Exploring the Sathorn Unique, Bangkok’s abandoned skyscraper

The Sathorn Unique Tower (Photo by Neajjean)

Between its beautiful and diverse landscapes, rich culture and history, and a cuisine that is arguably one of the best in the world, it isn’t hard to grasp what makes Thailand so appealing.

With 32.6 million international tourists in 2016, it is the ninth most popular travel destination in the world, second only to China for the number of annual visitors in the Asia-Pacific region.

Though there is plenty to see and do in the capital, Bangkok is not Thailand’s most sought after tourist hotspot, gastronomic adventures notwithstanding. One can only partake in the debauchery of Khao San Road, witness the obligatory ladyboy shows, and explore the city’s Buddhist temples for so long before yearning to make a break for the southern islands or the northern hills.

But given the sheer size and density of Thailand’s capital, it seems that on each return, I inevitably discover something new.

It was during my previous visit to “the Big Mango” that, following the recommendations of a lively German traveler named Carlo, I rode a tuk tuk into Phayathai district in pursuit of a foodie’s paradise: a quiet neighbourhood of several narrow streets lined with mouth-wateringly tasty Thai food, fit for a backpacker’s budget.

I arrive starving, and in under an hour the consequences of my indulgence hit me hard in the form of an aggressive food coma. Somewhere between the papaya salad and roasted duck, I come to realize that I love this city.

Jump forward a few weeks, and I’m back, sitting in a small restaurant opposite the train station, slurping on a wonton noodle soup that can only be described as heavenly. It is my fourth time in Bangkok, and this charming little noodle shop has become a customary first stop, for no other reason than to devour these wonderful noodles.

Yangsoo Kim relaxing on the edge of the ghost tower. (Photo by Jesse Pottinger

I clean out the bowl as my friend, Yangsoo, heads in my direction.

Yangsoo is a bright-eyed, big-hearted Korean I’d met several weeks earlier, nearly 700 kilometres away in the northern city of Chiang Mai. He was halfway through a journey that would span two years and four continents, eventually ending in my hometown, Vancouver.

One meal and two Chang beers later, we are reunited and feeling great. With just a few days to spend in Bangkok, we began brainstorming excursions that we had yet to check off the list. Yangsoo mentions something he’d seen on Instagram, known among travelers as the ghost tower.

Officially named the Sathorn Unique, the ghost tower is a now-decrepit 49-storey building in the heart of Bangkok’s Sathorn District. Its construction began in the early-’90s during the country’s economic boom, and was halted shortly after when the region was hit with the Asian financial crisis, dooming the skyscraper to a slow deterioration.

Presently, it functions only as a billboard for massive advertisements.

You may recognize its shiny, far more glamorous sister building, the State Tower, from a scene in The Hangover Part 2 when Alan, Stu, Phil, and Chow attend a meeting at the 64th-floor Sky Bar.

View from the top of the Sathorn Unique. The State Tower standing tall on the left. (Photo by Mitchell Krysak)

The State Tower, with its golden dome and aesthetically pleasing curves, is among the most eye-catching structures to grace the Bangkok skyline, and boasts one of the highest open-air bars in the world.

But the Sathorn Unique is impressive in its own right, and we decided that ascending the dying skyscraper was worth a try.

The following day, we hopped on a boat and cruised down the Chao Phraya River, arriving at Sathorn Pier sometime in mid-afternoon. 

Our first instinct was to try to bypass the hastily-constructed sheet metal barricade that surrounds the building, in hopes of gaining free entry. That idea was soon quashed as we discovered that beyond the wall, the stairs are blocked by a locked gate.

That meant resorting to option two: bribery.

Rumour had it that if you slipped the security guards 100 to 200 baht ($4 to $8 Canadian) they would let you in, no questions asked. Unfortunately these rumours were dated.

Rooftop of the Sathorn Unique. (Photo by Mitchell Krysak)

As this unconventional tourist destination grew in popularity, so did the price. Security demanded 500 baht per person and, having lurked around the building for a couple hours already, we begrudgingly agreed.

Yangsoo pulled a crisp 1000 baht note from his wallet and handed it over.

We were in. A quick high five, and we began our trek up the 49-level high rise, one floor at a time.

Front row seats. (Photo by Jesse Pottinger)

It didn’t take long to notice what 18 years of neglect had done to the ghost tower. The bare, garbage-covered concrete floors were full of large holes, steel rebar protruded from the ground and walls, appliances lay scattered, and balconies were filled with thick, green water resembling some kind of toxic waste.

Of course, that was what we came for, so we continued upward, carefully inspecting every room, excitement growing with each level climbed.

The Sathorn Unique earned its nickname for a variety of reasons. In addition to flattening a famous movie theatre to make way for the tower, some locals believe that it was built atop an ancient graveyard. Guards at the building have claimed that ghostly encounters are a nightly occurrence, and one said that he frequently pays his respects to keep the spirits at bay.

Abandoned buildings like the ghost tower lend themselves to this sort of eerie narrative, but not until the 43rd floor, where a Swedish man took his life only a year before, did we feel that the nickname carried some weight.

One of the less artistic tags found inside the ghost tower. (Photo by Jesse Pottinger)

As we navigated floor 43, the building’s mystique was compounded by disconcerting messages like “You’ll find only suffering here,” and “Pray to the spirits,” written in Thai,  on the walls.

Rather than dwelling on the macabre vibes, we continued upward, the greatest reward of the climb still awaiting us on the roof, six floors up.

The rooftop offered a 360-degree view of the city. All around us, the insanity of Bangkok rush hour was in full swing, though from this height the vehicles are little more than pixels dotting the highway.

The Chao Phraya River that brought us here bended visibly below, lined with freighters and passenger boats, marking the border between Sathorn and Khlong San districts.

Roads, alleys, highways and bridges formed a not-so-uniform grid, with the expansive MRT transit system snaking its way through the landscape.

Each floor of the ghost tower, from one to 48, is loaded with graffiti, but floor 49 is by far the most decorated. From tasteful murals to the totally original “David was here” and “Brandon + Jenna forever” type expressions, nearly every corner of the rooftop has been marked.

Before the daylight disappeared, we took turns creeping to the unguarded edge and, feet dangling, snapped a few photos for the dual satisfaction of horrifying our moms and updating our Instagram pages.

As the pink sunset faded into night, the urban skyline transformed into a vast network of artificial lights and colours spanning outward in all directions.

There was nothing left to do but take it all in.

We rewarded ourselves for a successful day of adventure by cracking open a couple Changs and, side-by-side, absorbed the picturesque Bangkok horizon.

Just a couple guys on a roof, sippin’ beer, alone in a city of nine million people.

Sunset over central Bangkok. (Photo by Mitchell Krysak)

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