a magnet for urban explorers”.
As the three of us step off the little riverboat, we get our first glimpse of the tower: it’s a stark, 48-level blight on the skyline, surrounded by skyscrapers and expensive hotels. There’s a massive canvas advertisement stretching vertically across 20 stories of the building; it must be the biggest piece of fabric I’ve ever seen. It’s mostly white, but with dirty, frayed edges; it’s rippling slowly against 100 exposed balconies.
We scamper from the ferry terminal through the Bangkok traffic, constantly looking up toward the tower for reference. Metres from the foot of the building, we find ourselves in a courtyard that seems to belong to a Thai family. Through a series of gestures, we establish that it’s their house that’s blocking us from the tower, and they signal for us to walk around the block.
That’s when we’re confronted by a gathering of local men in hardhats. They don’t really seem to be working, just smoking cigarettes, milling around and chatting. Some are napping in the shade while others are playing cards at a dusty trestle table. We give them a wave and casually attempt to walk towards a concrete flight of stairs beyond them, as if we know exactly where we’re going. But it was never going to be that easy. Wordlessly, they block our path, reprimand us and alert one of the men who’s part of the card game. We wait for a couple of minutes while he plays a few hands, then it becomes obvious that we’re supposed to give him money. He’s a large, jolly man in a royal blue polo shirt who has an epic moustache and a gut that threatens to creep out from under his grubby shirt.
He asks politely for a fee, something around the mark of $20 each. Jackson haggles amicably and eventually, we pay about $6 each, shake the man’s hand, and then promptly ascend a few levels before anyone else asks us for more money.
The stairwell is dark and strewn with obstacles. Rubble is everywhere and there are steel reinforcements protruding from the concrete floor. We get our phones out and use them as torches, frantically hiking upwards. It feels like we could be caught at any moment, even though we’ve already paid. There’s a lot of movement on the first 8 floors or so. Numerous men in hard hats seem to cleaning up. At first, I wonder if they’re renovating the place, but I soon gather that they’re just salvaging building materials and taking them away. They don’t seem to be fazed by our presence but we keep hiking past them anyway. A little higher up, we find a few tents, outside of which you can make out clothes lines, hammocks, gas burners and clusters of belongings; the markings of squatters. We trudge higher.
We pass balconies without guardrails, puddles where moss has grown and empty elevator shafts that drop all the way to the floor. At about level twelve, we stop to explore, finding that the building is indeed divided into separate apartments. Each has a balcony with Greek-style columns. Some have bathtubs, random bits of furniture and electrical wires protruding from holes in the walls, but none of them look like they’ve ever been inhabited by anyone bar squatters. There’s no evidence of any plumbing, carpet or power points.
Jackson confirms that the building was never finished or officially inhabited, telling us that the architect was actually arrested in 1993 for attempted murder. He never went to prison, but spent 17 years battling his case in courts. Apparently he still owns the building.
At about level 30, it feels like we’re way above the city, far enough above the workers and the squatters to stop and admire the view. We crack beers, play music and start spraying paint across the walls. Jackson and Moses are both artists but we just sketch 2D unicorns, flowers and unsophisticated self-portraits. We clunk our beers together, admire the view and snap photos. The air reeks of spray paint and pollution. We’re dirty. We’re laughing. We’re heading to the top.
At level 38, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve ever walked up this many stairs. It’s kind of like climbing a small mountain, except way more apocalyptic. The view of the city is sprawling and beautiful. It doesn’t end. There are buildings in every direction: skyscrapers, single story slums and everything in between. When we finally reach the top floor, we meet a Canadian guy and a girl from Laos. They tell us they’ve been coming here for years, that it’s long been a popular place for photographers, graffiti writers and curious explorers. We drink the beers with them and listen to The End by The Doors.
As we sit and chat, it feels like we’re aeons away from the rest of the city, in a separate, much grittier world. It’s a world with no safety measures, no shops and no running water. It’s totally untainted by commercial viability or regulations. In a city driven by deadlines and profits and function, it’s refreshing to be here. This is the city stripped bare, but the rubble and spray paint have a certain charm.
Photos by the author