The fiscal debacle of 1997 ravaged Thailand’s economy and left behind epitaphs in the form of a few hundred “ghost towers” such as Sathorn Unique. Mostly finished and partly skeletonized, the 49-storey building has become ground zero in Bangkok for urban explorers, who clamber up the dark stairwells—flashlight in hand, heart in mouth—to marvel over its entrails: cracked sinks, walls etched with graffiti, ornate balconies reaching their architectural tipping point, and trees growing out of the rooftop with its river vistas and views of its sister building, the State Tower, which was later completed.
But don’t forget where you are. As photographer Alasdair “McLeod” said, “Sometimes it’s too easy to forget the danger, but then you pass an empty elevator shaft with no doors and imagine what a casual step in the wrong direction could bring.”
Among urban explorers, a growing segment of young travellers hooked on searching out forbidden places and subterranean caverns, the tower’s popularity is vouched for by dozens of blogs and Youtube videos—even a death-defying display of some acrobatic “freerunning.” Still, the biggest number of visitors, reckoned one security guard, who charges each person 100 baht for entering, are Thai university students out on ghost-hunting missions or just to scare up some spine-chilling fun.
Another example of urban dereliction-turned-tourism attraction, also dating from the economic glory days of the 1990s, is the ironically named “Stonehenge.” This series of pillars for the never-finished Bangkok Elevated Road and Train System was side-tracked by corruption and permanently halted in 1998.
Besides the hundreds of pillars, the main draw is all the graffiti. Some of the city’s most talented urban artists have turned the pillars into an ever-changing, al-fresco exhibition space emblazoned with everything from cartoon figures and portraits of Salvador Dali to abstract explosions of spray paint and agitprop.
Some pillars have been hauled away, with more scheduled to be removed as the mass transit system is extended, but if you’re heading to or from Don Mueang International Airport, this is a surreal distraction from the mundane gridlock.
The latest lure for urban explorers is Bangkok’s strangest squat: a couple of abandoned and dismantled jets that house several families. Though the seats have been taken out, the fuselages and parts of the cockpits are still intact.
The families living here off Ramkhamhaeng Soi 101 will let visitors look around their makeshift homes for a small fee. Be careful though; the interiors are rickety and pricked with shards of metal.
In a previous incarnation, this lot was a beer garden. Hearsay has it that the proprietor, eager to find a crowd-pulling gimmick, had asked the airport authorities if he could have a few old decommissioned planes. After the beer garden plan didn’t take off, the owner left the planes to rust in peace and the families moved in to put a homey face on urban blight.